Galapagos with Kids: Day 4: Amazing Isabela! or Have you been so close to a whale you can touch it?

January 10, 2012 at 3:37 pm
Hiking on an Isabela lava field

Hiking on an Isabela lava field

For the next few days we sailed along the western coastline of Isabela, the largest Island in the Galapagos. Isabela is huge (it’s the only island that actually shows up on most maps), and our days were were filled with magic.

We woke up on the morning of the 4th day to see a pod of dolphins cruising alongside our boat. We changed into our wetsuits as quickly as we could and jumped into the ocean, but the dolphins immediately swam away. We really were hoping to swim with them, but they had other ideas.

Our first landing on Isabela was really interesting. We hiked to a point that had been a US military base  in the second world war, but all that remains are concrete platforms and some gun emplacements, minus the guns. Nature has totally taken over the place – we saw huge colonies of marine iguanas,  remarkable reptiles that are completely at home swimming and hunting in the ocean. We watched them jump off the rocks, and then climb back afterwards to get warm. These are such ugly creatures, as reptilian as you can possibly imagine, and they cluster in large groups, often on top of each other, on the rocks to get warm. They are fantastically camouflaged. The rocks are volcanic and black, and the iguanas are black too. From a distance, a rock can look plain and bare, but once you get up close to it, it’s often swarming with hundreds of iguanas. I don’t expect many, if any, make good pets. The sight of one is likely to terrify any little child!  We also saw the flightless cormorant. Here is a species of bird that basically forgot how to fly. It’s very different from other flightless birds such as the ostrich – they never flew, but cormorants fly everywhere, except on the Galapagos, where the lack of predators has meant that the bird has evolved into something that swims fantastically well, diving far beneath the waves in search of its prey, but its wings have shrivelled up and are useless. They aren’t that exotic to see on land, but seeing them swimming under water is incredible.

Bryde's Whale - you can see the jaw, but the eye is below the surface.

Bryde’s Whale – you can see the jaw, but the eye is below the surface.

But our biggest adventure by far was on our way back to the boat in the zodiac. Suddenly, the sea around us bubbled and we heard a huge rush of air right next to us – and a huge Bryde’s whale surfaced, almost touching the zodiac – we weren’t more than 3 meters away.   It was scary, but incredible. For the next thirty minutes the whale played games with us – it dived, and then resurfaced  – sometimes close to us, sometimes further away, and every time in a different direction, so that we had to guess where it was going to be. It’s amazing how something so huge can just disappear, giving you no idea at all where it is. And then out of nowhere it’s back!  The other zodiac missed the first twenty minutes of this “game” and went back to the boat, not realising why we had been delayed. But after a minute on board with binoculars they figured it out very quickly and came to join us. Bryde’s whales can weigh up to 25,000 kg (55,000 pounds). We didn’t think of jumping into the water with it – imagine what a flick of its tail can do to a person! They can dive 300 meters (1000 feet) deep, so really, we had no chance of figuring out where it would resurface each time. You don’t see its outline underwater when its diving!

Marine Iguana

Marine Iguana

That afternoon we crossed the equator heading South. On the way we saw a sunfish, one of the largest and strangest fish in the sea. They weigh over 1000 kg and eat jellyfish, but from the surface they don’t look like much – one sees a fin that could be a shark. Underneath is one of the weirdest looking fish in the world – kind of looks like half  a fish, with the rest cut off.

On the equator

On the equator

There it is!

There it is!

(PS I am planning great family trips to the Galapagos. Click here for more info).