We were on our way to the islands at last, escorted through the domestic terminal of the airport by our lovely tour guide Gloria, through the various luggage checks (for vegetable or animal matter as well as security) and line-ups, all of which were a bit of a mystery to this Spanish-challenged soul. (All I could remember was my rudimentary French.)The flights were made more tense with the added fearful overtones of the new H1N1 influenza precautions: All the airport and airplane staff were wearing masks and gloves, and one lady was removed from the plane at Guayaquil by three men in white coats. Not reassuring, especially as she had been sitting in the midst of our gang. Much to my surprise, the plane was not a tiny turbo prop, but an A320 (6 seats wide and 30 rows long).My first sighting of the islands was heralded by an isolated bank of cloud in an otherwise cloudless sky which gradually revealed a low-lying craggy island (probably Isabela). It looked pretty barren with several clearly visible volcanic craters (Cierra Nerga and Azul?). Just before we were to land, the cabin crew sprayed disinfectant into each of the overhead lockers; I’m not sure what real use this was, as under-seat bags were not touched.We landed and cleared the H1N1 health checks, had our shoe soles soaked in killer stuff, hands sprayed, carry-on and checked luggage checked for prohibited vegetable matter once again, after which we were warmly greeted by our naturalist guide and translator Rod. From this point on, our life was made easy: once all our bags had been piled up, they were handed into the care of one of the crew (whose name I cannot spell) and we climbed into a geriatric coach for a 10 minute ride to the dock.Our first wildlife sighting was before we had even left the bus: an old man sitting outside a small cafe opposite the dock had an iguana resting at his feet! We then donned lifejackets and walked down the gangway, where a gang of sea-lions lounged on the seats provided for the boat passengers, red crabs climbed on the rocks and the sky was full of wheeling birds.We were loaded into two pangas (inflatable boats) and ferried out to the Beluga. We were then firmly briefed by Rod on acceptable Galapagos etiquette: Do not touch or feed the wildlife. Do not leave the paths. Do not remove anything from the islands. And then there was the newly issued directive relating to H1N1: in the case of anyone aboard exhibiting symptoms, the boat was to proceed to port (Porta Ayora, I assume) immediately, do not pass GO. Fingers crossed, we were all in this together.No one is allowed ashore in the National Park here without an officially qualified naturalist guide, even private yachts have to a hire a guide to be able to visit the islands.We sorted out luggage and cabins, which were surprisingly generous (a mixture of bunks, double beds and twins), and in less than an hour we had had lunch served to us and the boat had steamed around to North Seymour Island (where there was a hammerhead shark visible as we anchored). We then hopped back in the boats and we started on our way to our first taste of the islands we had come so far to see. We climbed from the bow of the panga up onto black volcanic boulders and immediately saw a number of large red crabs (Sally Lightfoot crabs) and a pair of nesting gulls. Even before we set off up the trail, a pair of Boobies were spotted and immediately photographed, but Rod laughingly assured us that there would be many more pairs and no shortage of photo ops.Upon setting off walking, we immediately found ourselves face to face with a large female land iguana in the middle of the path. As we progressed, we were constantly tripping over animals (sea-lions), reptiles (Iguanas land and marine) and birds, right, left and center. (Red-billed tropic birds, Great and Magnificent frigates, and the Blue Footed Boobies, who really do have large turquoise feet). They were all totally unperturbed by our presence.
Our first destination was a dense area of frigate birds, breeding, nesting and fledging. The ardent males were busy displaying their magnificent scarlet throat pouches. I wish I had brought sound recording equipment: their trills, rattles and whistles were beyond belief. Then we were into the Blue Footed Boobie ghetto. At first we were simply delighted to see the birds so close and then we saw one just two feet from the path rotate its two eggs and stand on them with its big floppy feet before slumping down. All of the time you were walking, you had to be sure not to tread on some form of wildlife!Now we were in chickland, from tiny bald ones to large white fluffy ones. Most of the pairs had two chicks, usually significantly different in size (apparently they often hatch 5 or so days apart). Words cannot describe the scenes adequately: the heat, humidity, the calls and the surf. We went back to the boat well sated and wholly amazed. The anchor was raised and we steamed off into the shelter of the Plaza Islands for dinner before heading out overnight into the stiff breeze for Espanola (or Hood) Island and Gardner Bay.