Santa Cruz Island, June 19-22 2009

Santa Cruz Island is dramatically busier than Isabela. At one end it boasts the primary airport and home base for nearly all of the cruise boats; at the other end is the largest town in the Galapagos, by far. Since the town of Puerto Ayora is the one and only spot for cruise passengers to take a shopping break from all that wildlife watching, there are tons of souvenir shops. But there are also pleasant local restaurants and a nice general atmosphere.

We had no trouble filling our days on Santa Cruz Island. We hiked to the summit of Cerro Crocker, the highest point on the island, where we had an excellent panoramic view and a terrific sighting of the endemic Short-Eared Owl (photo 1) before we were enveloped in soaking clouds. (When we finally out-descended the thick mist, our quick-dry travel clothes once again proved their mettle.) We visited an area with numerous giant tortoises in the wild (photo 2), and when tortoise-watching got dull, there was a nearby quarter-mile long lava tube to explore.

We took a full-day group expedition that included some of our least favorite aspects of group travel: numerous delays, activities catering to the lowest common denominator, and the general rigmarole involved in doing anything in a large group. But a packaged day-trip was the only way to visit North Seymour Island, and it was well worth it -- the bird life and photographic opportunities were excellent. (Photo 3 is a mother Blue-Footed Boobie and her son, who towers over her just like our family of late. Photo 4 shows a very young Boobie chick sitting on Mom's Blue feet. Photos 5 & 6 are Frigate Birds -- the inflated red pouch is part of the mating ritual; the other photo shows a male, pouch now deflated, delivering a stick present to his mate.) We also did a bit of mountain biking. And finally, we went scuba diving, detailed after a brief digestion digression.

It's difficult to avoid mild stomach problems when traveling, but rarely has anyone in the family been hit as hard as Emily was during the middle of our stay on Santa Cruz Island. (Alex reminds us that he was even worse in 1992 in Nepal -- needing to go back that far for comparison is indicative of just how sick poor Emily was.) In true Aiken-Widom pack-it-in travel fashion, we all somehow convinced ourselves Emily wasn't that bad, and we could proceed with the all-day scuba diving trip we'd booked the night before. That judgment call was at least as off as Emily's stomach. She quickly progressed to a state where she was far too sick to dive, but nevertheless had to spend the entire day on a small pitching boat crowded with wet divers and gear. When we finally returned to land we promptly bought her a dress she'd been admiring every time we passed a certain shop, but that hardly compensated for her suffering. It took her several days to return to normal.

As for the diving, we had not planned necessarily to dive in the Galapagos, since the diving gets mixed reviews -- especially day dives from Puerto Ayora, as opposed to diving live-aboards. At the better sites the water can be rough, the visibility poor, and the currents truly ripping. On the other hand, there can be tons of exciting fish life in those currents, and a pretty good chance of seeing schooling hammerhead sharks. "Pretty good" wasn't good enough for us -- we did see parades of large reef sharks (photo 7) and some other nice fish life (photos 8 & 9). But the currents were intense, the dive boat was overcrowded, and because we only brought our snorkeling gear on this trip, we had to make do with well-worn rental dive equipment. Kudos to Tim for being an excellent diver under these less-than-ideal conditions. As for Emily, it wasn't hard to convince her of no regrets missing the dives.

Needless to say, most photos in this travelog are Tim's, although Jennifer did contribute 3, 7, and 9.

Next: A final 2½ hour speedboat ride will bring us to San Cristobal, the last island we're visiting in the Galapagos. San Cristobal is reported to be somewhere in between Santa Cruz and Isabela in terms of tourism and services.

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