Land Ho!

Today started and ended magically. Today was the day we finally arrived at the Galápagos.

Just after breakfast it appeared through the clouds in the distance: San Cristóbal Island! This is the first island of the archipelago that Darwin stepped foot on in 1835. It is comprised of several extinct volcanoes linked together, and is a jumble of volcanic rock and lush green vegetation.
We dropped anchor near a craggy outcrop of volcanic rock. Shortly after we arrived, officials from Ecuador and the Galápagos National Park boarded the ship and performed a thorough inspection. Everyone completed paperwork as the inspectors studied every inch of the ship, inside and out. There are many restrictions put in place to help protect the fragile and unique environment here; we are not allowed to have oranges, berries, or pineapples on board. We are not allowed to take nuts or seeds with us to the islands. The hull had to be scraped clean, and the exterior of the ship fumigated. When we visit the islands, we must not bring anything natural back: not a rock, not a stick, not a feather.
Frigate birds circled overhead as we performed our live interactions this morning. If I looked real closely, I could just make out their red throat pouches. We set up the shot so that the island could be framed in the background. It was hot, but not unreasonably so. After the second live interaction of the day, Allison called a meeting.
We had the all clear from the inspection, and we could go ashore! We were going to use the small zodiac boat to shuttle people to town; it would take at least three trips to get everyone there.
The sea was choppy, and the water crashed over the bow as we plowed through the waves. Sea lions and blue-footed boobies clung to the black volcanic shore. By the time we got to the dock, we were soaking wet. A dozen sea lions were piled all over each other, dozing on the dock. They did not take notice of the half-dozen dripping tourists scrambling out of the zodiac only a few feet away.  Everyone in our group laughed and took turns snapping photos.
It being the hottest part of the day, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno was quiet: we’d arrived in the middle of siesta. The streets were nearly empty. Sally Lightfoot crabs skittered along the rocks along the water, and sea lions were everywhere: all over the rocks, in a small pool among the tangle of docks and walkways, and even lying on park benches and in a large gazebo. Mother sea lions contentedly nursed their insistent pups, sleek and fat.
We waited a while for the other boatloads of our shipmates to arrive, and wandered a while through the hot and quiet streets. Public art was everywhere: murals and fountains, statues and plaques. Volcanic rock had been cut into paving stones. The celebrated animals of the Galápagos were incorporated throughout the small town: into bridges and playgrounds and even in the stained glass of a church we came across. Tears came to my eyes when I realized that I had read about this church a few months ago in a magazine, and now I was standing right here, admiring the very same windows I had read about!
One sandy beach just off the main strip was crammed with hundreds of sea lions. They barked and roared and bleated like sheep. Small children played in a playground, one of them running up to me, her brown eyes shining, to greet me: “¡Hola!” She pointed out the tiny sea lion pup snoozing just feet away from me, and ran back to her friends on the playground, giggling.
As the heat of the day started to abate, shops started to open and we did a little souvenir shopping. We gathered at a small streetside café for snacks and refreshments before working our way back to the dock to catch a ride back to the ship. As we waited our turn for the final boat, the sun slipped lower and lower in the sky, peeking out for just a moment through a small gap in the clouds, and lighting the rest of the sky in shades of orange and pink. Pelicans dove and splashed in the water, sea lions tussled and attempted to board the small boats lying at anchor in the harbor.
The boat ride back was much smoother than the one going out, and we all stayed dry. The Nautilusappeared, lights shining like a beacon as darkness started to fall. Thankfully, the kitchen had held dinner for us latecomers.
Though tired, many of us found our way back up to the lounge and mess area after showers and changing into clean, dry clothes. The ship was quiet, rocking slowly in the small swells. 

Suddenly, a crew member came bursting into the mess: “They’re catching fish!” he exclaimed in his Russian accent. Outside, it was already full night – darkness comes quickly at the equator. Stepping outside, I could hear a great splashing outside, and there were sea lions all around us, chasing flying fish all around the boat. We wondered aloud if they were attracted by the ship’s lights, or if this was going on throughout the harbor. We stood along the railings to watch, not sure whether to root for the sea lions or the fish.
The stars had climbed out into the night sky, and Emil pointed out the Southern Cross.  A swallow-tailed gull, familiar friends from our journey the past several nights, flew overhead with a huge silver fish wriggling in its beak. Flying fish darted and skipped over the surface of the water, sleek sea lions pursuing like torpedoes behind them. 
“This place is magic!” I exclaimed to Sandra, watching a sea lion successfully capture a fish. Laughing, she agreed.
Tomorrow we get to visit another island. I can’t wait.

Skip to the next blog post by Melissa: Tortoises, iguanas, and finches, oh my!

This is part of a multi-part series . Melissa Baffa, Vice President of Program and Volunteer Services for GSCCC, is part of the Corps of Exploration aboard the E/V Nautilus this year on the adventure of a lifetime. This blog series will chronicle her dive into the Unknown.
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