Having bid adieu to Lori in Puerto Ayora and spent a few days tackling pressing projects aboard, we weighed anchor on a blue sky morning and sailed for Isla Isabela, our final Galápagos port. Our 50-nautical mile passage was smooth; too smooth, in fact. We motored 75% of the time.With the motor on, however, our batteries were charging, and I busied myself shoving basil leaves, garlic cloves, olive oil, and parmesan into my one-cup blender, taking advantage of an opportunity to run the inverter to power the handy contraption. The only inexpensive item we’d found in Galápagos was the basil we’d purchased at the local market, where a bunch the size of a throw pillow cost a meager $1USD. I’d purchased two and was on a pesto making spree for rapidly approaching passage to Rapa Nui (Easter Island).Fewer than 10 miles from Isla Isabela, near the ruins of the Isla Tortuga caldera, we spotted a small pod of mystery whales in the distance. Within moments, they were gone but not before I captured a couple photos, puzzle pieces for a game of “Guess That Whale.” We have an excellent book on marine mammal identification, but in many cases, the outline of a spine and the shape of a spout are not quite enough for a definitive classification, especially given that so many species are circumtropical. We narrowed the possibilities down to either Minke, Sei, or Bryde’s—none of which we’d seen before—but the enigmatic creatures disappeared into the deep as peacefully as they had appeared, their anonymity forever secured. We sailed on.Nowhere else on earth
Chilly arctic waters carried north via South America’s Humboldt Current collide with the Galápagos’ westernmost islands and warm equatorial currents, causing an explosion of life. Situated at the edge of the archipelago, the seascapes surrounding Isla Isabela and Isla Fernandina are sustained by the cool nutrient-rich water, which enables the world’s only tropical penguin to survive there.
The clock just ticked over to 7 am and already the menagerie of underwater wildlife here in Isla Isabela has impressed us. I rolled out of the v-berth to find my sweet husband had already put a pot of coffee on, and I climbed to the cockpit to take in the beauty of the anchorage we had reached at sunset the day prior.
A baby black tip shark was circling our boat. Literally. Dozens of chunky funky-looking gray and white fish (possibly northern puffers) lazed along, while a school of long, lean, delicious-looking hunters darted to-and-fro making breakfast of the tiny silvery-blue fish that sought refuge on the shady side of Red Thread. Along came a baby sea lion, who frightened away all of the fish as it pirouetted along the hull. My greedy eyes were peeled in search of the bay’s infamous penguins as well, but alas there were none.
Blasted boat projects
Our first day on Isabela was not devoted to exploration and fun. Our engine’s starter motor had been acting up; rather, not acting at all. On more than one occasion, it had been unable to turn over our engine. Plenty of sailboats have rounded the world without engines historically, but we weren’t aiming to be among them. Engines are extremely helpful for maneuvering in channels, charging battery banks, and pushing through adverse or nonexistent winds. We didn’t dare sail for Rapa Nui without certainty that we could start our motor if and when we wanted to. We had replaced the starter motor when we decommissioned the boat in Costa Rica in June 2015, so we were perplexed and aggravated to have to do it again.Fortunately, we’d had the old starter motor refurbished at that time to be a spare. Neil installed the new “old” starter motor, which is no small feat given that engine access on Red Thread is tight, but the problem persisted. The engine didn’t turn over. We tore into the starter he’d just removed and sanded down pitting we discovered on the contact points and reinstalled it. Thankfully, eight hours after the job began and some hours after dark, Yani the Yanmar was purring like a kitten again.
Red Thread meets La Vaga!
As the rising sun illuminated the entrance to the bay, the vessel La Vagabonde sailed into the anchorage. We’d never met her crew, but we felt like we knew them already. A gorgeous spunky couple, Riley and Elayna create entertaining videos about their sailing adventures and have a massive following of boaters and landlubbers alike. We’d been following their videos for nearly a year, and we waved hello, excited to share an anchorage with them. La Vagabonde had friends aboard, one of whom was celebrating a birthday, so we invited them aboard and sanctified our new friendship that evening over a few too many rums and an old-fashioned game of Cards Against Humanity.We were amused to see that we made a cameo in one of their videos, and we’re happy to report that they are as funny and likable as their videos portray them to be! They, too, are on a path of Oz, but like the majority of boats who cross the Pacific, they were sailing the northern route via the Marquesas, while we were bound for a path less traveled toward Rapa Nui. We truly hope that our paths cross again somewhere in French Polynesia or beyond…
Take me to town, hunny
We pumped up Miss Sassy and buzzed to the dinghy dock passed the main quay, a ramshackle structure that catered more to sea lions than sailors! Securely tied, we began the half-mile walk into the dusty, rustic town of Puerto Villamil. The road to town is paved, but main street itself is not, and dust hung in the hot air, making our sweaty skin feel gritty. The town runs parallel to the beach and small restaurants, a few souvenir shops, a clinic, post office, church, and modest park complete the one-horse town of the least-visited of Galápagos three principal ports.
We had emails to download, a video to upload, and a tour to Los Tunneles to book. We saddled up at the Booby Trap Café for the afternoon. Visiting Los Tunneles, known for its unique beauty, was top of my list during our time on Isabela. Lava tubes, akin to the one we explored in the Isla Santa Cruz highlands, had been sculpted along the coast during Isla Isabela’s volcanic birth and flooded with seawater. Over time, the effects of the elements eroded sections of the ceilings of many of the tunnels, causing them to collapse in places and leaving behind a labyrinth of bridges over the coastal water. I was dying to see it.If you do just one thing in the Galápagos, do THIS.
On March 9th, we set off with Rosé Delco, a local tour operator. Brian and Carol, two cruisers on the sailboat Prince Diamond joined the excursion as well, along with half a dozen other tourists. We boarded a speed boat and zoomed toward Cabo Rosa on the southern tip of the island. Off the coast, we circled Union Rock, a craggy pinnacle that rises unexpectedly from the seafloor to more than 15 feet above the water. Large swells all but submerged the pinnacle as they ebbed and revealed a blanket of amber-colored algae when they receded, surely attracting a seafood buffet for the masked, blue-, and brown boobies who loomed overhead. Over time, ocean surge had gouged crevasses and fissures into the structure and created a beautiful outcropping that could destroy the ship of a dull-witted mariner. We made a mental note to double check the monstrosity was on our charts; it was.Nearer to the coast, tiny penguins—just over a foot tall—stood proudly along volcanic outcroppings awash with the sea swell that they shared with sea lions and fur seals. The penguins shook their tail feathers and flopped inelegantly into the surf, their diminutive stature making them all the more adorable.
The unexpected surprise of our Los Tunneles tour was the snorkeling that preceded our land exploration. The snorkel began benign enough with a few kicks through the shallows. The first treat [or trial, depending on your perspective] was to peer into an underwater cave. One-by-one, our guide invited the daring among us to feast their eyes on the formidable scene below. Imagine for yourself: a guide grips the back of your neck and shoves you six feet beneath the surface of the water into the mouth of a cave illuminated spooky green, where gargantuan stingrays and white tip reef sharks lurk eerily! Neil was amazed and went down twice; I nearly shit myself and all but succumbed to a panic attack! The horseflies were far more menacing than the sharks, however, and we all found ourselves wincing and slapping at the biting little demons when we climbed back aboard the boat. Poor Brian, with his bare scalp, was even having to brawl with them while in the water!Next, we swam between the roots of white mangroves, clever plants that have adapted to expel brine to provide themselves the nutrition of freshwater. Below us, in water so shallow that some of our group could’ve stood in, dozens of enormous Galápagos green turtles grazed on the mosses along the seabed, almost indifferent to the presence of our bobbing bodies just feet above their mottled olive shells. More than once, chocolatey childlike eyes met our gaze, making the remarkable creatures feel more mammalian than reptilian. Like so many of the archipelago’s creatures, this species of sea turtle is unique to the Galápagos and spends most of its time foraging in the shallows near the islands. The treasures of our Los Tunneles experience seemed to come one after the next. We kicked our way through a cave, where the water glowed flawless emerald, swam with a school of cownose rays, saw our very first seahorse, and spotted a lobster and a sea lion and…the topography! Any landscape I’ve seen in the world would be hard-pressed to rival the beauty of the Los Tunneles. The bridges born of lava tubes were at once robust and fragile, made strong by their volcanic bones and delicate by the interminable forces of the elements that had whittled them. Over the millennia, ambitious prickly pear and candelabra cacti and white mangrove had homesteaded the chiseled coastline, creating a colorful, intricate maze of breathtaking natural architecture. Because the cacti lack access to a source of freshwater, they grow a mere centimeter per year. Many that towered around us were literally hundreds of years old. I could have enjoyed hours of venturing from one bridge to the next, watching sea lions cavort, spotted eagle rays soar, and sharks prowl the water below. Alas, our time on land was relatively brief.What majestic landscape is complete without a twinge of silliness? Neil and I jumped for a photo atop one of the bridges, only to send my flipflop flying up, up, up and then down…splash! I’d like to the say that kicking off my shoe was intentional because I really was craving a bit more time in the water, but I’m actually just clumsy. Either way, we earned ourselves a final dip to retrieve it!Our final Los Tunneles hurrah came in the form of two blue-footed boobies who remained steadfast upon a rock ledge as our boat glided so close we could have all but reached out and snatched them.With grins plastered across our faces, Neil and I rode on the front of the speedboat as we raced back toward Puerto Villamil in the waning afternoon light. Spray splashed our legs as we bucked across the surf and boobies rode the thermals in the sky above. We’d had enjoyed one of those “pinch me” days, and we knew it.
In addition to being our final stop in the Galápagos, Isla Isabela was also our final staging point for the daunting passage to Rapa Nui. Days of fun had, it was time to get down to business, gird up our loins, and get shipshape for over 2,000 nautical miles of desolate, very big, BLUE.