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Galápagos by bizjet

A front-row seat to a once-threatened destination

Way back in 1535 a Panamanian bishop sent a ship to Colombia to deal with some issues in the Colombian church. The ship was becalmed on the way and drifted to what we now know as the Galápagos Islands.

Photography by David Tulis
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Photography by David Tulis

Getting There

A view of Cartagena from the seventeenth-century Convento de la Popa. The author flying right seat for Walter Muharsky in Chris Worden’s Cessna Citation CJ3+. Brian Dunsirn taxis to the ramp in his Daher TBM 910. Christophe Mathy, journey director
Cartagena, Colombia

The crew was not impressed. How could a benevolent God “shower stones” on this volcanic landscape, according to a document discovered in the nineteenth century, poison its wells, and in general serve as a reminder of the devil’s work?

The errant crew had no way of knowing that the islands were an isolated microcosm filled with plants and animals that existed nowhere else in the world. Endemic life, that only knows one home. Today, the Galápagos Islands attract thousands of ecotourists eager to approach predator-free animals with no fear of humans. Like AOPA Senior Photographer David Tulis and myself, who’d been invited to observe a 10-day, 15-person, four-airplane Air Journey escorted flying group on a nearly 3,600-nautical-mile flight to the Galápagos Islands.

Sure, general aviation pilots flying piston-powered airplanes could have made the trip. But with their limited ranges, it would mean time-consuming hopscotching through Central America, dealing with general declarations, customs, and sketchy avgas availability at each stop. No, this is a trip for turbine-powered GA, where legs are long but times enroute seldom exceed two hours. Our first leg, in a Cessna Citation CJ3+ from Stuart, Florida, took just two hours and 20 minutes to reach our first destination—Cartagena, Colombia. From there, it was on to Guayaquil, Ecuador—two hours and 795 nm away. Other airplanes in the group included another CJ3+, a CJ1, and a Daher TBM 910. As with all Air Journey trips, the hotels at each stop were top-notch and the planning thorough (there’s a preflight briefing the night before every flight), and an extra day for local touring was set up for both Cartagena and Guayaquil.

Cartagena was chaotic and vibrant, with a wedding seemingly in progress everywhere you looked. Its history is less cheery, with sieges and battles waged by attacking pirates and soldiers from the height of the Spanish empire—hence the city’s high walls. Guayaquil was more buttoned-down, with our hotel located in a park just 10 minutes away from the airport. I saw sloths in the trees surrounding the Hotel del Parque.

The group visits the El Chato Tortoise Reserve on Santa Cruz Island. Left to right: Christophe Mathy, Wendy Worden, Chris Worden, Beverly Taylor, Toni Kovacs, Allen Taylor, Linda Kocher, Walter Muharsky, Bob Kocher, Lou Kovacs, Tom Horne, Susan Dyer, Doug Dyer, Susan Dunsirn, Brian Dunsirn. Up front, a Galápagos giant tortoise.
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The group visits the El Chato Tortoise Reserve on Santa Cruz Island. Left to right: Christophe Mathy, Wendy Worden, Chris Worden, Beverly Taylor, Toni Kovacs, Allen Taylor, Linda Kocher, Walter Muharsky, Bob Kocher, Lou Kovacs, Tom Horne, Susan Dyer, Doug Dyer, Susan Dunsirn, Brian Dunsirn. Up front, a Galápagos giant tortoise.

Being There

  A blue-footed booby on Española Island. Prickly pear cactus on San Cristóbal Island. A marine iguana in his “Christmas” red-and-green mating colors. Rafael Pesantes (background) and Allen Taylor check out nesting great frigatebirds.

There would be no GA flying to make the 600-odd-nautical-mile trip from Guayaquil to the Galápagos. That’s for three good reasons. One is that the Galápagos is an Ecuadorian national park with protected status, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a marine reserve, and a whaling sanctuary. Yes, it’s a tourist destination, but incoming passengers are documented and searched for foreign plants and animals so that the islands’ delicate balance of life—many species were on the brink of extinction until recent years—can be preserved. Another reason is that there’s a $4,800 landing fee. Lastly, no aviation fuel is stored there.

These controls mean that access is limited to Avianca airlines’ Airbus A320s, which make daily shuttles from Guayaquil to the Seymour/Galápagos Ecological Airport on the Galápagos’ Baltra Island. After we arrived, had our documents stamped, photos taken, and watched dogs sniff our luggage for contraband, it was off to a van that took us to a dock. Two large, military-size Zodiac-style powerboats were waiting. Soon we were aboard the Endemic, a 1,000-horsepower, 135-foot luxury catamaran, our seagoing hotel for the next four days.

You don’t just light out on your own when you visit the Galápagos. Because of its protected status, only certain areas can be visited, by a limited number of people, and for a limited time—and then only under the supervision of a certified, trained naturalist. In our case, we were fortunate enough to have Rafael Pesantes (“Rafi”) as our guide. A native of the Galápagos, Pesantes has a background that includes awards not just for the quality of his narrative guiding, but also for his work at the Charles Darwin Research Station, as an expert for National Geographic, and contributions on documentary films with environmentalist David Attenborough. He can also imitate bird calls and bark up a conversation with a sea lion.

From the Endemic, Pesantes led us on twice-daily expeditions to a variety of unforgettable locations on several islands. On Santa Cruz island, a flock of wading flamingos was the main attraction. Pesantes called for a minute of silence to appreciate it, and in that silence, as if on cue, the flamingos walked across their pond, moved our way, and came within a few feet of us. Then we resumed our hike, negotiating a trail made of a jumble of volcanic rocks—those “showered stones” of yore—large and small. We wore hiking shoes to navigate their rough, unsteady surfaces. Pesantes walked barefoot.

Other daily trips took us to isolated beaches, where sea lions nursed their young and comically curious mockingbirds hopped around our feet—that was on Espanola Island—or to lava formations and other unusual geological features. Along paths of rickety stones your attention naturally focuses on your footing, but at times your peripheral vision is alerted to movement. Turn your head, and you’re face to face with a nesting swallowtail gull, just inches away. That was on South Plaza Island. Other islands seem to specialize in their own endemic species. San Cristobal Island has its marine iguanas and blue-footed boobies.

The boobies—I’ll pause while the jokes subside—get their blue pigmentation from a diet heavy on sardines, which enable the blue pigmentation. Their mating dance and flying antics may be comical, but boobies mean business when it comes to eating. They make 70-mph vertical dives at the sea surface to capture those sardines. A flock of them dive-bombing a school of fish is a sight to see. As for the marine iguanas, they’re unique to the Galápagos, and can dive 100 feet to eat underwater algae.

That's a wrap

Tour guide Rafael Pesantes (right) discusses sea lions on a beach at Santa Cruz Island. Bob Kocher reacts to a plunge in the ocean. The Galápagos may be very near the equator, but cold ocean currents keep water temperatures on the cool side. A capuchin monkey on a shore of the Panama Canal. On approach to Runway 36 at the Balboa, Panama, airport in Brian Dunsirn’s TBM 910.

It’s this variety of species and their various adaptations that inspired Charles Darwin to come up with his theory of natural selection. One particular interest was in the Galápagos’ finch species. Depending on the seeds each type of finch preferred, they would evolve with beaks designed to crack open large, medium, or small seeds. Later, these theories expanded into a larger body of thought delving into natural selection. For more on Darwin’s experiences in the Galápagos, see his classics The Voyage of the Beagle and On the Origin of Species. There were copies aboard the Endemic. I read the Galápagos chapter in Voyage. Good observations by a scholar who’d never seen the place before.

Any talk of the Galápagos must touch on the snorkeling. On three occasions Pesantes had the Zodiacs fired up to take us to coves and other shore locations where we floated above and watched green, hawksbill, Olive Ridley and leatherback sea turtles, formations of golden cow-nosed rays and, yes, sharks glide by. Playful sea lions would come right up to your mask to look you over—and maybe even tug at your fins.

Then there are the Galápagos giant tortoises. There are an estimated 20,000 of these on the islands, and they can reach 500 pounds and live 150 years or so. Our group stopped by the El Chato Ranch on Santa Cruz Island, where a large batch of them were waiting to migrate to a mating area. Some of them appeared uninterested in waiting.

All too soon, our stay on the Endemic came to a close. After a farewell dinner and Pesantes’s excellent astronomical lecture on the ship’s foredeck—using what must have been the world’s most powerful laser pointer—we were back on an A320 bound for Guayaquil. We’d stay there a night, then launch in our own airplanes for the final legs on our way to clearing customs inbound in the U.S.. There was a stop in Panama City, and a boat tour of the jungle shores of the Panama Canal, complete with passing container ships and bellowing howler monkeys.

Anyone with a shred of interest in ecology, or a concern with the preservation of what could easily have become extinct species, should make the effort to see the Galápagos. These islands were not always in a protected state. Pirates and foreign settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought pigs, dogs, cats, goats, and donkeys, which killed many native animals and plants. A shortage of whale oil in the early 1800s caused whalers to switch to hunting tortoises and rendering their fat as a substitute—if you could call it hunting. Tortoises were dragged off the shores by the hundreds. In the 1920s the United States made a play to buy the Galápagos so a military base could be built to defend the Panama Canal. Luckily, the deal fell through; the islands could have been covered with barracks, or worse. (There was a U.S. base on Baltra during World War II, but it was returned to Ecuador after the war.)

Even today, sea lion poaching and non-native predators have been a problem. So, vigilance is a must. Walking across a rock-strewn plateau one day, Pesantes drew our attention to three donkeys walking in the distance. Dropped off by whom? When?

“That’s no good. I’m going to report this, and they’ll come and take care of this,” he said.

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The tour group flew their own airplanes from Florida to Ecuador and back. An airline flight then took them from mainland Ecuador to the Galapagos and back. (Map by Baker Vail)
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The tour group flew their own airplanes from Florida to Ecuador and back. An airline flight then took them from mainland Ecuador to the Galapagos and back. (Map by Baker Vail)
Thomas A. Horne
Thomas A. Horne
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.

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