Six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador lies an archipelago of islands that has captured my imagination since I was a child. I first learned about the Galapagos Islands and their unique wildlife in Science class. I’ve been wanting to go for as long as I can remember. Even with all this anticipation, the Galapagos still surpassed my expectations. We spent five days in the main town of Puerto Ayora on San Cristobal Island scuba diving and sightseeing. We spent another five days on a last-minute cruise.
The islands were formed by volcanic eruptions and six volcanoes are still very active. The most recent eruption was in 2008. With each eruption the landscape is changed. At first site, the lava fields can look stark and lifeless. In the 1535, a Bishop from Panama went off course and landed on the Galapagos by accident. He and his men thought the place was a hell on earth and prayed for redemption. In the 1830’s, a ship called the Beagel was mapping South America and spent a few weeks in the Galapagos. Twenty-six year old Charles Darwin was aboard and became fascinated with the islands and their wildlife. He spent the time collecting samples of plants, animals, and insects to take home. He noticed that the animals on the islands were different in order to survive in their environment. Twenty-five years later, he published the infamous Origin of Species.
But that’s the boring part. The exciting thing about the Galapagos is the wide variety of unique creatures that can ONLY be found here. The Galapagos is home to the world’s only marine lizard – the Marine Iguana. They look like dragons or dinosaurs. They can swim deep in the ocean to eat the green and red algae growing at the bottom. After eating, they spend hours lying in the sun on the black volcanic rocks to warm themselves and regain their energy. They shoot the extra salt water out through their noses (and sometimes their butts). It sounds like a person sneezing. Bryan’s camera lens was sprayed several times with salty snot while he was trying to get photos. On one of our last dry-landings during the cruise, we visited Espinoza Point which is home to thousands of marine iguanas. They were swimming, eating, basking in the sun, and hanging out with the bright red Sally Lightfoot Crabs and sea lions. We were also “lucky” enough to see a “National Geographic” moment with a small venomous black snake eating a marine iguana twice its size, and a Galapagos Hawk attempting to eat the snake. I preferred to watch the happy, playful sea lion cubs and the marine iguanas chowing down on algae.
Perhaps the most iconic creatures of the Galapagos Islands are the Giant Tortoises. In fact, the islands get their name because some subspecies of the tortoises have a saddle-shaped shell and a “Galapago” is a Spanish saddle. These Giant Tortoises are amazing – they are enormous yet still gentle. They can weigh up to 550 pounds and live over 150 years! Each island in the Galapagos has a different subspecies which has adapted to the specific conditions of the island. The islands with little ground vegetation have tortoises with very long necks so they can reach the leaves on trees. They look like brontosauruses. Lonesome George is a famous giant tortoise that was the last remaining tortoise on Pinta Island. He was found in 1971 and now lives in the Charles Darwin Research Station. They have been unable to find a mate of his subspecies for poor George to reproduce with. But don’t worry, he is living with some lady friends. One of our land visits during the cruise included a visit to a tortoise breeding center. We were able to feed some of the young tortoises (about four years old) and see some of the hatchlings (only a few months old). It’s crazy to think those little guys will likely outlive us by a century or more. This place is doing phenomenal things to help preserve and replenish the population of giant tortoises.
Unfortunately, things aren’t all paradise in the Galapagos Islands. As usual, man’s presence has nearly wiped out the amazing animals. Since the 1500’s, the population of giant tortoises dwindled because they were being exploited for their meat and oil. Foreign animals brought to the islands by man are also a huge threat to native animals. The feral goats are the worst. They trample the nests and eggs and eat all of the vegetation that the tortoises and other animals feed on. The people have been successful in eradicating many of the goat populations by using one goat to locate the others. They place a radio transmitter on the particular goat, paint his horns, and shoot the herds of goats that he socializes with by helicopter. But the issues didn’t end there. With the surplus of fresh goat meat (the goats were not collected after the shootings), the Galapagos hawks had plenty of food and then reproduced more than normal. The increase of hawks hurt the populations of marine iguanas and other animals they prey on. The balance in relationships between these animals is extremely delicate.
Although man’s hurtful impact can never be reversed, the Galapagos has made major strides in conservation during recent years. Especially considering that only 15 years ago our cruise guide Dario recalls his parents often eating giant tortoise meat. Today much of the islands’ land is protected, there are strict tourism regulations, and places such as the tortoise breeding center and the Charles Darwin Research Station are making a wonderful difference in increasing endangered populations. I think most people in the Galapagos have come to realize that the future of their economy depends on tourism and their ability to preserve the beauty of their islands.
Many experiences in the Galapagos have been the highlights of my South America trip. We took a dinghy ride in Elizabeth Bay through the mangroves and watched at least two dozen sea turtles, a spotted eagle ray, and at least 50 Golden Cow Rays. Near the mangroves, there was a single rock with sea lions, iguanas, crabs, blue-footed boobies, and other birds. Yesterday, we had an unforgettable snorkeling trip in Tagus Cove on Isabela Island. The waters were so filled with marine life that I didn’t know which direction to look. Sea lions were swimming with us and hunting for fish. Huge Pacific Green sea turtles were swimming slowly below us in pairs. Three tiny Galapagos penguins were swimming quickly in circles around me, along with a pastel rainbow-colored Mexican hogfish that was bigger than the tiny penguins. Penguins may be klutzy on land, but they are quick and graceful swimmers underwater. They seemed to be flying. When I poked my head up from snorkeling, the close black rocks were covered with napping sea lions, marine iguanas, crabs, blue-footed boobies, and other birds. I never wanted that snorkeling trip to end.
We first arrived in the Galapagos with no concrete plan. We’d heard from numerous other travelers and sources that travel agencies offer last minute cruises with large discounts. Unfortunately, there weren’t as many options for us as we’d hoped. There are tons of ships with different itineraries, different class levels, and of course different prices. We did get a good discount for booking last minute, but it definitely wasn’t cheap! Our friends came during the lower season and they got a much better deal. The end of May is the beginning of the high season so most of the boats were full. Just a note, if you are looking to cruise with younger backpackers, you will probably want to choose a cheaper ship.
We had a good cruise experience. Our tour guide Dario was phenomenal. He was extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Somehow, he was even more excited than we were every time we saw an animal. He always had us laughing. There were four Japanese travelers on our ship that didn’t speak any English. Dario always made jokes that they wanted to eat whichever animal we saw and that the “Japanese eat everything that moves.” They didn’t understand so they’d just agree with him. Bryan was determined to see blue-footed boobies (of course) so Dario went out of his way to find them, along with whatever other animals Bryan wanted to photograph. For those that have never heard of them, Blue-Footed Boobies are seabirds with big, beautiful, bright blue feet. During mating season, the male boobies do a goofy dance to show off their feet. The female boobies are attracted to the males with the bluest feet, and they will mimic the same dance that the male just performed.
Before we boarded our cruise ship, we had five days to spend in the town of Puerto Ayora. We spent two days scuba diving. We were thrilled with the amount of large marine life we saw, especially during our first day at Gordon Rocks. There were probably a total of a hundred hammerhead sharks. They were huge, fat and in big schools. Supposedly they don’t bother humans. At least they were well-fed and not hungry. We also saw White Tip Reef and Galapagos Sharks, sea turtles, schools of beautiful spotted Eagle Rays, and enormous schools of colorful fish. At one point I was swimming between a few intersecting schools of fish. I felt like I was in a snow globe of tropical fish. We also had a few sea lions swimming along with us and spooking the fish. As is common in areas with large marine life, the visibility was a bit disappointing. The plankton rich waters and strong currents attract the large marine life, but they aren’t great for seeing things in the distance. It was frustrating to miss the huge Manta Ray that swam by. After two days of diving, we decided we had spent enough money (it’s expense to dive here!) and seen what we wanted to see. Bryan didn’t bring his big underwater camera and the dive masters took terrible photos so unfortunately we don’t have any good photos from our dives. 🙁
Even the cute town of Puerto Ayora has plenty of animals. The fishermen’s dock is home to a few resident sea lions and pelicans that wait and beg for fish when the catch comes in. The sea lions spend all day napping on the dock and trying to look pitiful so the fisherman give them their scraps. These sea lions are like the stray dogs of the Galapagos. About a 20 minute walk from town is Bahia Tortuga, home to a beautiful white sand beach with clear, teal waters and tons of large marina iguanas lying on the sand. I wasn’t expecting them and I thought they were driftwood. It’s also common to see baby sharks swimming at the beach. Even though they are tiny and harmless, there’s still something disconcerting about lying on the beach and seeing a shark dorsal fin go by.
I hope to return to the Galapagos Islands someday soon. When we have children I hope to bring them back here when they are old enough to understand and appreciate this incredible place (and not scream on the plane). Hopefully, next time our family and friends will join us! The Galapagos is often associated with Charles Darwin and his evolution theory. Experiencing this place has not convinced me on all his theories. Animals may evolve to adapt to their environments but there’s no doubt in my mind that God created this magnificent place and these amazing creatures.