Lying in the Pacific Ocean, about 1,000 km of the coast of Ecuador, the volcanic lava formed archipelago of 21 islands, and 107 rocks and islets. Located at the confluence of three oceans it is considered one of the world's richest marine ecosystems, and a premier destination for nature & wildlife viewing.
It's isolation, ongoing seismic and volcanic activity, and unique terrain, makes each island home to a diverse and very unique range of plants and fearless animals. Most islands are rocky with high central volcanic craters. sparsely vegetated shorelines, mangrove lined inlets changing to lush green vegetation on the mountainous interiors.
Countless face to face encounters with wild animals in their natural habitat who don't seem to mind their annual 100,000 curious spectators. If you enjoy nature you will find this to be a wonderful experience.
Even sand and sun lovers will enjoy watching the golden sun sink slowly behind the glittering ocean horizon.
Varied & beautiful beaches with sand colours ranging from fine talc powder white, course seashell coral pink, olive green, silty yellow orange, terracotta red brick, to black, along with the unique volcanic landscapes of the islands.
San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela, & Santiago are the 4 major inhabited islands. In 1979, the islands became one of the first 12 UNESCO World Heritage sites due to their outstanding value to humanity, exceptional biodiversity and pristine ecosystems. Visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site has been one of our priority destinations since our relocation to Ecuador - after 7 years we have finally made our first visit. !
The opportunity to visit the Galapagos Islands is a remarkable privilege, expensive, and sadly due to cost, accessible to few Ecuadorians. The Galapagos Islands are primarily what people worldwide associate with Ecuador, if they even know where Ecuador is, and yet Ecuador offers so much more to see and do. This is one of four distinct zones -- the other three are Sierra Mountains, Coast, and the Amazon rainforest.
Adding to the wealth of detailed information that is currently available on the Galapagos, this article will focus on our experience and photos, and consolidate many valuable resource links to information we found very helpful in planning our visit.
Our adventure experience - November 2015
Wildlife of the Galapagos
Choosing a Cruise or a Land Based Adventure
"Ecological Sensitivity - Currently in Danger as government eases protections ?"
Our 15 day visit was a combination of an 8 day small vessel cruise, with an additional week exploring the main island of Santa Cruz. Flying from Cuenca to Guayaquil and on to Baltra airport where we were met by Gilson & Bolivar the cruise's chef and helper. We boarded a bus taking us to Itabaca Channel, and then a zodiac tender to the Daphne our " home " for the next 8 days. We were the last passengers to board and captain Milton immediately got navigation underway to our first landing at Bachas Beach.
While our boat Daphne, a 70 ft motor yacht, was not a luxury experience, we had a good time, ate well, and experienced a solid western Galapagos itinerary. We chose this boat because of it's schedule, itinerary, and it was more economical than other options. Our berth was a clean, cozy, traditional lower cabin suitable for those " young-at-heart. " Cruising amongst the uninhabited volcanic islands in comfort, and with a naturalist guide, was a memorable experience.
On the northern part of Santa Cruz Island is Playa Las Bachas. Consisting of two segments of beautiful white sandy beaches about a kilometer in length. Originally named after two barges discarded by the American Army in the second world war. The sand dunes are a main nesting site for sea turtles, and a lagoon behind is home to flamingos, stilts, and other birds.
That evening was a short navigation to the popular North Seymour Island with a rocky coastline just north of Baltra. The following morning we enjoyed hiking the island coastal cliff trail through dwarf white barked palo santo trees, the nesting grounds for frigatas,
masked and blue-footed bobbies,
and lava gulls. We have visited Isla Corazon many times but we have never been able to get such incredible close views and photos of the frigate birds as we did here.
Pelicans, marine iguanas, brightly coloured land iguanas, and sea lions dozing on the black lava rocks. In our garden in Bahia de Caraquez we had several prickly pear cactus which has the tuna fruit, and is native vegetation here.
Actually palo santo, muyuyo, and the red, white, and black mangroves are also native coastal vegetation to both areas. Off in the distance we could see the cone shaped islands of Daphne Major & Minor.
Our mid-day navigation to Bartolome was our first exposure to open seas which were rather rough for limited experience sailors. And we had read that the Galapagos area was preferred by seamen for its calm doldrom waters ! Bartolome Island the youngest of the islands with an erratic volcanic landscape unlike anywhere else on earth.
The geological features provide masterful landscapes, sand dunes and the famous icon Pinnacle Rock (a tuff cone). A 800 metre trail with stairs, to prevent erosion and environmental damage, leads to excellent vistas from the top of deserted landscapes that felt foreign to planet earth.
The coastal waters are home to penguins and sea turtles.
That evening our navigation was around the northern side of Santiago Island to the black sandy beach of Puerto Egas. This island used to be a favourite haunt for pirates. Puerto Egas is an small, abandoned salt mining community which closed in 1970. A book entitled "The Enchanted Islands," ( published in 1947 ) was written by a couple attempting to settle here in the 1920's The settlement introduced plants and goats, donkeys, pigs, and rats, and used native woods, causing environmental damage. The National Park Service had to eradicate the domestic animal populations in order to return the island to it's natural balance. Some abandoned buildings remain standing on the cliffs. In the blazing sun we hiked a 4 km trail which leads to the salt mine crater - the bottom of the crater is below sea level and contains a salt water lake.
Walking the rugged shoreline and black sandy beach of Puerto Egas we found sea lions lazing near tide pools that glimmer with starfish, sea urchins, Sally Lightfoot crabs, and baby fish.
Fur seals seek shade and refuge in the grottos. American oystercatchers and yellow-crowned herons were spotted.
The pre-historic Godzilla like marine iguanas reptiles littered the craggy rocks - docile sunbathers relishing a misty spray from the crashing waves.
North of Puerto Egas we visited Espumilla Beach, a sea turtle nesting site surrounded by a palo santo forest, and the purple sandy beach of Buccaneer Cove. Of great geological interest due to the Pahoehoe lava flows. This lava flow is geologically very young formed in 1897. The magma formed is flat, but the movement of underground lava, the rapid cooling and other eruptions cause this brittle, slate like crust to easily break.
Our navigation from Santiago Island to Isabella Island would be our longest and in open seas our roughest passage. The boat lurched around so much it was very difficult to stand without clutching onto something fixed. We took anti-seasick pills and settled in early for a long night.
At daybreak we found ourselves anchored in Tagus Cove on the western side of Isabella Island and across from by Fernandina. The Bolivar Channel separates the islands providing shelter from the mighty Pacific Ocean. The Channel's cold waters are productive and rich in nutrients making it the best spot to see a humpback, orca, or sperm whale. We were not blessed with any sightings. This cove was a favorite shelter for early pirates who have inscribed their boat names on the steep cliff sides.
We swam with the penguins, saw plenty more marine iguanas
and sea lions, brown pelicans and flightless cormorants.
We hiked a short, steep trail through a dwarf palo santo forest to a ridge with vistas overlooking Lake Darwin.
Isabella, the largest island with six volcanoes - one of the most volcanicaly active spots on earth - is shaped like a seahorse, and surrounded by crystal clear turquoise waters. We got to most of the landings on the dramatic western shore of Isabela and Fernandina. We had a full day in Puerto Villamil and hiked the Sierra Negra Volcano. Our naturalist guide, Jairo Gusqui Lopez, was very good, he was knowledgeable, patient and responsive.
For the afternoon we navigated across Bolivar Channel to Fernandina with its one visitor site Punta Espinoza. It is a narrow ledge of lava and sand on the base of the volcano as it drops into the sea. It's last eruption in 2005 lasted three days. The coastal ledges are littered with large colonies of marine iguanas
and are also the habitat for the flightless cormorant, and Galapagos hawk. Fernandina is the youngest and westernmost island, best known for its volcanic origins & eruptions.
Navigating south along the west coast of Isabella to Elizabeth Bay. Unable to land here, we enjoyed a dinghy ride which traversed the many islets and mangroves. The sheltered waters are a breeding grounds and nursery for marine life. The crystal clear waters provided wonderful views of schools of colourful fish, green sea turtles, rays, seals, and white-tipped sharks. The abundance of young marine life and mangrove shelter is home to penguins, blue footed boobies, and hawks.
Starting to round Isabella's seahorse base we reach Punta Moreno. An eerie walk through a large black Pahohoe lava flow, corrugated and brittle, swirled, bubbled, and patterned with leaves, it surrounds several green coastal lagoons.The lava fields here will break beneath your feet and are so fragile that the Galapagos National Park has deemed this site to be sensitive to the impact of tourism. With few pollinators vegetation and cacti are small and sparse, mostly around the lagoons. Successful self pollination is very common.
Pahoehoe lava is rare to the rest of the world, excepting the volcanoes of Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands. We had panoramic views of 3 of the islands six volcanoes.
That evening's navigation was around Isabella's southern base to the quiet port of Puerto Villamil, the island's main settlement. Just south of Puerto Villamil our morning starts in the islet Las Tintoreras.
A black lava trail with endless marine iguanas sunning on the craggy rocks, sea lions sleeping and tidal pools full of marine life. That was followed by hiking the second biggest volcano in the world, Sierra Negra. The hiking trail was not difficult but wet and muddy. Upon reaching the rim of the volcano you should have an amazing view of the caldera measuring 10 km across, and the Island, and its smaller volcanoes. Unfortunately a misty rain and blanket of clouds obscured our view.
That afternoon we visited the Tortoise Breeding Center set in a beautiful garden of native plants and operated by the national park service. Learning about the extensive conservation programs where different species of tortoises are bred and carefully nurtured and raised.
Eggs are collected from the islands and brought here, incubated artificially, galapaguitos are born and reared for 5 years, when they are returned to their native areas. The breeding center is home to 75 adult tortoises and 1,200 juveniles. They can control the sex of the turtles by the temperature during incubation ( 29.5C for females or 28 degrees for males ). Thanks to this breeding program 5,000 turtles have been reproduced and repatriated to their home islands. More wild giant tortoises live on Isabella than on any other island in the Galapagos.
An interpretive trail to the village harbor winds through several brackish lagoons with flamingos and a wide range of other seabirds. This wetlands area has a complex network of trails and wooden boardwalks leading through marsh areas, mangroves, lava rocks, local recreational areas and lookouts.
After a long and busy day, our evening navigation was back to the northwestern shores of Santa Cruz. The following morning we walked through marshy lagoons into the higher drylands, a several kilometer trail through a land iguana conservation area.
While we spotted many burrows representing their homes there was minimal activity or sightings of land iguanas this morning. We then traveled to the Itabaca channel where several hours were spent refueling, resupplying, logistics, and servicing the boat for the next cruise. In the late afternoon there was snorkeling in Punta Carrion after which we set sail for Puerto Ayora. Early the following morning we would disembark and a new batch of visitors would board.
With hindsight being 20/20, 4 of our 8 day itinerary were in Santa Cruz or nearby small islands. While it was communicated that navigation would occur during nightfall so that daylight hours were spent enjoying the islands and nature, we often felt pressured in that activities were rushed or cut short in order for the crew to navigate during daylight hours. There was significantly more time spent snorkeling than originally communicated, and as is typical with organization in Ecuador, attention to detail and communication could be improved. For example schedules often changed, unnecessary glassware breakage during rough seas, safety instructions lacking ie snorkeling will be in very strong currents today, or the lava flow trail today is very brittle wear sturdy protective footwear to prevent injury, or we will be walking through wild vegetation including stinging nettles so enclosed footwear and long trousers are recommended.
Disembarking the following morning into Puerto Ayora, the Galapagos' most populated city, we said farewell to our group as they made their way to the airport and we started our independent land based week in Santa Cruz. It was interesting that it took some time to " loose our new sea legs." For the next several days there were several periods where it felt like we were still experiencing the motion of the ocean. While our cruise food was fundamentally good, we looked forward to being able to choose our meals. Although we would quickly discover that restaurants are expensive with illusive food quality.
Puerto Ayora is the main tourism hub for the islands and our selected accommodation was the Red Mangrove Adventura Inn. Situated on the bay's southeastern waterfront a wooden boardwalk leads you into the mangroves, romantically lit at night, where the unique rooms of the two story, eco-friendly lodge have been created. Each room is unique – ours was bright, spacious, clean, good hot shower, air conditioners, and an ample private terrace. Their lounge boasts beautiful views of the bay and an outdoor patio that is actually home to marine iguanas, sea lions, seals, pelicans, crabs, and finches. In this oasis of nature you will need to adjust to strange noises of creatures, and dropping branches and seeds during the night, and unusual odors from the mangrove waters.
The following week was spent exploring the village and surrounding areas by bicycle, and on foot without the rigidity of any time schedules. We ate in a wide variety of restaurants,
enjoyed the fresh seafood on calle de los kiokos a large cluster of simple outdoor restaurants that close the street and use it for seating each evening, the fish market on the malecon, and the centre's attractions.
The Charles Darwin Research Center and the National Park Office are located on the east side of town, immediately adjacent to our lodgings.
International research facilities for scientists and government agencies. Excellent exhibits and educational displays of the ecosystems, the conservation challenges, and programs for breeding the giant tortoises and land iguanas. The Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center, which began in 1965 to save the giant tortoise populations has repatriated 4,000 tortoises to their islands of origin. We saw numerous tortoises ranging from hatchlings to juveniles to adults. Lonesome George passed away here in June of 2012 where he had spent the last 40 years of his life. As the the last of his species his remains are being preserved and they are constructing a memorial exhibition in his honor.
Exploring the mist covered forested highlands of Santa Cruz where the slopes are lush greenery, ferns, and mosses and muddy ponds provide a natural habitat for the giant tortoises, and different birdlife such as owls and woodpeckers on several reserves such as El Rancho Manzanillo and El Chato.
The tortoises are very shy and will withdraw into their shell if approached rapidly or aggressively. There are 1/2 mile long lava tunnels which formed when the surface layer of the lava flow cools and hardens with contact with air. This insulates the lava flowing beneath it, which prevents it from solidifying creating the tunnels. You will also find two deep pit craters known as Los Gemelos ( the twins ) with aged rings of varying volcanic activity layers. The two small villages of Bellavista, and Santa Rosa are located in the highlands.
We met an interesting gentleman Miguel Andagana - formerly a sailor in the Galapagos who was lost at sea for 77 days. He has authored a book on his experience and undertaken a program to " rid " the islands of cigarette butts which are toxic for the wildlife. His efforts have collected over 315,000 cigarette butts, he is educating and inspiring the younger generation, and has received titles, diplomas and medals, including one from the Galapagos National College for his contributions.
West of Academy Bay is Tortuga Bay which we enjoyed on two different days. A mile long trail leads to this recreational spot favored by the locals. An expansive beautiful white sandy beach with sweeping ocean views, and excellent waves for surfing. With very strong currents it is not advisable for swimming. It is an important turtle nesting site, you will also see marine iguanas, Darwin finches, mockingbirds, warblers, flamingos, blue footed boobies, iguanas, sally foot crabs, and pencil sea urchins. At the far end is a tranquil sheltered mangrove lagoon for kayaking, swimming and snorkeling.
A short ferry ride across Academy Bay and a 45 minute trail that passes salt water lagoons, a beach and a residential area brought us to the top of the cliffs of "Las Grietas," a unique geological formation where you can swim in the refreshing crystal clear waters.
The ravine is filled with salt water from the sea from the bottom and fresh water on the surface. The locals were diving from the cliff edges.
Galapagos Islands we still have to visit
Darwin & Wolf Island are small northern islands popular with divers.
Espanola is the southernmost island. It is home to the famous waved albatross, a bird the size of a child with an eight-foot wingspan! Every year from April to December there is a " spiritual experience " with the entire world's population of adult Albatrosses returning to Espanola for nesting season .
Floreana, also in the south and famous for green sandy beaches, devil's crown, cormorant point, and the barrel mailbox at Post Office Bay. For centuries visitors relied on fellow pirates and sailors to deliver letters to their destination. This tradition continues today.
Genovesa the remote northern island which is home to all of the boobies, masked, blue-footed, and the rare red-footed.
Rabida the geographic centre of the Galapagos with its iron-rich red beach has a patchwork quilt of volcanic landscapes. Home to a brackish lagoon boasting a shoreline of flamingos, pelicans, & boobies.
San Cristobal one of the oldest and easternmost islands full of remarkable wildlife and landscapes. Attractions include the Interpretation centre in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Tijeretas Hill, Lobos island for sea lions and boobies, majestic Kicker Rock, Cerro Brujo, mangroves of Punta Pitt, and the fresh water lake of Junco Lagoon.
Santa Fe, one of the oldest islands eight miles southeast of Santa Cruz is home to a colony of sea lions, and parades of iguanas on the beach. The bay is a brilliant turquoise blue claimed to be one of the most picturesque anchorages in the islands.
South Plaza a tiny island just off the eastern tip of Santa Cruz with amazing landscapes and colour-changing ground vegetation. Said to be one of the most concentrated wildlife sites with sea birds, sea lions and land iguanas.
Sombrero Chino the tiny least visited island just off the southeastern tip of Santiago Island was named for its distinctive profile. Home to penguins, sea lions, and Sally Lightfoot crabs.
Wildlife of Galapagos
Visiting the Galapagos Islands is a privilege, an unparalleled and unforgettable wildlife experience - legendary for the wildlife's lack of instinctive fear of humans. Due to its equatorial temperatures, Galapagos is a place where the wildlife are plentiful and always active. Endemic & migrating birds visit, court, mate, and raise their young. Giant tortoises move from the lowlands to the highlands, sea turtles bury their eggs on the beach or swim in the sea. Entertaining sea lions and blue-footed boobies delight you with their antics. Over 97 % of the area is natural park reserve where you must be accompanied by a naturalist guide and remain a minimum distance of 2 meters away from the wildlife.
Galapagos is famous for its endemic wildlife—animals who have been separated from their main populations, and have adapted to their environment, eventually changing to become a new species. There are as many as 26 endemic species among the islands including Darwin's finches, Galapagos giant tortoises, marine iguanas, and Galapagos penguins. This is the only place on earth you can see these animals in their natural habitat.
Giant Galapagos Tortoises
The islands most famous and unique fauna these gentle, and slow moving residents live for more than a century and are of lumbering immensity, weighing up to 400 kg. Galapagos Tortoises are the largest in the world, and the islands are named after them. Galapago in Spanish means "saddle", which early explorers used to describe the tortoises due to the shape of their shells. While there is great variation among tortoises there are two main shell shapes - domed and saddle shaped. The saddle shaped carapace evolved from arid conditions where the tortoise needed to reach higher vegetation for food creating the frontal upward angle of the shell.
They are herbivorous primarily feeding on cactus pads, grasses, and native fruits. They drink large quantities of water when available that they can store in their bladders for long periods of time. Their activity level is dependent on ambient temperatures and food supplies, however on average they spend 16 hours a day resting under the shade of a bush, or half-submerged in muddy wallows.
They can survive up to a year without food or water. This feature historically caused sailors to exploit the populations (estimated loss of 100 to 200 k ) by storing live giant tortoises in the ship's hold for fresh meat on long voyages. Their oil was also used for lighting lamps in Quito. Their populations are estimated at about 20,000 today. The establishment of extensive conservation programs in 1959 by the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation has been instrumental in preserving and rebuilding the tortoises populations.
Tortoises can be seen mating throughout the year. The females dig a hole with their back legs and drop the eggs into the hole and cover them with dirt. She never is able to see what she is doing. She will make between 1 and 4 nests each nesting season. A saddle back lays 2 to 7 eggs and a domed usually more than 24 eggs. Incubation is for about 110 to 175 days depending on ambient temperatures. After hatching, the young remain in the nest for a few weeks then emerge out of a small hole.
The Marine Iguana, found solely in the Galapagos, is the only known lizard to sustain itself by foraging on algae in the sea. Charles Darwin described the marine iguanas as "hideous looking" and "most disgusting, clumsy lizard." While they appear to be ferocious pre-historic Godzilla like reptiles - they are actually docile herbivores, sunbathing on the craggy rocks relishing a misty spray from the crashing waves.
Their short blunt snouts, and razor-sharp teeth help them scrape algae off the rocks. They even have special glands that clean their blood of extra salt which they ingest when feeding. Their black - gray colouring enables their bodies to absorb warmth from the sun. They are covered from head to tail with spikes, and spiky dorsal scales which deter predators. Their claws are long and sharp for clinging to rocks on shore or underwater in heavy currents. Often seen wallowing in shallow tide pools their lung capacity enables them to swim underwater for up to 30 minutes. They swim gracefully and swiftly using their powerful flattened tail like a crocodile. They have webbing between their claws to aid in swimming. Males can reach an overall length approaching 6 feet, while females are much shorter.
Scientists theory is that land-dwelling iguanas drifted out to sea many years ago and landed here. They evolved and adapted into the marine iguana species of today. Their population is hundreds of thousands occupying every island but with unique size, shape and colouring.
Comical, clumsy, seagull like birds, with a wingspan of about 5 feet, bright blue-webbed-feet, and a blue tapered bill with serrated edges, boobies are adorable ! Famous for their elaborate mating dance where the male raises each foot in the air while strutting in front of the female in a comical fashion. As their blue feet reliably indicate the health and age of a booby, vivid coloration is favoured in sexual selection. Vibrant coloring of the younger males with higher fertility, and increased ability for paternal care. Blue footed booby mates can recognize each other by their calls.
The booby usually lays 1 to 3 eggs at a time. Eggs are laid about four or five days apart. The incubation period is between 41–45 days during which both the male and female take turns incubating the eggs. The species practices "asynchronous hatching" , which simply means that the first eggs laid are hatched before the subsequent eggs. This creates an inequality in growth and size differences between the siblings. The young boobies are fluffy and white.
Their diet is primarily fish, sardines and mackeral, and while hunting they provide a thrilling spectacle, diving from lofty heights they hit the water at a speed of 60 kmph, and are able to swim underwater after their prey. Boobies are also found in Isla de Plata ( poor man's Galapagos ) off the coast of Puerto Lopez.
Three different species of colourful lizards, yellow or pink, of up to 50 years old and more than 3 feet in length can be found.
Their habitat is the drier areas, and they can often be seen soaking up the equatorial sun. When that heat needs to be escaped they seek the shade of a cacti or rock. At night they sleep in burrows dug in the ground, which conserves their body heat. The male iguanas can be seen standing guard in front of a cactus tree, patiently waiting to provide a hungry female with a piece of prickly pear. They are very territorial and will aggressively defend areas with more than one female. Females dig a nesting burrow and lay between 2 and 20 eggs. The baby iguanas will hatch 3-4 months later, and it will take a week for them to dig their way out of the nest.
The penguins in Galapagos are the smallest penguins in the world, and delightful to swim with. Their population of about 2,000 is concentrated in the colder, nutrient-rich waters of the western islands, Fernandina and Isabela. These penguins breed throughout the year and nest at sea level in caves. They forage close to shore and at shallow depths. The penguins are very vulnerable to El Nino events as warmer waters reduce their food supply.
With a population of around 50,000 it is one of the first animals visitors will encounter sprawled lazily sunning on docks, benches, wharves, rocks and beaches. Their inquisitive and playful behavior makes them adorable but beware they are wild and unpredictable. Invade their space, or forget to respect their privacy can result in you being bitten.
The largest animals found here, full-grown males can weigh up to 550 pounds. Their diet is primarily fish caught from the ocean. On land they congregate in harems (multiple females with a dominant male) or in bachelor colonies (males without harems to defend). Females are free to move between harems as the male defends the territory as opposed to its occupants. A dominant male spends the majority of his day patrolling his territories waters ensuring that other males do not come close. Fights between males are very common, with pushing, biting, and dramatic water chases. This exhausting behavior cannot last long for the defending males.
Once a year, females give birth to a single pup, which they rear for up to three years. Mothers only stay with their newborn pups for about 5 days to know each other's smell & sounds. Then they go fishing to replenish their energy. Baby sea lions nurseries are tide pools guarded by a single female or sometimes male. The young learn to fish when they are about six months.
Galapagos Fur Seals
A type of sea lion that is less tolerant to heat, preferring cooler water and shade, and more rugged and remote shorelines. They are nocturnal hunters eating fish and squid. Their population numbers are similar to the sea lions. Fur seals are generally smaller, with a thicker fur coat, larger flippers, and eyes and ears that bulge more than the sea lions. Their social and breeding behaviours are similar to the sea lions, excepting a pup suckles from the mother for up to three years. For this reason a second pup born has very little chance of survival as the mother continues to nurse the first pup. The Fur Seal is most easily seen at James Bay on Santiago Island or in Darwin Bay on Genovesa Island.
There are only about 350 brilliant pink flamingos in the Galapagos. These flamingos live in the saltwater lagoons close to the sea and feed primarily on brine shrimp. An intense El Niño, as predicted for this year, will affect their food supply and severely impact their habitat, making nesting impossible.
White Tipped Reef Sharks
The slender, nocturnal shark is the most common species found here. Greyish brown with rounded snouts, and the fin tips being white, they are bottom dwellers feeding on octopus, eels, and other bony fish. They are not aggressive and will generally swim away if disturbed.
One of the animal kingdom's most puzzling shapes and characteristics, these sharks patrol the water's depths off Wolf, Bartolome, Santa Cruz and Darwin islands. Named after the projection on either side of the head, which creates the appearance of a hammer, their eyes and larger nostrils are at the tips of their hammer shaped heads. They are grey brown in colour with white undersides. Highly evolved they can be aggressive predators, eating fish, rays, cephalopods and crustaceans. Unlike most sharks, they will merge into schools of over 100 during the day, returning to solitary hunters at night. Reproduction occurs annually with each litter containing 20 to 40 pups. The gestation period is between 10 to 12 months. Once the pups are born the parents do not stay with them and they are left to fend for themselves.
Darwin finches provided the inspiration for Darwin's Theory of Evolution. By studying the differences between finches from different islands, he hypothesized that the birds' natural selection and adaptation to their varying habitats resulted in their mutation and adaption.
Green Sea Turtles
Majestic creatures named after their body fat colour which is derived from their diet of algae. With lighter shells than their terrestrial counterparts, equipped with limbs that have evolved into flippers, they can gracefully swim 35 mph. Unlike the tortoise, the Green Sea Turtle is unable to retract its head into its shell for protection from dangerous sea creatures. They have unique glands behind each eye which enable their bodies to expel excess salt through tears. An average adult is 1.5 meters long and weighs 450 lbs although the largest recorded weight was 871 lbs.
These turtles spend most of their life in the ocean, with the males never leaving, but females come ashore to nest and lay eggs on the Galapagos beaches. They lay about 100 eggs and return to the sea never returning again. The hatchlings are prey for hawks, herons, mockingbirds, and frigates. If a young turtle makes it to the sea their new predators are fish and sharks.
There are about 1,600 adult flightless birds endemic to Fernandina and Isabela Islands. They lost their ability to fly but now weave elegantly through the water using very strong legs. They have no predators and their diet includes eels, octopuses, and fish.
This magnificent black bird has a large wingspan, long hooked beak, and a deep forked tail. They feed by snatching up flying and other fish, squid, and scraps from the surface of the ocean and, most unusually, by stealing from other seabirds in mid-flight. Watching the courtship of frigates is amazing. The male frigate have a bright red pouch which is inflated with air when breeding to attract females. The males build a nest and sit waiting for the females to fly overhead. To impress and attract a female, they screech and shake their head and wings vigorously, drawing attention to the size of their bright red pouches. If the female is attracted, she will descend to the nest and courtship continues.
Females lay a single egg and both parents share incubation duties. There is also a large colony of frigatas in Isla Corazon.
Sally Lightfoot Crab
The Sally Lightfoot Crab or Red Rock Crab is very common on the coast of South America. Sporting red claws and pink or blue eyes they share the coastal rocks. They are usually very energetic and entertaining to watch. Young crabs are darkly coloured to camouflage them from predators.
Galapagos Doves are often seen near the coastal waters of many of the islands. They feed primarily on seeds and caterpillars picked up from the ground. Cactus pulp also forms part of their diet and provides their main source of water. They nest on the ground and will lay two white eggs. As they are ground-nesters, the eggs are vulnerable to rats. The Galapagos Doves have a beautiful blue eye ring and bright red legs and feet.
One of the least known seabirds is the Lava Gull. These gulls are scavengers but will also take seabird eggs, juvenile marine iguanas, small fish, and crustaceans. Although widespread throughout the Islands , Lava Gulls do not form large breeding colonies and can be observed in single pairs. The female lays two eggs. Their population is estimated to be about 900-1,200 and considered vulnerable.
Oystercatchers are a large shorebird that is found on rocky shores, coastal lagoons and sandy beaches. They have white and black plumage with long red legs and a long reddish-orange beak which acts as a hammer and knife for opening shells. They are usually found in pairs and seem to not be afraid of humans. Their population numbers about 200 pairs.
Beautiful variety of colours - speckled copper, gold, and black with females with red throats, usually about 6 inches long, this is largest reptile population on the islands.
They are able to change their colours, blending in with their environments when threatened or with temperature changes. Primarily eating plants they do eat and play an important role in controlling insect populations. The head bobbing or push up behaviors are reflective of territorial and breeding behaviors.
With excellent vision from high in the cliff tops, the large brown hawks monitor their kingdom for small prey, locusts, lizards, juvenile marine iguanas, snakes, and rodents. Their predator / scavenger role is at the top of the food chain. Seen often soaring circles in the air, their broad wings span 60 inches. There are only 150 mating pairs.
Brown Pelicans are found throughout the islands gracefully skimming over water then forcefully diving for fish or resting in the mangroves where they nest. During their dive for food along with the fish their open beak traps several gallons of water in it's gular sac. This unusual feeding technique is difficult for the offspring to learn causing a high juvenile mortality rate as they die from starvation. They are large grey brown bodied birds with white necks, grey bills, and a wingspan of 90 inches. The females lay two or three eggs with incubation and feeding being shared by both parents.
We encounter four species of the smaller mockingbird mimicking songs and phrases all day long.
The islands are home to the Lava, Brown, Great Blue, and Yellow Crowned Herons.
The Great Blue is the largest, about 4 ft tall with a wingspan of two meters, blue-gray feathers, long legs, and long yellow beak. It flies with slow but strong flapping wings. A fierce predator that feeds on marine iguanas, lava lizards, small birds, and common fish.
The Yellow Crowned medium sized, grey in colour with a distinctive yellow crown. It is nocturnal hunting beetles, locusts, other insects, and crabs for food.
The Lava and Brown Heron are the smallest and normally found in tidal pools.
Heron's habitat is water based and they will be found near the coast, rivers, lakes or lagoons, swamps, and mangroves. They usually nest in larger colonies.
Choosing a Cruise verses a Land Based Adventure
Choosing a Cruise verses a Land Based Adventure is a fundamental decision on which much has been written for your consideration. In the final analysis it is a very personal decision.
Factors you should consider :
* much of the Galapagos archipelago is unreachable with the travel limits of day trips from the main islands.
* 97 % of Galapagos is a National Park subject to a "sunrise to sunset" visiting rule, and often requires the accompaniment of a naturalist guide. A cruise includes a naturalist guide.
* on day excursions you will spend the bulk of your day ( often 5 hours ) with uncomfortable ocean travel to and from a site for a brief mid-day encounter where 60 to 100 others will also have arrived.
* a cruise, while very pricey, is more efficient and necessary to truly experience the variety, ecological diversity, isolation and "magic" of the islands.
* the cruise experience is highly structured, and regimented - typically with two or more excursions or activities per day. Limited down time if you participate fully.
* smaller boats are able to visit locations some of the big boats can't, and anchor closer making your zodiac tendering shorter
* if prone to seasickness do not underestimate the ocean's powerful waves. Seasick pills make you drowsy. Even on medication we along with most of our fellow travelers succumbed to seasickness at one point or another.
* while it is nice on a cruise not to have to concern yourself with food preparation, or even food choice decisions - you will find your ability to choose and prepare your own food is very welcome after the cruise.
* accommodation choices on the islands is growing, albeit expensive ( another land based tour )
No matter how you choose to travel, you will find yourself snorkeling or swimming with playful sea lions, admiring amusing blue-footed boobies, and marveling at ancient tortoises. For most of us, exploring this archipelago is a once in a lifetime experience, so getting it right is rather important.
Travel Information & Checklist
Galapagos Travel Agencies:
All cruises begin and end at one of the two islands with airports: Baltra or San Cristobal, capital of the province, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. All vessels are licensed, and must follow a 15-day route pre-approved by the National Park. As a boat may not visit the same site twice in that period you need a full two weeks in order to see all the islands. Most itineraries range from 3 - 15 day cruises and segments may be combined. The itineraries visited sites vary, with a standard protocol of island visits and water based activities during the day, and navigation overnight.
The selection of Galapagos cruises ( over 90 vessels ) and land-based tours is somewhat overwhelming. The largest tour operators are Celebrity Cruises - 98-passenger Celebrity Xpedition; Metropolitan Touring - 40-passenger Isabella II, 48-passenger La Pinta and 90-passenger Santa Cruz; Lindblad Expeditions - 48-passenger National Geographic Islander and 96-passenger National Geographic Endeavor; and upscale Silversea Cruises - 100-passenger Silver Galapagos. The rest are smaller, privately owned and operated vessels typically carrying 10 to 20 passengers.
All vessels are fundamentally utilitarian with nature taking center stage. There is a huge difference between "economy class," and the "luxury class." Luxury class features lounges, hot tubs, balconies, and well-appointed cabins. The luxury ships also feature Level 3 guides, which is the highest designation afforded. These guides have university degrees in biology, tourism or a related field; over six years experience guiding in the Galapagos; fluency in English. Budget options have much smaller quarters and fewer amenities, some lacking hot water or air-conditioning.
While nature loving visitors can marvel at the flora and fauna year round, there are two main seasons:
High season - when occupancy levels peak is mid-June through early September and mid-December through mid January.
June through November rain is uncommon, average temperatures 80 degrees Fahrenheit with overcast skies. Winds and seas tend to be rougher as the Humboldt Current brings colder, nutrient-rich water and cooler land temperatures.
December through May daily light rain is normal, temperatures are about 10 degrees warmer with potent sunshine. Seas are calmer. Land vegetation becomes rich and green and flowers abound.
Although we would not recommend it, unless restricted by your time or resource constraints, Galapagos cruises are often paired with land-based visits to Peru's Machu Picchu, or the Ecuadorian amazon rainforest.
"Ecological Sensitivity - Currently in Danger as government eases protections ? "
The Galapagos archipelago falls under Ecuador's oversight, but the islands are 600 miles away from the mainland. To date, Ecuador has done a remarkable job, and in fact can be considered a world leader in the successful preservation of this ecosystem and world heritage site. It has had the foresight and political tenacity to refuse the large corporation monetary pressures, and diffuse the tourist revenues amongst its own people, ensuring employment and education, and a people whose material and spiritual livelihoods are tied to the continued health of the archipelago. A sea traffic control centre controls the movement of the boats, all boats are crewed by Ecuadorians, and the naturalists must be Galapageño with a post-graduate level of scientific knowledge.
As an oil-rich country, Ecuador has thrived in recent decades. As the price of oil has plummeted, the government is casting about for alternatives to buoy the economy. It has set its eyes on the Galapagos, passing disturbing legislation in June which eases regulations and leaves it up to local authorities whether or not to apply regulations. This could lead to the construction of new highrise hotels, the creation of cruise ship berths, allowing oil tankers passage through the islands, fostering undersea oil exploration, and building new airports.
Tourism is expanding rapidly, and developers and oil barons are lurking. It is Ecuador's major tourist attraction which has grown from about 18,000 visitors in 1980 to 225,000 annual visitors currently. With such a significant tourist economy the pressure from large corporations to parasitically extract the revenue flow into offshore coffers is significant.
The opportunity to visit the Galapagos Islands continues to be a remarkable privilege. In 1979, the islands became one of the first 12 UNESCO World Heritage sites due to their outstanding value to humanity, exceptional biodiversity and pristine ecosystems. As a unique living laboratory, they inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and continue to inspire new generations of scientists and adventurers, alike.
They are, indeed, a priceless World Heritage. The islands are again on the UNESCO World Heritage "in danger" list. Rapidly expanding tourism is leaving more than "footprints", invasive species, illegal fishing, population growth, and other problems, pose a grave and immediate threat to the islands' unique ecosystems and irreplaceable wildlife.
National Geographic with it's scientific ship Argo has spent the month of December filming and studying the ecosystems to be presented shortly in a documentary. Scientific experts still believe the world, and Ecuadorians, are largely unaware of the extraordinary wealth that lies under the ocean around the islands.
Just as we were thrilled with our island's experience collectively we must consider these looming threats and engage in actions to solve these problems and safeguard the islands.
Pre-trip research will enrich your experience here are some recommendations:
Virtual Tour the popular sites in the Galapagos Islands
Galapagos National Park Map
World Travel Guide
Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut
Galapagos Islands, by Steve Rosenberg & Ellen Sanbone
Galapagos, The Islands That Changed the World, by Paul D. Stewart
My Father's Island: A Galapagos Quest, by Johanna Angermeyer
The Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin
Marine Life of the Galapagos, by Pierre Constant
Wildlife of the Galapagos Julian Fitter, by Daniel Fitter and David Hosking
Origin of Species by Charles Darwin & Julian Huxley
The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner