Galapagos features fearless fauna

Ten of us clamber out of the panga (a motorized rubber dinghy) onto the rocky shore of Espanola Island.

No sooner have we adjusted our daypacks and taken a few steps when Dora, our guide, comes to an abrupt stop. Lazing in the middle of the trail is a sea lion, oblivious to the humans standing an arm’s-length away.

Out come the cameras and the adoring exclamations. As we snap away enthusiastically, Dora smiles and warns us to save some film.

“Don’t worry,” she says, “there’ll be lots of chances to get pictures of sea lions and other animals.”

But this is my first morning in the Galapagos and, despite Dora’s prediction, I find it hard to believe I’ll have an opportunity like this again. 

Animals roam freely
When, a few metres later, I nearly trip over a gang of iguanas, I’m reminded why I’ve always wanted to go to the Galapagos.

The archipelago, isolated in the Pacific Ocean 1,000 kilometres west of Ecuador, is the perfect place to view wildlife up-close-and-personal—not in a zoo but roaming freely in their natural surroundings.

On most of these fascinating islas, the birds, reptiles and mammals have few enemies and show no fear. Being there, watching animals that sometimes seem as curious about you as you are about them is like being in the middle of a Discovery Channel documentary.

Unique species flourish
The fearlessness of the fauna isn’t the only thing that makes the Galapagos special; it’s also the species themselves.

The isolation and harshness of the islands, which have helped protect the animals and plants from predators, has had another important influence: the extraordinary nature and diversity of the species.

Though the islands have relatively few species compared to the mainland, 80 per cent of all the land-based reptiles, mammals and birds are endemic—or native—to the Galapagos and are found nowhere else on earth.

In fact, so specialized are some of the species, many exist only on a particular island.

65,000 visit annually
Fascinating? Charles Darwin thought so. And so do the more than 65,000 tourists who visit the Galapagos annually.

For centuries, people have sailed to the Galapagos but few stayed long. The islands were “officially” discovered in 1535 by the Bishop of Panama, who noted even then the tameness of the birds, the uniqueness of the giant tortoises and iguanas, and the inhospitability of the land.

Most of the early inhabitants (mainly British and Spanish buccaneers and later, whalers and sealers) used the islands as a hideout, a source of food and fresh water, or a stopping-off place for attacking Panama or South America. (Confusingly, even now, individual islands have both Spanish and English names.)

Next page: Named for tortoises

Named for tortoises
The archipelago was once called Islas Encantadas (Enchanted or Bewitched Islands), but they were also named for the tortoises, or galapagos, which roamed about in huge numbers.

In the 1800s, the tortoises were considered more than wonders of nature. Whalers and sealers would capture them and immobilize them by piling them one on top of the other onto the ships where the reptiles survived, amazingly, for many months until they were needed for food.

These days, happily, the tortoises are among the many species that amble freely about, feeding only the curiosity of nature lovers.

Iguanas hang out
Though tortoises don’t inhabit Espanola (Hood) Island, other fascinating reptiles do. Those that welcome us near our landing spot are marine iguanas, a prehistoric-looking reptile with a wide-mouthed grimace and a long scaly spine.

They look fearsome to some people, but our group is fascinated by these unruly-looking toughs hanging out on the rocks. After all, they’re the only marine iguanas in the world—descended from a land iguana that likely drifted from the mainland millions of years ago on a vegetation raft.

Out come the cameras again, the photographers creeping ever closer, the iguanas barely opening their heavy eyelids in response.

Depending on the island they’re found on, the iguanas range in length from 60 centimetres to one metre. Most tend to be black with red and sometimes green colouration during mating season, though the ones on Espanola are among the largest and most colourful.

Impact on Darwin
As we wander on, Dora, ever enthusiastic and informative, tells us about the landscape (volcanic and barren in much of the Galapagos), the animals (so diverse and unique that Darwin developed his theory of evolution after he studied the finches of Galapagos) and its human history.

Conservation efforts mean that most of the land is now protected as a national park, but commercial fishing and settlements on five of the islands still have a negative impact on the localized wildlife.

Our guide’s knowledge is encyclopedic, but I’m soon distracted by a blue-footed booby—a large handsome seabird with brilliant blue feet—and as I stop to look at it, a Hood mockingbird (another Galapagos original) hops over to check out the shoe of the man standing next to me.

Stay on trail
Though all visitors must stay on the marked trail, we have excellent sightings of everything, including a waved albatross, the largest seabird in the Galapagos.

Except for a few pairs that have been bred on an island off the north coast of the mainland, the entire world population of waved albatross is found on Espanola Island.

Much too soon, it’s 10:30, our three-hour morning hike is over, and we reluctantly load into the panga for the short ride back to the Galapagos Explorer II, the ship that’s our home for the week.

Ship to shore daily
The routine onboard our cruise ship (which can sleep 100 passengers and is one of the largest and most luxurious boats in the Galapagos) is similar each day: Early morning wake-up calls, a buffet breakfast in the dining room, a panga ride to that morning’s visitor site.

Each panga can hold about 12 people and, depending on the total number of passengers, visitor sites can get a little crowded.

But when you’re busy focusing on a baby sea lion nursing less than a metre away or dozens of coral crabs glistening against black lava rocks, you hardly notice the other tourists.

Too soon, it’s back to the boat to prepare for our outdoor lunch on deck. We often stayed on board for at least five hours mid-day—far too long for those of us mainly interested in scenery and wildlife, but great for anyone wanting to combine nature watching with relaxing onboard a luxury ship.

Around 3 p.m., we’d head out again.

Next page: Afternoon outings

Afternoon outings
Our first afternoon is totally different from our morning. Instead of visiting an island uninhabited by humans, we disembark at the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, the most populous in the archipelago.

Half the group chooses to visit the town and the Darwin Research Station. The station was developed to protect endangered species, including tortoise subspecies whose eggs and hatchlings have been threatened by animals such as dogs and cats, introduced by humans and now running wild on some islands.

I opt for the highlands to see giant tortoises in the wild.

Volcanic rock landscape
Much of the Galapagos landscape consists of jagged black volcanic rock and arid conditions in which drought-resistant plants, including all sizes of cacti, grow.

It rains for about an hour a day during the first half of the year—the rainy season—but the highlands and higher-altitude islands, often surrounded by mist the rest of the year, are lush by comparison.

As our bus rattles past a surprising number of houses and gardens, past a landscape that grows greener, it suddenly groans to a stop and the driver motions to us to get out. It isn’t a mechanical fault that has prevented it from continuing but a giant tortoise sunning in the middle of the road.

No one dares to get too near for fear of chasing it away. But when Dora encourages us to come closer while she uses the opportunity as a teaching session, I’m shocked. Ever sensitive to the fear that wild creatures feel in the presence of humans, I can’t believe that a naturalist guide is allowing us to pose next to (but never touch) the tortoise.

I still haven’t caught on to the magic of the Galapagos. But the tortoise has. It barely moves until it finally seems bored by being a photo op and lumbers into the bush, the first of many tortoises we see that afternoon.

Viewing many islands
Each day we experience new landscapes, plants and animals. Some days I snorkel, thrilled by schools of brilliant fish and curious sea lions, secure in the knowledge that the sharks in the Galapagos are harmless to humans.

On tiny Bartolome (Bartholomew) Island, a steep but easily traversed climb ends in what many consider the most spectacular view in the Galapagos. The island itself is a barren beauty with few plants or animals but dramatic volcanic formations.

At Seymour Island, I experience the greatest thrill of the trip when I get to watch a male and female blue-footed booby doing an elaborate courtship dance less than a metre off the trail. 

Sunbathing sea lions
Several days, we visit islands or islets with brilliant white beaches. The daytime temperatures in the Galapagos are pleasantly warm most of the year with January through May having the clearest skies.

You can simply bask in the sun, but it’s hard to relax when there’s always something interesting to see—yellow land lizards blinking in the sun, one of the 13 species of the Darwin finch or maybe a Galapagos hawk.

On our last afternoon, when we wade onto the shore at Mosquera, a tiny islet with a long narrow beach, no one seems disappointed to discover that other bathers are occupying the sand.

Like holiday sunbathers, sea lions are lolling everywhere: mothers with their young pups, aggressive bulls strutting around making their presence known, males and females playing in the water.

At first, we invaders try to give them all wide berth. But when curious sea lions come waddling toward us, we realize, yet again, that fearless wildlife is the Galapagos legacy—one we should work hard to protect.  

Recommended books:
Read these books if you’re planning a trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos:

  • A Traveller’s Guide to the Galapagos Islands by Barry Boyce (Galapagos Travel, distributed by Hunter Publishing, 19XX)
  • Lonely Planet Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands  (Lonely Planet Publications, 19XX)
  • Galapagos: A Natural History Guide by M.H. Jackson (University of Calgary Press, 1993)
  • The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner (Alfred Knopf, 1994)
  • Darwin’s Origin of the Species