The Galapagos Islands is a truly wondrous place. Every Island had something different and unique to offer despite them being adjacent to one another and, in most cases, within a mile or two of each other. It is this diversity that struck Darwin and enabled him to formulate his theory on the Origin of Species. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to follow his footsteps.
There are 2 distinct seasons in the Galapagos Islands – the rainy season and the dry season – but both have advantages as there is no right or wrong time to visit. Our visit was in April which is an ideal time as the rains begin to cease, flowers begin to blossom on the islands, making for some colourful landscapes. Visibility for snorkelling is good and the warm water temperatures allow you to stay in the water for long periods. March and April feature the appearance of newborn wildlife all over the islands. Sea turtles and land iguanas are hatching, and playful young sea lions are easy to spot on the beaches.
The islands are renowned for the fearless wildlife that roam and swim about but no amount of knowledge can prepare you for the endless encounters with the wildlife here. You are very definitely guests in their home – it's very humbling.
The Galapagos is a series of volcanic islands that has not been connected with the continent for millions and millions of years. Almost all the wildlife, both animals and plants, over many hundreds of thousands of years have somehow migrated there and adapted themselves to the Galapagos conditions and become more and more diverse from their continental ancestors. This speciation within the archipelago was recognised by Charles Darwin when he visited the Galapagos on the Beagle in 1835 and his observations then played a substantial part in formulating his theory of evolution – popularly known as 'The Origin of Species’. Lying on the equator 970km west of the Ecuadorean coast the Galapagos consists of 6 main islands, 12 smaller islands and over 40 islets. Nowadays the islands have a population of 28,000 excluding temporary inhabitants.
On most tours you will have the opportunity to visit all the main islands and several of the smaller ones. Here is a brief outline of the islands and the key points of interest.
North Seymour Island, a small satellite of Santa Cruz Island. The island is very rocky. Under every step there are lumps of volcanic rock, deep red in colour, that have had their iron ore washed out by rain. During the dry season everything is very arid and look dead to the untrained eye.
However there are a large number of animals and it is a great start to any Galapagos visit. There are sea lions scattered all around the shoreline asleep. Frigate birds arguing, male frigate birds trying to attract a mate by blowing up a red pouch in its throat and making appropriate calls whenever a female comes close. Blue footed boobies and their young all of whom watch us without great interest. Land and sea lizards drag themselves about robot style as if their left and right limbs are joined by a splint.
Nearby Floreana Island, is where you’ll find Punta Comorant. It is a volcanic green beach as a consequence of olivine crystals, with a lagoon nearby that is home to flamingos. An ideal place for kayaking after giant turtles, then a snorkel swim with turtles and sealions, An afternoon walk will take you past the flamingo lagoon, onto another white coral beach which is home to the turtle nests.
Isla Isabela is the largest of the islands in the archipelago formed by extensive lava flows from 6 volcanoes on the island, 5 of which are still active. Punta Moreno offers a dry landing point onto walk over extensive ‘a-a’ (pronounced ah-ah, a geological term) lava flows that have flowed from Volcano Chico. At a different anchorage point, Punta Espinaza, there is another dry water landing onto ‘pahoe-hoe’ lava flow. A trail goes up through sandy nesting areas for huge colonies of marine iguanas. The island also has large numbers of flightless cormorants, turtles and of course, more sealions!
Isla Isabela is reached through a channel that is home to the whales and is the most western one in the Galapagos archipelago. It is also the youngest of the islands, about 700,000 years old and the most active volcanically. Being the most western it is also the coldest water in the area. From the dryness of the boat you’ll be able to encounter playful sealion and a ‘Charles’ mockingbird of which there are only 100 left and only found on this island.
Isla Santa Cruz is the most central of the Galapagos Islands and the main town is Puerto Ayora. The interior of the islands has a number of attractions most notably the giant tortoises that live and roam (slowly) in the wild. These huge beasts that weigh up to 300Kgs drag themselves around the hills leaving flattened vegetation to mark their path. Fortunately, their hearing is very poor so it is possible to creep up behind them, grandmother footsteps style, and get close. Their eyesight on the other hand is excellent and if you get ‘spotted’ they draw in the long necks and front legs by expelling air from their lungs (in a huge hiss).
The island Is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station was home to the famous Lonesome George, the last surviving giant tortoise from La Pinta Island, and tortoise breeding programme.
Isla Bartolome is a small island in Sullivan Bay off the eastern shore of Isla Santiago. It’s probably the most visited and most photographed of all the islands with its distinctive Pinnacle Rock and fantastic views of the most recent lava flow following the eruption of late 1890’s. A pre-breakfast hike on a trail that leads to the summit is well worth the early start. The views across to Santa Cruz, the Daphnes and Islas Baltra, Santiago and Isabela are spectacular
Isla Rabida is just south of Santiago and has a salt water lake that used to be home to the Flamingos and now home to the young and old males sea-lions. The flamingos have left the island due to the change in ‘ph’ of the lagoon water that has been affected by the sealions’ waste. The primary spot for the sealions is the obviously the beach but young, old and non-alpha males get displaced by the main bull, the Beach master, and have to live in the lagoon. The females and pups get the best location in terms of beach.
Isla Espanola is the southernmost island of the Galapagos and often the final island of any tour. Following a successful programme to remove all the feral species of dog and donkey, it is now the most pristine of islands. Gardener Bay on the northern shore is a beautiful white sandy beach with excellent swimming and snorkelling. From the vantage of the clifftops, a blow hole in the volcanic rocks spit long columns of sea water into the sky. The roar that the hole made as it erupted is a magnificent, deep, throaty growl. The island itself is full of Blue Footed Boobies, and Christmas Iguanas, unique to this island. They have a red/pink colour and, like the other sea Iguanas, like to spend their time ashore in a huddle, a kind of rugby scrum, to keep warm.
San Cristobel Island and a trip into the highlands to see the ‘intermediate’ shell tortoises. These differ from the giant tortoises that have dome shell backs and the slightly smaller tortoises, like Lonesome George, who are called saddlebacks. The intermediate tortoises are only on San Cristobel Island and the breeding programme is aimed at re-populating the island with these majestic animals. The first babies are nearly old enough for release and it will not be long before we will be able to see Intermediate Tortoises in the wild again.