Lizards that swim, tortoises big enough to ride on, finches that think they are vampires, booby birds with blue feet, plants that live without rain and get all their moisture from fog – that’s the Galapagos Islands. No wonder Charles Darwin got his inspiration for the “The Origin of Species” here – the book that revolutionised the concept of evolution.
And now, as I stand on the bleak Galapagos beach, I watch dozens of marine iguanas which are packed tightly together on an ancient lava flow, and are soaking up the sun. Those that have absorbed enough warmth have raised the front half of their bodies slightly so that the sea breeze can circulate under their chests and stomachs to cool them off. These are the world’s only marine iguana and are descendants of the South American land iguana. Truly ancient creatures, their appearance is made even more imposing by the spiky ridge that runs the length of their bodies – from the top of their heads to the tips of their tails. Their ashen-black skin blends perfectly with the rocks they are sunning on. The only color contrast in this picture is provided by the blue-grey of the ocean and the fiery red of the Sally Lightfoot crabs that scarper around them, and occasionally over them as well – a true testament to the effectiveness of the iguanas’ camouflage.
Moving inland later in the day, we find the aptly named land iguanas. These differ from their sea-going cousins in several ways. Apart from being non-swimmers, their colours range from brown to yellow-orange, they have a pointed nose (the marine iguanas’ noses are square), and fully grown they are, at 1-1.2 metres, slightly larger than their marine counterparts which range from 60 cm to 1 metre in length. Both species are truly prehistoric looking creatures sporting spiny crests along their backs, the ones on the land being more prominent and impressive than those of their female counterparts.
On another occasion we are taken to a hillside that looks like it has large ant hills scattered across it. As we get closer we see that these are shells of the ‘Galapago’ or Giant Tortoises which are another of these islands’ wonders. It is presumed they first reached here by floating from South America – an incredible feat considering the Galapagos Islands are located about 1,000 km from the coast of Ecuador. The male of this species can weigh up to 250 kilograms and it is a truly awesome experience to stand near one of these giants as he slowly moves his craggy head from within the massive dome of his shell to face us.
Our guide tells us that there are several sub-species of these giant tortoises, and points out ‘Lonesome George’, an extremely old tortoise who is the last of his particular species. He also tells us about the problems the government is having with fishermen. When the reefs and ocean areas surrounding the Galapagos Islands were teeming with fish they attracted large numbers of fishing boats from mainland Ecuador and as far away as Taiwan, which over-fished these waters to the point where the fish were endangered. The Ecuadorian government subsequently banned fishing here to allow natural restocking. But this angered the fishermen to the extent where they deliberately sabotaged the important tortoise breeding program, threatening to bring in feral animals like dogs, cats and pigs which would decimate the extremely delicate ecology of these islands. It is a tragic battle that nobody will win, with nature being the loser.
In order to protect the already-endangered environment of these islands, only a limited number of people are allowed access each year. But for those who are lucky enough to be able to visit, a whole new understanding of nature will make the Galapagos a milestone of their travels.
Amongst the weird and the wonderful array of creatures that live on these islands are some of the islands’ most famous inhabitants – Darwin’s finches. In 1835 Darwin, a biologist aboard the HMS Beagle, landed on San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands during his five-year voyage around the world, and was fascinated with the unique wildlife he found. The five weeks he spent here would later prove to be pivotal in forming his theory of evolution. And the finches were integral to his hypothesis. In these small birds, Darwin observed many minute variations regarding the shape and size of the beak as important distinctions. In some locations the plant life allowed finches to be vegetarian, where normal beaks were just fine. In others they had to dig for insects, so they developed longer, sharper ‘digging’ beaks. But the most bizarre and unusual finches were ones in a location where the most plentiful food was the blood of other animals. So these finches adapted their beaks to easily pierce their victims’ skin and so the birds became known by the nickname of ‘vampire’ finch.
Contending that the finches had all descended from one original species on the islands, Darwin concluded that the variations occurred as a result of evolution. The finches that best adapted to suit the conditions of the individual Island environments survived; those that failed to do so did not. Put simply, this is ‘the survival of the fittest’ or ‘natural selection’. Eventually Darwin expanded this theory to become his revolutionary ‘The Origin of Species’, which came to public attention in 1859.
Birdlife abounds throughout the 19 islands and 42 islets that make up the archipelago, and another famed resident here is the blue-footed booby, the most common of three varieties of this species found here. Their large, webbed and very blue feet are striking and look just as though they’ve been dipped in a bucket of sky-colored paint. If you are lucky enough to see them during mating season you may witness the ‘sky pointing’ mating dance. During this ritual the male performs an off-balance dance, spreading his wings, bringing his tail up and whistling loudly while pointing his beak to the sky – all in all a truly comic courtship display!
Behind the mangroves you may find some flamingos, standing high on their long stick-like legs, their oddly-proportioned pink profiles mirrored in the salt water lagoon. While they may appear to be admiring their own reflections, in reality they are searching for shrimps using a sonar-like locator in their beaks.
On the coast, Galapagos penguins, believed to have arrived during the colder climate of the ice age and then stranded as the earth warmed, sit preening themselves and each other on rocky outcrops. Marine birds circle in the sky, keeping a keen eye trained on the ocean below. While there are many birds prepared to do the hard work of fishing, the great frigatebirds prefer to circle and wait to steal a catch from another bird – especially boobies – although they are also quite capable of catching small fish on the surface of the water.
Shorebirds abound and beaches here are indented with bird footprints of all sizes. Between January and June it is also common to find the tracks of marine turtles on the sand where they have propelled themselves out to sea on their flippers after laying their eggs in the dunes. The coastline is also often littered with colonies of sea lions. At any given time, many are basking on the rocks or the sand, while still more may be frolicking in the shallows. The sea lions are playful animals so keep a look out for their games – in the name of fun they have been known to terrorise marine iguanas by catching them by the tail and tossing them in the air just like a ball. There are also fur sea lions here – smaller and shyer than the ordinary sea lion – they are more likely to be found away from the sun under rocks or in cracks in the lava. Unfortunately, their numbers were reduced to the point of threatened extinction by skin hunters at the beginning of the 20th century, but the population has since stabilised.
Marine life is also plentiful, and we were sorry to miss the opportunity to snorkel or scuba dive amongst a selection of more than 400 species of fish, five species of rays (including stingrays and manta rays), and 18 species of morays. Our guide informed us that there are also around a dozen different varieties of sharks but there are no records of serious shark attacks in the Galapagos. Seven species of dolphins and 16 species of whales have been spotted in the archipelago. While cruising between the islands we kept a lookout for the whales’ trademark blowhole spray, or a pod of dolphins leaping out of the water in the wake of our boat.
Each island in the Galapagos is not only home to its own bevy of unique wildlife, but also has its own natural features. Santa Cruz’s lava tunnels are up to two kilometers long; Genovesa has Prince Philip’s Steps, rich with nesting frigates and masked boobies; and the volcanic formations of Bartolome include the needle-like Pinnacle Rock pointing skyward.
In such an isolated and delicate ecosystem, any human impact is felt by its natural inhabitants. Though there have been many attempts at colonisation throughout history, it is fortunate that most of these have failed and today there are only than 20,000 people living here, mainly on the islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela, Floreana and Baltra. The native flora and fauna must now contend with the impact a permanent population makes on natural resources and the environment. Introduced species, a by-product of human habitation, also place further stresses on the native species, many of which have no natural predators. The news, however, is not all bad. The government is implementing strategies to limit the environmental impact of permanent residents, and the eradication of non-native animals is an ongoing task for the local wildlife service. Tourism is regulated and limited to reduce any negative impact as much as possible. But if you are a nature-lover, plan to visit soon.
The Galapagos Islands are a true naturalist’s paradise. One cannot help being enchanted by the amazing and abundant diversity of wildlife that is found here, and once you visit you will understand why it is so important that this unique ecosystem is preserved for future generations.
Visiting the islands
The best way to experience the natural beauty of the Galapagos Islands is by cruise ship. Abercrombie & Kent is a reputable tour operator offering cruises around the islands. For more information visit their website at www.abercrombiekent.com
When to visit
Climactically, there is no ‘best’ time of year to visit the islands. However there are ‘low season’ months (April and May, September and October) and if you shop around you may be able to obtain cheaper off-season tour prices. Also consider the activities of the wildlife when planning your trip. June to December is the dry season, and at this time land birds and sea mammals are at their most active. Between December and May is the warm season, which is better for activities such as swimming and snorkelling. Island birds are also active during this time.
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