Awesome; in every positive sense of the word. That’s the only way to describe the past eight days, cruising from island to island, crossing back and forth across the equator, and exploring life under the water, on land, and in the sky, 1000 kms off the coast of Ecuador. These are Herman Meville’s famed “enchanted islands’, better known as the Galapagos Islands.
These volcanic islands, moving toward South America at a rate of about 3 cms per year, are widely varied in terms of landscape and animal life. From the hard, harsh, and hot-under-the-sun lava field of Isla Santiago to the lush highlands of Isla Santa Cruz, each island and bay was teeming with enough unique and very visible flora and fauna to inspire birders, naturalists, and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Charles Darwin’s name comes up a lot. He spent about 6 weeks here in 1835, collecting samples of wildlife and vegetation. His discovery of island-to-island variations of finches and other birds and animals helped shape his thinking toward a theory of evolution (On the Origin of the Species was published in 1859).
When we decided to tour Central and South America this year, we were certainly aware of the Galapagos Islands, but we didn’t start thinking we should go until so many fellow travellers, in conversations at hostels, on day tours, and in restaurants and bars, insisted that a year in this part of the world would not be complete without a visit. The final push came from a British couple we first met in Guatemala who were also doing a year on the road, and who visited the Islands in March while we were in Chile. They e-mailed us with the details of their experience, and when we crossed paths again in April in Peru, they convinced us it was worth the effort. We`re glad they did.
There are two ways of seeing the wonders of the Galapagos Islands – from a boat equipped with dinghies for landing at beaches, hiking trails, and snorkeling areas — or on day trips from one of three main cities. We opted for an eight day cruise aboard The Eden, an 80-foot yacht with eight cabins and a crew of five. The itinerary included stops at many of the islands: Genovesa to the north, Floreana and Espanola to the south, Bartolome and Santa Cruz in the middle, and San Cristobal to the east. Each day featured two or three excursions with our guide, Eduardo, who helped us understand how the islands were formed, the different currents and weather systems that effect plant and animal life, and the human history of the islands. He pointed out endemic species (only found in the Galapagos), native species (found here and elsewhere), and animals and birds introduced on purpose or by accident by pirates, whalers, and settlers.
For the first four days we were a group of eleven, and then some left and others joined us to bring the total to 16 passengers – from as far away at Sweden, Holland, Russia, Israel, Australia, France, Ireland, Greece, and the US and the two of us, the only Canadians. We were all astounded by the diversity of wildlife along the trails, on the beaches, and in the water – and we were all excited when someone, frequently Eduardo, spotted a new bird, animal, or underwater creature. We could hardly go more than a few steps on the ground or a few metres through the water before seeing more fascinating creatures. Mostly don’t pay humans much attention. Park rules are to stay two metres away from wildlife and to stay on marked trails – hard to do with Blue-footed Boobys sitting on nests in the middle of the trail or juvenile sea lions swimming into our midst to play as we snorkel across a bay!
The islands are teeming with life, but every time Eduardo introduced a new bird or lizard and talked about what it ate, it was disturbing to hear that the main food for so many birds are the eggs of other birds, chicks, and baby turtles. From mocking birds to Frigatebirds to Galapagos Hawks – they are all on the constant lookout for unattended eggs, new babies, and even injured or dead adult birds. Frigatebirds even swoop down and steal the meal the Boobys are regurgitating for their young! A real bird-eat-bird world! Nevertheless, there are large colonies of many species of birds on the islands, although some, because they’re not as careful with their eggs, are at risk, such as the Greater Flamingo and the American Oystercatcher.
Our excursions included treks across lava fields, hikes up mountains to cliff side bird colonies and dramatic viewpoints, walks along the shore, climbing down into a 400m section of a lava tunnel, and a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Centre. This centre is one of two in the islands where the giant land tortoises are bred and raised for repopulating the islands. Sadly, a famous giant tortoise by the name Lonesome George, the last of his kind from Pinta Island, died the day we arrived in the islands. Our guide was sad because he volunteered at the centre while in high school, and later brought hundreds of tourists to see George, who was at least 100 years old. Diego, another very old giant tortoise at the centre, will now likely get more attention.
Our cabin on the boat was really small, and there’s no way it was a full double bed. That would have been okay except the boat was on the move through rough seas on four of the seven nights which made restful sleep impossible. The boat really rocked and pitched – there was a real feeling that we would be tossed from our bed at any moment. Such was the price of getting around to so many islands in just over a week – but we’re sure glad we did. The pictures below show much, but not all, of the birds and animals we encountered. We will have some additional underwater pictures once the film is processed back in Quito later this week. In the meantime, enjoy (and if any birders out there spot any identification errors, let us know and we’ll make corrections).
We’ve just passed the halfway point of our year on the road – the past six months have been remarkable, and we have some solid, some vague plans for the next six months. In the short term we have two more nights on Isla San Cristobal before we head back to the mainland and research a trip into the Amazon basin. From there, we’re looking at spending some time in Brazil, then maybe Colombia and Panama. We are going to spend October on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, and finish the year with stops in Cuba and Mexico. Any suggestions, dear readers?