Galapagos, just saying the name conjures up images of David Attenborough frolicking with giant turtles while surrounded by baby seals and marine iguanas. A must see and must do on many a bucket list around the world. It had been high on our list ever since we as small kids saw programmes from those strange islands in the middle of nowhere. Where it seemed like no creature had any fear of man, and they were some of the strangest beasts we had ever seen. Indeed this must have been what Charles Darwin thought when he arrived at the islands with HMS Beagle in 1835, and for 5 weeks he studied those strange animals, and started a thought process that would end up as the book “The Origin Of Species” in 1839, where he put forward the theory of biological evolution stating that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce. Darwin is perhaps the most linked name to the Galapagos islands.
How to get there and how to travel around
Galapagos (named after the Spanish word for turtle: galapago) is part of the country of Ecuador (lying squarely on the equator, hence the name) and you will need to catch a flight from either the capital Quito or the port city of Guayaquil. The flights land at the main airport called Seymour Airport on the island of Baltra, where you will have to pay a tourist tax of around 100USD upon arrival. The island of Baltra lies next to the main inhabited island of Santa Cruz, there is a ferry between the islands. Most of those who arrive do the same as us, and board one on the many charter and cruise boats directly from Baltra. The islands entertain around 200 000 visitors a year, and this number is capped, and once on the islands you will not feel like its crowded. To see the different islands, and there are many, you need to go on a boat. We chose a smaller boat, there were the two of us, 8 Italians and an American couple on their honeymoon on the boat. A naturalist who was our guide on the landfalls on each island, and a crew to man the boat. We stayed for 7 days on the boat, visiting a new island every day. It is an all year-round destination, with only small variations in weather due to the position on the equator, if you are looking for rain, you will find the highest amounts of that stuff in April.
It has been 15 years since we had our Galapagos adventure, and the memories are still fresh in our minds. Unfortunately, we tend to forget what islands we visited during those 7 days, and our journals from that trip have been lost. So, we will try to excerpt small stories, the feelings, and the impressions from this magical mystery tour around the most spellbinding of places, The Galapagos Islands.
Our cabin in the boat Eden was small, but it had what we needed, beds and a toilet. The captain gave us good advice “on top of boat it rolls, on bottom not so much, choose bottom cabin” and sure enough, that first night of voyage across the sea in high waves made many an Italian and American green around the gills. We got the same seasickness but had our minds about us from previous boating that if you get queasy, go outside in the fresh air first of all. So, most of that first night was spent outside, on deck in front of the wheelhouse trying not to feed the fish. Others were not so wise; the Americans were convinced that they were the only ones that had food poisoning (of course they were seasick like the rest of us) on the boat and ate nothing but dorritos for the rest of the trip. The Italians just smiled and kept on with their business.
So the next 6 days we spent travelling by night to the next island, dropping anchor in the early morning (and you wake up with a literal BANG when the anchor drops) getting some tea and some biscuits in our bellies before setting off in the dinghy to the island you have anchored up by, to see wildlife before the sun rises and it gets too hot for everyone. Back on the boat, breakfast and relaxing before lunch, maybe some snorkelling and relaxing before the evening trek around the island, dinner and then bed, pulling up the anchor to sail to the next island on the itinerary. Glorious days! Our sea legs grew, and by the time we got back on land after 6 days at sea, we felt the ground heaving like the sea for many days before it all settled back to normal.
The most surprising, counter intuitive and most fascinating thing about all the animals on the islands, is that they have no fear of man. You do not need that super humongous tele objective on your camera to take wildlife photos. When you walk the paths, you will encounter birds nesting on the trail “you looking at me?!” wibe from them all.
We had encounters with giant seals blocking our way on our path to sunbathing iguanas basking without a care in the world on the rocks. It is such an adventure just walking around and seeing the abundance of wildlife just getting on with their business. Not caring if you shove a camera in their nose, although a frigate bird took a nab at Ørjan for getting too close.
The snorkelling and the diving for those who do that, is most epic all around the islands. We spent hours in the water, playing with seal pups. They are like small puppiedogs under water, extremely curious, and very playful. If you have the luck to find a small colony, you will have hours’ worth of entertainment. They will swim around you, come up to your face and examine you closely before blowing airbubbles in your general direction and dart off in another direction. Just be aware of the beachmaster, the boss of the colony, do not get in his way if he chooses to have a swim. We were sure to be killed when he came at us under water at 100mph just to weer off inches before impact, just to show who was boss.
We had beautiful encounters with giant sea turtles, grazing on rocks by the shore, we spent a long time just looking at them calmly eating their dinner while we floated around them. Galapagos is also famous for having the northernmost penguins, endemic to the islands the Galapagos Penguin is the only penguin found north of the equator due to the cool waters brought by the Humbolt current. Swimming with those penguins at the island of Bartolome` was a blast, they were like small bottle rockets under water. We also encountered a Galapagos shark, rays and plenty of fish of course.
On land each island brings its own habitat, their own species who have found that this place is the best place for them. The islands also range from quite old to very fresh in geological terms due to the thin earth crust and volcanic activity in the area that have created the islands, so the different habitats are well suited for many kinds of animals. One island will be filled with the wonderful marine iguanas, while the neighbouring island might have none. On the beaches you will encounter seals basking in the sun. You feel sorry for the small pups calling out for their moms who are out catching fish. The Sally Lightfoot crabs are all around and make excellent photos in their vibrant colours.
On one island we visited a big colony of the frigate birds, tiny birds with an enormous wingspan, known for stealing whatever they can get their hands on from fish to building materials for their nests. Hence the name. They can not land on water, so they soar for days and weeks on end. In the mating season the males lay on their nests of stolen twigs and inflate their big red pouches on their neck to attract females. Every time a female fly past all the males shout “OIOIOIOI!” which makes for a spectacular quire of catcalls. The females will land by their chosen male and scrutinise their nest, sack (no pun intended) and general maintenance of the place, they will mate for life.
The blue footed boobie makes for great jokes, so does the red footed boobie, and perhaps also the masked boobie. Boobie jokes are easy to make, and the boobies are easy to love. The name is a corruption of the Spanish word “bobo” that means “clown” or “fool”, and indeed they are. They have huge blue or red feet and are extremely clumsy on land. Their dance is quite endearing, the couple will stand facing each other and lift their big blue feet in front of them to show their partner “Look at my big blue feet!” and the other one will repeat the dance “I have them too!” and great rejoicing and singing will ensue.
To visit a big colony of waved albatross is quite awe inspiring. Those massive birds seem like they should not be able to fly, but they are the most magnificent flyers in the world. Soaring for weeks without a single flap of their enormous wings. They come to mate at the Galapagos islands, and they mate for life. Meeting up after months out on sea and performing the most elaborate and passionate dance and song of reuniting. Each bird mimics the other with beak bobs, nuzzles and screeching. Ørjan was a bit disappointed when he called out “Albatross!” and nobody answered…
The marine iguana is perhaps one of the strangest and most unique creatures in the Galápagos. You see them basking on the rocks after lengthy dives under water to feed on the green algae. They need to heat up their bodies after the cold swim since they are ectothermic and need the sun to warm them up, and while they do this, they expel the salt from the algae via their noses in what looks like very wet sneezes. Perhaps surprisingly, Darwin did not like marine iguanas, referring to them as “clumsy lizards… imps of darkness.”
The Galapagos land iguana is another unique animal to the islands. It has a cool yellowish colour, and you see them often along the paths. The giant tortoise is also an enigmatic inhabitant of the islands. Found on many places throughout, it varies in size and shape of their shells in different habitats. We got to see a few on our voyage.
The Darwin finches could fill a book or two on their own. Darwin himself did not see the true significance of those birds until much later when an ornithologist friend explained that he had not brought with him different kind of species back to England, but the same species with different adaptations to different habitats on the different islands. Thus, spurring the thought process on evolution, not that every bird had been created simultaneously by one god, but that they had evolved through natural selection. You will see the finches all over the islands when you visit.
The Galapagos islands are literally like nothing else in the world. You can feel it every minute you spend travelling around the archipelagos, experiencing the uniqueness of every island. For us it was a dream come true to see for ourselves what we had only seen in books, magazines and on television. It is a magical place in every sense of the word. Just walking among thousands of cooing albatrosses, seeing the boobies dance, the seal pups riding the waves, the iguanas sneezing in their sunbathing glory, the feel of the whole place is like nothing else. This visit left a life lasting impression in us. It is an adventure into the rabbithole of evolution, and we got to be Alice frolicking with animals that exist nowhere else on the planet. If there was ever ONE destination that should be on everyone’s bucket list, it is the Galapagos Islands.