Galápagos: The Enchanted Isles
Legendary marine and land iguanas, the giant tortoises, and sea lion colonies
A little old man with an affliction that bent him double used to shuffle along the streets of Cambridge after dark with a twinkling lantern in his hand looking just like a gnome straight from fairyland.
His destination was St John's College, where he was a tutor and lecturer in geology from 1868 to 1877. I was to read about him one night when visiting the college for a lecture by Sir Vivian Fuchs, and to learn that he was once a celebrated volcano expert called Professor T.G. Bonney. Naturally, the talk soon turned to volcanoes and it was from this moment as a young student that I gained a burning desire to visit the Galápagos Islands some day.
One thousand kilometres due west of Ecuador, where four major ocean currents meet, a series of vast undersea volcanoes break the surface of the Pacific. The summits of these volcanoes form 13 main islands and more than 100 other islets and rocks, scattered over 400 kilometres of open ocean.
Splendidly isolated and otherworldly in their strangeness, early explorers called them 'Las Encantadas' - the Enchanted Isles: an earthly Tartarus at the furthest edge of the known world. A land fit for fiends, but not for men. These are, of course, the remarkable islands of the Galápagos.
In 1835, the young Charles Darwin arrived on the Galápagos for a brief five-week visit. He only landed on San Cristóbal, Santiago, Floreana and Isabela, yet from his scant visit he deduced much about the geological formation of the islands and their biology. In particular, Darwin identified 13 different species of finch living on different islands , but he never labelled the islands from which they came. In 1859 he published his revolutionary work 'On the Origin of Species'. The entire edition sold out on its first day!
No part of the 'Beagle' voyage is today more famous or more shrouded in legend than the time in the Galápagos Islands. When the ship left the west coast of South America for the last time, Darwin was particularly interested in studying the geology of the Galápagos. But when the 'Beagle' arrived, Darwin was not impressed with the largely barren and rocky islands, first describing the crater-pocked Galápagos landscape as being "like the iron foundries of Staffordshire". He soon learned, however, that the islands were of comparatively recent volcanic origin. The 'Beagle's' soundings revealed that the ocean was extremely deep around and between the islands, which seemed to indicate that they were very tall volcanic mountains and not a visible extension of the continent of South America.
Although the Galápagos Islands are still an Eden of ecological delight, the first visitors to this remote archipelago also had mixed feelings. The islands were officially discovered by Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, in 1535, when his ship was becalmed in the Pacific and then swept off course on a voyage to Peru. A relieved crew sighted an island, where they found seals, turtles, iguanas "like serpents", and giant tortoises "a man could ride". They appear to have been first named 'Isolas de Galápagos' by a Flemish cartographer named Ortelieu, in 1536. The name Galápagos originates from a Spanish word for saddle or saddleback tortoise.
The Galápagos Archipelago encompasses a land area of approximately 8,000 kilometres straddling the Equator between 1˚40'N and 1°36'S, and spanning from 89°16'E to 92°01'W. The nearest mainland is Ecuador, which has sovereignty over the islands. The archipelago consists of one major island, Isabela, which represents more than half the total land area, and six smaller islands of over 100 kilometres in size: Santa Cruz, Fernandina, Santiago, San Cristóbal, Floreana and Marchena (in descending order of size). Most of the main islands have both Spanish and English names; the latter inherited from buccaneers and explorers, such as William Dampier, Ambrose Cowley and Edward Davis, who were sacking the coastal towns of Ecuador and Peru from their bases in the Galápagos.
Although the islands originally appeared on a map in 1570, it was Cowley who first crudely charted the Galápagos in 1684.
Ecuador's most beloved and popular National Park is no less enthralling now than they were a hundred years ago. The Galápagos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and every year, over one hundred thousand curious visitors journey to the remote islands to behold the wondrously variegated wildlife that inspired 'On the Origin of Species'. The Galápagos Islands and surrounding waters off the Pacific coast of South America have an estimated 1,900 plant and animal species found nowhere else on the planet.
The Galápagos Islands developed out of the Pacific from a sub oceanic lava vent on the ocean floor. This same process created Hawaii, the Azores and La Réunion and it continues today in all three island groups. The geography and geology of the Galápagos are vital to the biology of the islands, and they are situated on the confluence of three of the earth's tectonic plates – the Pacific, Cocos and Nazca plates. In the Galápagos, the vent is gradually creeping east with the Nazca plate, forming more islands as it moves. Due to the isolated position of the archipelago, the climate is largely determined by ocean currents. In the cool season, the Humboldt Current flowing from the southeast keeps the islands cooler than their equatorial position would suggest.
The same flora and fauna that inspired Darwin still blossom on the Galápagos Islands today. Appropriately, ninety-seven percent of the islands have Ecuadorian National Park status. The legendary marine and land iguanas, the giant tortoises, and sea lion colonies of the Galápagos are among nature's most fantastic beings. All of the animal species are highly approachable since their isolated evolution has not hardened them to fear humans. Iguanas and tortoises bask in the sun, just feet away from the photo-snapping tourists.
We flew into the Galápagos with Aero Gal from Quito, the capital of Ecuador, via Guayaquil onto the island of Baltra.
The United States built an airfield on Baltra during World War II to protect the Panama Canal and their other interests in the region. Today, this is the airport which receives the tourists visiting the Galápagos Islands. It is a small island adjacent to the much larger Santa Cruz Island which has a population of approximately 12,000 people including the Charles Darwin Research Station, officially inaugurated in 1964.
A short bus ride from the airport took us to the dock for the 'panga' ride to the 'M/V Eclipse', the elegant expedition cruise vessel that would be our home for the next five days. A panga is an inflatable raft with a solid floor and an outboard motor. It holds about eight to ten people and we each sit on the inflated edge of the boat and hold on. Since our group consisted of eighteen people, the two pangas and two guides on the boat worked in perfect harmony.
The 32 cabins on the boat, which were set up to accommodate just 48 passengers, were reasonably large, with spacious outside areas. Facilities included a dining room, a lounge, library/video room, al fresco dining area, sun deck, Jacuzzi and observation deck. The food, service and naturalist guides were excellent, and the crew was completely focused on making our stay enjoyable as well as a successful learning experience.
The guides pushed us quite hard as we had a great deal to accomplish in the time allotted. From the very outset we were cautioned to listen to the guides, stay on trails, not to touch the animals, not to use camera flash, no food or drink on the islands, and not to remove anything from the islands that we did not bring with us, and finally, to be "happy". Soon after we slipped our moorings on Baltra and were settling in our cabins, we loaded back into the pangas for a visit to Santa Cruz Island.
A two hour hike over volcanic rock took us up to Dragon Hill and back via the Charles Darwin Research Station. The path continued to the old tortoise raising centre – where giant tortoises are hatched and raised to an age where they can be safely put back on their island homes. Most poignant of all is the enclosed section where 'Lonesome George', the sole survivor of the Pinta Island subspecies, now resides with some females from nearby Volcán Wolf on Isabela. Despite all encouragement he has failed to take close interest in his companions!
Along the way we saw both land and marine iguanas, sally lightfoot crabs and the sighting of many birds. This outing gave us our first taste of what was yet to be…a very intimate bonding with all manner of strange and exotic flora and fauna. The Galápagos are world-renowned for their fearless wildlife – but no amount of hype can prepare the visitor for such close encounters.
Early the next day, we had a wet landing on Rábida Island that consisted of a one and one-half hour hike followed by a swim in the ocean. A wet landing is when the panga cannot completely reach shore and we step out into about twelve to eighteen inches of water. We did of course, carry our hiking boots over our shoulder and walk to higher ground before putting them on. A dry landing is usually when the panga reaches shore, but we would often make slow progress carefully negotiating the wet rocks.
The beach on Rábida Island is dark red sand borne out of the oxidation of the iron rich lava from the volcanoes, and erosion from the cinder cliffs to the west. The beach is backed by saltbush, which hides a saltwater lagoon surrounded by black and white mangrove trees. Visitors usually walk first, along the beach, as pelicans sometimes nest there on the saltbush. After our wet landing, we embarked on a very long walk around the island enjoying incredible scenery and watching sea lions play in the ocean. Young brown pelicans could be seen plunge-diving into the sea, looking positively clumsy alongside groups of blue-footed boobies. In the lagoon white-cheeked pintail ducks and black-necked stilts are found. Greater flamingos have been known to breed here too, but recent increases in sea lion populations have reduced their numbers. We then went back to the boat via the panga for an exquisite seafood lunch and rest on the observation deck.
After lunch we sailed the short distance to Puerto Egas on Santiago Island for another hike. At first sight this landing seemed forlorn, with odd bits of human detritus scattered around. The area was the site of two doomed salt-mining enterprises in the 1920s and 1960s. It was a very wet landing on a black lava beach and we then had to change into our hiking boots. There were many sea lions; they differ from seals in that they have ears and walk differently too. We also observed many marine iguanas and sally lightfoot crabs lying all around the shore area. Along the hike we also saw several American oystercatchers, a conspicuous shore bird.
The following day, our early morning adventure included a panga ride and then a dry landing on Punta Espinosa on Fernandina Island. During the trip there were sightings of the very small Galápagos penguin, flightless cormorants, Pacific green turtles , blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds and waved albatross. We went ashore walking on slippery black lava rocks, the result of a 500 year old volcanic eruption. Along the hike we were also treated to sightings of lava lizards, sea lions and marine iguanas in greater numbers than we had previously seen. They were literally crawling over each other. Every couple of seconds, one of them would spit out excess salt in a squirt from the nostrils. There were also flightless cormorants, great blue herons and several Galápagos hawks preying on baby iguanas. As we proceed further into the interior we were introduced to the mangrove areas and lava cactus.
Shortly after lunch and a little rest, our afternoon exploration was a panga ride to Punta Vincente Roca nestled in the northwest crook of Isabela Island, where we saw masked boobies, hawksbill turtles, sea lions and more Galápagos penguins all along the shores of the island. We then rode the swell into a large cave ... an awesome sight and sound as the waves resounded loudly against the precipitous walls of the cave. At one point the panga hit a rock and our guide sitting up front was propelled into the water. He was easily retrieved, but nevertheless clearly unhappy about his sudden dunking. Isabela is the largest of the Galápagos Islands, over 130 kilometres from north to south. It has five of the biggest volcanoes, including Volcán Wolf, which is the highest of them all at 1,646 metres. There are numerous smaller cones. The most notable is Volcán Ecuador, sliced in half by wave action; and quite a sight to sail past.
Back on the 'Eclipse' we were scheduled to cross the Equator, so we all gathered on the foredeck; while some of us were on the bridge where we could watch the readings from the navigation satellite receiver approach zero latitude. As we "crossed the line" we all celebrated with drinks and appetizers.
After a splendid dinner, a good night's sleep and hearty breakfast we were all looking forward to our early morning visit to Bartolomé Island via a dry landing. We could see Pinnacle Rock, the most photographed landscape in the Galápagos. We conserved our strength for what was to be a challenging hike, the climbing of the 372 steps along a boardwalk that leads to the summit of the volcano on the island. And of course, the view made it worthwhile. In the distance you can see most of the central islands, the peaks of Isabela to the west, and on a clear day Marchena, Genovesa and Pinta to the north. While some people stayed to swim and snorkel, others made their way back to the boat via a short panga ride.
That afternoon we had a panga ride to Black Turtle Cove on Santa Cruz Island...a tidal lagoon, with a maze-like complex that took us deep into the banks of mangroves...white, red and black. Oysters were clinging to the roots and pelicans perched on the trees. Perhaps the most majestic sight of all was a school of dozens of spotted eagle rays gliding in unison in the shallows. There were many white-tip reef sharks too, but these are docile sharks that usually feed at night, and are not thought to be dangerous.
As the sun set over the archipelago that evening we celebrated with a farewell supper...for tomorrow we would be leaving the 'Eclipse' and our last panga ride would be taking us back to Santa Cruz Island for the long and arduous journey home.
Our amazing journey to the Galápagos Islands came to an end with a bus trip across Santa Cruz Island, a short ferry ride across the narrow channel to Baltra Island and then to the airport. The 90 minute flight back to Quito gave us time to contemplate the amazing sights we had seen over the last five days and the experiences that will live with us for the rest of our lives.
The Galápagos exist on an endless geological conveyor belt. They are a harsh environment, resisting man's attempts to exploit them, and they have much to teach us about our natural world – its origins and how we can best conserve it. Both fragile and furious, the Galápagos is unlike any other place on Earth.
How to get there
Where to stay
An alternative to the live-aboard cruise is to base yourself at one of the Galápagos Islands few hotels, which offer guests the opportunity to book day trips to see the wildlife on land and sea.