The Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands. Just the very name conjures up images of unique environments, strange animals, volcanic landscapes and bazaar ecosystems. A set of small islands 1000km´s off the coast of Equador, the Spanish first discovered them in the 16th century, and gave them the name Galapagos, an old Spanish word for tortoise. Of course, this was in recognition of the giant tortoises that roamed the islands, today affectionately known as “Galapagos Giant Tortoises”.
Sitting on the equator places the islands in a unique position in the Pacific Ocean. Three different ocean currents swirl around the archipeligo creating a marine aquarium like nowhere else on earth. But the islands themeselves are “hot spots”. Points of magma release for the Nazca tetonic plate, which pushes up against the South American plate creating the Andes. Geologically speaking, the Galapagos is very young, somewhere between 3 and 5 million years old, the islands getting younger from east to west (oldest in the east). Some of the islands still have active volcanoes on them but the last erruption was about 300 years ago.
But of course the main reason why people visit is for the wildlife experience. A place where man and nature can walk side by side without fear of each other. The place where the great scientist, Charles Darwin, developed his theory on evolution. A place where you can actually see nature and the world evolving in front of your eyes.
My cousin, Adam, and I flew from Quito to the main island of Santa Cruz, staying in the main town of Puerto Ayora. This is where you´ll find tour agencies, resturants, hotels, shops, the main port and the largest concentration of people in the islands. Adam and I gave ourselves 2 weeks to explore as much of the archipeligo as we could. But being that 97% of the islands is national park and the archipeligo the worlds second largest marine reserve, you are pretty limited to what you can do and where you can go. Most places have to be visited with a guide (it´s the law), and transport is mostly by boat. So we did what the majority of people visiting the islands do, and booked onto a boat trip. They range from 4,5 and 8 days. We wanted to see as much as we could, so we picked up an 8 day, “last minute” deal on the cheapest boat we could find, “The Friendship”.
With that exercise out of the way, we proceeded to visit local sights around Puerto Ayora which didn´t require a guide.
I desperately wanted see those Giant Galapagos tortoises. Just out of town is the Charles Darwin Research Centre, where a breeding program is in full swing to make sure these big guys fully recover from near extinction. Ah man, seeing these guys is as if you´ve been transported from the 21st century to the dinosaur era. They look ancient, all wrinkley and lined, lumbering ever so slowly, carrying around their ammoth shell. Every step looks like such an effort. But these guys move quick enough when they want to especially the male when in pursuit of a lady! The breeding program has done wonders to bring their numbers back from the brink. Along with the erradication of introduced species from most of the islands, the future for these big guys looks pretty promising.
Up in the highlands of Santa Cruz, the tortoises seem to be thriving, and we saw numerous specimens on a locals farm. They´re a little more nervous than the ones in the research centre, retracting into their shells whenever we got to close. But I loved seeing these beautiful animals roaming in the wild.
The research centre houses other breeding programs for near extinct plants and the land iguana. The interpretive centre is a wonderful display of information and pictures about the islands, and a must for any visitor to get a better idea of the ins and outs of the Galapagos and the effects man has had on them.
A 3km walk from Puerto Ayora, is a beautiful white sand beach called Bahia Tortuga (Turtle Bay). Marine turtles use the sand dunes for nesting during breeding. The beach stretches for several hundred metres. Adam and I stripped down to our boardshorts and headed for the water. I noticed some animal tracks in the sand, and after quickly realising what I was looking at, I said “Adam, this must be an iguanas track, we must have just missed it.” Then at the same time, looking at the breaking shoreline, we both began to laugh. Standing just 5 metres away from us was our little friend, one of those infamous marine iguanas we´ve all seen on documentaries. We watched him go about his business for a little while and then went for a dip. This would be the first of many. Walking down the beach, several more ambered along the sand, not to perturbed of our existence.
At the far end of the beach, our initial excitement of seeing marine iguanas, fell into amazement. Hundreds of them lazed in the sun, soaking up the warmth of the seemingly endless black volcanic rocks that lay on all the islands. Many of them lay in huge groups, all over each other, of up to 30, trying to contain the warmth in their bodies. Although they´re the only ocean going lizard, they´re no different to any other reptile, needing the suns heat for energy.
During swimming and feeding on the seaweed of the rocks (these guys can hold their breath for up to 45 minutes!) they must suck down a bit of water. While watching them, you can´t help but feel a little disgusted as they snort out liquid all over each other, and you, if you get to close.
Brightly crimson and red coloured Sally Light Foot crabs are dotted everywhere as well. A lonesome Blue Footed Boobie let us take some handsome photos of him, almost posing like for the camera.
It had already been an awesome day for wildlife and we hadn´t even begun the boat tour.
The following day Adam and I hired bikes and rode up to the islands highlands to see some lava tunnels. These are huge underground tunnels created during volcanic erruptions and lava flows. I´ve visited the ones in northern Queensland and these are no different. One tunnel was about 1km in length, high ceiling, and quite remarkably smooth walls. There are several lots of tunnels around Santa Cruz. At the entrance to the tunnels, there were empty tortoise shells. After climbing inside one of these huge buggers, and barely lifting myself off the ground, I can appreciate why those giant tortoises are so slow!
Another short trip from Puerto Ayora, is a beautiful volcanic canyon, Las Grietas. The walk there was tough on my feet since I forgot shoes, and the volcanic stone is pretty sharp. Well worth it though. The water is amazingly clear, and jumping off the canyon wall is quite a rush. Especially since you touch the water before you actually expect to, due to the clarity of the water.
A small commercial fishing fleet is allowed to operate in the marine reserve (don´t know how this works), and each day they clean their catch near the port. It´s a spectacle to watch brown pelicans, giant frigates, grey seagulls and sea lions waiting anxiously for the left over guts and heads. It´s a hillarious spectacle to see a sea lion steal some food straight out of the inside of a pelicans beak, or a pelican slapping a sea lions head with its wings to protect its prize!
So, the 8 day boat tour. In all the Galapagos archipeligo has 13 major islands and many smaller ones. We visited 10 in all, half of which were major. Starting off with the older islands of Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, Espanola and Floreana in the south east, and finishing with the younger ones of of Rabida, Santiago and Bartolome in the north west.
The first 4 to 5 days was all about watching wildlife and getting familiar with the vegetation. The last 4 days was more about the unique geological aspect of the islands.
You know, on many of the islands, you basically see the same animals and vegetation. Sally Light Foot crabs scurry between the cracks of the lava rocks, marine iguanas soak up the sun, land iguanas do much the same but just further away from the water, chomping on cactus fruit. Sea lions are everywhere, lazing in the sun, posing for photos, playing with, and adoring, each other. Colourful little lava lizards race around trying to avoid being trotten on. Some islands have lagoons which are inhabited by small flocks of flamingos sifting through the mud for food, others have fearless ghost and hermit crabs.
Each island is home to scores of birdlife. But the real action with these guys is in the sky. It´s an amazing sight to watch a flock of 200 or so Blue Footed Boobies dive bomb the ocean from 20 metres, all at the same time; Giant Frigate birds circling the boat barely a couple of metres above our heads; the ease with which the Galapagos Albatross soars across the sky with its 2 metre plus wing span. Countless other birds, Nazca Boobies, Darwins Finches, Northern Turns, Grey seagulls and more.
On land the amazement continues. The male Blue Footed Boobie does a special dance and call during the courting of a lady; the male Frigate blows up his red gizzard into balloon size proportions in the hope of attracting a female; Nazca Boobies use their rubbery like, boneless feet to keep their eggs warm rather than their feathers.
I can´t forget to mention the likes of walking through a magnificent Opuntia Cactus forest, with individuals standing up to 4 metres high. Much of the vegetation seems to be dead, lifeless, no greenery what so ever. But it was just the time of year, right at the end of the dry season. A couple of islands, Bartolome and Santiago had very little vegetation at all. But these are young islands, and on Santiago I had the unique experience of walking on a huge Pahoehoe lava flow. Only about 300 years old, the shapes and patterns left by the cooled lava is fascinating. Some like dripping syrup over pancakes, others like huge, runny turds!
The activity and fascination under water is just as good as it is above it. We snorkled everyday, allowing us to get up close and personal with the exceptional marine life that calls the Galapagos home. I´ve already mentioned the sea lions, but swimming with these guys is a whole other story. On several occassions, we enjoyed the company of these lovely creatures swimming around us. On my first occassion, I shat my pants when a big male bull swam straight at me and turned at the last second! Males like to protect their area and people have been bitten before, hence my shitting myself! The females on the other hand just wanted to play. We would dive down, and they´d twist and turn around us, eyeing us off inquisitively. Their speed and movement is phenomenal to watch, and totally beautiful. Definately a highlight of the trip.
My other favourite moment was spending 15 minutes, peacefully gliding around with a turtle. He had no fear of me at all, letting me touch his shell, swim beside and underneath him. Just like in “Nemo”, he was just a “dude” taking everything as it comes, not to worried about anything. We saw loads of turtles in the end.
Other highlights included getting close to penguins as they darted amoung small schools of fish, feeding; watching a marine iguana clinging to a rock as he fed underwater on seaweed; following harmless white tip reef sharks, sting rays, eagle rays and octopuses; and the fun of plowing into huge schools of fish. The variety of fish is as good as I´ve seen on the Great Barrier Reef.
But snorkling in the Galapagos is not just about the marine life. Volcanic cliffs, rocks and lava flows create awesome formations to snorkle around. Caves and ledges are everywhere, begging to be entered. Cliffs become walls, dotted with cracks and crevices filled with fish, and coral plants are plentiful. Some of the spots we snorkled would be the best places I´ve ever snorkled at.
I did a day of scuba diving, which is extremely popular in the islands, with no less than about 60 dive sites. I desperately wanted to see Hammerhead sharks, and ended up diving at the most probable site to see them, Gordons Rocks. Gordons Rocks is an old volcanic cone which has mostly broken away now, but parts of the wall still protrude through the oceans surface. It´s a menacing sight I must say, a daunting looking dive site. It doesn´t help much knowing that the water is very cold, dark, has strong currents and you have to dive 30 metres to see what you´ve come to see!
But it was all worth it. My first sighting of a Hammerhead got my heart racing. A school of about 12 scoured the volcanic floor beneath us like a pack of wild dogs on the hunt, for a couple of minutes before disappearing into the deep blue. On the second dive I saw 8 more, but this time they got closer to us, and hung around for longer, almost as if they were taking an interest in us. Beautiful to watch.
Also saw a couple of turtles, a sea lion shoot past me on its way to the surface, and a couple of huge schools of Barracudas. There was a massive variety of fish to see. Just another unforgetable day in the Galapagos.
Now you may think seeing the same animals and vegetation everyday may get a little repetitive. Not only that, you can also see a greater variety of wildlife in Africa, Australia, Asia and the mainland. But you´ll find it difficult to find such a variety of endemic species, that exist nowhere else in the world, in such a small area. Plus, the interaction I had with the animals is only equalled in Antarctica.
There are few places you can literally stick your camera in an animals face and not have it even flinch. There are few places you will find that animals have as much interest and fascination in you, as you in them. There are few places that are this small and have such a variety of landscapes and habitats. The Galapagos has all this and is one of the most Fascinating places I´ve ever visited. It costs a small fortune to come here, but worth every cent.

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