Galapagos Pictures, Ecuador

a huge iguana, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

A local characater on Fernandina looks forward to a good nights sleep when the tourists disappear onto their boat.

Visit the Galapagos Islands

Not a pretty sight but the Galapagos Islands have a bleak, rocky appeal, with wall-to-wall lava carpets and striking sandstone formations. Visitors to this wild World Heritage Site come by cruise ship with many cost, size and style options, though all end up in a small dinghy for the final trip to shore. Depending on the island, often the visitors’ first sight will be bored and beached sea lions, though rampant males may become animated by the sight of potential mates, especially when they are dressed to impress. Number of legs unimportant.

These photos will give you an impression of what you will see if you care to take a trip to the Galapagos Islands. It covers a little of the landscape, the ships you might travel in, and a lot of the animals and birds you would meet around and about – sea lions, penguins, iguanas, giant tortoises and many, many species of bird.

Best weather

December-May. Mainly warm (average high of 25C/77F) and sunny with occasional showers. Calmer, clearer ocean because the winds are light.

Worst: June-November due to frequent fog, drizzly rain, wind, rough seas and less services available (average high 22C/72F).

Isla Bartolome view, with Pinnacle, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Probably the most spectacular island in the Galapagos, Bartolome, featuring ‘The Pinnacle’. Pinnacle Rock is a well known landmark in the archipelago and the surrounding area has some good beaches and snorkeling. Penguins and seals can often be seen at the base of the rock.

A little history

The islands, officially known as ‘Archipélago de Colón’ (1892), were visited by Charles Darwin in 1835 and the inter-island variations of the giant tortoises and finches (small birds! ) inspired his revolutionary and controversial ‘The Origin of the Species by Natural Selection’, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

Since then the islands, 1, 000km (620 miles) off the South American coast and claimed by Ecuador in 1832, have hosted mainly fishermen, whalers, pirates and prisoners, only evolving into a National Park in 1959, precisely 100 years after Darwin’s publication.

Galapagos islands map, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Galapagos Islands Map by Eric Gaba.

Tourism

Visiting the area is strictly controlled and guides are mandatory, so there’s no way to do this trip on the super-cheap.

You can reduce costs by organising your own flights to Santa Cruz island from the mainland and finding accommodation and boats when you get there, but most of the yearly 60, 000 visitors bite the bullet and pay for a knowledgeable, efficient tour, knowing that they are guaranteed a unique close-to-the-claw wildlife experience that few places in Africa can match.

sea lions on beach, with ship, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Galapagos seal lions on Española Island, with a typical tourist ship offshore.

Galapagos Wildlife

Sea Lions

When is a seal a Sea Lion? When it swims with its front flippers (not its rear) and you can see its ears.

The Sea Lions of the Galapagos Islands are the welcoming party of the islands, whilst also keeping the penguin population down by munching on them now and again.

Males butt heads on the beaches over significant harems of females but otherwise they are generally quite friendly and inquisitive. On land they are ungraceful, so are best experienced as deft companions in the waters, diving, snorkeling, and kayaking along side them.

Their prominence is misleading however, as their numbers are relatively small for the species; fishing nets and hooks of an ever greedier humanity are affecting their numbers, particularly the pups.

Galapagos Giant Tortoise

Galapagos Giant Tortoise, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Galapagos Giant Tortoise, Geochelone elephantopus, on Santa Cruz.

Further inland lurch the giant tortoises, fabulous mobile, self-sufficient meat lockers for sailors in the not-so-distant past, now mostly just impressively slow juggernauts, though protein deficient local people are known to enjoy deep-fried tortoise steak if they think they can get away with it.

Giant Tortoises are the animal most associated with the Galapagos Islands and indeed the namesake of the islands, as the original Spanish explorers named the islands after them. Around six feet long fully grown, this reptilian juggernaut ambles along at near zero miles per hour. It is likely that the tortoises descendants originally floated to the islands, making it also a supertanker!

This casual approach to movement means that they make excellent photographic models, whilst conserving energy for more important tasks like living for around 100 years on a diet of shrubbery.

Of the several species still extant there are two distinct shell types, the dome-back and saddle-back, the former being found more in the lush highlands, the latter using its greater neck reach to get to the harder to get leaves of the lowlands.

For those looking for finches, these can often be found pecking atop a grateful tortoise, whose neck and legs are stretched fully to assist their feathered friends in this symbiotic field hygiene and lunching exercise.

However their great size and ‘retreat back into shell’ escape and evasion methodology made them an easy target for hungry 17th century sailors, later oil makers and hungry settlers, but more sadly shell collectors and the like. Even today they are killed at a rate of around ten a year.

Sally Lightfoot crabs

sally lightfoot crab, Galapagos, Ecuador

A Sally Lightfoot crab and her technicolour dreamcoat.

The geology of the Galapagos Islands is essentially that of rocky basalt islands formed from shield volcanoes which have risen up to 10, 000 ft from the sea bed due to continental plate boundary movements. Also fissure eruptions of these volcanoes created other, flatter islands.

Still very much apparent is the fact that the islands are one of the most volcanically active places on earth, a strange backdrop to the unique wildlife on show.

Marine Iguanas

two marine iguanas, Galapagos, Ecuador

A couple of Marine Iguanas, male (big and colourful) and female, on Floreana Island.

For humans with any lizard experience, the marine iguanas of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands is a casual and unusual entertainer, even if they are not the most attractive creature in the vicinity.

The only marine lizard in the world, they probably floated in on debris and have evolved to feed on algae growing on the abundent rocky outcrops of the islands, as well as small crustacea, both underwater and above. They grow up to about four feet long, half tail, with an impressive scalyiness.

Their time is largely spent lazing about on the rocks until optimum temperature is reached, then into the water for up to an hour to feed, only to get cold again, requiring a rapid heat exchange with the sun on the rocks again.

Mass heat sharing cuddles are common, though male dominance and defensive aggression is demonstrated by head bobbing displays, and if necessary a physically harmless head pushing contest. Emotional scars only – followed by more togetherness.

Marine Iguanas often have crusty heads, which is actually salty bogies which they have sneezed out.

Galapagos penguins

a galapagos penguin, Galapagos, Ecuador

A Galapagos penguin inspecting his neighbour’s rock garden on Isla Isabela. Photo by PutneyMark.

Approximately half a planet away from where one expects to see penguins in the the Antarctic can be found one of the most tropical resident of all the species, the Galapagos Penguin, Spheniscus mendiculus. They survive in the Galapagos thanks mainly to the chilly waters of the Cromwell Current. This banded penguin type can also be found along the shores of South America and southern Africa.

Most of these penguins can be seen on Fernandina Island or Isabela Island though some adventurous critters can be found on other shores too.

However, it’s not one long equatorial holiday for these guys, as when they go in search of a sashimi lunch or just cooling off in the water they are pursued by sharks, fur seals and sea lions, while on land (where they stand with their wings up in the air to stay cool) owls, hawks, cats, dogs and varied vermin present an alternative threat.

very old shipwreck remains, Galapagos, Ecuador

Neolithic standing stones? Nope, the remains of a shipwreck.

Darwin’s visit to the Galapagos

The first people known to have visited Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands were exploring Spanish sailors, and later pirates, buccaneers and whalers, using the islands as an outpost and food supply (mainly Galapagos Tortoise steak), but it was an exceptional naturalist from England who appreciated the significance of the Galapagos birds and turned traditional religious and scientific thinking on its head – Charles Darwin.

darwin

A Darwin’s Finch, from the Galapagos finches family.

The voyage of the HMS Beagle was to turn out to be a rather special cruise. When Charles Darwin first stepped onto St Cristobella Island in 1835 (gladly, as he was constantly seasick), he first dismissed the place in generally unfavourable volcanic terms, only to soon discover that it held the conceptual key to the vast differentiation of life on Earth – evolution.

The key to that discovery was finches. Darwin brought back a selection of unidentified birds and asked a famous ornithologist to examine them. John Gould identified 12 ‘peculiar’ new species of finch which eventually led Darwin to believe that finches evolved differently according to the differentGalapagos island geographies.

Darwin published his findings in ‘The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life’, 1859. It is so fundamental in its findings that it still remains banned, particularly due to religious belief, in some sections of society today.

It is this significance – a concentration of related species that have locally evolved distinct differences – which is one of the best reasons to take a Galapagos Cruise, in addition to the proximity that human visitors can achieve to truly evolutionary creatures in this little Ecuadorian outpost.

Cruise Ships

Much of the wildlife on the Galapagos Islands lives around the coastline, in and out of the water as needs must, so a cruise ship is the best way to see many animals efficiently.

If seasickness is a problem for you:

– choose the quiet season to visit the Galapagos, when waters are likely to be calmer (January-March).

– try acupressure wrist bands.

– keep chemical suppressants for emergencies.

– choose the biggest cruise ship you can find!

– if a cruise is impossible to stomach stay in an hotel on Isla Santa Cruz and take short trips offshore. Even just onshore there are wildlife sights in plenty, particularly for those interested in making friends with giant tortoises, flamingoes, seals and other bird life.

Scuba Diving

white tip sharks, Galapagos, Ecuador

Scuba diving is a popular activity option for some Galapagos tourists. For others scuba is the raison d’etre.

Scuba diving is an incredible experience as life here is abundant and unafraid, but mainly for those experienced in underwater travel. You are advised to bring your own regulators and book in advance. Be aware that most of the best sites have strong currents, surge and cold waters. The best dive centre is in Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz.

Snorkelling is also a great way to see the Galapagos’ wildlife and is easy to arrange, though even just swimming with sea lions is possible and fun. Equipment is provided by the boats, unless you prefer to bring your own. The islands of Isla Plaza Sur and Isla Bartolome have especially good snorkelling sites.

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