Galapagos Islands

a huge iguana, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

A large and very relaxed iguana on Fernandina island looks forward to a good nights sleep when tiresome tourists head back to their  boat in the Galapagos Islands.

 Visiting 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, the visitors’ first sight may be bored and beached sea lions, though rampant males can become animated by the sight of potential mates, especially when they are dressed to impress. Number of legs unimportant!

Some of the animals and birds you could meet on and around the islands are sea lions, penguins, iguanas, giant tortoises and many, many species of bird.

Isla Bartolome view, with Pinnacle, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

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

Galapagos History and main islands

Galapagos islands map, Ecuador

Galapagos Islands Map by Eric Gaba.

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  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.

darwin's finch, Galapagos, Ecuador

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

Galapagos Islands Tourism

Galapagos tourist with sea lions, wildlife safari

Galapagos seal lions making friends on Española Island.

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.

Galapagos Cruises

Galapagos sea lions and cruise ship, Ecuador

Because of the long distances involved, the only practical way to explore the Galápagos is by live-aboard boats, which travel between islands, mostly at night, and make different stops each day. More than 80 vessels are licensed to operate in the archipelago and there are countless combinations of stops and routes.

Most cruises go ashore twice a day: 10 full days on the boat typically means 20 shore landings, 10-20 snorkels, and several panga rides (pangas are small, open outboard-powered boats) to about 10 different islands.

Exploring on your own is considerably more difficult. Getting around independently is tricky and all visitors must be accompanied by a licensed naturalist guide at all landing sites. But four islands (Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Floreana and Isabela) do have hotels of varying sizes and standards and a few boat operators offer day-trips.

Following in Darwin’s footsteps involves a flight from Quito or Guayaquil, on the mainland, to Baltra or San Cristóbal. Some cruises leave from Baltra (the dock is a five-minute drive from the air terminal). Others go from Puerto Ayora, the tourist hub on Santa Cruz and a relatively busy town, with a bank, ATM machine, taxis, pubs and even a cinema.

Best season to visit the Galapagos Islands

Best: December-May. Mainly warm (average high of 25C/77F) and sunny but occasional showers. Calmer, clearer ocean because the trade winds die down. Try to avoid the busiest periods of the year, December – January and July – August.

Worst: June-November due to frequent fog, drizzle rain, wind, rough seas, less services available (average high 22C/72F). Sea temperatures at this time of year drop to as low as 66F (19C) and visibility often goes down to 30ft-50ft, while sea swells can make some landings tricky.

Wildlife activities vary greatly and each month has its own highlights.
For example, green turtles begin their egg-laying in January; penguins interact with swimmers on Bartolomé mainly from May until the end of September; humpback whales begin to arrive in June; July through to the end of September is the best period for most seabird activity; peak pupping for sea lions is around August, while their pups play aqua-aerobics with snorkellers in November; and December is the month for hatching giant tortoise eggs. So there is always something going on.
The hot, humid season (with occasional tropical showers) runs from December to May (March and April are usually hottest and wettest). The seas tend to be calmer and clearer at this time of year (with 60ft-80ft visibility typical) and the water temperature averages 79F (26C), so this period is best for snorkelling.

Main islands

There are 13 larger islands and as many as 50 smaller islets. Most places must be visited with a guide.

***Isla Santa Cruz, the second largest of the archipelago (island group) and the most important island, with the Darwin Research Station as well as other facilities. Turtle Bay, is one of the best marine sites, with a white, sandy, swimming beach. You can see Giant Tortoises at Tortoise Reserve near Santa Rosa.

***Isla Isabela, the largest island, is known for the Volcano Sierra Negra, located at the southern end – one of the best examples of volcanoes in the Galapagos. Isabela is home to a huge selection of wildlife – colourful land iguanas, penguins, flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, pelicans, Sally Lightfoot crabs, Galapagos tortoises, Darwin finches, Galapagos hawks and doves. A small human settlement, Puerto Villamil, squats in the southeast of the island.

***Isla Española is the most southerly of the islands, with the Galapagos’ only colony of Waved Albatrosses (late March-early December). The best site is Punta Suarez – follow the trail of lava rocks where Blue-footed Boobies make their nests and iguanas like to sunbathe. The trail continues on to a colony of Waved Albatrosses. The island’s best swimming beach can be found there too.

**Isla Seymour, covered with low, bushy vegetation and the best place to see a colony of puffed-up Frigate Birds.

***Isla Bartolome, known for its Pinnacle Rock and a favourite tourist view point, where sea lions and Galapagos Penguins like to hang out. On the beach in the south nesting sea turtles can be seen – seasonal though – as well as white-tipped reef sharks. This beach is excellent for swimming and snorkelling too.

***Fernandina (aka Narborough), hosting the most recent volcanic activity in 2005 as well as a mass of marine iguanas, flightless cormorants, penguins, pelicans, sea lions and seals.

***San Cristobal hosts an airport and the capital of the Galapagos, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, as well as a number of wildlife sites so this is a good island for seasick animal-lovers. Some of the creatures around are frigate birds, sea lions, Giant tortoises, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies and many other tropical birds. There are a couple of good dive sites nearby.

*Floreana is more about humans than animals as Post Office Bay was used by 18thC whalers as a mail pick up/drop-off point. It is a nesting place for green sea turtles from December to May and flamingoes for much of the year.
Flights arrive at two islands: Baltra (South Seymour) which only functions as an airport, and San Cristobal.

The Wildlife

Galapagos Giant Tortoise

Galapagos Giant Tortoise, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Galapagos Giant Tortoise on Santa Cruz Island.

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.

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.

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.

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 abundant 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 scaliness.
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.

Birdlife

Birds are a major attraction on the islands, including Finches, Blue Footed Boobies, Oyster Catchers, Waved Albatross, Frigate Birds, Lava Herons, Flamingoes, Pelicans.