“Another feature of these isles is their emphatic ‘uninhabitableness’. It is deemed fit for… the jackel itself; …but the encantadas* refuse to harbour even the outcasts of the beasts. Man and wolf alike disown them. Little but reptile life is here found; tortoises, lizards… and that strangest anomaly of outlandish nature, the iguano. No voice, no lo, no howl is heard; the chief sound of life here is a hiss”
Melville, from las Encantadas*, 1841.
Born of fire as the tips of submarine volcanoes, the Galapagos Islands is a place where evolution can be observed ‘in-situ’. Hundreds of kilometres from mainland Ecuador, animals and plants set adrift have somehow found and colonised these desert islands. Floating rafts of vegetation, wind, air currents and oceanic drift have all helped this colonisation, otherwise known as 'sweepstakes dispersal.'
Birds displaced from migratory routes landed here, and sea birds carried seeds and invertebrates. Animals set adrift in the ocean currents came from North, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Californian sea lions and land birds came from North America, while pink flamingos and Darwin finches came from the Caribbean. Land iguanas, giant tortoises, pelicans, cormorants and boobies arrived from South America. Fur sea lions and penguins travelled from the Antarctic.
Then there was Charles Darwin, the most famous of all visitors to the Galapagos. He arrived aboard HMS Beagle on September 15, 1835. HMS Beagle spent five weeks in the archipelago, during which the 26-year-old naturalist visited Chatham, Charles, Albemarle and James Islands. He spent 19 days on shore collecting and observing flora and fauna in this ‘living laboratory of evolution’. In 1859, Darwin released the first edition of his work The origin of species by means of Natural Selection, which sparked a scientific revolution and challenged religious beliefs.
Our motor yacht, Letty, lay off Fernandina Island in the Western Galapagos, a place where the islands are bathed in the colder, nutrient-rich waters of the Cromwell Current. The captain, Wilson, took us near shore and armed with mask and snorkel, we slipped into the green waters. Marine iguanas scampered on shore and within seconds we were examined by a huge green turtle. “This place is alive,” I thought, as a vast school of black-striped salema fishes buzzed me. Marine iguanas swam on the surface, trailing prehistoric tails. On the rocks, there were Galapagos penguins and flightless cormorants, together with the bright Sally Lightfoot crabs.
Fernandina is the youngest of the Galapagos archipelago – less than 700,000 years old. The ‘Hot Spot’ theory held by geologists today says that there are stationary areas of intense heat in the earth’s mantle that cause the crust to melt and give rise to volcanoes. Every now and again, there’s a build-up of pressure and a mild volcanic eruption, producing lots of lava.
In June, 1968, the caldera of Fernandina changed dramatically when its floor, a block two kilometres round, fell by 350 metres over nine days. The caldera was clouded in choking dust and the crater lake disappeared. Some 2000 white-cheeked pintail ducks and land iguanas disappeared, too.
Fernandina is still the most volcanically active island in the archipelago, with a dome-shaped cone that rises to almost 1500 metres. Its caldera is now 900 metres deep and six kilometres round.
The Galapagos archipelago consists of 13 major and six minor islands, with 49 smaller rock formations, all spread over 27,000 square kilometres. These equatorial volcanic islands erupted above the Pacific Ocean 950km west of Ecuador. They first broke through the sea floor 7-9 million years ago, and still show volcanic activity – seven volcanoes have erupted in the past 15 years alone.
The Galapagos Islands sit on top of the Nazca Plate, close to the junction with the Cocos Ridge. The plates shift along the Galapagos Rift and the East Pacific Rise, which is making the islands move south-eastward at more than seven centimetres per year. The eastern islands are older than those in the west. Fernandina and Isabela, are the youngest – less than one million years old.
We stepped ashore at Punta Espinosa, which means Spiny Point in Spanish. A lava/sand promontory, this place is surrounded by six volcanoes on Isabela Island, which lies across the Bolivar Channel. Stepping ashore onto the black lava from our panga – the local name for a small dinghy – Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttled on the green algae in the tidal zone. A pile of marine iguanas lay sunning themselves on the solidified lava. As their body temperatures increased, they made their way to the ocean to feed on green algae, above and below water level. Further along, a huge whale skeleton lay on some sand and an inlet yielded endemic flightless cormorants.
Here we enjoyed the cormorants flapping their short wings. Sally Lightfoot crabs and marine iguanas lay all around. Sea lions were playing in the shallows. Distant views of volcanoes made for a splendid vista. Our natural history guides, Harry Jimenez (alias Loco Harry) and Jose Luis Castillo (alias Pepe) were a wealth of information, making the field trips most enjoyable.
The islands’ climate is greatly determined by the ocean currents. In the cooler dry season – July to December – the Humboldt Current keeps the islands much cooler than you would expect in an equatorial region. During the warmer wet season – January to June – there’s actually minimal rain on the coasts.
The colder waters of Fernandina and Isabela Island are great for dolphin and whale watching – striped, common and spinner dolphins and pilot whales abound. Nowhere have I had such amazing encounters with dolphins as in the Galapagos.
There must have been 70 dolphins, some of which congregated around the bow of our boat. Jumping into the ocean, I cleared the bubbles in my mask to see dolphins and a 5-foot Galapagos shark – so sharks do swim with dolphins. Dolphins were zooming in to see us from all around, often in pairs, peeling off when only two metres away. The sheer experience of being in the ocean with so many dolphins around checking us out was one of my life’s greatest experiences.
With some reluctance, we left the dolphins and headed over to the island to scuba dive. We swam along an underwater cliff with an entourage of sea lions and hundreds of Pacific creole fish, until we reached a point where two currents collided. Here I saw a scalloped hammerhead shark, eagle ray, green turtle and no less than five white-tip reef sharks. The funniest thing was that the sea lions were playing tag with the reef sharks. The sea lions were diving down and chasing, then nipping the shark’s tail. Whenever there was a nip, the shark would give a good flick of its tail.
The fish life in the Galapagos is fascinating and many of the fish look like overgrown versions of exotic and colourful African cichlids (ornamental aquarium fish to the uninitiated), with long filamentous fins. Even the giant damselfish look like our one spot chromis, but on a gargantuan scale. Some of the more remarkable species were the Pacific creole fish – looks like a fusilier; the Mexican hogfish – hump-headed with long, streaming fins; the guinea fowl puffer – yellow puffer fish and Galapagos garden eels – named ‘Anguila Jardin de Galapagos’ in Spanish.
The marine iguanas on Espanola Island – called Christmas iguanas – are also vibrant, with splashes of pink and green.
Each island has something different to offer. At Genovesa Island, we anchored in Darwin Bay, an ancient caldera. Here we climbed to a bluff named The Tower, to see sea birds nesting in the salt bush. There were red-footed boobies, red-billed tropic birds, swallow tail gulls, storm petrels and magnificent frigatebirds, sporting bright red inflatable throat pouches.
Later, we cooled off with a snorkel and went shark spotting. What actually happened is that the Galapagos sharks spotted us and circled a metre away. While none of us were really scared, I did hear a few nervous shrieks and some of the husbands were thrust in front of the placid shark by anxious wives. All good fun! Some of the lovelier fish to be seen were giant damsel fish, razor surgeonfish, morish idol, bump-head parrotfish and Cortez rainbow wrasse. But the sharks were the absolute highlight!
A beach landing at Genovesa Island delighted us with sea lion cubs suckling on the beach, while red-footed boobies watched on with fluffy white chicks in nests.
At Santiago Island, we landed on a black sand beach with sea lions, which later proved to be one of our most enjoyable swimming spots. On land, after a hike past old salt mine relics, we came across an area of grottoes – deep pools in which fur seal lions lolled. This species was close to extinction not so long ago. Along the beach we watched marine iguanas, American oystercatchers and lava lizards go about their business.
On Bartolome Island, we took the summit trail past splatter cones to an awesome lookout, with views of Sullivan Bay, distant volcanoes and lava fields.
At Isabela Island, we climbed to a brackish water crater lake, then onto a cone with superb views of lava fields. Exploring Tagus Cove by panga, we saw blue-footed boobies, sea lions, Galapagos hawkes, pelicans and Galapagos penguins. Tagus Cove abounds with marine life. The cove is adorned, somewhat controversially, in graffiti, dating back to the 1800s.
At Cerro Dragon, you can see endemic land iguanas, orange yellow in colour. They were once part of Darwin Station’s breeding program. Greater flamingos can be seen on the salt water lagoon.
Off San Cristobal Island, we cruised the majestic Kicker Rock, also known as Leon Dormido. There were green turtles everywhere, with sea lions lolling near shore and red-billed tropic birds overhead. At Santa Cruz, near the bustling tourist town of Puerto Ayora, we toured the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galapagos National Park headquarters. Here we met ‘Lonesome George’, a giant tortoise adopted by park staff. George was found in 1971, when wardens from the Galapagos National Park were hunting non-native goats on Pinta Island. The last reported sighting of giant tortoises on Pinta was in 1906.
Scientists took ‘Lonesome’ to the captive breeding program at the Charles Darwin Research Station, and the search for a mate began – so far without success. George was, at one time, moved to Isabela’s Wolf Volcano, together with two females. He was in high spirits and some ‘coupling’ took place, but neither female produced young. Edward Louis, a geneticist at the Henry Doorley Zoo in Nebraska, continues to scan and analyse tortoise DNA from all over the globe in search of a match for George.
In the Santa Cruz highlands, we visited large pit craters called ‘Los Gemelos’ and explored lava tubes. We also watched giant tortoises feeding on a private ranch. The tortoises love eating the fallen figs. The ranch is also home to vermillion flycatchers, large-billed flycatchers and Darwin finches.
On Espanola Island, we watched Christmas iguanas, sea lions and blue-footed boobies near a spectacular blowhole, while elsewhere there are nesting areas of blue-footed boobies and albatross.
The unique wildlife that has evolved on these desert isles, together with their volcanic grandeur and history, make the Galapagos one of the globe’s last genuinely wild places. Go now if you can as it is, without doubt, one of life’s greatest experiences.