Galápagos - The Enchanted Islands

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Friday, July 2, 2004

Swimming with playful sea lion pups, dancing with blue-footed boobies, watching the staid courtship rituals of the albatrosses, marvelling at the huge red inflated neck pouches of the male frigate birds, walking on incredibly textured lava flows, and sightings of killer whales and dolphins - these were some of the amazing highlights of our trip to the Galápagos Islands.

We had not planned on this trip until much later in our stay in Ecuador, but very quickly found out that July and August are high season and spaces on Galápagos tours are very limited. So when we got the chance for a last-minute booking for an eight day tour at a discount price we quickly signed up, and two days later were on the AeroGal flight to Baltra. By lunchtime last Thursday we were being welcomed aboard the tour boat "San José" which would be our home for the next week. Our companions were three other young couples - from Amsterdam, Sydney and Calgary. We were joined after four days by eight other passengers from the US, but for the moment we had the spacious boat to ourselves. We were pampered by a crew of seven, and kept on our toes - and literally on the marked trails - by our knowledgeable naturalist guide, Diego.

A thousand kilometres west of Ecuador, the Galápagos are a very isolated group of volcanic islands on the equator in the Pacific Ocean that have a unique and fascinating history. These are geologically very young islands - only three to five million years old - and are still being actively formed from the hot-spot under the ocean. At the same time, the islands are moving eastwards on the Nazca Plate at quite a clip - some three centimetres a year - that's about the rate at which your fingernails grow!

The limited fauna and flora that are present on the islands have found their way there by chance over many millennia, and have gradually evolved to adapt to their new surroundings. Charles Darwin was the naturalist on board HMS Beagle when it visited in 1835, and he recognised the islands as a 'living laboratory'. His observations were the inspiration for his work on evolution by natural selection and the basis of his paper 'On the Origin of Species' that was to revolutionise scientific and religious thinking when it was published in 1859. Darwin's finches are perhaps the most famous wildlife on the islands (13 species are thought to have evolved from a common ancestor), but they are certainly not the most spectacular.

If you think that nobody visited the islands between Darwin's visit and the arrival of Russell Crowe and the film crew for "Master and Commander"in 2002, then you would be sadly mistaken. Since the islands were accidentally discovered by Bishop Berlanga of Panama in1535, there has been a fascinating and somewhat gruesome history of colonization and exploitation. Most of the attempts ended in severe hardships and ultimate failure, but with a fair share of mysterious murders and disappearances along the way. Claimed by Ecuador in 1832, the islands served for many years as penal colonies for hardened criminals, and during World War II the US established an Air Base on Baltra Island. In 1959 the Galápagos National Park was established with the mission of conserving the unique ecosystems of the islands. Visits to the islands now require special permits and there is a policy of "take nothing but photos and memories, leave only footprints". The 150 local tour boats are on carefully regulated itineraries, with mandatory guides, so as to minimise the impact of tourism, and all activities are strictly controlled.

The major fascination of the wildlife is not the variety - in fact the number of species is quite limited - but the lack of fear by the animals for humans. Unlike almost anywhere else in the world, most of the animals have not been hunted and have never developed an instinctive fear of man. On Española and North Seymour Islands we were almost tripping over all the nesting blue-footed boobies and waved albatrosses with their eggs or chicks, but our intrusion didn't seem to bother them at all. Sunbathing sea lions were everywhere and either ignored us (except the barking dominant males patrolling their beach territories) or joined us for a swim. In the water it was not uncommon to find yourself swimming alongside unconcerned sharks, sea turtles and rays. Shoreline rocks were often littered with masses of marine iguanas basking in the sun, who appeared oblivious to our presence.

Perhaps the giant tortoises have suffered most at the hands of humans - harvested by passing ships in the 18th and 19th centuries to provide fresh meat on long voyages - and are now most easily seen in the breeding projects at the Darwin Research Centre. There, the eleven sub-species still existing are being raised in large numbers for re-introduction to their individual island habitats. Nonetheless, we were able to observe some of the huge adults (weighing up to 250 kg) going about their daily, and sometimes intimate, business.

The skies overhead were full of birds - boobies and pelicans diving for fish, red-billed tropicbirds, lava gulls and Galápagos hawks soaring gracefully on the thermal air currents, and forked-tail frigatebirds patrolling for a stray chick for supper. On the rocks we saw an occasional penguin readying for an underwater dive, and a few fiery pink flamingos dredging the inland lagoons for shrimp. Around our feet and in the bushes small birds foraged for seeds and insects - mockingbirds, yellow warblers, finches and vermilion flycatchers. Along the shoreline oystercatchers, whimbrels, turnstones and phalaropes picked among the pebbles for aquatic delicacies.

In the course of the week we visited seven of the islands and could appreciate the distinct character of each. Some islands have almost no vegetation, with large expanses of red or black volcanic rock, others have cacti, saltbushes and black, red or white sand beaches. Several times a day we donned our life jackets, clambered into the two inflatable zodiaks and headed for the nearest shore. We swam and snorkelled off many different beaches, hiked numerous trail systems and visited the Interpretation Centre. We climbed the 367 steps of the wooden boardwalk on Isla Bartolomé to take obligatory photos of the famous view down across Pinnacle Rock, and explored the amazingly complex and wrinkled rope patterns in the black lava on Isla Santiago. It was easy to imagine the awesome flow of red hot, molten lava which erupted only a century ago - a stark, sterile yet beautiful landscape.

As you can imagine this was a photographer's paradise - our cameras were humming all week and everybody was manoeuvring for the best angles. Of course, Gerry had to get the final perfect shot of that bright red Sally Lightfoot crab, and in the process slipped on the seaweed covered rock and slid gracefully into the ocean. Sharon immediately rushed to the rescue.....with a cry of "save the camera"!!
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