Journey to the Galapagos

By Sandy Klim


We stepped tentatively around a dozen resting marine iguanas, shading themselves from the sun under a lava overhang. The ocean lapped gently on the back legs of one. He silently inched forward, then settled down to rest again, oblivious to us—and to the tiny mews of a nearby baby sea lion.

We rounded the rocks to find the sea lion pup looking at us with huge black eyes, its soft pelt covered in sand. The surf washed over him as he let out another heartrending cry.

Our looks of concern were interrupted by a loud trumpeting sound. An adult sea lion heaved her lumbering bulk onto shore and gently nudged the pup. They waddled off to a nearby pool carved out of the lava rock, its water warmed by the sun.

With the number of sea lions on these islands, it’s amazing to see firsthand how the mothers recognize their pups among hundreds of others by their unique sounds and vocalizations. This was the first of many intimate animal interactions we were to experience.

We were in the Galapagos Islands, a province of Ecuador and part of the country’s national park system. The island group consists of 13 main islands, six smaller ones, and 107 rocks and islets. For most visitors, the draw and wonder of the Galapagos is the wildlife—the number and variety of endemic species that inhabit the islands is incredible.

One of the best ways to view the Galapagos is on a small cruise ship that whisks you from island to island. Planned itineraries are available with all of the details and arrangements handled, and the journey to this remote part of the world is surprisingly simple. From Ecuador, a short flight took us 600 miles off the coast to Baltra Island to meet our ship. The cruise we chose visited seven islands, each uniquely fascinating and diverse, and home to an unbelievable array of wildlife.

Bartolome Island

One of the Galapagos’ most visited and photographed islands, Bartolome’s landscape consists primarily of brilliant red, orange, green and glistening black volcanic formations. As on all of the islands, designated trails allow visitors to easily view and photograph wildlife while still protecting their habitats.

The summit trail is a series of wooden pathways and stairs that makes it fairly easy to navigate the steep ascent to the top. The barren landscape is weirdly moonlike with its lack of vegetation—but it’s a moon made up of flaming colors, home to a wide variety of lava lizards. On reaching the summit you’re treated to one of the most beautiful and sweeping panoramic views in the Galapagos. Several islands surrounded by turquoise water can be seen from this unique vantage point, as well as the eroded Pinnacle Rock, an iconic image of the islands.

James Island

Also known by its older Spanish name, Isla Santiago, James Island’s landscape is made up of huge areas of black volcanic rock. The rock has unusual and fascinating textures and grooves, frozen in time as the ancient lava reached its final destination. It’s here that we met our wayward sea lion pup.

We walked along the shoreline as the agile Sally Lightfoot crabs scurried around our feet. These charismatic crabs vary in color, but many sport bright red shells with stripes or spots, and pink or blue eyes. They whimsically climb over anything in their path, including marine iguanas, seaside rocks and tortoises, their five pairs of legs moving every which way.

Twittering around our heads were Darwin finches, named after Charles Darwin, whose visit to the Galapagos Islands laid the foundation for much of his work on evolution. Here he observed more than a dozen varieties of finches that had developed from a single species (similar to a South American coastal finch), each variety adapting over time to different Galapagos habitats.

We passed by colorful flamingos and then paused to watch a Galapagos hawk as it soared regally overhead, its broad wings catching the islands’ frequent winds.

Fernandina Island

Named after King Ferdinand II, who sponsored the voyage of Columbus, Fernandina Island is geologically the youngest island, though still a respectable 700,000 years old. It’s one of the most volcanically active, with eruptions changing the landscape and life on the island every few years.

Fernandina Island’s lava fields are home to hundreds of marine iguanas. They lie haphazardly, sometimes stacking themselves in layers on top of each other. These seagoing iguanas exist only in the Galapagos and feed primarily on seaweed and algae. On the black rocks that retain the heat of the day, iguanas spend leisurely hours sunbathing, only moving to the comfort of shaded rocks when the temperature rises.

A colony of sea lions also calls this area home, lounging by the dozens near the crashing surf. An occasional bark of a male can be heard when someone or something passes too close to his territory—perhaps a web-footed Galapagos cormorant, native to the islands and the only flightless species of cormorant on Earth.

Plant life in the lava fields consists primarily of mangroves and lava cactus, sprouting up between the cracks of this blackened, rocky land.

We sailed by dinghy to the island’s northwestern tip to explore the imposing coastal cliffs. This rocky shoreline is a perfect feeding ground for manta rays, pelicans and fur seals. A group of Galapagos penguins were chatting it up on a large rock jutting from the ocean. They gave us a fleeting look before diving gracefully into the water. I leaned over the side to take a photo, and looked down to see a massive sea turtle swimming by.

North Seymour Island

Amid North Seymour Island’s landscape of small trees, scruffy cactus and bushy vegetation, bird sightings are plentiful. We eagerly awaited this visit to the most famous of our feathered friends here in the Galapagos: a colony of blue-footed boobies.

Their name comes from the Spanish bobo, which means “fool” or “clown,” because these eye-catching birds can appear quite clumsy on land. We found them absolutely charming and their courtship dance quite touching.

We watched as a male blue-footed booby flaunted his blue feet. He danced in wide circles while spreading his wings and stamping the ground, then gave out a startling honk and whistle. A nearby female watched, nonchalantly at first. Apparently, this courtship takes some time. After several minutes, we silently cheered as the female gradually became more impressed by the display and tentatively moved toward him. Suddenly, out of nowhere, another male booby hopped near. He struck a pose showing off his bright blue feet, spread his wings and whistled. He was quite obviously larger than the first suitor.

The female turned, taking a step or two towards the new arrival. The first male, not to be outdone, went into the dance of his life—strutting his wings and holding up his vivid legs. The dance was magical, but the poor female was thoroughly confused. She looked from one to the other, then simply turned and walked away.

We continued on, thinking that this would probably be the most colorful courtship we’d ever see. But then we came upon the magnificent frigate birds. To entice a female, the male first builds a nest of guano and twigs. Next, the male inflates his impressive scarlet gular pouch (located under the beak) until it comprises almost 40% of the bird’s volume. This huge red balloon, coupled with a very nice nest, entices the female frigate bird. We watched as males sat in their nests, pouches inflated. Female frigates, sometimes just feet away, observed leisurely.

The land iguanas on the island were equally fascinating. Iguanas are in abundance on a number of the islands in the Galapagos. The prehistoric-looking creatures are remarkably tame and fearless of humans, providing a perfect photo opportunity.

Santa Cruz Island

Although we’d spotted the Galapagos giant tortoises in the wild, we also visited the Highlands National Park Tortoise Reserve on Santa Cruz Island to see these magnificent animals up close. The massive tortoises can weigh up to 660 pounds and can live well over 100 years.

The reserve began in the 1970s when only 16 tortoises remained on the island of Espanola. The population has now been restored to more than 1,000.

We approached one of these beautiful creatures, resting under a shady tree. They are enormous, yet appear surprisingly vulnerable with their small wiry necks and fragile heads. George, one of the oldest and most popular tortoises, seems content as he lifts his heaving weight and moves along to a watery respite nearby.

The reserve was the perfect end to our journey, one of awe and wonder—tinged with some sadness as we learned about the challenges faced by the creatures of the Galapagos Islands. Whether a small sea lion pup or a giant tortoise, each of these species is now reliant on the goodwill of humans to allow them this protected and unspoiled habitat. It was a journey I’ll never forget.

Sandy Klim is editor of Going Places, AAA’s member magazine in Florida.

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