The distribution of tenants of this archipelago would not be nearly so wonderful, if for instance, one island has a mocking-thrush and a second island some other quite distinct species… But it is the circumstance that several of the islands possess their own species of tortoise, mocking-thrush, finches, and numerous plants, these species having the same general habits, occupying analogous situations, and obviously filling the same place in the natural economy of this archipelago, that strikes me with wonder. — Charles Darwin
The remote Galapagos Islands are on the bucket list of many a traveler and wildlife-lover. With a dramatic and desolate beauty borne of volcanic eruptions spewing over 4-5 million years ago, these islands harbor some of the most unique species in the world. From blue-footed boobies and flightless cormorants to Darwin’s famous finches and the Galapagos tortoise, species wander about with a fearlessness that comes only from a lack of natural predators.
Accidentally discovered in 1535 by becalmed Fray Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama who actually was sailing to Peru. Subsequent to its scientific discovery, the islands were visited by pirates on the run, whalers and maritime fur traders. As a result, they were known more as a hideout and way station for outliers than for its unique species. It was the visit of the H.M.S. Beagle in September of 1835 that literally brought the Galapagos to the attention of the world. Expedition naturalist Charles Darwin made detailed observations of the geology and biology of the islands, in particular, noting differences between species of the various islands. His 1859 publication, “The Origin of Species,” a scientific theory of evolution based on natural selection, would eventually rock existing notions on the evolution of mankind.
A cruise with sustainability and environmental awareness
The best way to see the islands is by boat. My sister Carol and I chose the expedition cruise company Ecoventura for its commitment to environmental sustainability. A family-owned business based on the mainland in Guayaquil, Ecuador, their small size and the headquarters’ proximity to the Galapagos inspires their vision and gives them a flexibility that’s attractive in this market.
Ecoventura emphasizes green cruising on their three yachts, the M/Y Eric, Flamingo, and the Letty, with each capable of carrying up to 20 passengers for one-week and two-week cruises. What’s important to know is that their green emphasis is comprehensive of both the ship and the islands they visit. For example, they offer the lowest naturalist guide-to-passenger ratio by capping group size to no more than ten passengers per guides. This starkly contrasts to the average of 16 passengers per guide offered on most other Galapagos cruising vessels, including some of the better known operators. According to our Captain Pablo Salas of the Letty, “We have some of the best naturalist guides in the Galapagos.”
They also have great food. My vegan sister was most appreciative of their very adaptive cuisine, while those of us less restrictive in our diet enjoyed Ecuadorian and international delicacies fixed daily by Culinary Institute-trained chefs. Plus, the local beer and house wine are complimentary while served with dinner.
Galapagos 3 Ways
Over the course of the next week, we experienced the variety of Galapagos species in three distinct ways: by land, sea, and air. With roughly 9,000 species living on the islands, in the air, and in the waters, the Galapagos are a scientific laboratory for species adaptation. Much of the wildlife is endemic meaning that they are native to the islands and found nowhere else in the world. In fact, it might be an understatement to say that endemic species are what put Galapagos on the map.
Endemic anomalies on land include prehistoric-looking lizards such as the land iguana. From 5,000 to 10,000 land iguanas are found in the Galapagos, with each island exhibiting variations in morphology and coloration.
But it is the Galapagos Giant Tortoise that is one of the most popular attractions. Despite threats from poaching to introduced species such as goats and dogs that greatly reduced island populations, the tortoise has persevered, but only with intervention of conservation efforts worldwide.
Notwithstanding these heroic efforts, a male Pinta Island tortoise named Lonesome George – the last of his subspecies and known as the rarest creature in world – succumbed to old age on June 24, 2012. Sadly, he went from endemic to extinct. Today, he continues to be symbolic of the islands’ tenuous biodiversity and his image serves as a rallying cry against further species extinction.
Interesting enough, the marine iguana actually emerged from the land iguana by a process involving selective adaptation. (Due to sparse food conditions, their survival required that they adapt to a different food source.) Surviving exclusively on underwater algae and seaweed, these docile herbivores have unique sizes, shapes, and colors on each of the islands. For example, on Espanola Island only, some of the marine iguanas take on a beautiful green and red coloring which has rendered them the name of the Christmas iguana. On most other islands, their shades range from gray to black, helping them blend in with strewn lava rocks. This is the only marine iguana in the world and they are considered to be vulnerable to extinction.
Technically, the Galapagos penguin is a flightless bird, one of five endemic seabirds in the islands. If lucky, you might encounter them as you snorkel, swimming around like a bullet with an agility and speed that contrasts markedly to their clumsiness on land. They are the only tropical penguin in the world. And then there are the Galapagos sea lions which seem dispersed everywhere. As a swimmer and snorkeler, Carol delighted with their curious yet playful antics underwater. However, when on land, keep a cautionary distance from them as they are sunning on sandy beaches and flat rocks.
The bird population in Galapagos has some of the greatest and yet strangest diversity. Take the case of the comical blue-footed booby, where the bluer the feet of the male, the more enticing they are to the female. Within a couple feet of my GoPro camera, I watched as several boobies choreographed an elaborate dance of high-stepping, bowing, and wing-spreading. These fearless birds nest on the ground with nothing but a small circle of guano to mark boundaries for their eggs.
Equally amusing is the frigatebird, an outstanding flyer with the largest wingspan to weight ratio of any bird in the world. In this world the female chooses the partner: the male inflates his red heart-shaped pouch in hopes that a scouting female will find him as a suitable mate. I can almost hear the refrains of the Rod Stewart song, “Do you think I’m sexy?”
We traveled to a total of seven islands, each with variances in geology, elevation, and precipitation: From cactus-cloaked desert isles and lava-strewn lunar landscapes, to mountainous highlands enveloped by lush verdant forests and shallow waters of tropical mangrove lagoons. Together these are the Galapagos Islands, resplendent with a diversity and quirkiness not found anywhere else in the world.
When to go: December through May is considered the hot rainy season while June through November is considered the cooler dry season. (I went in March and it didn’t rain once. The bonus was that the landscape was more lush and greener than you will encounter later in the year).
Good to know: A cruise is the best way to experience the Galapagos and Ecoventura with 20-pasenger yachts is one of the more intimate ways to see the archipelago. Ecoventura administratively takes care of individual park permits and transit cards as part of their service. Itineraries may vary slightly from week to week, subject to the Galapagos National Park regulations. Departures are every Sunday and offer two unique 7-night itineraries visiting the outer islands.
Getting there: Ecoventura will book RT airfare on AirGal from either Guayaquil or Quito, and can arrange for bookend nights in Guayaquil through their partnership with the 5-star Hotel Oro Verde. They own and operate a fleet offering weekly departures every Sunday from San Cristobal in the Galapagos; three identical superior first-class, 20-passenger motor-yachts, Eric, Flamingo & Letty. Each yacht features ten double cabins with polished teak interiors.