Iguanas, sea lions, boobies: Galapagos Islands safari

Galapagos: Charles Darwin visited just four of the 11 main islands in the Galapagos archipelago, on his five-week-long Beagle stopover here in 1835.

Me and Charlie (on San Cristobal)

They provided enough observational material for him to piece together a geological and evolutionary island history, and to extrapolate his ideas in a way that would profoundly alter the way we understand the origins of species. His seminal book was an instant sellout when it was published today in 1859; now, T-shirts bearing the bearded Darwin (although he was a young clean-shaven man when he visited) fly out of the souvenir shops, but if the book’s on sale, I haven’t seen it.

Our home for four nights
Emily and David have breakfast in our boat

Four islands may have been enough for Darwin, but we want to see more. Each island famously nurtures its own distinct ecosystem, allowing visitors to see divergent species of the same animal or plant within a few miles of each other, in a way that is surely unique on the planet.

Mum and sea lion pup
Hind limbs of a sea lion - perfectly modified

We board a cruising motor yacht, operated by the Canadian company Gap, with eleven other passengers, who are mostly from the English speaking world. Some of the lucky passengers are touring for 8 days, but we have just 5, sadly for me, but, as the others down their sea-sickness tablets, I’m reminded that after spending a little too long at sea, Darwin moaned: “I loathe, I abhor the sea and all ships which sail on it.”

Half a century of development. There are now 30,000 permanent residents
Lava rock. The islands are volanic.

A boat cruise – ours is captained by a Galapagos-born man called Darwin! – is the only way to visit many of the islands, which are restricted by National Park rules. We are only allowed to enter certain islands accompanied by a certified guide. Ours, who makes up for his ignorance of wildlife – he tells us that a whale shark is a mammal, among other annoying blunders – with his obvious respect for park conservation guidelines (ensuring we stick to paths and don’t touch the animals, etc).

The main islands
Baby sea lion suckling

While it’s frustrating to have to traipse around such a magical site in a group of other cap and zip-off-action-slacks tourists and to be forced to rush past interesting parts, while lingering at others, it’s very necessary: Galapagos now receives around 180,000 visitors a year, numbers that are having noticeable effects on the unique wildlife here. One of the knock-ons from so many (90) cruise boats touring between islands, is that insects drawn to the boat lamps are populating different islands, changing the ecosystems there. Despite all the pressures, just 1% of the native species here have gone extinct, scientists think, since human contact in the 1500s, although some, like Lonesome George, are close.

Nick is surrounded
Prickly pear cactus and sesuvium

Darwin would not have found favour with Park authorities. While he was on the islands, he made a point of tasting the different tortoise and bird varieties, and he had a hands-on approach to the wildlife, dragging around iguanas and riding the tortoises. “I frequently got on their backs, and then giving a few raps on the hinder part of their shells, they would rise up and walk away,” he wrote.

Tropic bird with its beautiful long tail nesting

He was fascinated by how unperturbed the animals were in the presence of humans – as am I. The animals are so unworried that it takes considerable concentration to not step on one by mistake. We visit Plazas, an island covered with sesuvia, a succulent in every shade of red, orange and yellow, where the dark land iguanas mingle with lemon-yellow marine iguanas – enough to produce rare hybrids – both of which crawl dinosaur-like around the black lava.

The lava here is the fluidic basalt type
Land iguanas, one has a prickly pear fruit in its mouth.

The lava here is of the fluidic basalt type, which means there are few of the cone-shaped mountain craters seen in explosive volcanoes. Among the black rocks, red Sally Lightfoot crabs scurry and cluster.

Sally Lightfoot crabs

Nearby Santa Fe island has a different type of finch, many many sea lions and we spot one of the two species of endemic rat, a cute big-eared rodent. We snorkel in a pretty bay, playing with curious sea lions that swim around us, blowing bubbles and staring into our face-masks with huge eyes.

Frigate birds follow our boat
Eagle rays in the water by the boat

The next day, we arrive at Floreana, an inhabited island with a brackish lagoon, where we look but fail to find flamingoes. Here, beaches, green with olivine crystals, host nesting green turtles, and we spot two of them mating among the stingrays in the shallows. An enormous centipede with an hallucinogenic bite rolls past us on the rocks. Above, a rare hawk flies and circles something unseen in the grass.

Rats are being eradicated
Plants also show differences between the islands

The Park workers are trying to eradicate rats here, poisoning them with some sort of detergent, and we see dead ones lying around. In some places here, where poison is used, conservationists are capturing the hawks for release later, when the dead rats have been cleared, for fear of harming the predator birds with the same poison.

Emily posts a card on Floreana

Floreana has a post box that once worked through a voluntary delivery system by passing ships. Now, tourists continue the service: posting mail addressed to their home country, when they visit.

Marine iguanas eat algae
Mother and baby sea lions

The island’s human history is as intriguing as its natural history. It was first habited in the 1930s by a group of Germans. The first to arrive were an eccentric couple of philosophers, eloping from their respective marriages, whose preparatory efforts included having both sets of their teeth removed and then buying a specially commissioned set of steel false-teeth to share between them.

Dr Ritter and his lover shared the one pair of teeth.

The pair were joined by ‘The Baroness’ (who most certainly wasn’t) and her three lovers, and then later, by the Wittmers, another German couple, who came to the islands for their son’s health.

Pretty Galapagos dove
How the finch got its beak

Infighting ensued, and one by one, the Germans all died under mysterious circumstances, for example, one of the Baroness’s lovers, a vegetarian man, reportedly died of food poisoning after eating chicken. The only one to survive, and she did so until 2000, was the Wittmer wife, who was unable to shed light on any part of the odd affair.

Masked boobies mating
Masked booby nest-building
Blue-footed booby and chick

Española, the following day, is perhaps my favourite island. Being the most easterly, it is the oldest (the islands are formed on an easterly moving plate), and its 3-4 million-year age has eroded the volcanic bumps to a flat shape. Here, the marine iguanas are red and green. The paths are an obstacle course of nesting blue-footed boobies, waved-albatross eggs and fluffy white chicks.

Blue-footed booby with its egg. The nest is right on our path
Blue-footed booby and chick

Baby albatrosses, twice the size of their parents, sit in a messy fluff, waiting for their tireless yellow-beaked parent to fly in with food.

Waved albatross chick
The albatross chicks are far bigger than either parent

We snorkel with fish and turtles and David spots a diving Galapagos penguin, the only penguin north of the equator. Galapagos and white-tip sharks and eagle rays fly beneath the chilly waters.

Me and the baby waved albatross
Mocking birds on Española - very curious

Before we’re ready to leave, it’s time to head for San Cristobal, the island capital of the archipelago. We leave our boat there and tour the island ourselves, visiting tortoises (they’re smaller than those on Santa Cruz, but with skirt-shaped shells) and a freshwater crater lake, hidden in the highland mists.

San Cristobal giant tortoise
Eggs being incubated as part of San Cristobal's tortoise breeding programme

Now we’re back on Santa Cruz, Nick’s diving and we’re thinking of spending a few days on Isabela, one of the youngest islands (700,000 years old) and most volcanically active. Can’t help thinking that Darwin missed out by only seeing 4 islands – although he did get to ride on a giant tortoise…

Marine iguana on Santa Cruz
Spot the 2 baby marine iguanas?

Nick will upload some of his beautiful photos in the next few days. In the meantime, here’s a video of a playful sea lion from his diving trip, where he also saw schools of hammerheads!:

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