|Map of the Galapagos Islands|
When I was in elementary school in the early 1970's, my friend Willow's father came to our school to present a slide show about his journey to the Galapagos Islands. Keep in mind that the islands had only opened for tourism in the 1960's. I don't remember how much I knew about the Galapagos prior to his presentation, or much about the specifics of what he said, but I do remember ending the day with the understanding that this was a remote and very special place with wildlife and plants unlike any place else. Those magnificent and ancient Galapagos tortoises! Over the years I thought back to that day in school, especially when I heard mention of the islands in the news or TV or movies or literature, and they took on an almost mythical quality in my mind. The Galapagos Islands. And never, ever, did I think that I would actually go there. But sometimes opportunities present themselves, and in September, because we were already visiting Ecuador, I was able to go see some of the Galapagos Islands for myself. It was every bit as extraordinary as I had hoped it would be.
|Blue-footed Booby on the Lava Rocks|
When my husband and I first started exploring the possibility of a trip, I was concerned about whether my travel to the Galalpagos could be harmful to the islands. When I was a kid in the '70's, travel there was more of an ordeal and was fairly uncommon, but in the years since then cruises and hotels have made it so easy that just about anyone can get there. I was worried about contributing to pollution or overgrowth or too much contact with the wildlife. But our Ecuadoran friends insisted that we had to visit one of their most treasured places. We were directed to a tour company that was in line with our environmental ethic. So we booked a trip, and it turned out to be nothing like I had feared and was a fantastic experience.
|Saddle-back Galapagos Tortoise|
This is not to say that everything is perfect. I understand that there is increasing concern over huge cruise ships bringing large groups of people in for short visits (though we did not see any of them), with maximum impact on the natural areas, but with little benefit to the local economy. And as the popularity of the parks grows, the towns supporting the tourist economy grow. The population on the islands has grown dramatically in the last 50 years. Also, the park management has a difficult battle with invasive species brought in. There are plants, animals and insects that are displacing the native species. Over fishing and poaching on the islands is troubling and protecting the islands is an ongoing battle. But these are issues recognized by the Ecuadoran government and the park management and they are moving to address them.
|Sea Lion by an Ice Cream Stand--Clash of Cultures|
As I learned more about the past history of the management of the Galapagos, I came to believe that controlled tourism is really the best way to protect the islands. In the past the animals were exploited for food and lamp oil (the tortoises) and people tried to colonize and exploit the islands for their resources. The US saw the islands as a strategic location for a military base in WWII. They created what is now the airport in Baltra. Fortunately, the islands were so remote and the habitat was so difficult that relatively few areas were colonized. In 1935, the government of Ecuador designated part the islands as a wildlife preserve, and in 1959 they became Ecuador's first national park. In 1978 UNESCO recognized the Galapagos Islands as a World Heritage Site. There are some towns on some of the islands, and some private land, but for the most part, the islands are very carefully managed. Each visitor to the park pays a $100 entrance fee that goes to support the preserve. And every visitor must be accompanied by a Naturalist Guide who is responsible for the behavior of the guests. On our trip in the park, we saw no litter and everyone was respectful of the wildlife and of the trails and park. By sharing the wonder of the Galapagos Islands with the public, more and more people learn about the importance of protecting them. The people who live on the islands are learning that the health of the islands is important in order to bring tourists to support the lucrative tourist economy. People want to protect something that they understand.
|"Don't Touch the Tortoises"--Sign at Private Ranch with Giant Tortoises|
We ended up choosing an 8 day cruise on a small catamaran that held 16 passengers at maximum and a staff of 8-10 people. We visited about half of the islands and did much of our travel at night while we slept, leaving the days open for exploring. Our crew was friendly and knowledgable and many of them were locals. Our tours were led by a naturalist with 20 years experience in the islands. We had perfect weather with only one or two rocky, seasick periods. Being on the ocean with no internet was lovely and relaxing. The few times we were in port and could check email and the news felt harsh and jarring after days of nature walks, reading by natural light, early bedtimes and actual conversations.
|Gorgeous, Quiet Beach|
|Frigatebird Follows the Boat|
Our journey started at Santa Cruz island, where the Baltra airport is located. After boarding the ship around lunchtime, we traveled by boat, then by bus to the Santa Cruz Highlands where we visited a private ranch and tortoise preserve. There we saw dozens of giant tortoises. No one is really sure how old most of them are unless they were raised in captivity, but some are estimated to be 100-175 years old. It was incredibly moving to see these revered creatures just ambling along the side of the road. One even walked in front of our bus and just sat down. We waited in the road until it decided to move on. On the ranch, the giant tortoises chewed grass along side of the cattle. At the ranch we also saw several kinds of Darwin's finches, the most exciting (to me, at least) being the Woodpecker Finch that uses small sticks to fish insects out of holes in trees. Later we explored some of the volcanic features of the island and walked inside of a huge lava tube. It is interesting to keep in mind that these islands are geologically rather new. The Galapagos Islands are located over a magma hotspot between two tectonic plates. The plates have been moving very slowly for millions of years over the hotspot, forming new islands. The oldest islands are closest to the mainland and are estimated to be between 3 & 4 million years old. Some submerged islands are thought to be older, perhaps as much as 15 million years. The newer islands, further to the west, are only hundreds of thousands of years old and some are still volcanically active. We did not visit the western islands.
|Giant Tortoise Blocks the Road|
|Giant Tortoises and Cattle|
|Woodpecker Finch (Darwin's Finch) with Stick|
The next morning we explored Isla Plaza, just off of Santa Cruz, where we saw Sea Lions, Frigate Birds, Masked Boobies, Swallow-tailed Gulls, Shearwaters, a lost Galapagos Penguin, Brown Noddies, Red Billed Tropicbirds, Pelicans, Cactus Finches, Marine Iguanas, Land Iguanas, Lava Lizards and Sally Lightfoot Crabs. It was a full morning! The wildlife was abundant and very tame and unafraid of people and I was able to get some fantastic photos. Visitors are asked to stay 2 meters from the wildlife, but sometimes it is not possible to keep that distance, or the animals come near you. I used a telephoto lens, too, which made some of my encounters seem closer. Sometimes the telephoto didn't work because the animals really were that close! The landscape was strange and beautiful, with drought tolerant plants like cactus and carpetweed (a kind of succulent portulaca) growing over the volcanic terrain.
|Carpetweed and Cactus|
|Sally Lightfoot Crab|
|Young Sea Lions Chasing a Galapagos Penguin (They don't eat penguins but they like to bother them)|
One very interesting thing my husband and I noticed was that although there were large numbers of animals and plants, the number of species was relatively small. And different variations of those few species appeared on different islands. For example, there were 4 species of Mockingbird, but some only appeared on specific islands. Because there were so few species, I was able to identify many of them with a field guide specific to the islands. The Darwin Finches gave me some difficulty, though, because some of the distinctions were small. I couldn't always tell the difference between a small and medium tree finch or a small and medium ground finch and relied on our guide to point out a cactus finch.
|Tree Finch or Ground Finch; medium or small billed?|
I finally went with Medium Ground Finch, but I'm open to corrections.
That afternoon we went to Santa Fe island and saw a land iguana specific to that island. They are yellow. We also saw Lava Lizards, Galapagos Mockingbirds, Galapagos Doves, Cactus Finches and Sea Lions. Afterwards, we snorkeled in the bay. I wish I had an underwater camera because the colors and number of ocean species were amazing. But we swam with playful Sea Lion pups, saw a Galapagos Green Sea Turtle and several other turtles, a big White Tipped Reef Shark (that gave me a start, but they are relatively harmless), an Eagle Ray and some other rays and hundreds of marvelously colored and shaped fish, including Puffers!
|Santa Fe Land Iguana|
The next day, day 3, we had traveled a long way overnight to San Cristobal where we dropped off some passengers at the airport and picked up a few more. My husband Art and I spent the morning exploring the Galapagos Information center and walked a trail that overlooked the beach where Darwin supposedly first set foot on the islands. We wandered around the small town and picked up a few supplies, like extra sunscreen (it is very sunny on the equator and especially so on the islands in the ocean) and extra photo memory cards (I took about 4000 photos!). That afternoon we snorkeled near Isla Lobos (just off of San Cristobal) in rather cold water. I was wishing we'd sprung for the wet suit rental, but after swimming a while we warmed up. The fish were amazing and it was neat to see colorful coral, urchins and clownfish. The loud clicking of the fish underwater was very strange and interesting. After the swim we dried off and hiked on the island where we saw colonies of Frigatebirds and their chicks and got our first good look at Blue-footed Boobies. They are the most endangered species of booby on the islands (we saw 3 species). Several of them made nests right on the path. Some of the juveniles objected to our presence and wouldn't allow us to pass, causing the group to walk up on the rocks out of the way. It was kind of funny to see our group of big humans back down to a flapping teenage booby. We also saw some very young Sea Lion pups, some of them still nursing. And we saw either a Lava Heron or a Striated Heron--it was hard to tell which.
|Graffiti on San Cristobal Island|
|Frigatebird Colony with Fuzzy Chicks|
|Blue-footed Booby Nest on the Ground. They poop away from the center to keep the nest clean, creating the ring.|
I'll break here to keep this post from being too long. Read part 2 for the rest of the story. You can see a full album of photos from the trip on my website by clicking here.