A Trip to the Galapagos Islands: Living in Harmony with NatureMar 31, 2022 09:00AM ● By Suzie Agrillo
In 1835, Charles Darwin traveled on a ship named the HMS Beagle and discovered a land with breathtaking creatures on the fabled Galapagos Islands. His observations of wildlife on the islands fueled his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Galapagos is a group of magical islands located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.These islands are a popular bucket list destination for good reason. When visiting the Galapagos, expect to explore a world thought only to exist in a science fiction film. It is an unparalleled experience which includes an education about iconic species, as well as profound insights into the evolution of life on Earth.
My partner and I took a weeklong cruise to these enchanted islands in December 2021. Getting to the remote islands from Tucson is challenging. It involves a flight to Miami, then a second flight to Quito, Ecuador. After a night in Quito and a guided tour of the city, we took a small plane to the Baltra Airport on the Galapagos Islands, followed by a short bus ride, then a boat to our ship.
The inner loop cruise includes excursions to nine islands. Each island has unique things to see and do. Ecotourism and its monetary impact are the strongest and most rapidly growing forces to benefit the environment in the Galapagos. However, all travelers are mandated to respect the wildlife and habitats on the islands to avoid any negative environmental consequences.
The cruise ship provides a variety of multiple daily excursions on small pontoon boats that take groups to the islands. The first wildlife to be seen on the beach is a colony of playful sea lions. They spend a considerable amount of their lives onshore, resting after feeding and playing in the ocean. The Galapagos Sea Lion is a smaller species of the California Sea Lion and originated from stray individuals finding their way to the archipelago from the west coast of Mexico.
A first impression on hikes is that the animals are very tame and tolerate an incredibly close approach. The standard explanation given by the naturalists is that the absence of mammal predators over the eons has made shyness and fear unnecessary. Another feature of the Galapagos wildlife is the uniqueness of so many of the species observed. Many of them are endemic, meaning they cannot be found anywhere else on Earth.
While hiking on the islands covered in rocky terrain, one may wonder how anything can live there—when suddenly, a bright orange and fiery red Sally Lightfoot crab scurries across the lava. It’s one of the most widespread crabs at the water’s edge, and they get their name from their habit of quickly scampering across the surface of the water for short distances, usually to escape danger.
Sally Lightfoot Crabs and Marine Iguanas are respectively the brightest and the dullest colored creatures of the Galapagos sunbaked lava shores. They both depend on the sea for survival, making forays into the surf to eat seaweed, and yet they both spend most of their time above the tideline to avoid marine predators and to bask in the sun. Marine Iguanas eliminate excess salt by forcefully blowing concentrated droplets from their nostrils.
Galapagos Land Iguanas are also admirably adapted to the extremely arid conditions of volcanic terrain. These bright, endemic reptiles can tolerate the extremely arid conditions of volcanic terrain. They often rely on cactus for food and water.
Upon entering the water, the abundance of marine life will amaze. Sea Turtles have front legs modified into oar-like flippers which propel them through the water. Although they need to breathe, they can remain submerged for prolonged periods. The Galapagos Penguin occurs further north than any other penguin in the world. Standing only 16 inches tall, it is one of the smallest species of penguins.
Bird watcher or not, one will see a plethora of birds in the Galapagos. The Greater Flamingo is a recent arrival to the islands. The naturalist guides give low expectations of seeing one, but we were able to find a group preening in a tidal pool.
Another bird which represents a dark side to extreme adaptations is the Flightless Cormorants, which have lost their ability to fly. They use their large, powerful feet to swim at high speeds, and strong beaks to catch many kinds of fish. They dry their stunted wings by holding them out to the air after every fishing trip.
Frigate Birds make a unique bird species encounter. A magnificent male frigate tries to attract passing females by displaying his spectacular air-filled throat pouch.
The Blue Footed Booby bird (Piquiero de Patoz Azul) is no doubt the most entertaining and emblematic of all the Galapagos seabirds. Their oversized feet serve not only for diving and capturing fish, but also as a vivid and striking statement in courtship dances.
Darwin’s Finches, drab black, brown and mottled birds, are initially unimpressive. However, the array of bill sizes and shapes of these birds is how Darwin helped formalize the theory of evolution. All the species of these birds evolved from a single colonizing species. Bigger beaks evolved to crush seeds—others with narrow beaks to eat fruit, insects and flower parts.
On the final day of the trip, we spend the day on Santa Cruz Island, where the Charles Darwin Research Center is located. Everyone dons knee-high rubber boots and participates in a Scalesia planting in the Highlands. Lunch is a sumptuous buffet at El Manzanillo Ranch, with entertainment by local folk dancers.
After visiting the Giant Tortoise Breeding Program, we take a short walk to view Giant Tortoises in their natural habitat. Where else can one come face-to-face with a variety of Giant Tortoises? These ancient reptiles can reach 500 pounds in weight and have a lifespan up to 100 years. Giant Tortoises are the most famous reptile on the Galapagos, and they are now protected by local law. These tortoises were hunted and decimated by 18th century sailors seeking fresh meat for long voyages, because these tortoises can go for more than a year without drinking or eating. They are found on different islands and have different shells, illustrating special adaptation.
The tortoises living on islands with sparse vegetation have narrow, arched, “saddle backed” types of shells that permit them to reach foliage on trees with their long necks. The tortoises living on moister islands or at higher altitudes where low vegetation is common and easier to reach, have domed shells that protect the body and neck from danger.
It’s all too easy to travel in search of new experiences, only to end up in a high ecological impact tourist trap, without much interaction with either the place itself or the people who live there. An ideal trip to the Galapagos includes contact with the locals, and an opportunity to experience wildlife that exists nowhere else on our planet.
Prioritizing the planet is a mindset we can apply to everything we do, including a trip to get away from it all. An eco-travel trip to the Galapagos to experience natural wonders is a statement that will benefit the environment and create indelible memories of an incredible adventure. As Charles Darwin said, “The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.”
Suzie Agrillo is a freelance writer in Tucson and is a frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings Magazine. She focuses on writing about the arts, inspirational people and the human connection. Connect at [email protected].
Photos © Suzie Agrillo and
© Matt Handverger: The Blue Footed Boobies, The Giant Tortoise, The Yellow Warbler, The Red Vermillion, The Flamingos