Isla Espanola is a dramatic island with cliffs rising in the south and its position in the south-east of the archipelago. It is one of the oldest, dating to approximately four million years and due to the flatness of the island, it is the driest of these islands, with only a few inches of rain per year.
A group of young sea lions playing in the shallows of the harbour were guarded by a large (and loud) male in the deeper water.
Due to its location and age, the animals on Isla Espanola have different characteristics to those on other islands. Isla Espanola’s marine iguanas are coloured red and green and love to gather in larger groups in order to share body heat and the morning sunlight.
Despite being late in the season there were a few groups of waved albatross which were nesting on the cliff tops. We spotted a protective mum guarding her infant and an individual shaking their feathers out.
With new bird identification skills, we spotted Nazca boobies (mother and chick), a Galapagos hawk (on the ground and in-flight), a brown ground finch and Hood mockingbird.
Bahia Gardner is the perfect picture postcard! It has a white sand beach with beautiful crystal clear waters, sea lions basking in the sand. The sand was small and wonderful underfoot, free of shells, seaweed and plastic. It quickly changes with large volcanic rocks halfway along the beach represented the limits of access.
The strict rules of the National Park were brought to life when a few members of our group unknowingly wandered beyond the marked area. Our guide had to radio back to the boat’s zodiac which was then dispatched to guide them back to the permissible area. This incident would then end up in the weekly report to the National Park from our guide and another guide who were also on the beach with us.
While snorkelling off Isla Espanola we were close to a group of sea lions, a large male sea lion sent a clear message that we were too close and took a cheeky nip on the arm of group member. Watching a sea lion play underwater is really special, they are able to dive almost to the sea-floor, spin and quickly rise in a truly elegant display of underwater gymnastics!
There were also sea turtles feeding on the seaweed near the bottom of the sea. We saw different types of fish in a few hundred meters depending on how close we were to the cliffs, the caves or the depth of the seafloor.
Sailing on in the evening, we were followed by a group of frigate birds, who were more than happy when the boat released some food scraps into the ocean.
Puerto Baquerzo Moreno is the provincial capital of the Galapagos. It is like a country town with a few bars, cafes, tourist shops (and the promise of wifi) by the ferry terminal was the most civilisation that I had seen in a week! Puerto Baquerzo Moreno is also a surfing mecca.
Sea lions at Puerto Baquerzo Moreno
Puerto Baquerzo Moreno has many sea lions which congregate around the beach just by the ferry terminal. Despite fences which were designed to keep them out, they wander freely on the boardwalk.
At Puerto Baquerzo Moreno (called Interpretation Center of San Cristobal) on Tijeretas Hill and Punta Carola Point, we learnt about the human history of the Galapagos. Ecuador claimed the islands in 1832, the hypothesised existence of resources including guano (a highly prized fertiliser) and its strategic position for international trade saw the superpowers of the era France, England and the US interested in claiming for themselves around 1860.
There were successive waves of immigrants were trying to exploit its resources came from Ecuador, Norway, Germany and Japan largely failed due to the lack of freshwater and the difficulties faced in setting up a colony so far from the nearest other civilisation.
During World War 2, after the Pearl Harbour attack, airbases were built from which the US could defend the Panama Canal and this explains why there are 3 airports for an Ecuadorian population of 25,000 and visitors of 250,000.
Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre (Centro de Crianza de Tortuga Terrestres) is a key breeding centre where giant tortoises wander around freely. We learnt that in a natural setting, the female giant tortoise will use her back legs to create a hole which will hold between 2 and 16 eggs. After a period of 4 – 8 months, the baby giant tortoises will hatch and dig themselves out to ground level over the course of a month. The hatchlings weigh around 80 grams and are around 6 cm in length, over their lifetime they will grow up to 225 kg, a thousand increase on their birth weight! Warmer incubation temperatures result in a greater proportion of females.
The Grand Queen Beatriz received an unexpected visitor, a sea lion who decided that the back of the boat would make a comfortable resting spot.
Isla San Cristóbal (Chatham) is the easternmost island in the Galápagos archipelago as well as one of the oldest geologically (around 4 million years old).
At the north-eastern point of Isla San Cristobal is Punta Pitt which rises up a couple of hundred metres above the sea. A short hike up the hill over rocky terrain with Nazca and red-footed boobies and frigate birds flying overhead was like a symphony of birds. The crater that visitors walk up was formed by volcanic ash and large rocks called “volcanic bombs”.
The view from the top of the Punta Pitt was spectacular, overlooking crystal waters, sandy beach and the sweeping drop was another side of the island. In the other direction, there was a dramatic view of the caldera with the sloping cliffs and rocks.
There were a number of blue-footed booby nests which were guarded by a protective parent in front of their nest. Red-footed booby nests in trees, often high in the cliffs and away from predators, hiding their spectacular red feet in the shrubs.
While snorkelling off Los Lobos we encountered a large territorial male sea lion guarding his harem, including a group of babies who were playing in the shallows… A memorable moment was witnessing the shock experienced by a fellow group member when the large male sea lion passed between him and the fish he was videoing.
While walking or more accurately the balancing on lava stones on Los Lobos, there were large groups of sea lions relaxing on the beach and rocks. Among them were very curious juveniles who came up to us, close enough to have a sniff of someone’s red trainer.
Isla Santa Fe is a small island where sea lions frolic in the shallows and young pups call out to each other. As usual, their antics were the focus of our attention and with a combination of phones, small and SLR cameras trained on their every move. One sea lion managed to take a sniff of a bag that was lying on the beach.
Only a short walk from the beach brings you into opuntia cacti country, where yellow-tinged land iguanas co-exist with sea lions and lava lizards. While cacti are normally associated with the desert, there it was in abundance in an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The land iguanas with their yellow faces and barnacled forehead soak up the sun’s rays and keep their bodies close to the ground to absorb as much heat as possible. Their red conical spines and red-brown back mean they blend well into the landscape.
In the distance, there were a few blue-footed boobies who were clinging to the rocks and showing off their bright blue feet – one of the iconic animals of the Galapagos.
The power of ocean currents was demonstrated when as a result of the recent storms and human habitat, we found evidence of plastic on a normally pristine beach. So, we did our small bit by picking up bits of plastic (easily discernible among the twigs and shells of the beach). The refuse was then transferred back to our boat where each week the National Park officials come to weigh and collect the ships’ rubbish after it is sorted. The rubbish from all the boats is then transported back to the Guayaquil into landfill.
Although Isla Plaza Sur is small at only 0.13 square kilometres in area, there was a strong concentration of opuntia cacti. Whilst exploring the island, we saw the sea lions of the ‘Gentleman’s Club’ who are the non-dominant males with each having their own patch on the cliff top with a stunning view of the sea below. The walk up probably took us about 20 minutes on foot, I wonder how long the sea lion would have taken to climb up?
Other wildlife in evidence included red-billed tropicbirds, red-footed and Nazca boobies and sea lions all nursing their young.
Directly off the pier, we spotted sea lions napping on benches intended of people and black-tipped reef sharks swimming off the jetty. Only in the Galapagos!
Galapagos Fish Market
The fish market at Puerto Ayora was unlike anything I have ever seen, the persistent sea lion’s nose right next to the where the fishmonger was cutting up the fish, poised for any scraps. The lobsters and fish on sale are caught by on hand-lines to prevent over-fishing,
Charles Darwin Research Station
The Charles Darwin research station is focused on giant tortoises, raising juvenile and adults before they are returned to the wild.
Lonesome George was a male Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdonii) and the last known individual of the species. In his last years, he was known as the rarest creature in the world. Despite attempts to continue the species with near relatives from Isla Isabela, they were not successful. After his death in 2012, his body was preserved by taxidermists from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Today, he can be found in a climate-controlled pavilion, with airlocks and a 5 minute visitation period.
Rancho El Manzanillo
Rancho El Manzanillo, in the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz, borders the Galapagos National Park. The ranch was established after the farmer made more money from tourists than farming! The well-run operation provided boots for all visitors to allow us to wander through the muddy lakes and the long grass where the giant tortoises forage.
The giant tortoises are relatively shy and exhale and retreat into their shell if you get too close. The abundance of food gives them more energy and they appeared to be more active than those at the Darwin Station.
That evening we received a tsunami warning, as a result of the earthquake in Tonga (11,966.87 kilometres or 7,435.876miles away). For our safety, we were requested to leave the harbour at 4.30 am. luckily, there was only a slightly bigger swell.
Post Office Bay dates back to the 18th Century where British and American whalers would pick up post for those close to their destination. The majority of the post was for the USA, reflecting the visitor demographics of the Galapagos,
We identified 6 postcards that could be hand-delivered in Australia (Sydney, Melbourne), the UK and Canada. The instruction given to us by Alexis (our guide) was that it had to be hand-delivered and accompanied by wine and cheese.
Isla Floreana has two failed tuna canning factories, a Norwegian and Japanese, all that remains today are a few bits of rusted metal. As the only freshwater on the other side of the island, it is unsurprising that both ventures failed.
Snorkelling off Post Office Bay, we saw sea turtles, schools of yellow-tailed surgeon fish, spotted eagle ray and a white-tipped reef shark.
Walking across Isla Floreana, we spotted several dozen adult flamingos scattered across the lake and nursery group of baby flamingos, protected by a few adults. Young flamingos are the same size as the adults, with their light grey feathers denoting their youth.
Punta Cormorant is a fine sand beach where we spotted around 15 sea turtles and stingrays off the beach. The female sea turtles were waiting in the water to come onshore to lay their eggs. There was evidence of sea turtle nests above the high-tide mark.
Snorkelling close to Devil’s Crown, we saw white-tipped reef sharks, sea turtles and a sea horse camouflaged by the seaweed on the seafloor.
Sailing to Puerta Ayora (Isla Santa Cruz ) our boat was chased by a pod of dolphins and the cloud cover resulted in a most spectacular sunset.
This was definitely a Christmas Day to remember, one where presents came in the form of amazing wildlife where Santa’s reindeer were replaced by sea lions and marine iguanas.
After landing at Isolote Tintoreras (near Isla Isabela); we were greeted by a marine iguana resting on the rock catching the first rays of the sun just after 6.30 am.
There were many marine iguanas clinging to the rocks and they varied in size from about 10 cm to over a metre including the length of their tail.
The National Park rules require a 2-metre distance from the wildlife. This can be challenging to follow when animals cross the path directly in front of you.
Sealions take every advantage they can, including using the shade created by the mangroves to have a rest.
Isla Isabela – Puerto Villamil
Low tide and the churning sands meant that the snorkelling off Puerto Villamil was disappointing. The large and small volcanic rocks and the waves that kept pushing us back onto shore.
I was lucky enough to see a pelican catch fish and diving blue-footed boobies.
The sea lions are very territorial and take over the benches by the beach. Some of them “hiss” at humans who get too close while others are quite happy to share their seat with one.
Arnoldo Tupiza Giant Tortoise is a breeding centre where they keep the giant tortoises by sub-species according to the island they come from and aim to replicate the conditions on their home island by varying the vegetation and amount of shade. To replicate the food availability in the wild, the tortoises are only fed every 4 – 5 days, this can lead to a feeding frenzy.
The slow lumbering gait of the giant tortoises across the courtyards was quite a sight, with their every move captured by the human paparazzi (including me).
By the boardwalk along Pozo Vilamail, we spotted the pink flamingos feeding in the shallows of the lagoon. Although flamingos are solitary animals, we spotted 4 of the 314 of the total population in the Galapagos.
We celebrated Christmas Eve, with a large turkey complete with an Ecuadorian twist with tree tomatoes.
Isla Baltra, is a small island off the northeast coast of Isla Santa Cruz. It houses a modern airport (Seymour), built with sustainability in mind, without the normal comforts of air-conditioning, a moving passenger baggage belt. Electricity is generated by wind turbines which are clearly visible in front of the airport.
Off the coast of Isla Baltra the islands of Isla Daphne Mayor and Isla Daphne Minor. Isla Daphne Major has a tuff-crater and its rim rises 120m above sea level.
Travelling around Isla Baltra on the boat, we were followed by a group of frigate birds and a blue-footed booby who seemed to enjoy the drafts created by the boat. They weaved in and out of the drafts in an elegant dance as they soared high above our boat.
The snorkelling at Punta Carrion (Itabaca channel) between Baltra and Santa Cruz is quite amazing. The volcanic rocks mean there are many crevices for the fish to play hide and seek. We managed to see a white-tipped reef shark, lots of surgeon-fish, wrasses, parrot-fish, pelican and sally lightfoot crabs.
The container ship that the sea lion is resting on is the lifeblood of the Galapagos. The main supply line of goods between the mainland, bringing out most of the food and other goods used by the permanent population (circa 35,000) and the visitors (circa 250,000 annually).
While the physical journey started on the 19 December 2018, the destination had been a dream for 5 years since I visited Darwin’s House (Down House) in Kent, England. The idea that a group of islands and the animals living on these islands could change the course of science put it firmly on my bucket list of travel destinations. The photos and stories of my brother and sister-in-law and my travelling buddy shared pushed it up the list into number one.
I travelled to Sydney international airport just before Christmas along with what felt like half of Sydney was a good way to put one in the holiday mood. After a civilised lunch with a celebratory glass of bubbly for my friend’s birthday, we boarded the flight for what would be the longest day ever…. The 12.5-hour flight (excluding what now seems to be the obligatory delay at Sydney airport) left at 12:50 Sydney time and got us to Santiago airport at 11:10 am on the same day… the wonders of a crossing the international deadline.
The Chilean surprise that greets all Australian is a reciprocal entry fee of 117 USD for the privilege of entering the country. While steep for our overnight stay, it lasts for 90 days. With a 5.30 am flight the next day, we managed to delay the jet lag by having lunch/dinner at 6 pm, ready for a 2.30 am wake up call.
We found Santiago airport at 3.30 a.m., a sea of humanity queuing up to go somewhere with lots of luggage, wrapped large Christmas presents, new TVs. Confusion about lines, automated vs. /manual check-ins and poor signage meant that we were unexpectedly ushered to a separate queue. Clearing customs was the lengthy process with the customs officials while bag screening was a smooth and seamless process.
After a 4 hour flight and a 2 hour time change, we landed in Lima for a 4.5-hour stopover. Without access to an airline lounge, we lasted till about 10 am until we sat down for an early lunch. Then after another 2 hour and 20-minute flight we finally landed in Quito, Ecuador. We spent a day and a half recovering and exploring Quito (see the separate Quito CIty post)
The final Ecuadorian flight, started with a 3.30 am a pick-up for a 5.30 am flight, after a minor quarantine incident where my passionfruit was confiscated while the rest of the group’s apples were passed through without a problem. We were on the final leg of the journey to the Galapagos – destination Isla Baltra.
Upon arrival at Baltra airport while our luggage was subject to a canine inspection we were required to pay 100 USD for to the National Park and 20 USD for a transfer fee. A much-needed coffee, a typical Ecuadorian snack of Huminta and the intermittent phone/wi-fi signal was how we spent the next 2.5 hours. The highlight of the wait was the warning signs not to feed the Darwin finches and spying on the food choices of the airport staff.
Finally, our guide Alexis met us for the bus transfer to the boat Jetty, We spotted sally lightfoot crabs, a sea lion and a pelican from the jetty despite the boat shelter being in the middle of construction.
Finally, our panga (zodiac) came to collect us for the short ride to the boat. Once onboard, we were lucky enough to have our fourth and final “breakfast” of the day….
It was then quickly followed by lunch 1.5 hours later….. And finally, the holiday can begin!
Any search of bucket list destinations will include The Galápagos
Islands, famed for the amazing and diverse wildlife and the variety of
The first recorded visit to the islands was in 1535 by Fray Tomás de Berlanga. In the 1830s Charles Darwin visited the islands and observed adaptations made by different species. Using his observations and collections, Darwin developed his theory of evolution by means of natural selection which was published as On the Origin of Species in 1859.
Today, the Galápagos Islands are part of the Republic of
Ecuador and can be found 906 km (563 miles) west of continental Ecuador. The islands
and their surrounding waters form the Galápagos National Park and Marine
Reserve. The permanent population of the islands is around 25,000 and they
receive around 250,000 visitors annually.
The group consists of 18 main islands, 3 smaller islands,
and 107 rocks and islets; covering 7,880 square kilometres (3,040 square miles).
The archipelago is located on the Nazca Plate (tectonic plate), which is moving
east/southeast, diving under the South American Plate. Volcanic activity is still
evident today, with Sierra Negra (on Isla
Isabela) erupting in June 2018.
The islands straddle the equator, the Humboldt Current brings cold water, causing frequent drizzles during most of the year. During garúa (June to November), the temperature by the sea is 22 °C, a steady and cold wind blows from south and southeast, frequent drizzles (garúas) last most of the day, and dense fog conceals the islands. During the warm season (December to May), the average sea and air temperature rise to 25 °C, there is no wind at all, there are sporadic, though strong, rains and the sun shines.
Visiting the Galapagos Islands
Most visitors to the Galápagos arrive by plane from Quito or
Guayaquil into Seymour Airport (Isla Baltra), which was renovated to be environmentally
friendly with on-site electricity generation, natural air-conditioning or San
Cristóbal Airport (Isla San Cristobal). Each visitor pays a $100 USD park entry
fee and a $20 USD transfer fee upon entry (2018 prices).
Around half of the visitors cruise the islands using ships designed for between 16 and 110 passengers which follow strictly defined routes defined by the National Parks. While the other half use land-based hotels in the inhabited islands of San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana and Isabela and use day boats to visit the uninhabited islands.
Access to the park is tightly controlled to the 54 land sites and 62 scuba-diving or snorkelling sites around the whole archipelago. Small groups (usually around 16) are allowed to visit in 2- to 4-hour shifts only, to limit the impact on the area. All groups are accompanied by licensed guides.
As a result of the volcanic activity, islands in the archipelago
vary in age from 0.05 million years (Isla Fernandina to 3.2 million years (San
This is evident today in the variety of
landscapes from the white sand beaches of Bahia Gardner (Isla Española)
to the lava fields of Isla Santiago and the green wetlands of Isla Santa Cruz.
For detailed accounts of my visit to some of the key islands refer to https://reflections-travel-etc.com/category/travel-diary/galapagos-diary/
Mammals of the Galapagos Islands
There are six mammal species (found on land) that are considered native to the islands as well as aquatic mammals that swim in and out of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Including:
Galapagos Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus, subspecies: wollebacki). They are incredibly playful and inquisitive behaviour especially from the young pups made them easily our favourite animals. We were also lucky enough to be treated to incredibly elegant underwater gymnastics. They are very territorial – especially the males – and I saw one nip the fins of one of our snorkelling party.
We spotted a group of Bottle-nosed Dolphins which followed the boat on a number of our sails between islands. Other marine mammals including the Common White-bellied Dolphin, Humpback whale, Sperm Whale, Killer Whale, False Killer Whales, Pilot Whale were not spotted on my trip.
Other mammals include Galapagos Fur Seals (Arctocephalus galapagoensis) which are found on more rugged, rockier, and shadier shores than sea lions. There are also Rice Rats and Bats.
Land Birdsof the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos land birds vary in height with Darwin finches which are between 10 – 20 cm and were often hard to spot amongst tree branches. While the larger birds like the Galapagos hawk (45 – 58 cm) and the waved albatross (80 – 90 cm in height) tended to command their immediate environment.
The Galapagos flamingo numbers around 420 and we spotted them in saltwater lagoons and saw them feeding (often standing on one leg). filter feed primarily on brine shrimp. Young flamingos hatch with grey plumage which turns to pink due to the aqueous bacteria and beta carotene obtained from their diet.
Other land birds not spotted include mockingbirds, Galapagos Dove, Galapagos Rail and Galapagos Martin, Galapagos Short-eared Owl, Vermilion Flycatcher, Dark-billed Cuckoo, Common Gallinule, Paint-billed Crake.
Sea Birdsof the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands famous for it’s for tropical seabirds, including Blue-footed, Red-footed, and Nazca Boobies. The three booby populations are the most common and most frequently seen of the seabirds. Each species feeds by spectacular plunge-diving into the sea and then catching fish on their way back to the water surface. All three species tend to live in groups, widely distributed small colonies of Blue-footed Boobies to the larger, less frequent colonies of the Nazca Boobies, to the few huge colonies of Red-footed Boobies.
The Galapagos Penguins are one of the smaller penguins of the world and the only penguins that live at or just above the equator and the population number around 2,000. Waved Albatross breed only on Isla Española Island in the Galapagos and number around 35,000. Swallow-tailed Gulls nest on steep slopes or broken cliffs, on ledges, and also just above the wave line on gravelly beaches and under vegetation and number around 10,000 – 15,000 pairs.
The Magnificent Frigatebird and the Great Frigatebird are both found in the Galapagos. They are amazing flyers and feed by snatching up flying and other fish, squid, and scraps from the surface of the ocean – and, most notably, by stealing from other seabirds in flight.
We spotted the Yellow-crowned Night Heron considered the crab-eating specialist taking shelter under the many volcanic rocks which dot the islands. Other species include Great Blue Herons, Lava Herons, Black-crowned Herons and Striated Herons, Oystercatchers, White-cheeked pintails, Gallinules, and Common Egrets.
Other sea birds not spotted include Flightless Cormorants, Red-billed Tropicbirds, Lava Gulls and the Galapagos Petrels.
Marine Lifeof the Galapagos Islands
As the Galapagos islands are the meeting point of the nutrient-rich cool waters from the south, warm currents from the north, and a deep cold current from the west this creates diverse flora and fauna for its marine life.
There have been more than 400 fish species recorded including yellow-tailed surgeonfish, blue parrotfish as well as blue-eyed damselfish and white-banded angelfish etc. One of the most common sights is the sally-lightfoot crab, white-tipped and black-tipped reef sharks and manta rays. While whales and hammerhead sharks are often found further offshore (luckily away from the snorkelling sites we visited)
Reptilesof the Galapagos Islands
The giant tortoises of Galapagos are some of the most famous fauna of the Islands. The Galapagos Islands were named for their giant tortoises; the old Spanish word galapago meant saddle, a term early explorers used for the tortoises due to the shape of their shells. The shape of their shell varies depending on the climatic conditions and food sources of the islands they live on with domed tortoises larger due to easy access to food in the humid highlands.
The marine iguanas are the only sea-going lizard in the world, they live on land but feed on seaweed. Their colour depends on the island they inhabit and range from red and black to black and green and red and grey. The land iguanas are large, up to a metre long and can be found in the drier areas of the islands, the most common species is yellowish in colour (Conolophus subcristatus).
The Galapagos lava lizards have adapted to their surrounding with their colouring varying by both the island they live on and their gender. The ones living on islands with dark lava are darker than those living on light sandy islands.
Fish Market in Isla Santa Cruz
The fish markets in Isla Santa Cruz is unique. Fish and other seafood are caught on hand lines by local fisherman in areas that are strictly controlled by the National Park authorities. Once the catch is landed, there is a race for the best parts of the catch between the different types of locals – humans, pelicans and sea lions!