Ecuador: The Galápagos Islands – A truly amazing place

An introduction to the Galapagos Islands

Any search of bucket list destinations will include The Galápagos Islands, famed for the amazing and diverse wildlife and the variety of different landscapes.

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.

Landscapes

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 Cristóbal).  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 Birds of 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 Birds of 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 Life of 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)

Reptiles of 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!

#buckletlist; #Galapagos; #travel; #nature; #landscape #adventure; #intrepidtravel

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