The Galapagos Islands are situated in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 km from the Ecuadorian coast. This archipelago and its immense marine reserve is known as the unique ‘living museum and showcase of evolution’. The archipelago is composed of 127 islands, islets and rocks, of which 19 are large and only 4 are inhabited. 97% of the land mass is a National Park. Human settlements are restricted to the remaining 3% in specifically zoned rural and urban areas on four islands (a fifth island only has an airport, tourism dock, fuel containment, and military facilities). Access to the uninhabited islands are strictly controlled with carefully planned tourist itineraries limiting visitation. On some of the islands our group was split up so we weren’t all ashore at the same time.
Its geographical location at the confluence of three ocean currents makes it one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world. Ongoing seismic and volcanic activity reflects the processes that formed the islands. These processes, together with the extreme isolation of the islands, led to the development of unusual plant and animal life – such as marine iguanas, flightless cormorants, giant tortoises, huge cacti, endemic trees and the many different subspecies of mockingbirds and finches – all of which inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection following his visit in 1835.
Our trip was organized jointly by National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. I can’t say whether they are the best group to use for visiting the Galapagos but I can say this was the best trip I’ve even been on. The group was small and cozy with 84 guests on the ship – 80 Americans and 4 Canadians.
Day 1/2 – San Cristobal Island
It takes 3 flights and 1 1/2 days to reach the Galapagos from Toronto. When you step off that plane you immediately get a blast of fresh air. Pollution isn’t a thing on the archipelago. We landed on San Cristobal with its own one strip airport. We were bussed to the waterfront and loaded onto zodiacs. These would be our primary transportation for the next week. Humans and nature live side-by-side on the islands without fear of each other. That was immediately evident as there were numerous sea lions on the rocky shore and dock. I spotted one asleep under a bench on the dock as I boarded a zodiac.
Napping sea lions would be a common sight on most islands. I expected hot weather since the Galapagos is on the equator but the currents from the south kept the temperatures moderate. Most days in was low to mid 70s. The rest of the day was for unpacking and orientation. The fun stuff would start the next day.
Day 3 – Espanola Island
Espanola is the oldest island at around 3.5 million years, and the southernmost in the group. Due to its remote location, Española has a large number of endemic species. It has its own species of lava lizard and mockingbird. Espanola’s marine iguanas have a distinctive red coloration between the breeding season. Espanola is the only place where the waved albatross nests. We were able to see all of these species when we landed on the island.
I tried a little snorkelling. First from the beach and then off a tiny island a hundred metres from the shore. Although a good number of people brought cameras, many just had their phones.
There was photography experts on the expedition to provide advice. I had a waterproof case for my phone, so I could take it into the water. That turned out to be a big fail. The phone worked fine at first but the touchscreen is heat sensitive, and when my fingers got cold, the screen stopped responding. I did get a faint shot of a ray close to the bottom.
In the afternoon, we landed on another part of the island for a hike where the albatross nests were located. There is a professional naturalist that accompanied us on every excursion. Mary Anne had broken a big toe a month before, so we decided the terrain on this hike would be too rocky for her. So, we opted for a shorter hike. We saw plenty of the island’s unique lava lizards and mockingbirds. In a cove was a large group of sea lions. In the water was a large male barking orders at the group the entire time we were there. I presume he was the alpha male and he was quite loud. Females were on the shore feeding babies that were as young as two weeks. At this point we could see what a special place this was.
Day 4 – Floreana Island
Flamingos and green sea turtles nest (December to May) are featured on this island. On each island, the landings were quite different with some involving dry landings while others were wet. Floreana Island required a wet landing on a beach, and we brought along wet sandals that would also be suitable for hiking.
The hiking trails have been marked by Park Service employees but many were rocky with steep grades. Going off the trails are illegal as we are required to minimize the impact on the ecosystem. The area had been experiencing a drought, and most trees and shrubs had no leaves other than cacti and plants close to the shore that can survive on salt water.
We came across several sea turtles in the shallow sea water, but the ponds had dried up and the flamingos had relocated. Fortunately, we ran into a couple of flamingos two days later.
At Post Office Bay, where 19th-century whalers kept a wooden barrel that served as a post office, mail could be picked up and delivered to its destinations. Surprisingly the mailbox and its honor system are still in use today. Nowadays the postcards and letters are generally left and delivered by hopeful tourists, but many still seem to make it to their destination.
Day 5 – Santa Cruz Island
We landed in Puerto Aryoa on the island of Santa Cruz to board buses that took us to the highlands. Santa Cruz hosts the largest human population in the archipelago. Our first stop was the Charles Darwin Research Station and the headquarters of the Galápagos National Park Service. The GNPS and CDRS operate a tortoise breeding centre here, where young, and mostly saddleback tortoises are hatched, reared, and prepared to be reintroduced to their natural habitat.
It struck me that the tortoise heads reminded me of Stephen Spielberg’s E.T.
We stopped in a town for some snacks and I noticed a fishmonger that was surrounded by scavenger birds and sea lions. Two sea lions were directly under the table with their mouths open, waiting for something to fall. Reminded me of a dog waiting under a child’s highchair knowing something was eventually coming his way.
The Highlands of Santa Cruz have plush flora and a large tortoise population. Our bus driver had to gingerly drive around huge dome tortoises that took up parts of the roadway.
Some of the tortoises were 100 years old. There animals are filthy and their droppings were everywhere. We were given rubber boots to wear otherwise I would have burned my sneakers.
Day 6 – Santa Cruz Island
We traveled to the north shore of the island and hiked in the morning.
Cerro Dragon is known for its flamingo lagoon, and along the trail we did find land iguanas foraging.
It was dry and hot with cacti constituting much of the vegetation. The island has feral pigs and goats. We also spotted a small group of goats in the brush. The distinctive colouring of the flamingos comes from their shrimp diet.
In the afternoon we went kayaking in Black Turtle Cove which is surrounded by mangroves and loaded with sea turtles, rays and small sharks. Now, Mary Anne has never been in a kayak. She agreed to let me sit in the stern but she treated the front seat like the passenger seat of my car. She couldn’t resist giving me direction and telling me how to steer the kayak. Some things never change!
Day 7 – Bartolome Island/Santiago Island
We had an extremely early start to the day. Well I did, Mary Anne decided to sleep instead. We left the ship at 6:15 and landed in a small bay, opposite Pinnacle Rock. Pinnacle Rock is a volcanic cone, formed when magma was expelled from an underwater volcano; the sea cooled the hot lava, which then exploded, only to come together and form this huge rock made up of many thin layers of basalt.
We climbed a 600-metre trail to the 114-metre summit. The climb includes a wooden staircase constructed by the Park Service to protect the island from erosion.
The summit provides spectacular views of Pinnacle Rock, the immense black lava flows at Sullivan Bay and the rest of Santiago Island, and Daphne Major and Minor. Along the way, various volcanic formations including spatter and tuff cones and lava flows were visible.
It was worth the early start and the sore knees. The fresh breeze and unpolluted air blowing in your face was invigorating. As we boarded the zodiacs to return to the ship, several Galapagos penguins were swimming in the bay, likely searching for food.
Later in the morning, I was relaxing in my cabin when the Expedition Leader announced on the public address system that there was a school of dolphins spotted on our starboard. I looked out my window and saw several dozen dolphins playing in the water. She then announced that anyone who wanted to catch a closer look should head to the back of the ship because they were sending out the zodiacs. I grabbed my life vest and phone and ran down to the loading docks. It turned out to be a spontaneous excursion and thrilling. The playful dolphins chased our zodiac, jumping out of the water to do somersaults.
It was an incredible show and so glad I had passed up snorkelling in the bay. Later in the day we returned to the zodiacs to cruise along the shore of Sombrero Chino which is a small island off of Santiago Island in search of penguins. We eventually came across a small group relaxing on the rocks. These species were quite different than those we saw in Antarctica and the Falkland Islands in 2020. It’s surprising to discover penguins so close to the equator but they were there.
Day 8 – Genovesa Island
This island is appropriately nicknamed “the bird island” which is clearly justified. There were limits on the number of people who could come ashore so we were split into two groups First we went to Darwin Bay, home to frigatebirds and swallow-tailed gulls.
Afterwards we flipped locations and went to Prince Philip’s Steps. That was the more treacherous landing of the entire week. Those steps were a steep rock formation that took you to a plateau that was 30 metres above the shoreline.
Red-footed boobies, lava gulls, owls, and red-footed boobies.
There many nesting and infant birds lying out in the sun. These birds have no predators on the island and are not at all frightened by humans.
Day 9/10 – Baltra Island
With their typical efficiency, the crew had us fed and off the ship by 8:00, bussing us to the airport on Baltra Island. That was the start of two days of travel which ended close to midnight the following day. I was amazed by what I saw but this is not everyone’s cup of tea. A look forward to our next adventure.