One of the many sites that confounded us was the Lava Cactus. These large cactus seemed to grow right out of the lava. In fact, it did grow right out of the lava. Lava on the bottom and this large cactus growing out it... no dirt, no soil... just ....we enuff said.
Fondest memory: And, as always.... there was another damn Iguana photo bomber in this shot also.
Favorite thing: The little town of Puerto Ayora is one of the most accessible towns in the archipelago. There is a nice pier allowing for easy access for both zodiacs and water taxis. In less than 50 yards you are on the main street of the town fronting the harbor. Many shops line the main street, where you can pick up your share of souvineers, t shirts, or sit down and enjoy a cold beer. A new road was being constructed on part of the street. There are also many outfitters and travel shops where you can line trips to the various islands.
Favorite thing: Land iguanas populate many of the islands. They also seem to exist in slow motion. They seem to eat anything green without thorns. This little bugger was as close to climbing a bush as he rose up as far as possible to grab some leaves.
The Galapagos Hawk is the top of the food chain as far as the land based inhabitants are concerned. They take small iguana, tortoises up to three years old, as well as locusts and centipedes. They hunt in groups, and the dominant hawk eats first.
Fondest memory: This hawk was in a tree on Santiago Island.
Favorite thing: The second largest human settlement in the Galapagos, the small town sits on Southern end of the Island and actually has some modicum of an airport. Small hostals, beer joints, interspersed with touring agencies. There is a sheltered bay for small boats and ships with a fleet of water taxis at your disposal. Probably the most interesting site were the sea lions, especially the pups, that played in the protected tidepools that line the waterfront. Of comical interest is the floating, but abandoned boat in the harbor which has been commandered by a group of sea lions.
Favorite thing: The white, sandy beach of Las Bachas is a preferred nesting site for the Green Sea Turtle. At night the females haul themselves out of the surf, dig a hole, deposit twenty or so eggs, cover the eggs and then march back to the sea to the waiting male sea turtles. The tracks look like they were made by tractors.
Favorite thing: The view from the platform walk up to the volcano cone on Bartolome Island is one of the prettiest views in the Galapagos. Back to back curved beaches, differentiated by green vegetation on the windward side are a sight to behold. It is interesting that as you walk up to the top of the volcano you don't notice the partially submerged caldera as it is behind you. Quite a pleasant surprise to turn around and see another wonderful sight. During our visit a sea lion was lounging about the caldera as if it were his personal spa.
Favorite thing: On the Western side of Isla Isabella is the Darwin Crater just inland from Tagus Cove. This is a salt water lake that is filled by sea water that seeps through the rock from the nearby Tagus Cove. Darwin went down to the lake assuming there would be fresh water but found it to be more salty than the ocean. It is a little tricky to exit the Zodiac at Tagus Bay as there is not a formal landing area... you just bump the boat up to the rocks and step (hopefully) and solid footing. The volcanic hills are surrounded by ghost trees.
Favorite thing: These little twerps are certainly entertaining, very bold and are amenable to photo ops. They can be found individually, or in groups. We saw one group of over thirty. Several swam over to our Zodiac for a closer look at us. We found two others standing on a couple of rocks next to one another, seemingly to be talking away with one another. This was taken at Elizabeth Bay on Isabela Island
One of the smallest but prettiest of Galápagos Islands birds is the Yellow Warbler. It is not endemic, being found from Alaska to Peru, but as with all species, you are likely to get closer to one here than elsewhere. And like the finches, it is continually on the move and thus very hard to photograph – I have more pictures of blurred Yellow Warblers than of any other species!
This is a small songbird (12-13 cm in height), with a thin pointed beak. It is mostly yellow in colour and the male has reddish streaks on his chest and a reddish-brown crown. The female lacks the crown patch, having a more olive-coloured head. The only half-decent photo I managed to get was of this male on South Plaza, but we also saw them on the beach at Bartolomé, on the lava rocks of Santiago (where they looked very bright and cheerful against the black), and at Gardner Bay on
Española, among others.
Next tip: ”Short-eared Owl”
The Galápagos Islands are located 600 miles from the Ecuadorian coast in the Pacific Ocean. There are 14 large islands and 120 smaller islets and rocks. Their isolation from any other place has resulted in the evolution of many unique species of flora and fauna, endemic to the archipelago or even to just one island within it.
The islands have been formed through volcanic activity, due to a “hot spot” just the west of the group (under Fernandina). Eruptions here cause an island to form from the lava and rock emitted from beneath the sea bed. But rather than create one ever-growing island, made larger by each new eruption, the slow south-eastward movement of the tectonic plate on which they sit means that by the time of a subsequent eruption the island created by the previous one is some miles to the east, and instead a new one forms. Thus each island is on a slow journey south and east (moving at a rate of seven cm/year); those furthest on that journey, such as San Cristobal and Espanola, are the oldest, and those in the west, such as Fernandina and Isabela, much younger (in geological terms).
A keen geologist will be fascinated by the details, but for the rest of us the attraction lies in the vivid scenery that results from all this activity, and for me, above all the colours. A jumble of black lava boulders, the backdrop to a white coral beach. Or a black lava beach washed by a turquoise sea. Or again, on Rabida, dark red cliffs with dusty green Opuntia clinging to them.
Fondest memory: And this dramatic scenery is the set for a multitude of living dramas, as the various animal species play out their lives under the gaze of mesmerised visitors. For the islands’ isolation has not only led to the large number of endemic species being present, but also to their tame and inquisitive nature. The Galápagos were never attached to any continent and the island chain's remote location made it impossible for large land mammals that usually dominate the food chain to make the journey to the here. The giant tortoise became the dominate animal on the land, and he is a herbivore, so no threat to the others. With this lack of natural predators, the wildlife of the Galápagos thrived in an Eden-like environment and never learned to be fearful of other species – even our own. Meeting these animals and interacting with them in their own environment is the true joy of a Galápagos holiday, so the remainder of my Favourites tips will be devoted to a description of the main ones we saw, and where we saw them. More about the most memorable of these encounters can be found on my pages about the individual islands we visited.
Next tip: ”Sea lions” – the most adorable of the islands’ animals!
The first animals to greet us on almost every island were the sea lions. And I do mean “greet”. It often seemed that they had been lolling around on the beach or even the landing jetty just waiting for our arrival! This isn’t a scientific distinction, but for me they fell into four groups – adorable pups, languid and photogenic females, lively bachelor males, and the occasional bolshie alpha male throwing his weight about. The latter are best avoided, but all the others will allow you to come pretty close, and will often come closer still to you.
The Galápagos sea lion is a distinct species, but closely related to the California sea lion. They are found on all the islands and number in the ten thousands. The females usually have just the one pup a year, though Fabian said twins are not unusual and he has once seen triplets! We saw several newborn pups, for example on Sombrero Chino and Española. The babies are nursed by their mother for about six months until old enough to fish for themselves, and most of those we saw were still at this stage, so stayed quite close to mum. Some were more adventurous though and were venturing along the beach or across the rocks (sometimes rather clumsily – see my short video of one little guy on Santiago). One such followed a few of us for some time on Española, apparently mistaking us for family – so cute!
In addition to these large nursery groups we saw several of bachelor males (e.g. on Rabida and South Plaza). Male Sea Lions sometimes retreat to these so-called bachelor colonies to take a rest from the aggro of the alpha male. Once refreshed they may try themselves to take on one of the latter and to try to establish their own beach territory with several females, which they will then have to defend continuously from other bulls. These fights take their toll – most alpha males we saw were battle-scarred, and Fabian told us that their reign is often short (sometimes only a few weeks) as they grow weaker with each fight and are then more easily vanquished.
Fondest memory: We saw sea lions on most of the islands where we landed:
Sombrero Chino [have a look at another of my videos – a cute pup who had got separated from his mum there]
Española [including meeting the cutest of many cute pups on the beach of Gardner Bay - again on video]
Santa Fe [including a memorable encounter while snorkelling – see my video of this special experience]
Next tip: ”Fur seals”
In addition to the Galápagos sea lions, which are everywhere in the islands, there are a smaller number of Galápagos fur seals. These too are an endemic species, and live mainly on the rockiest shores. They are smaller than the sea lions, and their fur made them a target for poachers in the past, although they are of course now protected and their numbers are growing again. They live in the greatest numbers in the western islands, Fernandina and Isabela, which we didn’t visit. They also tend to be shyer than their cousins! But although we weren’t lucky enough to see any while on any of the islands, we did see some on a couple of our panga rides, most notably off Genovesa when on our way to the dry landing at Prince Philip Steps. The sea was quite rough here and it was difficult to hold the camera steady, so the photos are not as clear as I would have liked, but they do show the thick fur and distinctive whiskers.
Fur seals are part of the same “eared seals” family as sea lions, and differ from true seals in having small external ear-flaps. Their hind flippers can be turned to face forwards, and, together with strong front flippers, this gives them extra mobility on land – an adult fur seal can move extremely quickly if it has to. They also use their front flippers for swimming, whereas true seals use their hind flippers. Their scientific name is Arctocephalus, which comes from Greek words meaning “bear headed”, and it’s easy to see how they got this name.
Next tip: ”Land iguanas”
One of the largest animals you will see in the Galápagos are the Land iguanas, which on some islands can reach over a metre in length. There are actually two species to be found here – Conolophus subcristatus on six of the islands, and Conolophus pallidus only on Santa Fe. The latter can be a paler yellow than the main species (hence the name, “pallidus”), and has more spines on its back. Charles Darwin described the Land iguanas as “ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance.” however I have to say that I disagree with the famous naturalist, as I found them sort of cute, although probably only their mothers would find them beautiful!
All the marine and land iguana species in the Galápagos are thought to be descendants of a single species, the Green Iguana, which is native on the South American continent. Arriving probably on vegetation rafts to the isles, the green iguana in order to survive had to adapt to a new and different environment by evolving into two very distinct new species. The Land iguana adapted to feed on the vegetation of the islands. Surprisingly perhaps, they prefer the prickly pear cactus or Opuntia . This in turn has evolved, growing much taller than elsewhere in the world in order to be out of reach of the iguanas, but the latter simply stand on their hind legs to reach the pads and fruit. They have a leathery, tough tongue and don't need to remove the spines from the cactus before eating. The cactus forms about 80% of their diet and ensures that they get plenty of water even in the arid dry season such as when we visited.
We saw these ultra-photogenic guys on:
Santa Fe [although relatively few of this endemic species here were to be seen on the day we were there]
Next tip: ”Marine iguanas"
The other main species of iguana that you will see on many of the islands are the marine iguanas, of which there are in fact seven sub-species, varying in size and colour. Most are black or dark grey but some have red colouring too, most notably on Española where the males have not only red but often green colouring too, which becomes brighter during the mating season – giving them the nickname of Christmas iguana!
All marine and land iguana species in the Galápagos are thought to be descendants of a single species, the Green Iguana, which is native on the South American continent. Arriving probably on vegetation rafts to the isles, the green iguana in order to survive had to adapt to a new and different environment by evolving into two very distinct new species.
The marine iguana found himself on islands where vegetation was sparse, and turned, through necessity, to the plant-life beneath the sea. He thus became the world's only sea-going lizard. They have developed a flattened snout and sharp teeth in order to feed on the algae on the underwater rocks. Their tail is flattened vertically like a rudder to help them swim and they have long claws to grip the rocks while feeding so that they don’t drift away.
We saw these fascinating animals almost everywhere we went:
Santiago [including one feeding underwater while snorkelling as well as lots on the lava outcrops on shore]
Española [the colourful sub-species endemic to the island]
Fondest memory: Marine iguanas can stay submerged for up to ten minutes, before having to come up for air. When not feeding they are usually found sunning themselves on lava rocks, often in large groups and, as we saw in several places, even piled up on top of one another! Sometimes you will see them appear to sneeze, but in fact they are snorting to get rid of any excess sea salt with the help of special glands in their nostrils. I was fortunate to be able to catch such a snort on this video on the rocks of Santiago. I also made a short video the distinctive walk of the marine iguana on Española – you can see the shallow groove his tail creates in the sand. And look how his back feet almost touch his front ones – one day I watched and laughed as one nearly fell over his own feet when his claws became tangled as he walked!
Next tip: ”Lava lizards”
Puerto Villamil, Isabela Galapagos Islands, , Ecuador
Good for: Solo
Puerto Ayora, Galapagos Islands, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
Good for: Business
Charles Darwin St, San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Ecuador
Satisfaction: Very Good
Good for: Solo