The Galapagos Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus wollebaeki) is an endemic subspecies. It is common, and there is a population of about 50 000 Sea Lions in the Galapagos Islands. They can be seen in many places near the shores, on beaches, on the rocks or even in the towns (for example on a porch in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and at the Fish Market in Puerto Ayora). Don’t be surprised if you get surrounded by playful sea lions while snorkelling. It is absolutely fantastic!
The male Sea Lion becomes very large, up to 230cm in length, with a weigh up to 250kg. They have a dark brown fur, which almost looks black when wet and they have a thick neck.
The females are smaller and weigh up to 120kg. They have lighter brown fur, which looks dark brown when wet. There are many more females as only one tenth of the Sea Lion pups are males.
The Galapagos Sea Lions feed during the day and they mostly eat Sardines. They can be away at sea for days to hunt for fish. Sharks are natural predators of the Sea Lions.
The Galapagos Sea Lions form colonies which consist of a dominant male (bull) and up to 30 females (cows) with their pups. The bull protects its territory against other males and sometimes there are fights. As it is difficult for a male to be away feeding while protecting his territory he becomes weaker and he will then be replaced by a stronger male after a while. Males without a territory form bachelor colonies.
The females give birth to one pup each year, which they nurse for up to three years. Sometimes you can see two pups of different age suckling milk from their mother. When they are around five months the pups can start fishing for themselves though. The mother and child can recognise each other’s bark and thus find each other among the other Sea Lions in the colony.
In the photo a Sea Lion is waiting, together with Pelicans, for leftovers at the Fish Market in Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz. Looking through my photos I realise I don’t have any other photos of Sea Lions on Isla Santa Cruz than the ones from the Fish Market, even though I saw several.
Update 2013: I visited Galapagos Islands again and from this time I have got several photos of Sea Lions lying on benches on the pier in Puerto Ayora, and more from the fish market.
- National/State Park
The vegetation in the highlands is very different to the coast. It is wetter, with green pastures and forests. There are many places of interest to visit in the Santa Cruz Highlands, like the Lava Tunnels, Los Gemelos, Cerro Crocker and El Chato Tortoise Reserve.
The only place In Santa Cruz Highlands that I visited in 2011 was Hacienda Mariposa, a cattle farm owned by Steve Divine. It is situated between Bellavista and Santa Rosa, near El Chato Tortoise Reserve. In the green pastures of Hacienda Mariposa you can see Giant Tortoises in the wild. It is only during the dry season that the tortoises are present though, because during the wet season, when it is breeding season, the tortoises move the arid zone.
It was on the first day of the cruise with M/S Cachalote, before we even went to the boat, that we visited the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz and Hacienda Mariposa.
Before we started our walk around the farm to look for tortoises we heard that there was a Barn Owl in a small shed by the house. We were allowed to go inside one at a time if we were very quiet, and we were not allowed to take photos using flash. In a corner on the floor, under a chair, there was a chick, all covered in white down. It made a loud hissing sound “shrreee”. While we went inside the shed one by one, one of the women in the group had gone to the bathroom. She was all excited when she came back and told us there had been an owl in the bathroom too. Welcome to the Galapagos!
We went for a short walk to look for Giant Tortoises and luckily we saw one, a juvenile, as it wasn’t that big. Then we went back to the farm and got some juice to drink and took photos of the shell from a very big tortoise. Besides the Barn Owl and its chick we saw Cattle Egrets, Smooth-billed Anis, a Yellow Warbler and a Darwin Finch during our visit. I don’t know which Darwin Finch it was as it was the first one I saw, the photo is very dark and I have only written Darwin Finch in my notebook. When we left the farm we saw a Short-eared Owl sitting on a pole next to the road. That was good luck! Now we had seen both species of owls that occur on the Galapagos Islands even before we had got to the boat.
- National/State Park
Charles Darwin Research Station is situated in the outskirts of Puerto Ayora, at the east end of Avenida Charles Darwin. It was established in 1964 and it is the headquarters of the Charles Darwin Foundation. Here more than 100 scientists, students and volunteers are working with research and conservation projects to protect the Galapagos ecosystem and endangered species.
At Charles Darwin Research Station there is a museum and information centre where you can learn much about the wildlife and ecology of the Galapagos Islands. There is a breeding centre and a house where baby-tortoises are incubated. The young tortoises are taken care of until they are old enough to be taken to their home islands and natural habitat. In the Galapagos Islands there are 11 different subspecies of the Giant Tortoise, and at Charles Darwin Research Station you can see several of them. The most famous tortoise here is Lonesome George. He is the only surviving Tortoise of the subspecies from Isla Pinta. Many attempts have been made to mate him with closely related females, but without success.
There are several enclosures with adult Giant Tortoises and in one of them you can go down to come close to the tortoises. There are also enclosures with Land Iguanas.
I visited Charles Darwin Research Station on the first day of the Cruise with M/S Cachalote (2011), so we got a very good guided walk around the area. However, it is easy to visit on your own. It is only a 15 minutes walk from central Puerto Ayora and around the Research Station there are several trails and information boards. It is free to visit.
Update June 2012: Lonesome George died on the 24th of June 2012. He was found dead in the morning by his caretaker and it is believed that he died because his heart stopped and because of old age. Lonesome George was between 90 -107 years.
In July 2013 I visited Charles Darwin Research Station a second time when I made another cruise with Cachalote (different Itinerary).
I also visited Charles Darwin Research Station on my own in July 2014. By that time they had built a new souvenir store. Unfortunately it was closed a couple of days after my visit and I heard it remained closed for several months. I hope it has got the permission to open up again, as the profits from it is funding many of the center's projects.
Directions: Around a 15 minute walk from central Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz.
Phone: 5 - 252 6146
- National/State Park
Rancho Primicias is situated in the highlands of Santa Cruz. It is a private ranch which you can visit to see the Galapagos Giant Tortoise in their natural habitat. The tortoises come here as there are plenty of water holes, food and areas with shade. There are several paths around the property and you can walk around on your own. I enjoyed my walk and saw lots of the tortoises, some resting in the waterholes, other drinking water, eating grass or just walking around. It is wonderful to see them so close! During the walk I also saw many Darwin finches and some other birds.
After walking around I ordered an empanada de queso ($1.50) and a fruit salad ($3) and sat for a while in the restaurant. There were no other guests in the restaurant at the moment, and I had only seen a few when walking around, but I think that Rancho Primicias gets quite a lot of people sometimes. The restaurant area is large and daytrips to the highlands organized in Puerto Ayora seems to go here.
Admission to Rancho Primicias was $3 (July 2013).
Don’t forget to visit the nearby lava tunnel before leaving.
I came to Primicias with bicycle, but I took the wrong road. After Santa Rosa I followed the signs and turned left into a dirt road. There was a fork in the dirt road and I followed a white sign indicating direction to a tortoise reserve and lava tunnel to the right, I didn’t see the other sign, the sign for Primicias. When I arrived to a house it turned out that I had come to Rancho Chato 2. It is another place where you can see the giant tortoises, but because I was going to Chato 2 two days later, on the first day of a cruise, I asked how to get to Primicias. To go back along the road would be 4km, but luckily a man from Chato 2 was just going along a path to Primicias. I could go with him and lead the bicycle along the path. It didn’t take very long..
Directions: The highlands, Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands
- National/State Park
Before going to the airport on the last day of the cruise with Cachalote (2011) we visited Black Turtle Cove very early in the morning, even before breakfast. The sun was just rising and the light was beautiful . It was a very calm and peaceful morning.
Black Turtle Cove is a shallow inlet surrounded by mangrove vegetation, situated on the north coast of Isla Santa Cruz. There is no landing site and it is only visited with a panga (dinghy). When we arrived into the cove we saw lots of Cattle Egrets sitting in the mangroves and as we came closer they all took off. It was a lovely thing to see. The Cattle Egrets come down from the highlands to spend the night at Black Turtle Cove, where it is warmer during the night than in the highlands. We also saw many pelicans and smaller birds following the pelicans in case it would drop a fish they could catch. In the water there were turtles, Golden Rays and also a few White-tipped Reef Sharks. The sharks were resting on the bottom and a bit difficult to see, but to my surprise you could see them better with sunglasses on.
Directions: On the north coast of Isla Santa Cruz, not so far from Isla Baltra (where the airport is situated).
There are 13 species of Darwin Finches in Galapagos Islands, and they are all endemic. The Finches are famous because the role they played in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution . When Charles Darwin visited Galapagos Islands in 1835 during his voyage with the Beagle he didn’t pay much attention to the finches, but more to the Mockingbirds which he noticed differences in, between the islands. He collected finches but didn’t record from which islands. It was not until he came home and talked to an ornithologist and others who had collected finches during the visit that he understood the significance of them.
All 13 Darwin Finches in Galapagos Islands have evolved from a species of finch found on the South American Pacific coast. When they came to Galapagos Islands they adopted to different habitats and food available there. The beaks have evolved to be suitable to the food they eat. To be able to specialize in feeding is good when food is scarce and there is more competition for what is available.
Interesting to know is that the Woodpecker Finch can use thorns or twigs as tools when they search for larva or other insects in small crevices. Ground Finches eat skin parasites from Tortoises, Land Iguanas and Marine Iguanas, and the Sharp-beaked Ground Finch on Wolf and Darwin is also called Vampire Finch as they feed on blood they peck from Nazca Boobies.
The Darwin Finches have a length of 10 - 16cm. Their plumage is mottled grey, brown, black or olive coloured. Some species are not difficult to distinguish, while others are more difficult to identify. Not only are some species looking alike, but there are variations within a species and there are also hybrids.
The Darwin Finches in the photos were seen in at Hacienda Mariposa, along the path to Tortuga Bay (photo 2 and 3), at Los Gemelos and at Rancho Primicias.
- National/State Park
A short drive from the Giant Tortoise reserve is one of a number of lava tunnels that can be found here in the highlands of Santa Cruz. These tunnels or tubes are formed when the exterior portion of a pahoehoe lava flow cools and hardens while the hotter interior lava continues to flow. Eventually the lava flow diminishes and there is not enough lava left to fill the tube, which is left hollow as a result. We had seen very small tubes on Santiago, but here on Santa Cruz some of them are large enough to enter. This particular one is accessed down a short flight of rocky steps, with a slightly rickety handrail. These lead you to the tunnel’s entrance, which is actually in the middle of it, as it has in the past collapsed at this point leaving one half exposed and easy to walk into, and the other half more or less buried in rubble (see photo four). More steps took us down to the bottom of the tunnel (photo three), which at this point was fairly smooth and easy to walk on. It even had electric lighting! If you didn’t know otherwise you would think that this were a man-mad tunnel, maybe dug as part of a mine or underground transport system. But no – this was all created by the power of volcanic activity.
After about 100 metres of walking we came to a point where the tunnel roof has crumbled in places and made the going a little harder. Eventually that roof becomes so low that it is necessary to crawl. We had the option at this point of continuing with Fabian or returning to the minibus. About five or six of us, me included, chose the latter – there was no way with a dodgy knee that I felt like crawling on stony ground! But Chris and some of the others opted to finish the walk through the tunnel, though he later told me that apart from the satisfaction of having done it I hadn’t missed much. In the event they had not so much crawled, as the ground was not only stony but also wet in places, but rather had gone on hands and feet, their backs almost scraping the roof!
Meanwhile I and my companions took a leisurely walk back through the tunnel, stopping to take more photos as we did so. Once we were in the minibus we drove the sort distance to meet the others, who had already emerged from the tunnel and were waiting by the side of the road. I confess I was relieved to see them, as it had occurred to me that if the tunnel had collapsed in the past it could do so again! But there had been no mishaps, and we all settled down in the minibus to return to Puerto Ayora and to the Angelito.
This was our last visit on Santa Cruz on this day, but we were able to see another side of the island on our final morning when we took a short panga ride in Black Turtle Cove.
- National/State Park
The Charles Darwin Research Centre was set up in 1960 in order to promote research, conservation, and education in the archipelago. A visit here is included in just about every cruise, and it was the first place we visited on Santa Cruz, having transferred directly to the centre’s own jetty in the pangas straight after breakfast.
Fabian gave us a tour of the different pens used for the successful Giant tortoise breeding programme for which the centre is best known. We saw a group of male tortoises in one, females in another, and elsewhere met “Super Diego”, considered to be the centre’s most sexually active male (and therefore very useful to the breeding programme!) The latter is a Saddleback Tortoise, and Fabian pointed out how his shell shape differs from that of his cousins – a feature that demonstrates admirably Darwin’s theory of evolution. On the larger islands, such as here on Santa Cruz, the Giant Tortoises thrive in the highlands where there is plentiful ground vegetation. Here the domed shell is the norm. But on some of the smaller islands, where most vegetation is above ground and harder to reach, the tortoises have evolved to have this cut-away area of their shell, behind their heads, which enables them to stretch upwards to reach food.
As with all such places, the centre offers you a chance to get close to wildlife. However, after five days visiting the islands it was clear to us that, given how comfortable the animals and birds are around their human visitors, “getting close” is much less of a bonus here than elsewhere! But we did learn a lot about the Giant Tortoises, and I was also able to get a nice little video of one on the move.
One inhabitant we did not see however was Lonesome George, arguably at one time the most famous tortoise in the world. Sadly he had died a few months before our visit, in June 2012.
After seeing the adult tortoises we went on to visit the rearing house, where hatchlings are cared for, and the adaptation centre, where young tortoises are gradually accustomed to the conditions they will find on release to their home islands, which happens at about four years of age. Nearly 2,000 young tortoises have been released so far!
Here our tour with Fabian ended and we all went our separate ways, free to explore on our own. Chris and I walked back through the grounds, stopping to look at the various plants – the centre also maintains a native plant garden of species endemic to the Santa Cruz arid and coastal zones. We watched a Cactus Finch at close quarters in one of the Opuntias and then had a brief look inside the Van Straelen Exhibition Centre which has displays about the Galápagos Islands and the work of the Research Station. Near here we met up with another from our group, Ian, and decided to walk with him into Puerto Ayora
Directions: About 15 minutes walk east of Puerto Ayora – follow the main street to the small roundabout with a statue of Darwin and keep going in the same direction
- National/State Park
On Galapagos Islands you will find an endemic subspecies of the White-cheeked Pintail, also called Galapagos Pintail (Ana bahamensis galapagensis). It is quite common and it can be found both in highland pools and lowland lagoons and mangrove swamps.
The White-cheeked Pintail is a medium sized duck that becomes around 46 cm long. It has mainly got brown feathers, with patterns of light and dark brown. The cheeks and throat are white and the bill is very characteristic with a blue and red colour. The legs and webbed feet are grey. Males and females look very similar, but the male is slightly larger and has a longer tail.
The White-cheeked Pintail feeds on small aquatic plants and small animals in the water. It mainly gets the food by dabbling at the surface, but it can also dive in deeper water.
If the conditions are good the White-cheeked Pintail can breed throughout the year, and they build their nest near the water, on the ground, protected by vegetation.
The White-cheeked Pintails in photos 1, 2 and 3 were seen at a lagoon near Cerro Dragón on Isla Santa Cruz. The one in photo 4 and 5 was in a pond at Rancho Primicias.
- National/State Park
The Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) is common in Galapagos Islands, but it is a migrant bird that prefers breading in the colder northern climates of North America, Europe and Asia. In the Galapagos it can often be found along sandy beaches, by lagoons and tidal pools.
The Whimbrel is a large wader with a long curved bill. The females have a longer bill than the males. The legs and neck are long and the plumage is grey-brown with a paler underpart than upperpart.
Whimbrels eat small crustaceans and marine worms they pick up from the muddy surface they walk over, and they eat small fish and insects.
The Whimbrel in the two first photos was seen at a small lagoon along the trail at Cerro Dragon, Isla Santa Cruz, and the Whimbrel in photo 3 and 4 was walking around at the shore by the pier in Puerto Ayora. The Whimbrel in photo 5 was bathing in the shallow lagoon behind the beach at El Garrapatero.
- National/State Park
The Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) is an introduced bird to the Galapagos Islands. It occurs in the highlands of Floreana, Isla Santa Cruz, Santiago and Isla Isabela and it can often be seen in open and semi-open landscapes.
The Smooth-billed Ani belongs to the cuckoo family. It is around 35cm long and it has a black plumage and a big black bill. The tail is long and gets broader towards the end.
It was not until the 1960s that the Smooth-billed Ani was introduced to Galapagos Islands. As they are not very good flyers of long distances over water they were probably introduced by humans. It is believed the Smooth-billed Anis were brought to the islands because they remove parasites and ticks from livestock. As they are introduced birds they compete for resources with the endemic and native birds.
The Smooth-billed Ani also feed on larger insects and Lava Lizards.
The same nest is used by several pairs and they share incubation and feeding. The nest is built in trees.
Photo 1: A Smoothe-billed Ani is standing on a tortoise at Rancho Chato 2
Photo 2 and 3: The Smooth-billed Anis were seen at Hacienda Mariposa.
Photo 4: A Smooth-billed Ani is in the shallow water of a pool at Rancho Primicias.
Photo 5: This Smooth-billed Ani has been run over and was lying on the road.
- National/State Park
Las Grietas is a long fissure in the lava rock. Here freshwater filtered down from the highlands meet salty water entering from the sea, making the water in the ravine brackish. It is a very nice place for swimming and snorkelling. The water is very clear, but can be a bit cold. Some people dive or make somersaults from the high cliffs. When you swim you can continue longer than you think, but you will have to walk over a few rooks and then you can continue the swim around the corner. I think it is a very beautiful place!
In the afternoon, I have heard, tour groups come here, so if you want tranquillity you should come early. It is easy to go here on your own from Puerto Ayora. Just take a water taxi ($0.60) from the pier over to Angemeyer Point and than follow the trail. After passing Finch Bay Hotel the trail becomes more rocky, so good shoes can be good to wear. Along the path there are several small lagoons were you might see migratory and coastal birds (for example I saw a Great Blue Heron here).
The first time I visited Las Grietas I hadn’t brought swimwear or snorkel equipment with me, so I came back the next day. I rented the snorkel equipment at Cabo Mar, near the harbour. It was $5 (July 2011) for the whole day and the equipment was good.
I visited Las Grietas only once during my visit in June/July 2013. I didn't bring my camera that time as I didn't want to leave it unattended while I went swimming and snorkeling.
July/Agust 2014: The trail to Las Grietas from Angermeyer Point is 662 metres long. The first part is easy to walk, but after you have passed Finch Bay Hotel it becomes rockier, and here it is good to wear good shoes, not flip-flops. However, I have heard that since August 2014 the trail to Las Grietas is closed for 4-5 months. And I guess it is because they are doing the trail easier to walk.
Along the way to Las Grietas you will pass several shallow lagoons where you might see some birds, like the Great Blue Heron or the Great Egret.
When I visited Las Grietas in 2014 I met several large groups on my way there, and this was before lunch. So, also in the mornings there can be lots of people there.
- Diving and Snorkeling
- National/State Park
The brown Pelican can be found in many areas along the American Pacific and Atlantic coasts, but on Galapagos Islands you will find the endemic subspecies Pelecanus occidentalis urinator. They can be found by the coast on most islands.
The Brown Pelicans are large birds with a length of 105-152cm and a wingspan of 203-228cm. They have very long bills with an elastic pouch which they use when catching fish. The male and female look alike, but females are usually a little smaller. They have a greyish-brown plumage and they have a chestnut and white marking on neck and head when breeding. When not breeding the neck is more greyish. The juveniles have the same greyish-brown colour, but a paler/white belly. The feet are webbed.
The Brown Pelican feeds on fish and crustaceans and they can often be seen plunge-diving from the air into the sea to catch their prey. Under the water they fill their bill with water and fish, and then filters the water and swallow the fish.
The Galapagos Brown Pelican usually nest in mangroves and low bushes. They nest in colonies or individually. The female lay 2-3 eggs and they are incubated by both parents for about a month. They breed throughout the year.
The pelicans can live as long as 30 years.
The Brown Pelicans in the two first photos are from Turtle Cove and the three others from Puerto Ayora.
- National/State Park
At Tortuga Bay there is a beautiful long white sandy beach (Playa Brava). There are strong currents in the sea so this beach is not for swimming, but some people are surfing, kayaking and sunbathing. If you want to swim there is a smaller protected beach (Playa Mansa) in the end of Tortuga Bay. At Tortuga Bay you will probably see Marine Iguanas and different birds like the Brown Pelican, The Great Blue Heron and Sanderlings. You are not allowed to walk on the dunes above the beach as that is a nesting area for the marine green turtle. In the end of Tortuga Bay there is an area with lots of Opuntia cactus, a cactus that on Galapagos Islands grows like a tree.
From Puerto Ayora there is a 2.5km long paved trail leading to Tortuga Bay. It is a beautiful walk past green vegetation, among other plants many Opuntia cactuses. You might see Ground Finches and Cactus Finches along the walk.
At the starting point of the trail you must register at an office, and you must do so when you return too. The office is open between 6-18.
Update 2013: I visited in June/July again and this year the vegetation along the trail to Tortuga Bay was drier than two years previously. Probably it had rained less in 2013 than in 2011.
Update July/August 2014: The path in the end of Tortuga Bay, following the coast, have now been closed to protect all the marine iguanas there. I don't know if it is temporary or not. You can still visit Playa Mansa and go up on the rocks with all the Opuntia Cacti.
Directions: Southwest of Puerto Ayora. The trail begins in the end of Av Charles Binford.
- National/State Park
- Hiking and Walking
The Galapagos Giant Tortoise
The Galapagos Giant Tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus) is endemic to the Galapagos Islands. There are eleven different subspecies, but there have been at least 14.
Some tortoises can be very big, up to 150cm in length and with a weigh of 250kg, but it is not until they are around 40 years that they are fully grown. I didn’t see a tortoise of that size during my visit (many years ago though, on Prison Island, just off the Zanzibar coast, I saw a huge tortoise which I remember to be larger than the ones I saw on Galapagos Islands). It is not known how old the Galapagos Giant Tortoise can be, but many live till they are 150-160 years old.
The shape of the tortoise shell have evolved depending on the habitat where they live. There are two major types of shape to the shell, a saddleback shape or a dome shape, but there are also intermediate forms. The tortoises with a saddleback shaped shell are adopted to life in the more arid and hotter areas, where vegetation is sparse. They have longer necks and legs as they must be able to reach vegetation higher up. The dome shaped tortoises can be found in the highlands where there it is cooler and wetter and plenty of ground vegetation can be found.
The Galapagos Giant Tortoise reach sexual maturity at an age of 20-25 years. They mate throughout the year, but mostly during the warm and wet season. Usually the tortoises don’t travel long distances, but when it is time for the female to lay her eggs she will travel for many kilometres to reach more sandy and dry ground near the coast.
The tortoises are herbivores, which means they only eat plants, for example cactus pads, poison apple, guava and different grasses. They can live without drinking and eating for a very long time.
It is estimated that there were around 250 000 tortoises in the Galapagos Islands at the time the islands were discovered. The number soon declined as they were hunted for by sailors who took them aboard their ships. As the tortoises can live very long without food and water the sailors could get fresh meat during their long journeys. Another threat came from the introduced animals which dig up nestings, eat the hatchlings or compete for food. In the 1970s the number of tortoises were only around 3000. Luckily there are many ongoing conservation projects in the Galapagos Islands, many introduced animals are hunted and numbers are decreasing, and there are a few Tortoise breeding centres in the Galapagos Islands where tortoises are brought up until they are big enough to be placed in their natural habitat. There are now around 20 000 tortoises in the Galapagos Islands.
2011: On the first day of the cruise with M/S Cachalote, even before we went to the boat, we made a visit at a farm (Hacienda Mariposa) in the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz. On the land around the farm Giant Tortoises can be seen and we went out looking for them. We only saw one, and it was a juvenile (photo 4).
2013: This year I visited both Rancho Primicias (by bicycle) and Rancho Chato 2 (the first day of a second cruise) and at both those two places there were lots of Giant Tortoises.
- National/State Park