Visiting the Galapagos Islands
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
Reflections of a Dream Fulfilled
In common with many biologists, The Galapagos Islands are somewhere I have always wanted to visit but wasn’t certain I would ever have the opportunity.
However, a couple of years ago I did have the chance to visit this far-flung location, which definitely lived up to — and even exceeded — all of my expectations.
The Galapagos form an isolated archipelago of volcanic islands, located on either side of the equator in the Pacific Ocean, nearly 1000 km from the west coast of mainland Ecuador in South America. Famous for their unique geography and wildlife, and for being part of the inspiration behind Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of evolution, the Galapagos Islands are effectively a living laboratory where we can continually learn more about how living things adapt to their particular surroundings — as well as being a stunningly beautiful natural environment.
There is something unique about the Galapagos Islands that hits you immediately upon arrival and remains with you even after you have left. This sense of uniqueness begins as you take in the slightly lunar landscape that surrounds the airport, and you are struck by the feeling of being somewhere utterly different to anywhere you have been previously.
The first stop after leaving the airport, and crossing a narrow channel by boat, was the bizarre spectacle of a forest of Scalesia ‘trees’. These are not in fact trees, but 20-metre-tall relatives of mainland daisies that have undergone the evolutionary phenomenon known as island gigantism. Of course, plants are not the only island inhabitants to have become over-sized — arguably the islands’ most famous residents are the Galapagos tortoises — and these gentle giants were the next encounter we were to have, again, before even arriving at our hotel.
The giant tortoises gave me the first inkling of something that became increasingly apparent the more time I spent in the Galapagos, which is that the animals living there are completely unfazed by the presence of humans. I suspect that this relative lack of fear on the part of the animals is partly down to the islands’ isolation and the long periods the wildlife spent relatively undisturbed by people, and, increasingly now perhaps, because of the protection given to these islands due to their unique status.
The terrestrial wildlife of the Galapagos is spectacular enough, but the next few days were to be spent scuba diving to seek encounters with some of the islands’ charismatic underwater inhabitants. The pristine nature of the waters around even the most populous island in the archipelago, Santa Cruz, became apparent when approaching the main harbour of Puerto Ayora. Before even setting foot on the dive boat, the waters of the harbour were so obviously clean and free of pollution that it was possible to spot juvenile sharks gliding below the pier, along with shoals of golden rays, and even turtles bobbing up for air.
Once under the water more exciting wildlife encounters were on offer. It is possible to dive in the teeming aquatic ecosystems off the shores of some of the nearby uninhabited islands, which are protected by law, with strict limits imposed on the number of visitors that can land on their beaches. One of the highlights of these dive trips was a fantastic hour spent communing with sea lions, watching as they effortlessly circled around us humans in our clumsy diving kit. The sea lions were not in the water as we first descended from the surface — they were too busy sunning themselves on some nearby rocks. However, once they realized we were under the water, down they came, swimming up to us, playing with the bubbles from the scuba kit, and nibbling at our fins every now and again. These wild animals were there purely for the fun of spending time with some other strange mammals — it was reassuring to see that the sea lions were not being lured to spend time with humans by the promise of easy food.
The following day was another dive, and another cornucopia of natural riches — so many turtles were gently gliding past it was hard to know which one to concentrate on. And more sharks than I have ever seen in one dive — Galapagos sharks patrolling in groups of three, reef sharks resting under rocky outcrops, even the occasional hammerhead out in the blue. Although the currents were challenging, often switching directions every few metres and at times making it necessary to cling on to rocks in order to remain in one spot, it was all worth it as more sharks, turtles, and rays calmly drifted past, interested only in whatever business of their own they were up to.
Back on land, the powder white sands of Tortuga Bay beckoned, a couple of hours’ hike from Puerto Ayora, via another series of rapidly changing landscapes and vegetation types. The searing, skin-flaying equatorial heat was a stark contrast with the relatively chilly waters just offshore, and a complete covering with sun-block, long-sleeved shirt, and hat was essential. Once at Tortuga Bay I was very happy to spend time with the world’s only seafaring lizards, the fantastic marine iguanas. Less welcome were the very large, very bitey horseflies, which attempted to try and get a chunk of flesh at every available opportunity.
Next up was a hike to Las Grietas, a crystal clear swimming hole in a deep gorge, fed by fresh water at one end and ocean water at the other. Again, the rapid changes in scenery on what was a relatively short, one-hour hike from Puerto Ayora were breathtaking. Perhaps strangest of all was the site of huge cacti growing up through the midst of a mangrove swamp.
The Galapagos is an ornithologist’s dream, with the famous blue-footed boobies, huge frigate birds, pelicans diving for fish offshore, even flamingos — plus, of course, all of the varieties of Darwin’s famous finches. The local fish market is open-air, and when each day’s catch is landed, the fishmongers gut and descale fish whilst being watched by an attentive audience of pelicans and sea lions, while frigate birds come swooping in from overhead to see what they can grab. I don’t see this as problematic — it is simply the local wildlife being opportunistic, rather than being deliberately fed. Seabirds the world over follow fishing boats, scavenging whatever they can.
There are of course some environmental issues to consider, however, when visiting somewhere like the Galapagos. There are risks from the importation of invasive species, something that has been a major problem for the islands and in the case of some invasives remains a problem. However, it is also the case that many invasive species that were imported by humans in the past have already been, or are in the process of being removed.
Some argue that the islands should be off-limits completely for tourists, and should be left uninhabited save for the wildlife, and maybe a few researchers. Although I have some sympathy with this position, I wonder how realistic a proposition it is, and I also wonder where the funding would come from for the upkeep and security of the islands were they not seen as a valuable source of tourism income. Also, as mentioned earlier, the water in the main harbour and surrounding areas is very clean, and if the water even in the harbour is clean, it suggests that a lot of effort is being spent in looking after the islands as a whole.
In the end, for me as a biologist, visiting the Galapagos Islands was a dream come true. I still cannot quite believe that I finally made it to the place that, of all the places on Darwin’s voyage, is the one that stands out for many as being the key to his great theory (even if, in reality, that theory was based as much on all of the other places he visited during his five-year voyage, and his subsequent detailed and obsessive observations in his own garden and the surrounding English countryside in Kent). It makes total sense to me, having now visited them, how these islands have come to take on such an important place in our understanding of the natural world and how it works.