Charles Darwin wasn’t impressed when in 1835 the Beagle arrived at her first landfall in the Galapagos Islands at San Cristbal (then Chatham Island), which was my starting point too. “Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance,” he wrote. “A broken field of black basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves, and crossed by great fissures, is everywhere covered by stunted, sun-burnt brushwood, which shows little signs of life.”
Perhaps Darwin had had his fill of volcanoes as the Beagle sailed up the coast of South America. I, on the other hand, was thrilled by the otherworldly landscape; I’d never seen anything like these islands, the peaks of underwater volcanoes built up from lava released at hot spots on the ocean floor. The islands are considered young geologically—3 to 5 million years old—and the volcanoes on Fernandina and Isabela are still active; the most recent eruptions were in 2005.
Undoubtedly Darwin hadn’t been treated to the initiation the eight of us passengers on the 93-foot trimaran Lammer Law—three Americans, two Brits, two Aussies, a Frenchman who works in Guayaquil, and an Ecuadorian—enjoy soon after boarding in Wreck Bay. Within hours we are snorkeling among swooping sea lions at nearby Isla Lobos. Talk about taking the plunge!
We are quickly into the week’s pattern. The days start with an early wake-up call (coffee available) followed by a panga ride ashore for a hike (really a walk, though sometimes the terrain is difficult to negotiate). After breakfast there is a snorkeling opportunity, lunch, a move to another island (this is prime siesta time), another visit ashore, snorkeling or diving, a briefing on the next day’s activities, and dinner. The boat moves on during the night.
The Galapagos National Park and Marine Preserve comprises 97 percent of the land and surrounding water of the archipelago and as such is highly regulated. The visitor experience is designed around the idea that we humans are among the alien species that threaten this fragile environment. Passenger vessels are assigned weekly itineraries that seek to minimize damage by regulating the number of people who go ashore each day at each location. Every boat must carry a certified guide, who not only informs but keeps his charges on the straight and narrow (this is defined by well-marked paths that keep visitors from stepping on the eggs strewn around by birds and reptiles, though some lay their eggs in the paths). To prevent dissemination of seeds from one island to the next, shoes are cleaned between shore trips and are not worn on the boat.
The first morning’s wake-up call comes at 0530; during the night we have moved from Isla Lobos to Espaola. We get up early, Jorge (“call me George”), our guide, tells us, in order to walk on the islands in the coolest part of the day (the other daily walk is late in the afternoon). Moreover, birds and reptiles can’t take the heat; birds sleep and iguanas rest under rocks. There are other advantages, of course; our panga (an inflatable large enough for the eight of us, plus George and a crewmember) is always the first to arrive ashore, so we have the place to ourselves for a while and also miss the heat of high noon.
The beach at Punta Suarez is littered with mother and baby sea lions, and both tiny pups and some youngsters that look old enough to be out fishing are nursing. (“Don’t call them seals,” George reminds us. They are a close relative of California sea lions.) The sea lions are completely uninterested in us and couldn’t care less when cameras click or when I come close enough to count their whiskers. The babies have the appeal and innocent look of Labrador puppies but none of the interactive instinct, and touching, though tempting, is strictly forbidden. There are no male sea lions here; in fact, we hear, rather than see, only one in the course of the week. This is a good thing, since the males are large, aggressive, and fiercely territorial. These females and their babies are neither friendly nor curious, just unperturbed; this, I figure, is how animals behave when they have no predators, and it’s what gives the islands their unique Edenic quality.
Darwin must be the only visitor to the Galapagos who didn’t say a single word about boobies or the remarkable colorful feet of that emblematic bird, which look to me like rubber drain plugs for a kitchen sink. We walk down a lava trail from the beach and come upon our first blue-footed boobies; the males are dancing on the ground, hoping to attract a female with a combination of wing extensions, foot stamping, and the presentation of a twig. The females look as unimpressed with this effort as they do with us peering at their feet.
It’s clear that love is in the air on Espaola. The marine iguanas on the beach are in their courtship dress of red and green, and black male frigate birds in saltbushes are inflating their large red throat pouches to attract females. The birds are as approachable as the sea lions and don’t flinch when people stare into their eyes. Darwin did comment on the “extreme tameness of the birds…It would appear,” he wrote, “that the birds of this archipelago, not having as yet learnt that man is a more dangerous animal than the tortoise…disregard him.”
We sail when we can, even in the light air; Lammer Law is, after all, a sailboat, and the crew is more than willing to raise the sails and give it a try. It’s slow going, but it’s pleasant to have a drink on the huge deck and watch the world go by. Slowly.
At Punta Cormorant, on Isla Floreana, the beach is brownish-greenish sand. The green comes from tiny pieces of olivine, a semiprecious stone that is volcanic in origin. George tells us that visitors have long since picked the beach clean of larger pieces, but there are bits big enough to pick out in a handful of sand. Punta Cormorant also has a white-sand beach; swimming isn’t allowed here because it is an important breeding area for green turtles, rays, and sharks.
In addition, there are red, black, golden, and white beaches in the archipelago. There are unusual bursts of color everywhere. In one bay I snorkel over electric-blue starfish; in another I am discouraged from snorkeling by small but potent jellyfish with bright blue centers. Bright-red Sally Lightfoot crabs are seen everywhere crawling over the black lava rock. A salt lagoon at Punta Cormorant adds another color—greater flamingos, relatives of those found in Florida and the Caribbean.
Five strong and seasonably variable ocean currents, including the north-flowing Humboldt and the west-flowing South Equatorial, converge at the Galapagos Islands, which straddle the equator 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Early mariners called the archipelago las islas encantadas, presumably convinced by the havoc these currents and their daily fluctuations played with their navigational calculations that the waters were bewitched. During the night passage between Floreana and Santa Fe, I wake up in the wee hours—not for the only time—clutching my mattress to keep from levitating; the motion is both strong and peculiar. I consider lurching to the cockpit to see if the weather has taken a turn, but I’m not dressed for exploring. It must be the currents at work.
The cold currents are life sustaining here; they bring with them the phytoplankton that is at the bottom of the food chain. The warm El Nio current brings death; fish-eating animals fail to reproduce, die of starvation, or, if they’re able to, swim or fly away. The last El Nio event, in 1997–98, was particularly devastating.
In less cosmic terms, these currents make diving uncomfortable for eternal beginners like me. We snorkelers miss a few choice spots because of them.
The trail on Isla Santa F leads to an Opuntia (prickly pear) forest; its leaves and fruit feed the island’s endemic mouse as well as the Santa F land iguanas, which come out when the sun comes up. (The initiated can distinguish between these iguanas and the Galapagos land iguanas we see in the afternoon on South Plaza Island.) The bay is beautiful, the snorkeling is terrific, and the water, George tells us, is warm. Truly, it’s not that warm. Those of us who have them wear wetsuits for snorkeling; I wear my dive skins, which provide sufficient insulation to let me stay in the water as long as I want and have the added benefit of protecting me from the equatorial sun and any passing jellyfish.
We stop at tiny North Seymour Island early in the morning to see the big red and yellow land iguanas. These were brought from nearby Baltra, a little island next to Santa Cruz, when, in 1937, an American expedition found the last 50 specimens and moved them for safekeeping. Since Baltra was a World War II U.S. Air Force base, this was undoubtedly a good move for the iguanas.
But the real focus of this day is the small island of Bartolom. Toward sunset we climb a wooden boardwalk past a particularly lunar landscape of lava flows and tubes to the 374-foot summit. Even at this height there are sea lions festooning the rocks, and we watch the sun fade from Pinnacle Rock, another emblematic Galapagos landmark.
As stunning as the sunset is, it can’t match the early-morning light on the flat, black lava shoreline of Puerto Egas, on the west side of Isla Santiago. The place is full of marine iguanas, but even their flashy colors are outdone by the Sally Lightfoot crabs, whose bright red shells are an invitation to any passing predator.
Already feeling nostalgic, we gather on the deck for our final passage on Lammer Law. As if to chide us for returning to land, the ocean puts on a show. Ahead there are whales; to port, a school of leaping dolphin; there, someone shouts, a manta leaps. Over there—is that a fin? Birds swirl overhead. How can we leave this incredible place?
We haven’t left yet. Like most Galapagos visitors, we visit the tortoise reserve on Santa Cruz; some of the eleven subspecies still exist on some of the islands or have been moved to the Charles Darwin Research Station for breeding and rearing, but others are believed to have gone extinct. Here in the highlands the vegetation is lush and includes (introduced) mahogany, coffee, and orange trees; there are farms. Now that we’re away from the water, the walk to and from the tortoise habitat provides ample evidence that we are on the equator.
Despite their enormous size, the tortoises are hard to spot in the vegetation because of their color and because they stand under shrubs, but those wallowing in a pond are readily visible.
As the only terrestrial food source in the archipelago—and with the ability to stay alive stacked in the hold of a ship—the tortoises have a sad history. “It is said,” Darwin wrote, “that formerly single vessels have taken away as many as seven hundred, and that the ship’s company of a frigate…brought down in one day two hundred tortoises to the beach.” Many of the introduced species fed on their eggs, as did some of the native animals. George tells us that it’s estimated that three to four hundred thousand were killed by buccaneers.
I’ve read here and there, in travel articles and travel blogs, that people found their experience in the Galapagos Islands to be life-changing in a way they found impossible to describe. I wouldn’t go that far, but I did find it life-enhancing to visit this extraordinary place. The isolation, the landscape, the sheer number and variety of animals—plants, too, if that’s your thing—these are all amazing. The fragility of the ecosystem and the adverse impact of humans—there’s a lesson for us all.
At a Glance
Destination: Galapagos Islands
Why Go: The islands lie 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. A visit under sail is as good as it gets. This isn’t bareboat territory; you’ll need a boat with crew.
Essentials: Ecuador is on Eastern Standard Time year round. The currency is the U.S. dollar. Flights to Quito connect through Miami and Houston, with ongoing flights to the islands (booked through your boat).
When To Go: There are seasons, even on the equator. December-May is warmer and wetter; June-December is cooler and drier. Temperature average 80°F. The low (fewer tourists, lower prices) season is April-May and September-October.
Access: You can book online, but booking through a charter broker will allow you to match your interests with an appropriate boat. I booked through Ocean Voyages (www.oceanvoyages.com) and traveled with owner Mary Crowley, who has perfected her knowledge of the islands and the boat over many visits.
Add-Ons: Some of the people in my group went to Machu Pichi; others spent time in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Quito is a World Heritage City and well worth a visit (beware the 9,200-foot elevation). I spent a few extra days on Santa Cruz split between the Finch Bay Hotel, a short water-taxi ride from Puerto Ayora, and the luxurious and thoroughly enjoyable Royal palm Hotel in the highlands.
More Info: There’s a great deal of information on the Web; I found galapagosonline.com particularly useful. Learn about the programs of the Darwin Station at darwinfoundation.org.
“Even though the Galapagos Islands were settled relatively recently and are still little developed, an enormous proportion of the fauna and flora is endangered,” Dr. Alan Tye, then acting director of the Charles Darwin Research Station, told me. “People do things here that create problems out of proportion to the number of people.”
Even though 95 percent of the original terrestrial species still exist, they are in trouble. Introduced species now outnumber native fauna and flora. Some date back to the days of buccaneers and whalers, who left goats, donkeys, and pigs behind as an ongoing food supply. Now-feral cats, dogs, rats, and insects were left behind by ships; all these introduced animals compete with native species for food or, in the case of rats and cats, prey on birds, tortoise eggs, and iguanas. An eradication program has been under way for some time, and some animals on some islands have been eradicated. But it’s not only introduced animals; it’s also plants and insects. A serious current worry, Tye says, is the blackberry, which will take 10 years to eradicate.
Humans are another invasive animal. Ecuador is a poor country, and emigration to the islands between 2000 and 2005 has increased the human population there by almost 50 percent. “Old-timers,” Tye says, “are people who have been here ten years.” Tye cites the failure of a 1995 law intended to control immigration by limiting immigrants to a temporary five-year residence. It takes only a bribe for the law to be overlooked, he says. The main impact of tourism, he adds, is that it brings in more emigrants who want to share in the relatively buoyant economy of the islands. Overfishing, overhunting, and loss of habitat in the highlands are ongoing issues.
The main message for visitors, Tye says, is that “Galapagos is different. The islands are still relatively unchanged, and their isolation and pristineness should be appreciated.” Visitor sites are well controlled, and direct impact by tourists is negligible. “If we can’t preserve the Galapagos Islands in a relatively pristine state, we can’t do it anywhere.”