I don’t need a sign warning me to “Yield to Sea Lions.” When a big fellow lumbers across my path you can bet I stop to give him the right of way. Sea lions, like most animals on the Galapagos Islands, are nonchalant toward humans because they are protected here. This guy completely ignores me, though the feeling isn’t mutual. I gawk and madly click away with my camera.
Straddling the equator about 600 miles off the west coast of South America, this archipelago of volcanic islands was cut off from the rest of the world through most of its existence. Some of the rarest wildlife on earth lives here, including some subspecies specific to just one island—creatures who’ve adapted to the unique conditions of an isolated fly speck on the planet. Naturalist Charles Darwin came through the islands as a young man and was so struck by the rarity of the animals he began to form his theory of evolution. More than 20 years later he published “Origin of the Species” that argued the case for natural selection.
In Your Bucket Because . . .
- You love animals and long to see them in their natural environment.
- You want to see where Darwin came up with his theory of survival of the fittest.
- Good for anyone with an interest in natural history and zoology.
Ecuador, which governs the Galapagos Islands, has designated the islands a national park and the United Nations put them on its list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Just four of the 13 major islands and six minor islands are inhabited. Sixty visitor sites are accessible only by boat, 100 people at a time accompanied by an authorized naturalist guide.
In Darwin’s Footsteps
Like most visitors, I’m touring the islands on a small ship and using rubber boats, called pangas, to transfer to shore. With no docks, I land by climbing over the edge of the raft onto either a rocky shoreline or jumping into the surf and wading to shore. It helps to be sure footed. On nature hikes I’m instructed not to touch or feed the animals, disturb their nesting areas or get too close. Still, I am near enough to hear the suckling sound of a mama sea lion nursing her pup. When I go snorkeling, young sea lions swim along with me, playfully torpedoing toward my mask.
The big male sea lions don’t threaten me, but they do love to take on each other. I watch as one male stands guard near a group of females and repeatedly barks to run off rivals. During mating season a male sea lion barks almost nonstop, rarely taking time to eat, so the fattest guys get the girls. In the eyes of a female, these sumo wrestlers of the sea lion world make ideal mates.
The creatures that provoke the most double-entendres are the boobies, a name that comes from the Spanish word for silly: bobo. I watch a blue-footed booby dancing clownishly on big, turquoise webbed feet. I get it. One morning I see a young red-footed booby madly flapping his wings. “He’s learning to fly,” says Maricarmen Ramirez, my naturalist guide. The down that covers the young birds sheds when they get their flying wings, she explains. Their beaks turn blue and their feet red when they reach sexual maturity. “He is at that age when he is desperate to be older,” she says, “like a teenager with braces and a terrible hairdo.”
Witnessing Evolution at Work
During my five-day cruise I see hundreds of huge marine iguanas sunning themselves on black volcanic rock and flightless cormorants that, through adaptation, lost their ability to use their wings because they swim to catch their food. Even though I am at the equator I see penguins posing on a rocky shoreline. Scientists believe they came here on the cold Humboldt Current flowing north from Antarctica and adapted to the warmer climate.
The islands’ most well-known creature, the Giant Galapagos Tortoise, grows more than six-feet-long and weighs more than 500 pounds. It can live up to 200 years, which means Darwin himself may have laid eyes on the eldest of them. At the Darwin Research Station, scientists work to save this endangered species. Pirates and whalers who trolled the islands in the 18th and 19th centuries took untold numbers of them, carrying them aboard ship where they lived for months before they became some hungry man’s dinner.
The name of the islands comes from the shell of these tortoises, which curves up in the front resembling a type of saddle —a galapagos —once popular in Spain. The curve allows the tortoise to raise its long neck to eat leaves on low-lying trees, yet another example of adaptation. I see at one of these tortoises, neck and head raised like a periscope, and understand why it was a model for the creature in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.”
- Getting there: Flights to the Galapagos Islands usually originate in Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador. After paying an admission fee to Galapagos National Park, you typically either board your cruise ship or spend the night in one of the handful of hotels on the islands and board your ship the next day.
- When to go: The rainy season runs from January to June and dry season is July to December. You’ll get the best weather from both seasons in November, December, May and June.
- Physical requirements: If you’re prone to seasickness, bring over-the-counter or prescription remedies. You should be in good enough physical shape to get in and out of rafts for shore landings. Some nature walks are over rocky, uneven terrain.
- Cruises and tours: Among the companies that offer Galapagos cruises are Metropolitan Touring, Abercrombie & Kent, Travcoa, Overseas Adventure Travel and Big Five Tours & Expeditions.