Giant tortoise

A giant tortoise is shown in the wild in the Santa Cruz highlands.

The Galapagos Islands, 600 miles west of South America, are no longer referred to as the enchanted islands. This is for good reason. Enchant can mean to charm and delight or to bewitch. Regardless of one’s perspective, this archipelago is one of the most unique places on Earth. Kudos to the Government of Ecuador for recognizing this and strictly regulating visitation and activities by designating 97 percent of the Galapagos as a National Park (1959). The remaining 3 percent is inhabited by 25,000 residents spread over five of the islands.

Galapagos is named after its giant tortoises, and consists of thirteen major islands, six minor ones and over 200 rocks and islets.

Approximately 97 percent of the reptiles and land mammals, 80 percent of the land birds, and 30 percent of the plants are found nowhere else. Some of the best known are the giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, finches, and flightless cormorants. In 1978, Galapagos became the first designated UNESCO World Heritage site.

Most folks don’t realize that a 51,000-square-mile marine reserve surrounds the Galapagos Islands. Habitats here include reefs, lagoons, wetlands, and underwater volcanoes and cliffs. The biodiversity here is supported by the convergence of five major warm and cold ocean currents that enable nutrient-rich cold water to rise from the ocean floor to the surface.

Galapagos was made famous because of Darwin’s Origin of Species and the data he and others have gathered that support the evolution of species through natural selection and genetics. Those animals surviving harsh conditions to reproductive age could pass on the genes that would confer advantages for survival under similar conditions. Those best suited to survive changing conditions would pass on their traits allowing “survival of the fittest”.

Long before and for some time after Darwin, sailors and whalers found this place “bewitching” because of the harsh conditions related to volcanic origins, droughts, cold seas despite being at the equator, lava flows, cacti and little other vegetation, scarcity of drinking water, and gigantic animals. The earliest permanent residents arrived in the 1800’s. Unfortunately, humans hunted the giant tortoises and many marine species to near extinction, and introduced cats, rats, dogs, and pigs that devastated many of the bird and reptile populations that previously had no predators.

Conservation efforts and regulations have restored some of these species, especially tortoises, birds, and reptiles. Although Ecuador’s mainland is home to 10 percent of all the world’s species of amphibians, none have survived in Galapagos. Many mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, and insects live here and are uniquely adapted. The geology and origins of the islands themselves is quite unique and interesting, each arising from volcanic activity along hot spots in the earth’s crust. The highest and most active islands are those closest to the hot spot, whereas older islands are eroded and more distant moving along paths related to the tectonic plate movements.

Bonnie and I visited Galapagos aboard a 20-person yacht 11 years ago and were positively enchanted by this unique biosphere. This time we joined a National Geographic Expedition on the Endeavor II (NGE II), along with 71 travelers plus the Lindblad crew and naturalists, exploring these waters and islands by hiking, kayaking, zodiac-boating, and snorkeling. Our week of observations and study will be another one of those forever memories.

Like Darwin’s visit in 1835, our first stop was at the easternmost island San Cristobal. We visited Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital and administrative center for the Galapagos, before embarking on the NGE II anchored in Wreck Bay. San Cristobal has the only freshwater lake in the Galapagos.

Our first full day was spent on Espanola. In Gardner Bay, marine iguanas basked along the rocky shorelines, while sea lions played in the water and along the sandy beach, where birds were also fearless of our presence. At Punta Suarez we were greeted by more sea lions, marine iguanas, and birds. The waved albatrosses, blue footed boobies, Nazca boobies, mockingbirds, Darwin’s finches, and lava lizards allowed close encounters of the best kind. On each island, the finches are unique, having adapted to environmental conditions and food availability. Along the breezy lava strewn paths of coastal cliffs, we saw albatrosses nesting and doing their courtship dances, while swallow-tailed gulls and other seabirds soared along the wind currents and near blow-holes.

On Floreana, we watched the graceful and seemingly choreographed feeding behaviors of a dozen pink flamingos and observed pintail ducks in a pond beneath Palo Santo tree-forested volcanic cones. We observed various boobies and seabirds along the olivine beaches. By zodiac boat, we found some rare Floreana mockingbirds that were driven to near extinction by cats, rats and other introduced predators. We also visited the famous Post Office Bay, where whalers left mail in a barrel for travelers to hand deliver to their home towns. Floreana was the second of only four islands Darwin visited in his 5-week stay.

At Santa Cruz, the second largest island, we visited Puerto Ayora where 18,000 folks live. We visited the Darwin Research Station and saw first-hand its efforts to restore unique tortoises to their islands of origin. We also learned how a specific fruit fly introduced to the island is causing a specific finch to become extinct. Later we observed giant tortoises in the wild. We also visited a sugar cane mill in the highlands, El Trapiche, where we saw how early settlers lived and produced candy, alcohol, and coffee while living off agriculture and fishing. Now tourism is the bulk of their economy. The southern end of Santa Cruz is very much a tropical rainforest, whereas the northern part of the island is arid. At “Dragon Hill”, we saw endangered land iguanas, their burrows, and forests of prickly pear cacti and incense trees. Later we snorkeled and zodiac-boated along the famous Daphne Major islet where British scientists, Rosemary and Peter Grant, documented evolution in action with their studies of the ecology of Darwin’s finches.

One of my favorite islands was Bartolome, because of its moon-like landscapes, volcanic structures, and view of Pinnacle Rock and an associated caldera. We hiked over four-hundred man-made steps to reach the summit of this tiny island. The only life found here was some lava lizards and dry grass, cacti, and an isolated dandelion tree.

Perhaps the most fascinating island was Genovesa, “bird island”. After anchoring in its horseshoe-shaped caldera, we went by zodiac to Prince Philip’s Steps, where we had a very steep climb up the rocky cliff to designated paths on top. We came across nesting Nazca boobies while searching for the elusive Galapagos owl. We saw hundreds of frenzied storm petrels in erratic flying patterns, dozens of the magnificent frigates, and witnessed an in-air capture and ingestion of a petrel by a frigate. Along the rocky paths, we also saw many iguanas, red-footed boobies, and blue-footed boobies. We observed their courting and competitive behaviors. At Darwin Bay, we hiked along the rugged shoreline, observing many seabirds, marine iguanas, Sally light-foot crabs, and nesting behaviors, while enjoying a refreshing breeze.

Another highlight of our expedition was the observation of the Galapagos penguins, in the water and along rocky coasts. This is the furthest north penguins travel, enjoying the cold waters of the Humboldt Current.

Most folks have a visit to the Galapagos on their “bucket list”. Based on our experience, this is one of the most unique and worthwhile trips anyone could make. Once again, kudos to the Ecuadorian government, other conservationists, and to all who advocate for good stewardship of our Earth’s resources, as such places may be preserved for future generations to enjoy and to understand the interconnectedness of all life.

Editor’s note: This story is one in an occasional travel series by Dr. Robert Burke, a local doctor who is sharing his experiences from a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands.