Do I need to say anything about the islands made famous by Charles Darwin and his voyage in the Beagle? Contrary to popular belief the Galapagos didn’t inspire Darwin to come up with his Theory of Evolution. He already had ideas and the clear differences between species on the different islands helped to prove the theory. I say helped because Darwin had many more ideas and questions yet to be answered when he got back to England. He did another 23 years of research before he finally published his seminal work On the Origin of Species.
That is not to say though that the islands didn’t have a major influence on his thinking. How could they not? Each island was a perfect example of an experiment in evolution, all in near proximity to each other. Even today speciation is still on-going in the islands.
The Galapagos Islands are a microcosm of wonder and beauty that have been untouched by human hand for one of the longest periods. Today there is more and more tourism and of course locals living there but despite the pressures of the modern world Nature still has a strong hold on the archipelago.
There is a rule in the National Park (which is the whole Galapagos) that you must stay at all time 2 m away from any animals. For those that have been searching for deer in the almost disappeared woodlands of Europe that might seem like a fantasy but in fact it is hard to do. The wildlife is so abundant that it is possible to tread on an iguana’s tail by mistake. However an effort should still be made to maintain distance. For photographers it is time to put away that long lens you bought for Africa and take out a regular portrait lens.
All over the place there are animals but to get the best out of a visit time underwater is necessary. For those that don’t dive snorkeling is of course and option. If you can’t swim just get some friends and a life jacket and have them tow you round. Especially when the Humboldt current is strongest (September to November) the marine world is amazing. Seals are diving, turtles gliding by, rays and many other fish swimming round and if you are lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view) sharks as well. Wolf Island in the North is a haven for hammerhead sharks.
Of course above the sea there is plenty of unique species to see. Galapagos Seals and Galapagos Fur Seals are of course endemic and there are many bird species. Top of the bill for land animals though are of course tortoises. There are different species from each island and the giant tortoise was a favourite of mariners in years gone by. Amazingly able to spend weeks without eating or drinking the animals were taken on board ships to be a source of fresh food and water for the crew. Unfortunately this led to a decimation of the population. There are still some of these herbivores on the islands but the four species of Giant Tortoise are extinct today. Lonesome George, the last of his kind, died in 2012 on the Island of Santa Cruz at the tortoise centre. The centre is involved in the research and breeding of the remaining non-giant species.
The Galapagos are also a paradise for bird lovers. There are finches which are found on specific islands only and helped Darwin formulate his theory but the birds most people want to see are boobies. There are two species. Each lives separately and one has blue feet. The other red. The birds are closely related to Gannets and share the beautiful and distinctive face and eye. They also dive to feed in the same way. However they breed slightly differently. Female Boobies like to pick males with strong coloured feet. The deeper the colour the more attractive the male is. This has led over time to two species having very distinctive feet, so bright and obvious a marking that it has been what distinguishes the species in the common names.
The best way to experience the many islands is by boat. There is no escaping the fact that a crusie will get you to the best places to see the most different animals as efficiently as anything. Cruises come in different shapes and sizes but nothing is like carribbean cruising. Only a handful of ships have a license for 100 passengers. The majority hold about 16 people plus crew. Cruise are generally for three, four, eight or 15 days. Quite simply this is a function of the position of the islands and so the ability to cruise is determined by the ability to let passengers off at a port.
Choosing where to cruise depends on your taste in landscape and animals. See below for details on the individual islands and their specific strong points.
Best Time to Go
- Year round: There is always something happening
- January to March: Water visibility is best for diving (about 30 m /100 ft)
- July to Septermber: The ‘cold’ season – evenings can be chilly
- September to November: Due to the Humboldt current water activity is good – breeding time for seals
- The Galapagos sit right on the equator about 900 km (550 miles) west of Ecuador in South America
- There are 19 islands in total and many more islets
- Discoverd by the Europeans in 1535
- 95 endemic species of vertebrates on land
- The only penguins that live in the Northern Hemishphere
- Home to the Marine Iguana, the only iguana that swims in the ocean
- One of the major inspirations for Darwin’s life of study
Wolf Island to the North of the Galapagos is world famous for its Hammerheads. They congregate here in numbers unseen anywhere else in the world.
The Island is away from the main archipelago and doesn’t have inhabitants. In fact landing here under normal circumstances is forbidden. They people who come do so exclusively to dive in its pristine waters.
There are a few different species of Hammerhead and they are found from South Africa to Costa Rica. In the waters off Wolf Island and its neighbour Darwin both Great- and Smooth-Hammerheads are to be found. However most come to see the Scalloped-Hammerheads that congregate during the day in schools of up to 250 or maybe even more.
Diving with the Hammerheads is amazing on its own but you are also likely to see Manta Rays and if you are lucky even Whale Sharks. The best time see Hammerheads here is between June and November.
A favourite of bird watchers are the blue- and red-footed boobies that the Galapagos are famed for.
While the land based and smaller birds are endemic to the island chain Boobies aren’t. They can be seen elsewhere around the Pacific from the coast of South America to Christmas Island on the other side of Australia.
However as they are pelagic birds they tend to spend a lot of time out to sea. Given this they don’t have a lot of options for land and the Galapagos is one spot that they frequent.
Related to the Gannet boobies are beautiful birds and due to sexual selection have developed a curious morphology whereby certain species have red feet and certain others blue.
To the Boobies themselves the distinction of brighter or darker feet is important as a marker of genetic value but to us it is just makes them prettier or maybe more photogenic.
In the Galapagos the Blue-footed species is found almost everywhere but the Reds are generally confined (though of course they can fly away) to the Island of Genovesa.
Individual Island Character
The main island of the archipelago, Santa Cruz is home to the main Airport for flying to the mainland and to Puerto Ayora, the main commercial centre and the best place to base yourself if you aren’t on board a cruise.
Just outside of the town of Puerto Ayora is the Darwin Centre, a great place to see some of the conservation efforts in place and learn more about the difficulties facing the island.
The town itself is quite touristy but if you want to do some individual trips this is a perfect place to book them. Most of the businesses offer everything from diving and snorkelling to inland climbs of volcanoes. One piece of advice is to enquire deeply into their eco-practises. These do vary and some operators aren’t always as conscientious as they can be.
Cheap doesn’t always equal a bargain even if it seems that the same trip is offered. Similarly more expensive isn’t necessarily a better boat or a better guide. Recommendations are hard to give as business names and levels change quite quickly. Recent reviews on sites like TripAdvisor are a good starting place.
Isabella is the largest of the Galapagos Islands. It has three large volcanoes, some which have been recently active.
These volcanoes have created a rather unique ecosystem as life tries to take back the lava flows that in the last few years have threatened to destroy it.
The Tortoises that live here are endangered and inland they are recovering. There isn’t really many inhabitants on Isabella except for the area around Puerto Villamil in the south. The north is therefore best accessed by boat.
Cruising the Galapagos
Cruising is without doubt the most efficient way to see the Galapagos Islands. As you need to travel by boat anyway you might as well do so over night while sleeping and be able to get straight to seeing animals first thing in the morning.
It cuts out on travel time and importantly helps to keep development down on the outer islands. In fact some islands are not accessible any other way.
While individual travel is possible to most islands and getting a local guide there is also reasonably easy the ease of having everything taken care of is fantastic. Also the cost factor of transporting goods to and from the far flung islands means that a cruise that stops every two weeks in Puerto Aroya to refuel/refill can actually be cheaper than staying and eating on other islands.
Most cruises take in a combination of land and water based habitats, stopping in places for short periods and allowing you to maximise the different ecosystems that you visit. Doing so independently will take a lot longer unfortunately.
While there are many different levels of cruise almost all are all inclusive and include a knowledgable naturalist guide and both land and water based excursions. Generally diving isn’t included but snorkelling often is.
Most yachts take about 12-16 people and do a two week circuit. This can be split up into to a 8N/7D trip or even shorter 3 or 4 night trips. These are done on a basic weekly system of A and B itineraries.
For example an A itinerary might be a week from the main hub of Puerto Ayrora northwards around the largest island of Isabella with a stop in San Salvador and across to San Cristobal. The B itinerary might then visit other parts of San Cristobal, and return to Puerto Ayrora via the smaller islands of Santa Maria (aka Floreana) and Española.
Of course certain species are only found on certain islands so the choice of itinerary can be decided by your desire to see certain animals. For example Red-Footed-Boobies are most often found on Genovesa Island, the Blue-footed is a bit more common. Tortoises are found on most of the bigger islands but each has different shell styles and sizes.
Fewer ships make it to the northern Islands as landing on them is a bit more difficult and sometimes forbidden. However a trip to Wolf Island is one that will probably give a diver one of their best ever experiences. It is a haven for Hammerhead Sharks.
Whatever you choose you are guaranteed a collection of landscapes and habitats you haven’t seen elsewhere.