From the moment you arrive in the Galapagos, your eyes stay wide open. While waiting for a zodiac to take you over to your cruise ship anchored off Baltra Island, coal-black marine iguanas shuffle below the jetty and magnificent frigatebirds glide over the bay.
Another seabird dives close by, followed by a gang of pelicans performing their low-flying bomber trick. A shape appears in the sea…seal? Shark? The myths are true. Nature is everywhere here – and oh so easy to observe.
Everyone knows the Galapagos as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ vacation, and that these much-mythologized islands are a wildlife wonderland. But no one tells you the backdrop is also remarkable: smooth, low islands, dotted by lime-green forests, with red-sloped volcanoes at their hearts and black beaches on their fringes.
Nature is everywhere here – and oh so easy to observe.
The species sightings soon mount up on your visit. On a ride around the tranquil mangroves of Black Turtle Cove, spotted eagle and manta rays swim beside the boat, while a lava heron hops around the branches following your route.
As well as the heron, you’ll frequently came across the red-splashed lava lizard and the smoky-grey lava gull. And let’s not forget about the lava cactus and the lava morning glory. Unsurprisingly the word ‘lava’ figures prominently in the names of Galapagos species. The whole archipelago is volcanic, the beaches often black and spiky, with the youngest of the islands, Fernandina, a mere 700,000 years old.
Cruise ships in the Galapagos vary their routes and stagger landings to avoid too many people being in one place at any one time. At each island, you can tick off an iconic species from your must-see list, such as the marine iguana, giant tortoise, flightless cormorant, blue-footed boobies and little penguins.
Because the whole archipelago of 14 main islands and many smaller islets and rocks is a national park, there are tight restrictions on where tourists can go. Non-specialist visitors only have access to around 1% of the landmass.
Still, there’s a lot to encounter within that 1%. On Isabela, you can approach a tortoise so close you can hear it breathing. Sit down near one, and it will walk up to you—its great, prehistoric legs moving clumsily, neck jutting out—trying to eat anything in its path.
This magic happens with smaller species too. One of the islands’ famous mocking birds loves to come up to people and hop around their feet, playfully pecking at exposed toes.
It would be hard to measure tameness, and no doubt the rise of tourists in the past 30 years have had a significant impact on animal behavior. But when you come from a built-up, heavily populated country, where pristine nature is in short supply, to see a tiny, fragile bird being so gregarious is awe-inspiring.
Inspiration follows you into the waters too. While snorkeling inside a cave to see penguins and marine turtles, you may spot small white-tipped reef sharks, scowling from the dark areas in the lava. Come up from air and you’ll be greeted by boobies on the rock, their heads tilted quizzically eyeing your gear.
Nature teems and makes you dizzy in the Galapagos. You could easily begin to take it all for granted. But you mustn’t; everything is too wondrously beautiful and precariously fragile. Thankfully, responsible tourism remains an essential means of protecting this unique and unforgettable paradise.
A little peek at some of the animals which make this place so special.
Lava lizard: Nine of the 22 species are endemic to the islands; their grey scales with a red flash is ideal for blending in with the volcanic backdrop.
Galapagos penguin: The only penguin that lives north of the equator, luxuriating in the cool Humboldt Current.
Galapagos mockingbird: This gregarious bird is more predatory than most, feeding on lava lizard eggs, among other things.
Flightless cormorant: Found on Fernandina and Isabela, this bird never evolved wings as it had no natural predators.
Darwin’s finches: Fifteen small bird species all with different sized and shaped beaks, adapted to indigenous foodstuffs.
Galapagos giant tortoise: The world’s largest tortoise, able to live – and eat, ever so slowly – for up to 170 years.
It would take books, and there are plenty, to share all the unique features of the Galapagos, but none of them will ever compare to seeing it for yourself.