Galápagos Discovered

My idea of a vacation usually includes visits to museums and historical sites, getting to know the local people and their culture, and going out for long meals at interesting restaurants. Whatever possessed me to agree to visit the Galápagos Islands, those carefully protected bits of land in the Pacific Ocean where Charles Darwin did much of his research and where giant tortoises are known to live?

From the beginning it seemed to be an adventure different from any other. We signed up with National Geographic for an “expedition.” Though we’d be living on a ship, this was no ordinary cruise. It came with a packing list that included waterproof sandals suitable for wet landings via rubber rafts on deserted beaches and for clambering over rough terrain. Basic snorkeling gear would be provided, but we were encouraged to add items like long-sleeved dive skins or rash guards to wear under the short-sleeved wetsuits for sun protection and warmth. Even though the islands, which are part of Ecuador, are at the equator and warm year-round, ocean currents can run cold. Sturdy boots or shoes were also recommended for hikes over hard jagged lava. Yikes!

During my eight days in the Galápagos, I got more than a good workout and a cornucopia of exotic animal images. I also experienced an awakening that was totally unexpected.

I’m not sure just how it started.

Was it the time a mockingbird came pecking up to my toes on the beach? I’d never been so near an un-caged adult bird, especially one that was approaching with curiosity rather than fleeing in fear. Or was it when I was struck with empathy for an iguana because a baby sea lion was using it as a plaything, annoyingly swatting its tail? This was one ugly lizard, not a cute kitty. And how about the half hour I spent with other travelers as we watched a giant tortoise slowly lumber across a road? Traffic stopped (well, two small buses and a few cars) and no one felt an urge to hurry the tortoise along. Somehow, his movement was wondrous.

A trip to the Galápagos Islands, where all the wildlife appears to be unafraid of humans, can really open one’s eyes to the importance of conservation and respect toward animals, plants and landscapes. Of course, the vistas and wildlife in the Galápagos are exotic—black lava rocks and white sand beaches populated with blue-footed boobies, Sally Lightfoot crabs and sea lions galore, all within touching distance—but Long Island coastlines have their own species to be admired. I now look upon egrets, swans and even geese with heightened senses. But I don’t get nearly as close, which is a charm unique to the Galápagos. Visiting this cluster of volcanic islands, it turns out, is a thrilling adventure, like going back to prehistoric times or visiting a sister planet, one that turned out not quite like our earth. No wonder Darwin found inspiration here.

During a visit in 1835, Darwin noted how the strange wildlife had adapted to life in some of the 14 major and many minor islands. His observations later led to his theory of the process of evolution by natural selection.

Several cruise lines and tour companies offer visits to the Galápagos, which include a few islands with human occupants and others that offer only undisturbed nature and regulated visits. It’s possible to stay in a hotel, but you’ll still need a boat to get around to other islands and, for those islands that don’t have docks, a rubber raft like a Zodiac to land on the beach. You’ll also need to be accompanied by a certified guide to visit many of the islands, which form an archipelago. The Ecuadorian government is extremely protective of these fragile environments that comprise one of their national parks.

Choosing a major cruise company is the easiest way to visit. We selected National Geographic, operating in partnership with Lindblad Expeditions, because we were looking for a solid scientific foundation and reliable organization.

We spent our first night at a hotel in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city (Quito, the capital, is another international entry point), before heading out early the next morning for a 90-minute plane ride to San Cristóbal Island, the third largest of the archipelago. We were met by staff members of our ship the Endeavor who whisked us off on our first Zodiac ride, this one from a dock to the ship.

imageBefore lunch, we checked into our cabins, heard welcoming speeches in a comfortable lounge and participated in a safety drill. It was clear that efficiency was a byword here. After lunch—a buffet featuring South American specialties along with American dishes—our group of 77 (including members of an association of science teachers, who kept the staff naturalists on their toes) headed back to the lounge for an introduction to Galápagos natural history. We were also briefed on the rules of the national park, where the goal is for visitors to have zero impact on the environs. By early afternoon, we were off on our first sightseeing Zodiac ride, wet landing and walk along a sand dune, with an opportunity for swimming at the beach.

We had at least two exploration periods every day, often at two different islands or two sites at the same island; the ship would glide to a new destination during lunch. There were always options for harder or easier activities. Not everyone wanted to go snorkeling (or snorkel in deep water with sharks), take the longest hikes or use a kayak.

Me? I was up for long hikes, though I drew the line at one that included a nearly vertical ascent and descent. Instead I went snorkeling in sheltered coves with sea lions. (It was just after my first snorkeling foray that I was approached on the beach by that curious mockingbird.) I preferred a Zodiac ride with a naturalist explaining the sights rather than taking a kayak, though kayaking did look like fun.

We headed next to Española and its unique species of lava lizards, mockingbirds and Darwin’s finches. It was here that I watched a fuzzy baby sea lion swatting an iguana that looked as though it would rather not be bothered. This island is also a nesting ground for waved albatrosses. We came upon a mating dance among a small group of these unusual birds and stayed quiet taking pictures and watching them for quite a while. They circled each other in pairs, their necks moving in and out (walking like an Egyptian), and switched partners midway, which was totally unexpected. On another day, I was in a Zodiac that happened upon a group of sea turtles mating, one piled on top of another, and again we lingered—there’s something about sex scenes, no matter how chaste they look, that seems to mesmerize us humans.

By the end of the day, we were becoming familiar with (though no less delighted by) blue-footed boobies (birds with bright blue feet that are popular on t-shirts, as are their names) and the bright-red crabs that cling to rocks at the shore. Marine iguanas with red and green scales perched like miniature dragons and floppy sea lions—lots of them, including mother-child duos—lazed on rocks and sand. Hawks and swallow-tailed gulls soared overhead and fountains of spray shot from a blowhole. We had to be careful where we stepped, though, so as not to fall between the rocks we often had to navigate for much of the nearly two-mile hike. I fell into one of those gaps and had to be hauled out, miraculously unharmed.

Our next stop was Floreana, where the walks were shorter but the tales were taller. One of them (apparently true, however bizarre) involves a toothless dentist, a self-proclaimed empress and other colorful characters who once lived (and sometimes disappeared mysteriously) on this isle dotted with extinct volcano cones. I took an optional early morning beach walk. After breakfast, the ship moved to a small offshore volcanic cone named Champion Islet, home of the nearly extinct Floreana mockingbird, a species that was attacked by cats, rats and other predators humans introduced to the main island. Every day, we heard tales of how people had unwittingly introduced animals like pigs and goats (both gone now) that damaged local flora and fauna. Even more egregious was the removal of tens of thousands of giant tortoises by sailors, starting in the 16th century, to be kept alive on ships—they live a long time—until needed for fresh meat.

In the afternoon, we saw another reminder of this area’s place in maritime history when we visited Post Office Bay, where an old barrel has served as a mail drop since at least 1793. Whalers started the tradition of leaving letters home there. The missives would be picked up and, hopefully, delivered by other sailors headed to those ports. Tourists keep this “post office” active today by leaving and retrieving letters.

In the waters surrounding the island, we saw those mating turtles referred to earlier, as well as a colony of tiny Galápagos penguins. That they survive here gives you an idea of how cool ocean currents can be, even at the equator.

imageAfter all this pristine nature, it was a bit of a change to visit Santa Cruz, the second largest island, where 15,000 people live in the town of Puerto Ayora, the most populated in the archipelago. Before hitting the town, we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station, where we met Lonesome George, a centenarian tortoise, who was the last of his kind. Giant tortoises are known to live 200 years, so we were told he could live another century. He was in a pen with two females of a genetically close species, with hopes that they would have offspring. Sadly, nothing ever happened. More sadly still, Lonesome George died in June, an event that made international headlines.

We also saw baby tortoises of various sizes that are part of the research station’s breeding program. They’re surrounded by fences so they won’t be stolen. Each will have a microchip implanted so they can be tracked, and once they’re big enough to survive predators, they’ll be set free on their ancestral island. “When they breed, we will all be dead,” said Antonio Adrian, the naturalist (and our expedition’s photo instructor) who was leading my small group, explaining that they have to be really old to start having children.

As we headed to another area where dozens of huge tortoises reside, we encountered the tortoise that had decided to cross the road and kept us ogling for half an hour. On the way out of this park, we were surprised by another giant tortoise that was blocking our little bus on a narrow path. It wasn’t moving. Sofia Darquea, the naturalist with us (one of the six we rotated among), explained that there are exceptions to the do-not-disturb rule and asked for volunteers to help her carefully carry the tortoise to the side of the path. Five strong people came to her aid—and it was a struggle. Those tortoises are heavy.

The next day we explored the northwestern corner of Santa Cruz, an area called Cerro Dragón, or Dragon Hill, because it is home to a land iguana that is endemic to this island. This is another species that was almost wiped out, in this case by feral dogs. Frigate birds with forked tails soared above us as we crossed over dunes that reminded me how important protective dunes are to the beaches of Long Island. We were on our way here to a stark red-volcanic-ash landscape that looked as though it was part of Mars. Later on, we spied a land iguana near a cactus. “He’s waiting for the flowers to drop,” Adrian explained. “It will be his first meal in several months. The males find food to lure a harem, up to eight females, and he won’t eat until he has enough food for the females.”

Later in the day, I went snorkeling off a beach where I saw starfish, stingrays and tiny fish striped in black and gold as frigates and pelicans swooped above me. Later still, while the Endeavor was anchored near the Daphne Major Islet, we heard more about Darwin during one of the daily informational sessions. Darwin, who arrived in the archipelago aboard the HMS Beagle, discovered that tortoises on different islands had different shapes and that a group of birds now known as Darwin’s finches had beaks that differed markedly from island to island. In the 1970s, British scientists Peter and Rosemary Grant came to Daphne Major to study the finches and discovered that evolution through natural selection is happening at a rate far more rapid than Darwin imagined. The story of the Grants’ research was told by Jonathan Weiner in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Beak of the Finch, a book that’s useful to read before or during a visit to the Galápagos.

On our last full day, we visited Genovesa Island, landing on a beach that is home to hundreds of birds, including red-footed boobies and swallow-tailed gulls, several of them nesting in mangrove trees or on the sand with their offspring. Because of a flight delay, we got an extra day and visited a beach in Santa Cruz where we circled around green turtle nests, which are depressions in the sand with eggs buried underneath them, and watched a blue heron sitting nearby, hoping to catch one of the hatchlings. We were searching for wild flamingoes at one of the brackish ponds that dot the island, but the flamingoes must have flown to another pond.

That’s okay, because I’ll get my thrills watching ospreys tend their young in tall man-made nests—Long Island’s own very successful breeding program—or egrets standing on their long flamingo-like legs in a shimmering local harbor.

aileen jacobson

Aileen Jacobson writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications. A former arts and media writer for Newsday, she is also the author of two books.