Galapagos Islands: How I met the animals

Galapagos Islands is one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet. It's a melting pot of diverse fauna and home to more than 2000 species found nowhere else in Earth. Since the islands were first discovered in 1535, anthropogenic (man-made) changes are the biggest environmental threat affecting the species on the islands.

Charles Darwin visited the islands in 1835 and his research here inspired him to produce his seminal work on evolutionary biology, “On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection”. This brought increased attention to the islands. Conservation efforts increased in recent years but the ecosystem degradation continues unabated, driven by a myriad of factors including climate change, deforestation, overfishing, pollution and introduction of invasive species. Today, around 30,000 people live in the Galapagos and another 200,000 visit the islands each year putting enormous strain on the delicate ecosystem.

I visited the islands to see the animals I had researched about, how their livelihood is impacted and the result of the conservation efforts in protecting this ecological treasure.

Arriving in Galapagos Islands

After two hours of impatient flight from the Ecuadorian mainland, I was thrilled to spot some volcanic islands floating on the Pacific Ocean through the window on my right. A Russian traveler, sitting between me and the window, turned on his GPS, and we confirmed that the island to our right was Isla Daphne Mayor. We headed straight to Isla Baltra and landed 5 minutes later. Isla Baltra served as a US Air Force base during World War II. Now, it is an Ecuadorian military base. I was surprised to notice that Isla Baltra was arid and appeared devoid of any plant or animal life. We crossed the Itabaca Channel on a small ferry to arrive in Isla Santa Cruz.

Isla Santa Cruz

On the bus to Puerto Ayora, the capital, changes in the landscape of Isla Santa Cruz are very noticeable. North of the island is pretty hot and arid, more like an extension of Isla Baltra. As we drove south, the center of the island gained elevation and turned lush. This is where I first noticed creeps of giant Galapagos tortoises mulling over in the drizzle on the ranches on both sides of the road. These are the largest species of tortoise and among the longest-lived vertebrates. Further south lies Puerto Ayora which is very green with beautiful beaches and tropical weather. The bus ride took an hour. The first sight of Puerto Ayora dampened my excitement a little as it was plagued by the typical tourist setting – hawkers offering unsolicited services and selling tickets to everything, random construction of hotels and hostels, and ubiquitous presence of bars and pubs. One can see the anthropogenic impact in action.

My first stop was the Charles Darwin Research Station, the largest and the oldest science and conservation organization in Galapagos. We are in marine iguana country now. Marine iguanas belong to the lizard family and have the ability to live and forage at sea. Along the way, and in the two beaches next to the research station, the challenge is not to find a Marine Iguana but not to step over one. In this part of the island the marine iguanas are plentiful. However, the conservation status is “vulnerable” as the marine iguana population is impacted by the introduction of cats and dogs - who predate upon the juveniles - and by marine pollution - particularly microplastics and oil spills. 

Galapagos tortoises, the mascot of the island, are the biggest attraction in the Charles Darwin Research Station. The scientists at the research station work for the conservation of Galapagos land and marine ecosystems. Some of the tortoises here were born in the 19th century! They are as big as they are old.

Further down the road, within the research station, I came across the most colorful of all the animals in the Galapagos – Land Iguana. Land iguanas can live for more than 50 years. I saw a stunning yellow land iguana. There are rarer pink land iguanas but more on it later.

Just south of the research station, back on the beach, I saw a cast of beautiful electric red crabs – Sally Lightfoot Crab. Perched on top of the black volcanic rock, the contrast is stunning and you can’t miss it from 100 meters away. These are extremely agile animals and are, thankfully, plentiful on the islands.

The next day I visited  the beach in Tortuga bay. In the early hours, the beach was secluded. I watched the marine iguanas swimming towards me. Their dark body was in stark contrast to the white sandy beach as each one of them headed towards their favorite rock to sunbathe. Sunbathing helps the iguanas raise their body temperature after long periods in the cold water foraging. The adults are black but during mating season the males adopt beautiful coloration as seen on this island.

My final stop on the island was Rancho Primicias, a private ranch open to the public for a small fee where you can wander around at will and see dozens of giant Galapagos tortoises in their habitat. Some of them are over 100 years old. A few minutes walk from Rancho Primicias is located the 1000m long lava tunnel. Isla Santa Cruz is a large dormant volcano; the lava tunnel is a testimony to the last eruptions that occurred here around a million and a half years ago.

Isla Isabela

After a three hour boat ride from Isla Santa Cruz I arrived in Isla Isabela – the largest of the Galapagos Islands. I was welcomed by a herd of friendly Sea Lions as soon as we got out of the boat with dozens of them lounging around in the benches right next to the ferry terminal oblivious to the human presence. In the next few days, we will find the sea lions everywhere in proximity to water – on the beach, in the boats, on markers in the middle of the sea, and in all the benches along the beach. Hours go by watching their shenanigans. They are an endangered species and their biggest threats come from climate change - the recent El Nino event causing collapse in marine life population upon which the sea lions are dependent - and domestic dogs that end up transmitting diseases to sea lions.

Las Tintoreras

Islet Las Tintoreras lies just south of Puerto Villamil, the only town on Isla Isabela. After a boat ride that lasted barely ten minutes, we arrived at one of the small islets in Las Tintoreras, and had our first look at Galapagos Penguins. Penguins do visit the beaches of Puerto Villamil around sunrise and sunset when the temperature is cooler. However, it is more likely to find them in their colonies all day here in Las Tintoreras. It is not every day you get to play with penguins. These are magnificent creatures. The species is endangered and the same recent El Nino event caused a massive drop in reproductive rates significantly affecting the numbers.

Las Tintoreras is one of the newer volcanic islands uninhabited by humans. The rocks are black and the vegetation sparse. I found hundreds of iguanas here. Again, the male iguanas put on a brilliant coat of color with blotches of green and red on their scaled body to attract females. If that is not enough to identify a male iguana, males are considerably larger than their female counterparts, and have longer and sharper spikes. 

If you look patiently under the rocks, you may even spot some Lava Lizards. In contrast, you don’t need any effort – however, you need to be lucky – to spot a Yellow Warbler. The bright yellow plumage of the bird is an unmissable sight.

The water around Las Tintoreras is clear as crystal, teeming with corals and aquatic life. The bright sun and the warm water was a perfect invitation for a dip. The underwater world is more vivid than anything above water. The clear water made it easy to spot hundreds of schools of fish in all shape, form and color. The star of the show was the Pacific Green Turtle. The majestic turtle swathed in emerald green, swimming next to me, was a joy to behold.

The Wall of Tears

Galapagos Islands have not always been this pure-spirited, tranquil and peaceful. Isla Isabela was used as a penal colony by the government of Ecuador due to its distance from the mainland. Just after World War II, prisoners spent their time building a wall which lies 5 km west of Puerto Villamil. Locals call this wall “The Wall of Tears”. Built between 1945 and 1959, this wall stands testimony to the brutal conditions that the prisoners had to undergo during their imprisonment on the island. Even today, the air around the wall feels heavy and the atmosphere eerie.

The best way to get to the wall from Puerto Villamil is, arguably, by bike. Our first stop was Salinas Lagoon. We saw two Pink Flamingos here. The lagoons west of Puerto Villamil apparently have the highest congregation of flamingos in Galapagos. In the next two to three kilometers, we noticed some of the best beaches in Galapagos – un-spoilt. Without giving in to temptations, we pedaled on. The last three kilometers to the wall is all dirt road. We saw more marine iguanas.

The Wall of Tears looked insignificant for all the baggage of history it carried. As I parked my bike to take a closer look at the wall, I heard a hiss. My senses are so well tuned to the Galapagos life by now I knew as soon as I heard the sound that it was coming from a tortoise. Indeed, right next to the bike rack, hidden behind a rock, was a tortoise trying its menacing best to scare me away. 

Before you hit the Wall of Tears, there is a small hill called Cerro Orchilla. An easy climb up the hill rewards the viewer with an amazing 360 degree view of the island. To the east lies Puerto Villamil, Las Tintoreras, and the vast Pacific Ocean. To the north, as far as eyes take you, sprawls the green carpet peppered with volcanoes – small and big. Further north, farther than your eyes can see, lies the remarkable Wolf volcano.

Wolf Volcano

Wolf volcano provided one of the most significant conservation success stories in recent years. A 2022 expedition resulted in significant discoveries of the world’s only population of Pink Iguanas estimated at less than 300 individuals in total. First spotted in 1986, there were no sightings of the pink iguanas in over a decade leading to concerns about possible extinction of the species. Thankfully the pink iguanas are well and alive, albeit critically endangered, and conservationists are doubling down the efforts to save them.

Concha de Perla and Malecon Beach

Right next to the ferry terminal in Puerto Villamil lies Concha de Perla, a mangrove. I went there to catch the sunrise which is a majestic sight in itself. I jumped into the water to see sea lions swimming right next to me. You can spot schools of fish in the clear water. This place is also a pilgrimage for ornithologists. A 10 minute walk away from this place lies Malecon beach. Penguins come here from Las Tintoreras in the morning as the water has not warmed up yet. If you want to swim with the penguins, this is probably your best bet.

Malecon beach has a pier. After swimming for a while, I walked up to the edge of the pier to spot two beautiful birds – a Blue Footed Booby and a huge pelican. 

As I moved closer, I expected the birds to fly away. But, they were lost in their own thoughts, and unmoved in a meditative state. I was surprised that the booby and the pelican didn’t even flinch as I moved closer. Even though I was glad I was able to take great pictures, a part of me wished the birds flew – for their own safety. Their lack of reaction personifies the free-spiritedness of the Galapagos Islands. The animals and birds here do not perceive us, humans, as threats. It’s our imperative to conserve them and repay that trust.


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