3-10 March 2014. The word galápago is an Old Spanish word for tortoise. The Galápagos Islands were named by the Spanish explorers who discovered them in the 16th century. We are visiting the islands of tortoises, the biggest tortoises in the world, and we get to spend time with them on two occasions. We go to the breeding centre on San Cristobal Island. We see baby tortoises as small as five centimetres long, and we see adolescents about a metre long. The babies, dozens of them, are in incubators. The older ones roam the grounds in their slow lumbering way. They are unconcerned about our presence.
Giant Tortoises are the world’s longest-living vertebrates, living an average of 100 years. They are also the biggest tortoises in the world, reaching up to 1.5 metres in length and weighing up to 250 kg. As many as 250,000 were killed during the 17th to 19th centuries for meat and oil, but now, thanks largely to an intensive breeding program, their numbers have increased greatly, and ten of the fifteen species that existed in Darwin’s time still remain. The shape of the shells varies from island to island, each species having adapted to the local climate and terrain. Darwin found this a compelling example that helped lead to the development of his theory of evolution.
A few days later we go to the highlands of Santa Cruz Island where we see a different species in their natural forested environment.
Male tortoises, like the males of most species, fight for dominance. Whoever has the longest neck wins. Seriously. We watch an alpha male move through the green slime of the pond to challenge another. Slowly. What’s the rush? That other guy isn’t going anywhere. When he gets close he lifts his head up as high as it will go. The other tortoise responds by lifting his head, slowly, deliberately. There they rest, both with their heads raised high in the air.
No need to be rushing anything. After a while, at a sedate and leisurely pace, they both pull their heads back in.
Then after a little breather, and a goodly rest, up their heads go again.
You can see who’s going to win here but the one that’s being challenged doesn’t budge; he likes that spot in the pond. So the big guy stretches out his neck and lifts his head up again, as high as it will go. The other tortoise responds. Then slowly back down again. Up again. Down again. It took about ten minutes and about four or five neck stretches. Finally the smaller tortoise admits defeat, and carefully placing one huge elephantine foot in front of the other, lumbers away through the pond scum. Such excitement.
The head of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise was used as the model for the head of the heart-melting alien in the movie ET.
On the second day of our Galapagos cruise, on South Plaza Island, we see Blue-footed Boobies. It is a moment of exultation and we high five in delight. Blue-footed Boobies are one of the unique birds of the Galapagos and we’d watched Youtube videos of their mating dance in which they lift their bright blue feet one after the other, as high as they can. It’s truly comical. Blue feet are an indicator of good health thus are a survival advantage. The mating dance is mostly about the feet, the bluer the better. We didn’t get to see the mating dance, but seeing the birds was gratifying enough. After that first encounter we saw them many times in several different locations.
Frigate birds swarm above the ship almost continually hoping for scraps of food. They are superb flyers, and fight in the air to steal food from each other. They were named, for their thieving ways, after pirate warships.
This one is a Great Frigate
and these are nesting Magnificent Frigates.
I think they’re both great. And definitely magnificent. The red pouch on the male is inflated as part of their courting ritual. Hey! Over here! Look at me!
Swallowtail Gulls are everywhere,
and we frequently see elegant Blue Herons.
Drifting along in the dinghy, close to shore we watch a heron. I take several photos, waiting and waiting for more movement. Then I catch it just as it’s picking up speed for take off.
Not quite so elegant, and definitely more comical is the Galapagos Heron. I take many photos of this particular bird as it hops around on the rocks. I have a full-body profile shot that would be a far better illustration of it, but this shot is much more amusing.
We often see Galapagos Brown Pelicans. They’re ungainly birds, clumsy on land and ponderous in flight, nevertheless they have a droll beauty with that enormous pouched beak. Even though I‘ve seen pelicans many times before I still find them exotic.
After a long hike on Española Island we come to a colony of nesting Nazca Boobies. Wow wow wow, boobies as far as you can see; all over the cliff top and right up to the edge of the path. Hundreds of them. Probably thousands. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say we have to be careful not to walk on them. It’s busy, a continuous commotion as adult birds come and go with food for the fluffy chicks. Like all the wildlife of the Galapagos, they are unconcerned about our intrusion into their world.
Further along the cliff we come to a blowhole that shoots water 23 metres into the air. Spectacular!
On another day, after a long hot hike over dry rocky terrain we see a Red-footed Booby on the cliff. Later we come to the edge of another cliff, and looking down we see more Red-footed Boobies nesting in the trees.
The beautiful Galapagos Dove,
and a Yellow Warbler.
Oh the glorious warm crystal clear water. Almost daily we are swimming and snorkeling.
One day we’re scattered all up and down a beach and in the water. I am snorkeling alone a little way off shore, heading for a nearby islet hoping to see the fish that gather around the underwater rocks. Instead, about half way there I meet a turtle. For a few serene joyous minutes I swim with the turtle, keeping it in sight, then losing it, then finding it again, in a watery game of hide and seek.
On at least two different beaches we see turtle tracks and nests.
During various snorkeling expeditions we see stingrays, large Angelfish and many other varieties of tropical fish, Reef Sharks and White-tipped Sharks.
On one occasion the guide dives deep to encourage two White-tipped Sharks to leave their hiding place under a ledge. Out they come, taking off in opposite directions. And one day we see dolphins and follow them for a while in the dinghy but they are too fast for us. Oh I wish I were back there right now, swimming in the warm clear sea soaking up the enchanted beauty of that underwater world.
On Floreana Island you can leave a postcard in a barrel to be, hopefully, collected and hand-delivered by someone going to the place it’s addressed to. You can also collect and deliver those postcards addressed to your destinations after Galapagos. It’s the continuation of a tradition started by the whaling ships back in the 1800’s before the existence of international postal delivery. I collected a postcard for delivery to Canberra, Australia since I’ll be there later this year. Can’t wait to see the look on the person’s face when I show up at their door with a postcard from Galapagos, probably left months or years ago by a friend or family member who has long-since returned home.
The sea lions of the Galapagos know no bounds. Anywhere they can find some shade is fine by them, including here in the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal. Conservemos lo nuestro! Preserve what’s ours indeed.
After eight days our Galapagos adventure came to an end. It was one of the great highlights of our travels in South America, and one of the best things we’ve ever done. It was an extraordinary magical time and we feel immensely blessed that we were able to go there. If you ever have a chance go! There really is nowhere like it.
Our ship was the Galapagos Legend, run by Klein Tours
Next post: The beautiful colonial town of Cuenca, Ecuador
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.