Spotting wildlife… in the Galapagos
Made famous by Darwin’s writings On the Origin of Species, and more recently David Attenborough’s documentaries, I have dreamt about visiting the Galapagos Islands for as long as I can remember. Located approximately 1,000km off the western coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands comprise of 13 major islands, 6 smaller islands and many more islets and rocks. There is no set time to visit the Galapagos; wildlife is active year-round and as they straddle the equator, the islands don’t suffer dramatic seasonal changes. The seas are calmest from December to March and on the islands, the garua – sea mist – engulfs the highlands from September to October.
While I was there, I celebrated the anniversary of Darwin’s arrival in the Galapagos on 15 September, 1835 – both in the thick of the garua season and when seas are infamously rough. As my plane touched down on the stark, barren island of Baltra, I never could have imagined the beauty and marvellous variation that lay ahead. The Galapagos Islands are some of the best wildlife watching spots on the planet. It is not only the abundance of wildlife, but also the fearlessness of the creatures that make the Galapagos so special.
A sea lion barking
Visitors to the national park are instructed to maintain a five-metre berth from the species at all times to minimise the impact of tourism and protect the natural environment. On our first land excursion, our naturalist guide Maria took great enjoyment from our mortification as we futilely attempted to back away from every curious creature that encroached upon our five-metre radius. On my four-night Western Isle cruise, I experienced up-close wildlife encounters with so many fascinating species. These are just a few of the highlights:
Giant tortoises are the most famous endemic species and the largest living tortoise species in the world, after the death of Lonesome George in 2014, the last remaining Pinta Island tortoise. Weighing as much as 250kg and living as long as 100 years, these gentle giants move extremely slowly. Unfortunately, they have steadily declined in numbers since humans discovered the islands. Today they are carefully protected, but when HMS Beagle made its journey through the islands, they were the main food source. English explorer William Damper wrote in 1697 that the animals are “extraordinarily large and fat, and so sweet that no pullet eats more pleasantly”. Charles Darwin also tried to ride them on numerous occasions!
A giant tortoise
With their iconic bright blue feet, the booby is a prized species in the Galapagos. They can be encountered on each itinerary as well as every I love boobies souvenir! The intensity and shade of their blue webbed feet indicates how well a male feeds himself. Turquoise is the most impressive, as well as the most attractive to the female birds. During mating rituals, the male birds show off their feet with a high-stepping strut. It is thought that they take their name from the Spanish word bobo, which means stupid, due to their clumsiness.
A blue-footed booby
The American flamingo has pink feathers and black-tipped wings and flight feathers, with a wingspan of up to five feet. They tend to live in mudflats or shallow coastal lagoons with salt water. The birds’ amazing colouring comes from their carotene-rich diet, eating small shrimp, seeds, blue-green algae and molluscs. Flamingoes spend almost 80% of their day eating to maintain their bright colour. I was lucky enough to stumble upon some chicks.
The Galapagos penguin is the rarest penguin on the planet and the only species that resides north of the equator, albeit not by much! As one of the smallest penguins in the world, they are endemic to the Galapagos. Closely related to African, Humboldt and Magellanic penguins, they live in caves and crevices in the coastal lava. The Galapagos penguins are often seen on Isabela and Fernandina islands, and if you’re lucky, you can swim with them around Pinnacle Rock on Bartolome.
Galapagos sea lion
These are the trickiest species to keep away from, partly because the pups are so adorable, but mainly because one mistook me for its mother! The naturally playful and inquisitive creatures can dive to depths of 580 metres when hunting for fish. The sound they make between them is similar to barking dogs, and they can be found on sandy shores or rocky areas.
A Galapagos sea lion with a pup
Described by Charles Darwin as “hideous-looking creatures, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in their movements”, marine iguanas are the only oceangoing lizard. Found resting on rocky shores in the Galapagos, they are often spotted secreting excess salt from their bodies by sneezing it out of their nostrils.
The Galapagos finches, also known as Darwin’s finches, are a group of birds found on the Galapagos Islands. There are 14 species, all of which are about four to eight inches long and either brown or black in colour. At Finch Bay Eco Hotel, I was able to enjoy my cup of morning coffee with a dash of milk and a cute finch perched on my chair.
A Galapagos finch
Other incredible species that I wasn’t fortunate enough to capture on camera include the land iguana, Galapagos albatross, Nazca booby, red-footed booby, flightless cormorant, frigatebirds, the Galapagos hawk and the Galapagos fur seal. However, sometimes you just have to put down the camera and live the experience.
Cox & Kings arranges escorted group tours and tailor-made private travel throughout Ecuador & Galapagos Islands. To visit many of the stunning sights described in this article, options include our Ecuador & Galapagos Experience group tour, or the Ecuador & Galapagos Family Adventure. Alternatively, find out more about all our holidays to the Galapagos Islands here.