The best thing about the Galapagos Islands, is that all the animals, birds and sea-life living there just go about their days as they would normally, unimpressed by humans wielding cameras. Boats, lounge chairs, picnic benches and footpaths are considered their territory, and in our hotel, one of the lounge areas now has a sign that it exclusively belongs to the sleeping sea lions. You actually need to watch where you step, there might be a sunbathing iguana underfoot.
There are signs throughout the islands on correct etiquette – don’t get closer than 2 meters, do not feed and stay on the paths. Bags are checked for any organic matter (even between islands) and you are prohibited from taking a single rock off the islands. The locals are very very careful to protect the wildlife to try to keep plant and animal life like it was hundreds of years ago. All the residents of the islands work in tourism or conservation in some form (boats, hotels, naturalists, restaurants, shops, taxis, tour guides, researchers, translators) and you need a special permit to work in the Galapagos so people from the mainland cannot come and take limited jobs the locals need.
The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of shield volcanic islands, 926 km away from mainland Ecuador, located either side of the equator in the Pacific Ocean.
The islands were formed by volcanic eruptions so they were never attached to other land masses, and with the exception of introduced animals on some islands (cows, cats, dogs) they remain populated with native and endemic species. It is thought some reptiles arrived on vegetation rafts from the mainland, but no mammals would survive such a long journey. About 80% of the land birds, 97% of the reptiles and land mammals, and more than 30% of the plants in the Galapagos are endemic.
Native: Organisms brought to a location without the help of man, such as by wind, the sea and or by birds. They are the same as those found in other locations in the world (have not changed).
Endemic: Organisms that are native and can be found only in that location (they changed to suit their new environment).
Introduced Species: Organisms that were brought to that location by humans.
Iguanas are everywhere, and you really have to watch where you step as they really camouflage into concrete sidewalks, decks and stone paths. They are intimidating looking prehistoric creatures – and quite possibly Peter Jackson’s inspiration for Orcs. Apparently if you get too close, they can give you a whack with their tail. The Galapagos has two types of iguana: creatively named Land Iguana and Marine Iguana. The Marine Iguana is unique among lizards as it swims in the ocean and eats seaweed and algae, making it a marine reptile.
I did a land based tour – we stayed on two islands, Santa Cruz and Isabela – which I was super happy about after the first of our 2 hr speedboat rides. The sea wasn’t particularly rough, but it was choppy and people were throwing up so I was happy to be sleeping on land. Apparently the difference between land and sea based tours is that on land, you get to see more of the fauna and daily life, whilst sea based tours offer more wildlife sightings (same animals but more of them). Even on a 2 hour speedboat ride we saw a humpback whale breaching from the side of the boat.
We snorkelled every day which was a highlight, as the marine life did not care we were there, and so it was a chance to see how creatures really are in the ocean. Sea lions are known for their playfulness, and snorkelling with them can be hazardous to your health… I was snorkelling along when one sped out straight towards me from behind rocks, I squeaked with fright into my snorkel (giant brown thing coming straight at me out of nowhere very fast) and then watched as he zoomed away a metre from my shoulder, no doubt giggling.
They are curious in the water and will come right up to you to see what you are doing, and to blow bubbles at your mask. They are also super fast swimmers, which is hard to reconcile when you see them shuffling up boat ramps to sleep (snoring) on land. However they are also incredible posers, and when approached with a camera, somehow manage to look mysterious and beautiful like they have had lessons.