Wildlife watching in the Galapagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands' unique wildlife, untouched islands and incredible natural beauty never fail to disappoint as Lyn Hughes discovers

6 mins

Johnny Depp was winking at me. OK, it wasn’t actually the actor who plays Captain Jack. And he bore little resemblance to any type of sparrow. Rather, he was a magnificent frigatebird – the pirate of the skies – with glossy black plumage, a long hooked beak and a patch of red on his neck that would no doubt inflate when he was trying to impress the Keira Knightleys of the frigatebird world.

Earlier in the day I had watched the aerobatics above Genovesa Island as these opportunistic bird-buccaneers harassed and chased other birds, trying to steal either their food or nesting materials. Not that there was any honour among thieves – once a frigatebird had successfully stolen something, that frigate would, in turn, be pursued relentlessly by its comrades.

And there was plenty of opportunity for thievery. Down below, just behind the dazzling coral sand of Darwin Bay, was a city of birds, all living cheek by jowl – or bill to wing. The bushes were full of frigatebirds with sex, rather than kleptomania, on their minds, the males all trying to attract the ladies by displaying their puffed-up scarlet throat patches. There were also red-footed boobies, either nesting or feeding youngsters, while handsome Nazca boobies looked on superiorly. On the sandy earth, gulls passed each other pieces of coral as part of their courtship ritual.

They were all crammed so close together that when one red-footed booby flew in to feed its youngster, four open beaks from neighbouring nests craned forward asking for food. The booby fed one, but then seemed to have doubts as to whether that was really its off spring, and switched its attentions to a different eager baby.

The Galápagos Islands never disappoint. I have been fortunate enough to have visited before, yet every day of every visit brings new gripping dramas. And the uniqueness and diversity of the animals is still a surprise. The size and variety of the giant tortoises that the archipelago is named after; the penguins (on the equator!); the flightless cormorants; the prehistoric-looking iguanas that are specially adapted to eat underwater... the list goes on and on.

The art of being ignored

I was on a seven-night cruise on the MY Letty, a 25m motor-yacht with only ten cabins. We were taking the western/northern route through the archipelago. Each island is different – not just in its wildlife, but in its vegetation, its topography, even the colour of its sand. Genovesa was our first stop.

Genovesa is a small island with a horseshoe-shaped bay – the remains of a collapsed volcanic caldera – and is known for its prolific birdlife. However, the birds paid us no mind as they went about their everyday activity; they were totally oblivious to us even if we were only a foot or two away.

No matter how many times you visit the Galápagos, it is still a shock to find how you are ignored by the animals. Boarding the Letty at San Cristóbal we had laughed at the sea lions that snoozed on benches and lay across gangways as if they owned them. Here on Genovesa it felt as if we were watching a wildlife documentary on a giant screen, as little tableaux were played out in front of us: the intimacy of a male Nazca booby offering a twig to his mate for approval; a cliff top of thousands of wedge-rumped storm petrels in flight in a relentless search for food; a camouflaged short-eared owl, suddenly striking that cliff top, then appearing with a petrel in its talons.

In the aptly named Darwin Bay, we also had our first snorkelling experience. The Letty carries wetsuits and snorkelling equipment, and there was always at least one opportunity a day to slip into the underwater world. Depending on where we were, we shared the waves with sea lions, white-tipped sharks, marine iguanas, turtles, flightless cormorants, a whole plethora of fish and even penguins.

Back on board, even the long cruises between islands were a wildlife-spotting opportunity. We would often be followed by frigatebirds, which swirled over our boat and came down to rest on the railings and upper canopy. Dolphins would sometimes play in our bow waves. One day we spotted a humpback whale.

Darwin woz ’ere

The Galápagos was discovered in 1535 by the Bishop of Panama, who named it after the saddlebacked giant tortoises he found – galápago meaning ‘saddle’. The archipelago became a hideout for buccaneers who found sheltered bays and plentiful food. The poor tortoises were ruthlessly exploited by sailors for the next three centuries.

Of course, the islands have become synonymous with Charles Darwin, who spent just five weeks here in 1835. After years of pondering, he finally developed his theory of natural selection, in part inspired by what he had seen in the Galápagos.

When we arrived at Isabela – the archipelago’s biggest island– we moored at Tagus Cove, which has provided a sheltered anchorage for pirates over the centuries, and where Darwin’s Beagle once anchored too, in search of fresh water. As I kayaked around the bay I was aware that Darwin would have seen the same view, including ancestors of the penguins and flightless cormorants. Graffiti – the names of ships that have taken shelter here – covers the cliffs; I wondered if Darwin had read any of these scribbles.

Despite the large numbers of tourists that visit the Galápagos today, plus the local population (four of the islands are inhabited), boat landings are so well controlled that you only occasionally see other groups. On the Letty, the crew tried to ensure that we landed at a site at the optimum and quietest time.

This was much appreciated. After all, there is something special about walking on a beach with no other footprints, and a morning landing at Bachas Bay, on Santa Cruz, provided just that. Not that it was pristine – turtle tracks led to the top of the beach, and back down, so a female had presumably laid her eggs in the night. Mysterious thin lines crossed the sand; their source was revealed when a marine iguana headed past, its tail leaving the tell-tale groove in the sand.

The rocks that scattered the shore were alive with Sally Lightfoot crabs of all sizes. Some were black, well camouflaged on the lava. Yet the biggest crabs were the more traditional red. “It is to attract the female crabs,” said our guide, Ceci.

The rockpools were full of life too. In one, a tiny octopus was trying to find somewhere to hide; fish of different sizes were being deposited by the tide into another, larger pool. A heron stood sentinel on one set of rocks, while a pelican cleaned itself on another.

We headed to the top of the beach, where stakes marked several turtle nests. The eggs lie here for two months before the babies hatch and make their rush for the sea. A brackish lake sat just behind the beach, and three flamingos of startling coral-pink danced in its waters, churning up the mud with their feet to find food. It was an idyllic spot, but paradise always has a flipside. In this case it was the voracious horse-flies, which showed no mercy as they bit our tender flesh.

That afternoon, we landed on the island again but close to Dragon Hill. Heavy rain clouds hung as we walked, and this part of the island had certainly seen recent rain, as green vegetation was emerging from the ground and the palo santo trees were beginning to bud. Although it was supposedly the end of the rainy season, 2014 had been incredibly dry – bad news for the terrestrial animals. So this recent rain was good news.

We spotted a large land iguana eating the new vegetation. “This is beautiful, I am so happy for him. A month ago there was no green here at all,” smiled Ceci. When food is scarce the iguanas eat prickly pears but they have to wait for a pad to drop off. The iguana had a reddish tinge on its otherwise yellow skin. “That’s a sign he is ready to mate,” said Ceci. “With food now around, they’re going to take the opportunity.”

Living with lizards

If the huge iguanas are impressive, the marine iguanas are even more extraordinary and unique. The next day, we landed on the island of Fernandina in the cool of early morning. A strong smell assaulted our noses, and the source soon revealed itself: hundreds of marine iguanas, laying prone, heating themselves up in the sun, warming one side first, and then the other. They need to be warm before they can go into the sea on their search for algae, their favoured food. They looked like small dinosaurs as they lounged across the trails and rocks; we had to watch where we walked.

The waters off Fernandina are rich in nutrients, leading to an abundance of algae, and resulting in larger iguanas than those we had seen elsewhere. It is believed that the iguanas originally arrived here on rafts of vegetation and gradually evolved to eat algae due to a shortage of other food. They have developed large claws for clinging to the rocks, and their black colour means they warm up faster once on land. They have also developed a desalination gland – they sneeze out excess salt.

“These animals aren’t found anywhere else,” Ceci explained. “They are unique. And they are the only gregarious reptile in the world. They are my favourite animal. If I had a chance to rename these islands I’d call them after the marine iguanas, not after the tortoises!” Darwin dismissed marine iguanas as ugly, but maybe he would have developed his theory of evolution a bit sooner if he had taken a more appreciative look at them.

Further along, nesting on the rocks above high tide, were some more unique creatures: flightless cormorants. There are only around 2,000 of the birds left, as their numbers have been decimated on other islands by feral cats and dogs. “This is one of the most pristine islands in the world,” explained Ceci, before filling us with cormorant factoids: how they can dive over 30m underwater, and how the females squabble over a male, which then selects the one he thinks is strongest.

Watch where you tread

Despite being the world’s top wildlife destination and a living museum of evolution, the Galápagos Islands face constant threats. Introduced species can have a devastating affect on native species, by eating the wildlife, eating the vegetation it depends on or by carrying harmful parasites. Millions of dollars have been spent on eradication programmes, but the struggle goes on.

On Fernandina, nature was playing tricks with us. What looked like a large jagged lump of lava turned out to be a rock smothered in marine iguanas. What looked like driftwood was a snoozing sea lion. We had to divert for the latter. “I’ll step over a marine iguana but not a sea lion!” Ceci explained. A Galápagos hawk sat on some driftwood just feet away, so still that it took a while to realise it wasn’t a branch.

An area of shells and urchin spikes turned out to be the result of ground uplift during a volcanic eruption. “The most recent activity was in 2009. We visited here that morning – it was a clear day, not a cloud in the sky,” said Ceci. “And then we saw a strange cloud over the volcano – the volcano erupting. But it erupted down the other side, not in this direction.”

Nose to beak

On our last full day we revisited Santa Cruz, the most populated island, and drove up into the misty highlands. Giant tortoises roam free in the farmland here, and every now and then what looked like a boulder in a field would move. We stopped at a farm that welcomes visitors to its trails, and within a few minutes came eyeball to eyeball with two huge tortoises eating grass in a meadow. We fell into a respectful silence and ensured we did not stand in front of them, blocking their route. But they were unfazed by our presence, and the only noise other than the click of cameras, was the surprisingly loud chomping of grass.

I could understand why our guide was more impressed by the extraordinary marine iguanas. But, heck, the giant tortoises are fantastic and peculiar too. That evening, onboard the boat, we quizzed each other about our highlights. Nearly everything we had seen – the tortoises, the penguins, the land iguanas, the marine iguanas, the three types of booby – had its champion. There had been less obvious appealing characters too, such as the many fish and other-worldly underwater life. I thought back to the unexpected sight of schools of golden rays that had bewitched us all during a sunset panga ride through a stand of mangroves.

But I also found myself smiling at the memory of a certain pirate of the sky, with its jaunty head and its saucy wink.

Make it happen

The author’s 11-night trip included seven nights in the Galápagos aboard the MY Letty, one night in Quito (Casa Aliso), two nights at Hacienda Zuleta (near Otavalo), one night at Hacienda Piman (near Ibarra) and a train ride between Ibarra and Salinas.

Journey Latin America offers the same trip, visiting Quito, Otavalo and the Galápagos – on the Letty, Eric or Flamingo.

Galápagos cruises are generally four or seven nights in duration; you can sometimes combine two seven-night cruises to make a 14-night itinerary. There will be naturalist guides on your boat – official regulations state one guide per 16 passengers (the Letty – which has 20 guest max – has two).

Cruises will usually include at least two shore landings a day. These may be dry landings, when you step out onto a quay or rock, or wet landings, when you climb out into the shallows of a beach and get your feet wet. The shore-landings will typically last a couple of hours and involve a gentle guided walk. Depending on the boat, other activities offered during the day may include panga (dinghy) rides, snorkelling, kayaking or even diving.

All images: Simon Chubb

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