In 1835 Charles Darwin described the Galapagos Islands as a “living laboratory”. Fortunately centuries later the islands are still a haven for unique flora and fauna, but there is a growing threat – tourism. In an effort to protect the native animals, new cruising restrictions will come into effect in 2012, but more can be done to travel responsibly in the region.
Intrepid’s Active Galapagos is a great example, because you stay on the islands and support communities by dining in local restaurants, rather than just running up a tab on the boat. And as Sean Kennaway discovered, your wildlife encounters will still be amazing…
“The Galapagos has always painted dazzling images in my mind of an unaffected wildlife sanctuary containing unique and wonderful examples of evolution. Arriving at the airport it didn’t take long for us to experience our first sight of Galapagos fauna, as disembarking the plane we spotted a land iguana basking in the sun on the edge of the runway. He appeared unconcerned by the movement of people around him and showed little interest in our goings-on. We seemed to be part of the environment that held no threat. This was just a taste of things to come.
On our first day we became acquainted with our wild environment with a bike ride around San Cristobal, and during the ride we dropped into the Interpretation Centre to learn about the history of the Galapagos. This was a great introduction to the islands and really set the scene for our adventures ahead. During our tour it also became obvious that the sea lions seemed to have right of way here. They were everywhere; stretched out on the beaches, laying on the decks of boats in the bay, and even lazing on park benches in the middle of town. In the late afternoon we headed down to the boardwalk along the front of the harbour and enjoyed a sensational sunset watching the sea lions and birds.
Our next visit was to the island of Floreana and during our boat ride a pod of dolphins joined us and surfed in the wake of the bow. On Floreana we were lucky enough to spot some pink flamingos which are relatively rare on the islands.
Next stop was Isabela Island, out to the west and by far the largest of the islands. This was our opportunity to explore relatively recent lava flows, climb to the top of a volcano for sensational views of the island and also to get our first glimpse of wild tortoises roaming freely in the calderas. Of course, there was also the opportunity to go for a snorkel and we were lucky enough to have some Galapagos penguins join us, feeding on the small fish schooling around us.
The following day we headed to Santa Cruz where we visited the Charles Darwin Research Centre to get an even deeper understanding of the Galapagos and also to visit a giant land tortoise farm. The ‘farm’, in actual fact was a traditional cattle farm, but was coincidently chosen as a home by the giant tortoises because of its location inland where the climate and vegetation most suited them. So, here on the farm, the cows shared the land with the tortoises.
Our next destination was Isla Santa Fe, where we visited a sea lion colony. This was an incredible experience. There were hundreds of sea lions basking on the most amazing white powdery beach I’ve seen with many pups all playing together. The thing that really struck me about the sea lions is their affection for each other. They were literally cuddling together on the beach enjoying each other’s warmth, while others were play fighting and showing off.
After more snorkeling with a mix of temperate and tropical fish, including a flock of white spotted eagle rays and more sea lions, we headed back to San Cristobal for drinks on the harbour to watch another fantastic sunset.
A couple of animals that I have forgotten to mention are the blue-footed booby and the marine iguana. There were many boobies nesting at the time we were in the Galapagos and we were lucky enough to see a large number making their nests and courting each other. There were others on their eggs and we even saw a few with very young hatchlings. Incredibly, the boobies nest right on the walking trails and visitors have to walk around them to get from A to B. They just sit there and watch you go past. Another incredible thing is that the boobies share this space with the marine iguanas, who come in very close contact with them. The iguanas are vegetarian and eat green algae from the rocks at water level, so they and the boobies live in harmony. Seeing these huge lizards living side by side with birds nesting was quite a sight.
Of all the travelling I’ve done, this rates as one of the most special nature-based adventures I have enjoyed. Because of the close proximity that you can get to the animals, this experience is up there with visiting the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda. Swimming and lazing in the sun with the Galapagos sea lions, snorkeling with penguins, getting so up close with the giant tortoises and watching the boobies and iguanas share their space are all moments I will never forget!”
The Intrepid Foundation – travellers making a difference
You can help the Charles Darwin Foundation via the Intrepid Foundation. In 2011 we have donated AU$4639 to support the restoration of habitat on Floreana Island and the Floreana mockingbird project in the Galapagos Islands. Your donation could be doubled by Intrepid Travel!
* Donations will be matched by Intrepid Travel up to AU$5000 (or equivalent) per donor and a total of AU$400,000 each financial year.
Photo: Jane Crouch