The Enchanted Galapagos: A Treasure Worth Preserving


The Galapagos Land Iguana is one of several animals endemic to the islands, but urgent intervention is needed to preserve the population. Photo courtesy of Karson Leperi.

 

There’s a reason the Galapagos Islands have been called enchanted. Some of the first explorers to land on this family of islands – young in geological terms at only about 6 million years old – noted that the animals didn’t flee from humans. This unusual behavior makes it possible to do more than just observe wildlife up close. The wonders of nature will truly be at your fingertips.

Sea lions often blend in with the dark rocks on the beach, but their distinctive calls can be heard all over the islands. Photo courtesy of Karson Leperi.

 

When you travel with Ecoventura, you’ll have the opportunity of a lifetime to learn about the Galapagos Islands’ unique ecosystem, guided by local naturalists. Imagine kayaking with sea turtles or swimming with sea lions while spending a week living aboard a state-of-the-art yacht.

Ecoventura offers these opportunities and more, with two itineraries and three ships to choose from. Itinerary A focuses on the eastern islands. Itinerary B travels further west, with the added excitement of sailing across the Equator!

The Origin, a luxury yacht, is the newest addition to Ecoventura’s fleet. Sister ships Eric and Letty are also a comfortable accommodation, home to a maximum of 20 passengers at a time. The small group size ensures that the naturalist guides can cater to your interests and answer all your questions as you explore.

Dinghy boats were the primary method of transportation from the yacht to each island.

 

Charles Darwin was the most famous visitor to the Galapagos, and the finches he observed there were essential to establishing his theory of evolution. While the number of distinct species on the islands is small compared to mainland Ecuador, the percentage of endemic species – ones found nowhere else in the world – is high.

The Galapagos penguin is the second-smallest type of penguin and the only one that can be found north of the Equator. Photo courtesy of Karson Leperi.

 

The Galapagos penguin is a notable example. This species is the second-smallest type of penguin and the only one found north of the Equator. They are able to survive in the relative warmth due to the chilly Humboldt Current, which comes to the Galapagos from the south.

Ecoventura passengers enjoy the opportunity to observe these adorable birds up close. Penguins groom themselves on rocks near the beach, easily accessible for snorkelers to take photos with waterproof cameras. Sometimes, they surface near dinghy boats for a tantalizingly brief moment before diving back out of sight.

Tortoises on the Galapagos can grow to be over 500 pounds. Photo courtesy of Karson Leperi.

 

Animals on the Galapagos show a wide variety of physical and behavioral adaptations to their environment. They fill niches not available to them in other places. For example, the reason tortoises grow so large – sometimes over 500 pounds – is because of the absence of other large animals competing for the same food supply.

Frigates also behave more aggressively. According to one naturalist guide, half of their diet comes from attacking other birds when their calls indicate they have something in their beaks, the equivalent of humans talking with their mouths full. In locations outside the Galapagos, frigates catch fish near the ocean’s surface. Only about five percent of their food comes from attacks on other birds.

The uniqueness of the animals in the Galapagos gives a particular urgency to conservation efforts. At the Charles Darwin Research Station, on Santa Cruz Island, visitors learn about breeding programs and other interventions that seek to protect animals from threats like invasive species and habitat loss.

A successful breeding program at the Charles Darwin Research Station has saved the hoodensis species of tortoise from the brink of extinction. Photo courtesy of Karson Leperi.

 

Diego, a saddleback tortoise, is a striking success story. There were only 14 individuals of the Chelonoidis hoodensis species left on the Galapagos when Diego – so named because he came from the San Diego zoo – was moved to the research station. He has fathered hundreds of descendants, saving his species from the brink of extinction.

Lonesome George, another famous tortoise, highlights the risk that other animals face. He was the last of his species,Chelonoidis abingdonii, which has been officially extinct since his death in 2012.

Ecoventura takes its commitment to responsible tourism very seriously. All activities in the designated Galapagos National Park area are tightly controlled. Travelers are only permitted to visit certain islands and snorkel or kayak in designated locations.

Risks to the islands’ ecosystem come from a variety of sources. Tectonic plate shifts cause periodic volcanic activity. In addition, the weather pattern known as El Niño has resulted in warm years when some species have no offspring – a natural check on population growth.

Marine iguanas are showing the impact of climate change with an extended mating season. Photo courtesy of Karson Leperi.

 

The impact of global climate change is already noticeable. For example, marine iguanas are usually black. But during mating season they display red and green coloration, caused by pigments in the algae they eat. Different weather patterns have influenced when the algae bloom, in turn extending the mating season.

Invasive species are yet another challenge. On South Plaza Island, invasive rats have decimated the prickly pear cactus. Land iguanas depend on these plants for their food supply. But the population has grown too large, recently turning to bird eggs to supplement their diet. An intervention is in the works, with nets in place to guard young cactus plants.

Gaby, an Ecoventura guide, was emotional as she told our tour group that she hopes we’ll be able to return to the Galapagos with our grandchildren and enjoy the same unforgettable sights that greeted us every day.

Male frigate birds with their sacs inflated, indicating that they are seeking a mate, are visible year-round on the Galapagos. Photo courtesy of Karson Leperi.

 

Albatrosses mate for life and are known for their elaborate courtship dances. Photo courtesy of Karson Leperi.

 

The marvels of the islands defy description. Male frigate birds inflate red sacs on their chests when seeking a mate. Albatrosses do an elaborate courtship dance.

Baby blue-footed boobies are fully grown at just a couple months old, but they are white and fluffy until their feathers come in. Photo courtesy of Karson Leperi.

 

Of the three species of boobies found on the Galapagos, red-footed boobies are the only one that nests in trees. Photo courtesy of Karson Leperi.

 

Blue-footed boobies take care of their young, fully grown at just a couple months old but fluffy and white until their feathers come in. Red-footed boobies are the smallest of the three booby species on the islands and the only one that builds nests in trees. They have curved feet that allow them to grip branches.

Other surprises may wait at every turn. Our tour group was in the lounge before a daily briefing one evening when the captain announced over the intercom that there were dolphins. We rushed out onto the deck and saw dozens of them, in every direction. A group of four was swimming directly beneath the yacht. I could have reached out and touched one.

A leaping dolphin was a spectacular conclusion to a surprise dolphin sighting. Photo courtesy of Karson Leperi.

 

Then, all of a sudden, one dolphin leaped into the air, some five or six feet above the water. It made a graceful arc before diving elegantly back into the water.

A few days into the cruise, my longstanding fear of stingrays had abated. I enjoyed watching a school of golden rays swimming peacefully in a quiet lagoon. None of the travelers in my group wanted to get near a shark at first. But by the end of the week we relished the sight of a solitary shark in the sand below as we snorkeled at the ocean’s surface.

For a curious traveler seeking a unique and memorable adventure, the Galapagos Islands are a perfect destination. Flights are available daily from Quito or Guayaquil, two historic cities well worth a visit before or after your time on the Islands.

Look to Ecoventura for responsible guides who will make sure you leave no trace – but you’ll leave with incredible photos and memories.

 

If you go:

Ecoventura

1-800-633-7972 (toll-free US & Canada)

1-305-262-6264

info@galapagosnetwork.com

+