I had every intention of following Galápagos National Park’s simple rule: maintain at least six feet of distance from the wildlife.
However, the animals were not as compliant.
Blue-footed boobies waddled right up to my hiking shoes. Sea lions grazed me playfully when I snorkeled. Brown pelicans stood beside me, as together we watched the fishmongers in the harbor.
Even giant tortoises lifted their great heads and ambled in my direction, as if they recognized me from long ago.
In Ohio, wild animals run for cover when humans appear; in the Galápagos Islands, they yawn.
Throughout the islands, sea lions loll on piers and boardwalks, disrupting foot traffic. They hoist themselves into chairs meant for tourists at sidewalk cafés and take naps.
Like sea lions, marine iguanas are blasé about the presence of humans. With spines down their backs and knotty, salt-encrusted heads, their appearance is hideous. The Creature from the Black Lagoon is less scary.
Yet, marine iguanas are harmless. They live on seaweed, for which they dive as deep as thirty feet in the water. Often, dozens of them pile on top of each other like rugby players in a scrum.
The Galápagos are an obstacle course of sluggish bodies.
Inside the bubble
One reason the animals of the Galápagos lack a healthy fear of humans is that they have lived in a protective biosphere reserve for years. Ninety-seven percent of the islands is park.
The Galápagos straddle the equator about six hundred miles from the west coast of South America.
They belong to Ecuador (equator in English). Twenty islands make up the archipelago, only five of which are inhabited.
The ocean around the islands is also protected, a marine reserve second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The Galápagos Islands are a World Heritage Site.
The total human population of the Galápagos is twenty-five thousand. To preserve its unique fauna and flora, the park turns away millions of visitors (and hundreds of millions of dollars) each year. Only 250,000 people are allowed to visit annually.
Tourists may visit only designated sites and only with park-authorized guides.
Park officials enforce a strict Leave No Trace policy.
Bags are frequently inspected to avoid the transfer of food, animals, and plants from island to island.
Additionally, the government has enacted one of the strictest migration policies in the world. Only Galápagos natives and their spouses are allowed to live and work on the islands.
My tour started on San Cristóbal, one of two islands with an airport. It was named after Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. Accordingly, my fellow travelers included four from England, four from Australia, two from New Zealand, two from Canada, one from Denmark, and two more from the States.
Upon arrival, our bags were closely inspected by biosecurity staff and dogs. (In 2015, a wildlife trafficker attempted to smuggle eleven iguanas to Mexico in his backpack. He was fined twenty thousand dollars and sentenced to two years in prison.)
A park entrance fee of one hundred dollars was collected. (The US dollar is the official currency of Ecuador.) Visitors who tour by boat are subject to the same inspections and fees.
At the airport, we met Wilson, our guide for the tour and a native of the Spanish-speaking islands.
He delivered us to a small hotel in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, a pleasant port town where most of San Cristóbal’s six thousand residents live.
Throughout the tour, the hotels provided free purified water in the lobbies for filling reusable bottles. Tap water in the Galápagos and, indeed, all of Ecuador is not safe to drink or use for brushing teeth.
We walked through town, stepping around sea lions and iguanas, to a dive shop where we rented snorkel gear. The islands remind me of the Caribbean, minus the trash and graffiti. Buildings and streets are ramshackle, but tidy.
At the nearby beach of La Lobería, we tested our gear. A sea-lion colony lazed in the sand, pups everywhere. The bull watched from the surf. On slippery rocks, we edged past him and snorkeled for a while with sea turtles and rays. Spotted-eagle rays, manta rays, stingrays, and golden rays are common in the waters around the islands.
Afterward, Wilson took us to a restaurant specializing in ceviche, a dish made from fresh raw fish, lime juice, onions, tomatoes, peppers, and cilantro. It originated in nearby Peru.
For the next several days, we snorkeled and hiked, moving from island to island by boat and staying in hotels.
In the evenings we enjoyed fresh seafood, usually served with rice and plantains. Fresh-squeezed fruit juice is a common mealtime beverage on the islands and fruit a common dessert. The local craft beer is Endémica, a clever play on the peculiarity of both the brew and the animal species of the islands.
On Saturday, we boated to the small, uninhabited island of Lobos. Picking our way slowly along a path of gray boulders, we soon spotted blue-footed boobies diving for fish and frigatebirds nesting in the scrub.
The birds have no fear. One of the boobies walked right up to me. Another stood above its ground nest, showing off its newborn hatchling. Seventy percent of the world’s blue-footed booby population is found in the Galápagos.
When flying, frigatebirds are easy to identify with their long scissor tails. Clearly, it was mating season, as the males inflated their bright red throat pouches like birthday balloons to attract the females. We caught one pair in flagrante delicto. The juveniles look comical with their ruffled downy feathers, as if someone tousled their hair.
The rocks on the shore were dotted with red Sally Lightfoot crabs. Their name comes from their ability to walk across the surface of the water. Like valets, crabs clean ticks from the skin of marine iguanas.
Further on, we strolled through a huge colony of sea lions, napping in the shade. Dozens of pups climbed around on the rocks, looking cuddly and posing for our cameras.
After snorkeling for a while, we wet-landed in a small bay to explore the beach.
By this point, I had gotten used to the drumbeat of messages about the sanctity of wildlife on the islands and the efforts to restore populations, combat invasive species, and so on.
So, I was amused and almost surprised when Wilson announced that the horseflies on the beach were fair game. “We have here fly-horses,” he said. “You can kill them.”
Back in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, we climbed Frigate Bird Hill for its panoramic view. Nearby, a large statue of Charles Darwin overlooks the bay where he supposedly first landed in the islands.
The identity of the Galápagos Islands is tightly entwined with Darwin and the theory of evolution. He famously visited the islands for five weeks in 1835 aboard the HMS Beagle. A cartoonish statue of him and the Beagle stands along the harbor in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
Despite the connection, several misconceptions persist.
Darwin was not the first to “discover” the exotic animals of the Galápagos. A Spanish explorer, Tomás de Berlanga, beat him to it by three hundred years.
Furthermore, Darwin did not have an aha moment while in the islands.
He deliberated over his theory for another twenty-four years before publishing his groundbreaking thesis, On the Origin of Species, in 1859.
Darwin didn’t even originate the theory of evolution. The concept had been proposed years earlier by others.
His real claim to fame is that he provided a fact-based explanation of the theory, citing evidence of how those species best suited for their environments are more likely to survive.
Darwin’s Galápagos finches are the renowned example of evolution. He believed that the size and shape of their beaks had evolved over millions of years to better access the available sources of food on the various islands.
However, despite the folklore, Darwin didn’t actually pay much attention to the finches during his visit. Rather, it was an ornithologist in London who first identified the separate species of Galápagos finches while examining Darwin’s specimens.
The ornithologist’s name was John Gould. Poor John. His finch study has often been attributed to Darwin.
Castaways and convicts
The appearance of this man . . . was the most dreadful that can be imagined; ragged clothes, scarce sufficient to cover his nakedness, and covered with vermin; his red hair and beard matted, his skin much burnt, from constant exposure to the sun, and so wild and savage in his manner and appearance, that he struck every one with horror.
This is the portrait painted by a passing sea captain of the first known resident of the Galápagos, an Irish man named Patrick Watkins. Watkins was marooned on the island of Floreana in 1807. He lived there for two years, growing and trading vegetables for rum.
In the previous three centuries, the islands served pirates and whalers as a source for fresh water and meat (that is, giant tortoises). The author of Moby Dick, Herman Melville, visited the Galápagos in the 1800s while working as a whaler. His book, The Encantadas, is based upon this experience.
Ecuador officially claimed the Galápagos from Spain in 1832. When Darwin arrived in 1835, he found a small colony of farmers. The settlement didn’t last long. Unfortunately, the introduction of domestic pigs, goats, and donkeys contributed to the decline of native species.
Over the next century, several attempts were made to establish industry on the islands. Fishing, canning, and salt mining were tried. The most successful was a brutal prison system that lasted for 125 years.
On Sunday, we were transferred via water taxi to a waiting speedboat. The water was smooth on our 2½-hour crossing to the island of Floreana. We watched stingrays leap from the water and perform flips. Flying fish skimmed our wake.
We arrived at Puerto Velasco Ibarra, a tiny village of sandy lanes, adobe buildings, and perhaps one hundred residents. It looked abandoned. A guidebook calls Floreana “the Galápagos of forty years ago.”
At the dock, another search through our bags was performed. A huge marine-iguana colony watched impassively. Yellow warblers flitted among the bushes.
We walked to La Lobería, a beautiful peninsula with white sand, black rocks, red flowers, and turquoise water. There, we snorkeled with a pod of playful young sea lions. They seemed to enjoy showing off their superior swimming skills.
A group of them comically leapt, dove, circled and barrel-rolled around me. One eyeballed me as it drifted by—upside down.
Next, I was surrounded by four green sea turtles and a hawksbill. They took turns diving to the bottom and tearing off mouthfuls of seaweed. I hovered over them, astonished at their size, number, and proximity. They seemed completely unfazed by my presence. Their focus was on the salad bar.
Back in the boat, we continued to the village of Puerto Villamil on the island of Isabela, pausing briefly to watch a school of dolphins.
After passing through security (again), Wilson took us on a walking tour of the town, ending on the beach, Cuna del Sol (Cradle of the Sun), at sunset. Over a wood fire, locals roasted lobsters.
Isabela is, by far, the largest of the islands. Its land mass makes up three-quarters of the Galápagos. Wildlife is abundant.
The island is home to more wild tortoises than all of the other islands combined.
The equator crosses its northern tip, making it the only place in the world where a penguin can be seen in its natural habitat in the northern hemisphere.
The next day, Monday, was a holiday (one of a couple of independence-from-Spain days). Women swept leaves into piles on the dusty streets. Kids and dogs played soccer.
We ferried to the small island of Tintoreras, a volcanic landscape teeming with iguanas. Despite heaping on top of each other as they like to do, they were practically indistinguishable from the black lava field.
Tintoreras is split by deep fissures. Families of iguanas nest in the walls. In one, known as Shark Alley, a white-tipped shark lie sleeping on the bottom.
On the edge
Like Hawaii and Iceland, the Galápagos Islands were formed by volcanic activity. The evidence, such as lava fields, black-sand beaches, and the occasional eruption, is everywhere.
All of the islands but one are the tops of huge, partially submerged volcanoes peaking through the ocean surface. The exception is the island of Isabela, the largest island, which has six volcanoes. Several are active.
The largest of Isabela’s volcanoes is Sierra Negra (Black Mountain). It last erupted in 2005 (except for that one time four months ago, right after I booked my trip).
In late June of 2018 it spewed lava into the ocean and ash into the sky. Nearby residents were evacuated. Tours were canceled. Mine wasn’t.
As we boarded our small bus and headed up the side of the volcano, Wilson, our guide, couldn’t contain his excitement. “I have not hiked it since the eruption,” he said. “I want to see how it is different.”
The bus climbed for forty-five minutes, first through desolate lava fields outside of town and then through a lush tropical forest. The rich soil on the south approach to the crater supports fruit plantations and vegetable farms.
We arrived at the trailhead and began our hike to the top. Visibility was poor in the heavy morning fog. After a few miles of steep incline, we arrived at the crater. A whiteout. Nothing could be seen from the edge.
We continued into the lava field on the north side of Sierra Negra on our way to another volcano, Chico. Now, the trail was steep and challenging, the volcanic rock jagged underfoot.
The fog began to dissipate. Cacti appeared through the mist. We found a collapsed lava tunnel and lava waves. Fumaroles spouted hot gas.
Wilson marveled. Since the recent eruption, the landscape had changed, he said.
Cliffs had collapsed. Rivers of new lava covered the slopes and filled the crevices. The trail had been rerouted through new terrain.
We climbed to the overlook at Chico and rested, admiring the clear view across the island and to the sea. Nothing but volcanic debris for miles.
Back at Sierra Negra, the crater was finally visible. A gigantic bowl of black cinders. We ate lunch at the edge and wondered when it might erupt again. Darwin’s finches darted in and out of the scrub.
At sunset, we headed to Concha de Perla (Pearl Shell) to snorkel with sea turtles through collapsed lava tunnels
As the last shafts of daylight pierced the surface of the inlet, a formation of seven golden rays appeared and “flew” in formation like Blue Angels through the water.
Their movements were elegant, graceful, almost effortless. With GoPro cameras and selfie sticks, we followed them like paparazzi for as long as we could keep up.
At a gravel-floor barbecue joint on a back street of town, Wilson announced, “Tomorrow, Happiness is leaving us.”
Happiness was the nickname of our local guide on the island. He was always smiling.
My favorite animal interaction in the Galápagos, besides snorkeling with sea lions, was walking in the wild among giant tortoises. After all, the islands are the namesake of the tortoises (galápagos in Spanish).
Individual Galápagos tortoises can weigh up to nine hundred pounds and measure up to six feet in length. In the wild, they can live up to 150 years. In captivity, some have lived nearly two hundred years. Their prehistoric ancestors rambled the earth over two million years ago.
Giant tortoises have no natural predators except human beings. They are herbivores. In the 1800s, whalers and pirates nearly drove them to extinction. The tortoises were caught by the thousands, stacked alive in the ships’ holds, and used for fresh meat and oil.
Other factors contributing to their decline include the clearing of land for farming and the introduction of non-native egg-eating animals, such as goats, pigs, and rats.
Their numbers declined from nearly three hundred thousand in the 1500s to as few as three thousand in the 1970s. In the Galápagos there used to be fifteen species of tortoises. Today, there are eleven, several of which are endangered.
Since 1965, the practice of captive rearing has helped restore tortoise populations. The national park manages three tortoise breeding centers in the Galápagos. During my visit, I toured two of them.
Life in the slow lane
On Isabela, the Arnaldo Tupiza Giant Tortoise Breeding Center gathers eggs from nests and protects them in incubators from predators. The hatchlings are reared for five years before being released into the wild. Captive rearing greatly improves mortality rates among young tortoises.
The center keeps up to a hundred breeding adults and produces approximately 250 young per year, including species that are critically endangered. The adult tortoises are kept in open-air pens at the center, where they enjoy eating, drinking, and, um, reproducing.
Tortoises mate for one to three hours. The females can produce up to four nests in a season with up to sixteen tennis-ball-sized eggs per nest. After four to eight months, the babies make their break.
The young tortoises, however, do not reach maturity for twenty to thirty years. Thus, the goal of restoring populations to their historical numbers will be a long, slow process. At the center, I was reminded that the hatchlings will easily outlive the school children who come to visit them.
Yet, to date, the program is a success. As of the end of 2017, more than seven thousand juvenile tortoises have been released to their islands of origin.
I walked among the enclosures, noting the different sizes and shapes of the inhabitants. They were busy munching their veggies. As they crawl over concrete steps, they scrape their chassis like low-riding cars. Some of the tortoises moseyed in my direction, perhaps expecting a handout. Their wrinkled faces resemble E.T.
We rose at 5 a.m. on Wednesday for the two-hour boat ride to the island of Santa Cruz. The water was rough and the diesel fumes strong.
Half of the inhabitants of the Galápagos, around twelve thousand, live in the town of Puerto Ayora. Compared to the other stops, the port feels like a big city with banks, a post office, souvenir shops, and a bay full of boats.
Seeing tortoises in enclosures is not the same as seeing them in the wild, which is what we did on Santa Cruz. We traveled to the highlands to visit a wildlife preserve, Ranch El Manzanillo.
On the way, I was surprised to see tortoises roaming the middle of the roads.
At the preserve, we watched how sugar cane used to be crushed by donkey-powered mills to produce cane juice and eventually alcohol. Sampling was required.
But the highlight was the unrestricted access to the tortoises. Scores of them. In the fields around the farm, they graze on grass and wallow in the mud. It may as well have been a field full of dairy cows, if not for their resemblance to small Volkswagens.
Although touching them is not permitted, posing for photos is.
Sometimes they even stick their necks out for selfies.
On another day we toured the Tortoise Center at the Charles Darwin Research Station, where more than two hundred scientists and volunteers are involved in research and conservation.
One exhibit at the center tells the story of Lonesome George.
George was found on the island of Pinta in 1971. He was hungry, as feral goats had cleared the island of vegetation. Without food, George’s extended family had died off. George, it was determined, was the last of his species.
For his safety, George was relocated to the Tortoise Center. A global search was conducted to find a Pinta-species mate, but all attempts failed.
In 2012 George died without reproducing, the last of the Pinta tortoises. He was estimated to be between 120 and 130 years old.
George’s body is preserved and on display at the center. In his last years, he was known as the rarest animal on the planet. Despite being the last of his line, Lonesome George remains an icon for conservation efforts worldwide.