Out across the Pacific Ocean a lone Albatross soars. It’s been almost ten years since this giant bird, like an oversized gull with a three metre wingspan, has set foot on dry land. He has been roaming the Southern Hemisphere’s relentless winds and feeding on schooling fish, often remaining in flight for hours at a time. Yet nature’s allure beckons him home, like a pilgrimage, from his life of buoyancy on saltwater waves to this secluded land, far away from civilization and human intervention. These majestic Albatross thrive on Espanola, part of the Galapagos archipelago, where steep cliffs are utilized for protection from predators and are perfect launching perches for taking flight. Here the Albatross will find refuge, breeding for a few short weeks, before returning to solitary life, on wing, over ocean thermals.
These remote islands, the Galapagos group, float as specks, in open ocean, along the equator, almost 1000 km off the west coast of Ecuador, South America. Every organism found among the Galapagos is interdependent, mutually relying on one another, as part of a giant food chain, influenced by the deep ocean. The south Pacific’s cold Humbolt current, is literally a ‘living water’, that contains a diversity of rich nutrients, tiny organisms who are each fed on by yet another larger one, eventually influencing all the aquatic and birdlife that dwell here. Volcanic in origin, each island is continuously changing with its flora and fauna endlessly adapting. The youngest, most easterly islands of Isabela and Fernandina, have six relatively active volcanoes, one last erupting in 2015. Aside from these volcanoes, island landscapes are mostly barren and flat, with infrequent vegetation of flowering shrubs, stands of Palo Santo, prickly cacti and a few inter-tidal Mangroves.
The massive rock Galapagos uprising, predominantly underwater, grew out of the ocean’s depths long ago. Now only a few dry land tips reach the ocean’s surface, as if taking breath of sunlight and dry shore, yet this is an extraordinary place to experience. There are around twenty noteworthy islands here, with another 80 minor rocky outcrops, one being the dramatic Kicker Rock, which is a short boat ride from San Cristobal. Although visitors come to view these two spectacular pointy rock spikes, which protrude vertically 140 metres out of the sea, it’s location is a favorite site for experienced divers observing marauding sharks.
Visiting the Galapagos you will stay on a small, well equipped cruising vessel which will motor each night, bringing you beside a new island each morning. To visit wildlife on the various islands, you will depart on daily activity excursions via smaller craft, arriving on beaches by wet landings. With more than a dozen islands to choose from, your landings will be arranged for when viewing is most favorable. Without cages or contained pools, you will encounter the resident animals, birds and reptiles in their authentic habitat. Depending upon the season you will see baby sharks, rays or sea turtles in some of the coves. You may visit a rookery of breeding sea birds like the Flightless Cormorants of Fernandina and Isabela or the Galapagos Penguins on Bartholomew. You may observe lone shore birds like Egrets and Herons, roving pairs of Oystercatchers, or small groupings of Flamingoes on Floreana.
Specific islands in the Galapagos have unique sea bird life, depending upon individual species’ breeding behaviours and feeding adaptations. Visiting a rookery of Blue-footed Boobies, found on several islands, you may think the commotion of hundreds of bird pairs whistling and honking, wing flapping and stepping may seem a confused turmoil, but their dancing ritual is nature’s way of settling suitable choice. Beaks to the sky, with gently flailing wings, they strut their beautiful teal blue webbed feet, standing on one foot and then the other, showing off their perfect coordination. Perfectly preened for this age old matrimonial dance, the layers of tawny and white feathers graduate down the Boobies’ necks into stark smooth white tummies. First the Boobies’ rub necks as if in affectionate agreement, then they share presents of sticks, foundations for their short lived home, a humble nest, among guano, on the ground. Rookeries of Red-footed Boobies and Nazca Boobies are also found in the Galapagos, each species furtively resides with its own kind.
Other distinctive courtship rituals, some nature’s most intimate moments, include the Albatross pairs’ bill snapping and encircling with one another. The male Frigatebird puffs up his red throat pouch, literally like a party balloon, as he wobbles, shakes and cries out in rapture, trying to impress a female.
On several islands reside the stout, spiky-backed, prehistoric looking reptile, a Marine Iguana. This bizarre looking, cold blooded lizard, eats algae off ocean bottom rocks, then hauls out onto land to dry off and warm up. These creatures are unmistakably odd, with their robust attitude sunbathing motionless on rocks for hours, occasionally spouting salt out the top of their heads and unafraid, just staring you down. In similar habitat, in between rock crevasses, are bright red colored Sally Crabs and small camouflaged Lava Lizards. An aquatic favorite are the huge powerful Sea Lion mammals found everywhere in the Galapagos. If you are snorkeling, curious and unafraid, Sea Lions will approach and investigate your arrival with gymnastic antics, twisting and gracefully swerving circles around you. Visiting Sea Lions on land where they have hauled out, possibly lazily sleeping on the beach, their lumpy shapes almost camouflage in with lumpy shoreline rocks.
In the waters surrounding Darwin and Wolf Islands, the two most northerly in the Galapagos group, large marine life is most extravagant. According to a worldly diver friend Les, these were his best dives ever. During one decent, at about five metres, suddenly he was surrounded by a super pod, too many to count, of Bottle Nosed Dolphins, all clicking and chirping his welcome. As a regular diver it was surreal to be among so many predatory Silky and Hammerhead Sharks that school and feed here in the hundreds. Even a 12 metre filter feeding Whale Shark, monolith of the deep, serenely floated by. The biggest challenge at 30 metres down is the cold ocean current which is so strong here, in order to keep the group together everyone just hung on to rocks and watched the spectacular show travel by.
The Galapagos archipelago, land and sea, is now protected from commercial exploitation. Fortunately, due to isolation, few challenge the restrictions. It is a miracle that the huge long lived Tortoise’s survived the whaler’s plunder of the 19th c. For decades thousands were taken live and kept in ships holds to feast on at later dates as they could survive for months without food or water. Tortoises in the wild are sporadic, but varying species are found on six islands as well as at the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz.
By wilderness writer & photographer Cynthia Percival.