Almost 1,000 kilometres from civilisation, the Galapagos Islands are a remote haven for wildlife. Many wonder what lies on the islands, aside from the roaming Galapagos tortoises and soaring albatrosses. The best way to find out is by embarking on a Galapagos cruise and seeing for yourself. To help you make the most of your journey to these faraway islands, ROL Cruise has created a handy guide.
A brief history of the Galapagos
The Galapagos Islands are approximately 900km west of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. Renowned for being instrumental in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the islands and their surrounding waters are home to an abundance of wildlife, including many species only found on this archipelago.
Clare Simm, communications and marketing officer at Galapagos Conservation Trust, says: “Due to their isolation, the Galapagos Islands have an incredible array of both terrestrial and marine species, many of which are found nowhere else on Earth.
“These species’ success is partly because the islands are situated at the meeting point of several large oceanic currents, bringing nutrients that support the eclectic habitats and mix of wildlife.”
In 1959, 97% of the land area of the islands was designated as a national park due to their uniqueness, according to Clare, and the waters surrounding the Galapagos have been protected since 1988 as the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Clare said: “Observations made by Charles Darwin during his Galapagos visit in 1835 have also given the archipelago a special place in history and in development of modern science, and the islands continue to be a ‘living laboratory’ of evolution to this day providing fascination for locals, visitors and scientists.”
A guide to the islands
A total of 18 main islands, three smaller islands and 107 rocks and islets form the Galapagos. The islands sit on the Nazca Plate, a tectonic plate, and sit on the Galapagos hotspot, where the Earth’s crust is being melted from below by a mantle plume, creating volcanoes. Despite its idyllic beaches and vibrant wildlife, the Galapagos must not be mistaken for a typical tropical paradise. Due to its volcanic terrain, the islands can appear desolate and unforgiving in places, but the opportunity to see some of the world’s most remarkable creatures more than makes up for this seemingly barren landscape.
Isabela is the largest island in the archipelago and is bigger than all of the Galapagos Islands combined. It’s the third most populated island – home to around 1,800 people - and the only one in the group to have the equator running through it. Puerto Villamil is the largest town.
Santa Cruz Island
This is the second largest island and the most populated with around 12,000 locals. Puerto Ayora is the main town with restaurants, hotels, shops, hospitals and schools, providing the best infrastructure on the Galapagos. A visit to Charles Darwin Station is recommended.
San Cristobal Island
Charles Darwin first came ashore on San Cristobal Island in 1835. The island has a small lake which is the only fresh water source in the Galapagos. The town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the capital of the Galapagos Province and even has an airport. Cerro Brujo is a pretty coral and sand beach on San Cristobal, perfect for snorkelling.
Home to a shield volcano and a large population of marine iguanas, Fernandina Island is a popular choice for those on a Galapagos Islands cruise. The island is uninhabited but a haven for wildlife. Take a dip in the sea to spot Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants and seahorses.
If you’re looking for the weird yet wonderful Sally Lightfoot crabs, head to Santiago Island. Its lava shoreline is home to many species and is an idyllic place to snorkel. This island is also uninhabited.
Floreana is the longest inhabited island in the Galapagos with 100 residents. The island is shrouded in mystery, as a series of disappearances occurred in the early 20th century, including an Austrian baroness and her three servants. The island was allegedly used by pirates and whalers for food and water in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today its white sand beach and saltwater lagoon draws visitors.
Named in honour of Spain, Espanola Island is the oldest in the archipelago. Formed approximately 3.5 million years ago, this remote uninhabited island is the only place in the Galapagos where you can spot the Waved Albatross. Espanola is considered to be the best island for birdwatchers and divers, and is home to species native to the island such as the Espanola mockingbird and the Espanola lava lizard.
Santa Fe Island
Santa Fe Island - also uninhabited - is popular with tourists as it’s reachable for a day trip from Santa Cruz. One of the island’s most unique features is the Opuntia Cactus Forest, made up of a spectacular cacti often named the Galapagos prickly pear. Look out for the Galapagos dove, lava lizards and the island’s native Santa Fe Land Iguana.
Genovesa is named after Genoa in Italy and is highly recommended for birdwatchers. The uninhabited island is home to a large colony of Red-Footed Boobies, as well as Galapagos Storm Petrels, short-eared owls, many species of finch, Great Frigate birds and Galapagos mockingbirds.
Pinzon (Duncan) Island
Named after the captains of the Pinta and Nina boats on Columbus’ voyage to the New World – the Pinzon brothers – this island requires a special visitors permit. It is well worth the extra effort as the island is home to the Galapagos giant tortoise and a colony of sea lions.
There are more islands within the Galapagos, however they either cannot be accessed or are not open to visitors.
Protecting Galapagos wildlife
One of the main reasons why wildlife is thriving on the islands today is because of work undertaken by organisations such as the Galapagos Conservation Trust. Founded in 1995, the organisation supports, develops and promotes the conservation and sustainable development of the islands and their unique biodiversity. Clare Simm, communications and marketing officer at the Trust, comments: “We support a wide range of projects in the Galapagos including those that focus on endemic species, marine conservation and sustainability.” These projects include The Galapagos Tortoise Movement Ecology Programme, recently featured in BBC One’s Galapagos. The project started in 2009 and set out to find if Galapagos giant tortoises undergo long seasonal migrations, as little was known about them. Clare adds: “We are also currently developing a plastics programme to address the damaging effects of disposable plastics in Galapagos alongside a practical campaign ‘Plastic Responsible’ on San Cristobal island and awareness raising activities in the UK.”
Alongside these efforts, Galapagos Conservation Trust is also working with Galapagos National Park, Island Conservation and Massey University on a project to eradicate invasive species and restore the habitat on the populated island of Floreana. “If successful, the locally extinct species will be introduced and 55 other IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red-listed species will also benefit”, said Clare. “More significantly, the project has the potential to act as a blueprint for other islands around the globe.”
Sustainable Travel International, an organisation focused on improving lives and protecting places through travel and tourism, supported the formation of a 15,000 square-mile marine sanctuary in the areas between the northern Galapagos Islands of Darwin and Wolf. According to Paloma, vice president of Global Programs at Sustainable Travel: “This region is of extreme biological significance as it is home to the largest biomass of sharks known in the world. By banning fishing in designated areas, the marine sanctuary is designed to help threatened marine populations, such as hammerhead and reef sharks, to thrive.”
While conservationists were delighted with the decision to create the sanctuary, local fisherman opposed the protections feeling their jobs and income would suffer as a result of the fishing ban. Paloma said: “This situation posed a challenge as the conservation efforts and community livelihoods were at odds with one another. While the creation of a marine sanctuary is a good step towards increased marine conservation, the success of the protections relies heavily on the cooperation and support of the local community.”
The organisation stepped in to advise the local government and determine a plan on how to support the local fishermen whose traditional livelihoods were being affected by the creation of the marine sanctuary.
Wildlife on the Galapagos Islands
Wildlife is the main reason the Galapagos feature on so many people’s travel bucket lists. The islands’ unique ecosystems are home to some truly remarkable species, from albatrosses to iguanas. Wherever you are in the archipelago, look out for some of the most striking creatures.
The Galapagos Islands are a birdwatcher’s paradise. From native giants such as the waved albatross to the more unusual Blue-Footed Boobies, you’re guaranteed to see some of the world’s most spectacular species here.
With its impressive large red throat, the Magnificent Frigatebird is noteworthy. Named ‘the condor of the oceans’ by Charles Darwin due to their exceptionally large wingspan and ability to fly for days at a time, these remarkable birds nest on North Seymour, Floreana, San Cristobel and Genovesa.
As the only species of cormorant unable to fly, this peculiar bird is native to the Galapagos. According to Galapagos Conservation, natural selection led to the species no longer having functional wings as they had very few land predators. There are around 1,000 breeding pairs on Isabela and Fernandina.
If you’re searching for one of the islands’ most distinctive birds, look out for the vibrant feet of the rather clumsy-looking Blue-Footed Booby. Their name derives from the Spanish word ‘bobo’, meaning foolish or clown. Although not so elegant on land, these birds soar comfortably and search for food in groups of around 200. Head to North Seymour to catch a glimpse of these delightful creatures.
With an average wingspan of 2.2 metres, the Waved Albatross is hard to miss. These beautiful birds are the largest in the Galapagos and get their name from the wave-like pattern on their wings as adults. One of the bird’s most fascinating behaviours is its courtship dance which, according to Galapagos Conservation, includes bill circling, bill clacking, head nodding, a waddle and a cow-like moo. You can spot these strange yet beautiful birds on Espanola.
Other bird species: Galapagos hawk, Galapagos short-eared owl, vermillion flycatcher, Galapagos Petrel, medium tree-finch, mangrove finch, lava heron
Marine iguanas are the only lizard in the world with the ability to live and forage at sea and are native to the Galapagos. For most of the year, the adults are black; however during mating season, the males adopt vibrant colourations. The colours of the iguanas vary from island to island, with Espanola and Floreana iguanas being the most colourful in red and green.
Galapagos Lava Lizard
One of the most abundant reptiles in the Galapagos is the lava lizard. Likened to miniature iguanas, these vibrant lizards can often be spotted warming up in the sun on top of lava formations, hence the name. There are seven species found across the islands and these unusual creatures display a unique behaviour. To ward off competitors from his territory, a male lava lizard can be seen performing push-ups to intimidate them.
Galapagos Giant Tortoise
Perhaps the most iconic creature in the Galapagos, the Galapagos giant tortoise can grow up to 1.8 metres long. The archipelago itself was named after the Spanish word for tortoises! These friendly giants arrived from mainland South America approximately 2-3 million years ago and Galapagos Conservation now believes there are 20,000 individuals on the islands. They spend around 16 hours a day resting and graze on grasses, fruits and cactus pads. The Santa Cruz highlands and Alcedo Volcano on Isabela have the largest populations.
Galapagos Green Turtle
If you are snorkelling during your Galapagos cruise, look out for the Galapagos green turtle. They are the only turtle species to breed and nest on the islands and have a remarkable ability to swim at speeds of up to 35mph over long distances.
Galapagos Sea Lion
It’s easy to spot Galapagos sea lions sprawled on the beaches or swimming by the shore. Although they can dive to depths of 350 metres and stay underwater for 10 minutes, these cheerful seals spend a lot of time resting on the beach. Males are significantly heavier than females, at 250kg versus their 80kg.
Galapagos Fur Seal
On the western islands of the archipelago, Galapagos fur seals are often found resting in the shade along the rocky coastlines. Fur seals have large eyes so they can hunt at night and dive to depths of up to 50 metres. Sadly, these native creatures are classed as endangered due to their dwindling population and are fully protected under Ecuadorian law.
We can’t talk about wildlife on the islands without mentioning the Galapagos penguin. Despite being one of the smallest penguins in the world, this creature is the most northerly occurring penguin. In 1982, a particularly strong El Nino event caused 77% of the population to die of starvation. There are only an estimated 2,000 birds left.
Other marine animals: Sally Lightfoot crab, Galapagos shark, whale shark, scalloped hammerhead shark, bacalao grouper, sunfish, blacktip shark.
Safely observing Galapagos wildlife
When visiting the Islands, there are simple rules set out by Galapagos National Park that are designed to protect visitors and the delicate ecosystems of the islands. Clare Simm of Galapagos Conservation Trust recommends: “The key is to listen to the guide you are with as they will tell you where to walk (stick to the path!) and how far away to stay from the animals. The rule is at least two metres from the animals at all times. Take only photos – please refrain from taking anything with you. If taking photos, avoid using the flash as this can disturb the wildlife. Finally, don’t try to touch the animals or feed them – they may seem tame but they are wild animals.”
While there are set rules in place, you are still guaranteed to get up close to the animals. Paloma of Sustainable Travel shared some of her favourite experiences on the islands: “Swimming with the largest sea turtle I have ever seen, swimming in a shallow beautiful beach and a giant marine iguana swimming by my side, snorkelling over black tip reef sharks and seeing an octopus move from one rock to another and disappear as it turned into the rock.
“Walking barefoot on the sandy streets of Isabela towards the small shacks that serve delicious fresh fish, the sunset in San Cristobel, the unique combination of lush and arid natural landscape.”
Conservationists are working hard to protect this truly unique environment and to help visitors to not only enjoy the islands, but also to learn about why they are so important. With remarkable wildlife, otherworldly landscapes and idyllic beaches, the Galapagos Islands are truly a one-of-a-kind destination.
Image credits: Vince Smith, Arnie Papp, Niccie King, Vince Smith, Paul Krawczuk, Vince Smith, Joanne Goldby, Dallas Krentzel