Galápagos: Islands of miracles

By Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum | September 12, 2016

Its mantle of fame spread by Charles Darwin and his generations of scientific followers, the Galápagos archipelago is a fascinating place to visit, with plenty that’s surprising.

DOCKSIDE SEA LIONS and marine iguanas are what make it real for most Galápagos first-timers. You’re barely off the plane at Baltra airport, still a bit dopey from the early start in mainland Ecuador and – what the? You mean I have to dodge sea lions in order to get my trip started?

Yes, yes you do. But look on the bright side: at least you don’t have to shoo them off the boat, which is a familiar duty to the marineros and naturalist guides who’ll be taking care of you for the next week.

Over many Galápagos journeys in the past several years, we’ve learned that the everyday and the utterly remarkable mix seamlessly in this equatorial archipelago. These are isolated and relatively young volcanic islands, so it’s hardly surprising that they lack the species diversity of, say, the Amazon rainforests. But so what? The islands have some of the highest levels of endemism (species found nowhere else) known on Earth. A staggering 97 per cent of the reptiles and land mammals you encounter and about 80 per cent of the land birds are endemic. It’s the same for more than 30 per cent of the plants and 20 per cent of the marine species.

That’s the point. It’s not variation that makes the Galápagos cool. It’s specialisation and volume.

marine iguanas

Often mistakenly thought to be very biodiverse, the archipelago has a great quantity of a small number of unique species, such as this mass of marine iguanas on Espanola island. (Image: Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum)

When these islands started emerging from the waves millions of years ago they were barren of life. Active – and fortunately not explosive – volcanism remains a feature of the Galápagos, and if today you walk on a cooled lava flow, even one a century old, you see just a few hardy colonizing plants, and maybe a cricket. The sound underfoot is best described as clinking. It’s as if you’re stepping on recently fired crockery.

The new islands, which happened to be at the convergence of several cool, nutrient-rich, deep-water oceanic currents, were fair game for whatever plants and animals could reach them. And there’s the hitch: they’re about 1000km from mainland South America. So, anything that lived in the ocean might get there, sure. Seabirds, of course – they eat stuff that lives in the ocean. But what about the land species, the lizards and snakes and so on?

Galapagos tortoise

A Galapagos tortoise at a reserve in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island. There were 15 known species in Charles Darwin’s time, each isolated on different island. Eleven remain today. (Image: Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum)

Scientists agree that land species floated from South America on rafts of vegetation, which means that the animals that have survived here have made the best of some bad luck with oceanic drift. Land and marine iguanas have a common ancestor that made the journey by raft; the two species went their separate ways more than 10 million years ago. Can you imagine that? There’s little enough for animals to eat in a bad Galápagos season now. The ancestral marine iguana developed some weird evolutionary tics that allowed it to enter the ocean and munch algae. Woo-hoo! it must have thought. No more beatings from that mean land cousin of mine!

This type of evolutionary specialistion is played out all around the Galápagos, and it’s not the only thing that makes the islands remarkable. In the Galápagos, every day seems to bring something unexpected, and there’s no better reason than that to see it for yourself.

Galápagos: seven times unexpected

1. Natural rights

blue footed booby

About half of all breeding pairs of the quirky blue-footed booby nest on the Galapagos islands. (Image: Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum)

Ecuador’s ahead of the field for legally protecting nature, and the Galápagos is a major beneficiary. Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution codifies the Rights of Nature – a world first. The constitution recognises that ecosystems have a right to exist and flourish, and gives people the right to petition on ecosystems’ behalf.

2. Flamingos

flamingo

A solitary American or Carribean flamingo feeds in shallows near Dragon Hill, Santa Cruz Island. (Image: Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum)

The world’s smallest flamingo population – perhaps 350 individuals – can breed with just a few pairs present. Other flamingo populations in the world need very large groups of birds for breeding to occur. Galápagos flamingos live in saltwater lagoons close to the sea and it’s not unusual to see them alone – quite a contrast to the flocks of thousands often seen elsewhere.

3. Penguins

penguin

The Galapagos Penguin is the only species found north of the equator and in danger from sea-temperature rise. (Image: Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum)

The Galápagos penguin is the world’s only penguin found north of the equator. It’s cool water temperatures, a result of the convergence of deep-ocean currents, that makes this possible. Only about 1000 breeding pairs of Galápagos penguin are thought to survive.

4. Marine iguanas

marine iguana

Marine iguanas brighten up for the mating season, though the activity level increase is harder to spot. Punta Suarez, Espanola Island. (Image: Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum)

Unique to the Galápagos, marine iguana are the world’s only lizard that feeds – they eat algae – in the sea. There’s a separate sub-species on each of the archipelago’s 18 major islands and each has unique characteristics. Those on Isabella and Fernandina islands are biggest. The smallest sub-type is found on Genovesa.

5. Darwin’s finches

darwin's finch

A Darwin’s finch tackles the distinctive mericarp of a caltrop fruit on the beach at Gardner Bay, Espanola Island. (Image: Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum)

Darwin’s finches might be the most famous l.b.b. (little brown bird) type in the world. There are about 14 species of them, each with a different niche feeding behaviour. Evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant studied them for decades, observing evolution through natural selection occurring virtually season to season, as the beaks of different finches gave them an advantage or a handicap, depending on conditions.

6. Storm petrels

storm petrel

Storm petrels – the smallest pelagic seabirds – dance across the surface of the water to collect their food. They spend the vast majority of their life at sea, returning only to nest. (Image: Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum)

Various species of storm petrel are found around the world. Most feed at sea, but Elliot’s storm petrel takes food near Galápagos island coasts and are commonly seen from cruise vessels. The smallest of seabirds, they flitter and flutter near the surface, sometimes feeding by “surface pattering” – maintaining a wingbeat to hold steady above the water’s surface while keeping their feet on the sea. It’s mesmerising to watch; a delicate, wing-borne ballet.

7. Humans

darwin's finch

The opportunity to get close to wildlife is a feature of any Galapagos visit- these guests are observing a magnificent frigatebird chick at North Seymour Island. (Image: Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum)

There are more people here than you’d imagine. Tourism’s the main reason – it accounts for about 50 per cent of the archipelago’s economy. About 1000 visitors a year came to the islands in the 1960s, and an early 1970s census recorded less than 4000 people living there. These days the resident population is more than 25,000. In 2015, the islands welcomed more than 225,000 tourists.

The essentials

Getting there and away

Several airlines schedule daily flights between the mainland Ecuador cities of Quito and Guayaquil to airports at Baltra and San Cristóbal.

When to go

There’s really no bad time to visit the Galápagos, but you’ll avoid the busiest periods if you skip the Christmas/New Year and Northern Hemisphere summer holidays.

Getting around

It’s great to get a taste of Galápagos people and culture by staying ashore for a while, but you’ll reach more islands and a far greater variety and number of visitor sites if you take a cruise. Vessels range in size from 16- to more than 100-berth. We strongly recommend a small-group cruise.

Travel to the Galápagos in March 2017

Join Ian Connellan and Gail MacCallum, hosts of the Australian Geographic Society’s regular Galápagos journeys since 2010, on their “highlights” cruise of the archipelago next March. Ian, an Australian Geographic Society advisory councillor and former AG editor-in-chief, and Gail are the founders of Curious Traveller, which specialises in scientific expeditions and geotourism.

Visit www.curioustraveller.com.au for more information.