Charles Darwin made his voyage to the Galapagos Islands on HMS Beagle in the 1830s, and part of the legacy of publishing his book On the Origin of Species in 1859 has been to make this area one of the most studied and reported environments on earth. You cannot exhaust all of the information available, or even that portion which is online, if you have an academic interest to pursue.
For the rest of us casual observers, a conspicuous example of a species adapting to its environment is provided by the Galapagos giant tortoise. On islands where the foliage is dense, as in our Isla Santa Cruz photo (Front Page) taken at the preserve, the tortoise’s shell has a smoothly domed shape extending down close to the head which allows sufficient movement to eat but at the same time presents a low profile so that the tortoise can push through brush without becoming entangled. On drier islands with sparse vegetation, the tortoise shell arches and flares above the head and legs which allows the tortoise to reach up and dine on low hanging vegetation.
Although Darwin had read descriptions of the tortoises, it is generally accepted that he was not able to directly observe the different types. Instead, it was the variation in the beaks of finches collected on his and other voyages, which Darwin observed upon returning home, that provided the basis for his famous work. Further reading is recommended, but getting back to our particular trip, although we were able to observe tortoises in their preserve on Isla Santa Cruz, they were indistinguishable from large rocks for photographic purposes. While spending time in Puerto Moreno we were introduced to Pepe, a tortoise who had lived at the home of a local citizen long before a government ban on private ownership.
Isla Isabela (formerly Albemarle Island), the largest of the 13 (or so) Galapagos Islands, is actually a string of 5 major and one small volcano. The barriers of rock, lava flow, and water are probably responsible for there being 5 subspecies of the giant tortoise found on Isabela – one for each of the five major volcanic cones. For all of the Galapagos, there are thought to have been 12 tortoise subspecies flourishing at the time Europeans arrived in the 16th Century. Ten of the twelve survive today, or 11 if you count the world famous “Lonesome George” – thought to be the last of his kind – living at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Isla Santa Cruz. All but a few of the subspecies were on the brink of extinction at one time, largely due to their “meals to go” status as fresh meat that could be stacked like cord wood on sailing vessels; although imported animals have also taken a toll.
Fascination for the different tortoises is matched by the amazing number of other endemic species found nowhere else on earth. The Humboldt current brings antarctic water from the south, cold enough to support one of the smallest members of the penguin family here at the equator. The cold water the penguins prefer makes it that much more unlikely that the Galapagos Islands would be the one place that a cold blooded reptile would manage to survive as the only marine lizard in the world. The Marine Iguana, Land Iguana, Flightless Cormorant and 26 other bird species are among the unique and sometimes bizarre wildlife to be found alongside the equally unusual plant life of the Galapagos.
Even the seemingly familiar sea lion is actually a special smaller variant which breeds exclusively in the Galapagos, and a truly common creature like the Sally Lightfoot Crab seems exotic just by being part of the Galapagos scene.
Wildlife viewing can be done on small boats launched from cruise style ships (the largest of which only holds about 100 passengers) which are so maneuverable that this consideration provides no particular advantage for boats designed to hold much smaller groups. Shore walks from the larger boats are broken up into groups about the same size as would go ashore from one of the smaller boats. Either style of travel can accommodate scuba enthusiasts, so the choice of boat to tour around the islands may have more to do with personal preference and budget than any significant practical consideration. More on this subject at the Travel Plan page.
The natural beauty of the Galapagos Islands is not to be ignored. However, the experience provided by the wildlife, which other than a few exceptions like the crab makes no effort to flee when approached by human visitors, truly causes the setting to become the backdrop. As we’ve already seen, the range of settings is extraordinary within such a compact area, so the following page will purposely try to look past the incredible animal kingdom to better appreciate the land and the vegetation.
Galápagos Islands Cruise – Page 1
Page 2 – You Are Here
Page 3 – Galapagos Environments
Page 4 – Galapagos Islands Wildlife
Page 5 – More Galapagos Wildlife
Page 6 – A Glimpse of Ecuador