Defying Wonder By Discovering The Garden Of Eden In The Galapagos Islands
A place of unparalleled natural splendour, so untouched, so pure, it defies wonder. Crystal clear water, powder soft sands of red, black and white. Creatures so unique, so tame, they know not what it is to fear man.
[Words & Photos, Melanie Jai, Who Visited Abroad A 50M Super-yacht] The seductive lure of the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, about 400 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Eternally disconnected from mainland, the islands seem extremely inhospitable to life, and yet life found a way. Over thousands of years plants and animals inexplicably migrated from over the sea. They adapted and evolved to the unique conditions, morphing into species vastly different to their continental ancestors. Now, half of the plant life and almost all of the reptiles in the Galapagos are endemic to the islands. A living laboratory of creatures and plants still in an evolutionary phase, only existing in this space.
Seductive Lures Amid The Galapagos Islands Landscape
Lying on the equator, the Galapagos is an archipelago of 14 volcanic islands and over 40 small islets. These islands are in their infancy in geological terms, the oldest around 5 million years old, with the youngest islands still in the process of being formed through volcanic activity.
Each island has developed its own unique ecosystem from lush, green forests, powdery beaches and rocky islands, to stark, volcanic or desert landscapes. Unparalleled diversity, this Garden of Eden attracted the attention of Charles Darwin, and became the birth place of his theory of evolution.
It was here in the 1800s that Darwin noticed animal species specific to each of the islands that had undergone adaptations to better suit the particular conditions. This was most famously focused on the finches, as he observed they had different types of beaks depending on their food sources. Today, about 13 different species call the islands home. Darwin’s theory extended to countless species now endemic to each separate island. This makes the Galapagos the holy grail for scientists and conservationists alike.
This magical land was intriguingly featured in the novel Moby Dick. The story was famously based on the voyage of a ship called Essex that was sunk by a sperm whale, but its origins began in the Galapagos. The crew, having captured around 360 tortoises, managed to then set re to Floreana Island. They exited after complete destruction, wiping out the island and its animal inhabitants. Gratefully, Moby Dick remains a fictional story, and Floreana Island lives magnificently on. The true history of the Galapagos is no less destructive, and is also reminiscent of scary bedtime reading.
While today, the Galapagos attracts luxury cruises and mundane eco-conservationists, the islands possess a colourful history, beginning as a hideout for pirates in between all their pillaging escapades, and progressed to the delightful whalers and seal-fur hunters, who slaughtered several species, including the giant tortoise, close to extinction.
Fast forward through violent convict uprisings and settler assassinations to perhaps the most perplexing episode, where prisoners were forced to construct a massive wall in inhumane conditions, aptly named the “Wall of Tears’’, for no other purpose but to make them suffer. Remnants of this charming wall still remain.
The outbreak of World War II saw the location of the islands take on strategic military significance for protecting the Panama Canal. Santa Cruz and Baltra were used as a minor military base for the US to support their efforts in the Pacific theatre. Since then, they have been the tranquil site of some of the world’s foremost conservation efforts and marine and terrestrial research, as well as an epicentre of tourism in South America.
It was millions of years after life first appeared on these volcanic islands, after it was discovered by the western world, that humans came to populate the land. When travelling, often the strongest connections to a new land are formed through its people. One of our many misconceptions was that the archipelago would be home to a traditional native tribe, rich in culture and history. Thus began the slow realignment of expectations versus reality.
Just 25 years ago the islands were home to 3,000 inhabitants who migrated primarily, but not exclusively, from Ecuador. Now it is a mix of various ethnicities, customs, and traditions and has cultural influences from Europe, America, as well as Ecuador.
This number has increased tenfold to 30,000 as migrants arrived to take advantage of growing economic opportunities geared around tourism and conservation. This is a slightly bumpy but well-oiled machine, and around 180,000 visitors each year flock here. The growing human population is threatening the health of the ecosystems and species tourism depends on, from the introduction of invasive species to rapid, largely unregulated construction in the towns.
It seems to be simultaneously supporting more scientific and conservation efforts and destroying the things that need to be studied and conserved. All of this results in more taxis, buses, boats, ferries, construction, garbage, sewage, and people.
There are so many people, it’s breathtaking, but more in a hyperventilating, did I get this all wrong, kind of way. Surely this isn’t the same place that complies with the countless glossy pictures of Garden of Eden-type environments, a showcase of evolution, a wonder of the world? It dawns with a thud that these “pure and untouched” islands are clearly not as pure and untouched as perceived. The disappointment is crushing.
Until it isn’t. The cacophony of barking sea lions that appear to populate every surface on land and sea in the bustling ports definitely have their charm. As does tip-toeing around baby sea wolves, gazing up at you with their deep soulful eyes, seemingly without the slightest concern about the presence of people. Watching on as these cheeky creatures jostle noisily for scraps amongst the fishermen in the fish markets like oversized puppies looking for treats.
Currently, only four of the 18 islands are inhabited by people – Isabela, Santa Cruz, Floreana, and San Cristobal. The rest of the islands are in pristine condition and carefully managed and maintained by the Galapagos National Park.
Our adventure begins with a wet landing by boat in Punta Pitt, San Cristobal Island. We traverse a steep gully path, up a rocky cliff face, to a vast plateau surface. Contours of barren, wind-eroded peaks surround us, a volcanic wasteland sparsely inhabited by saltbush and spiny shrubs. This predominantly black surface is pierced by the presence of lush carpets of Vesuvius in a startling re engine red hue.
Otherworldly, yet strikingly beautiful, this landscape is harsh. So it is unexpected to and it heavily populated by the world renowned Blue Footed Booby Birds. Few sights match seeing this strange bird for the first time. They nest on the ground within a ring of their own sprayed poo, so comfort isn’t high on their agenda.
Their fluffy little babies with white webbed feet grow to awkward, tufted adolescents with aqua coloured feet so bright it is as if they have been dipped in paint. The adults’ webbed feet are a deep, rich blue, their ungainly foot-slapping waddle and piercing eyes make for an entertaining sight. Seeing these iconic webbed creatures was definitely a bucket-list worthy highlight, though I discover that each new experience in this natural nirvana threatens to trump the last.”
We enter the water for our drift snorkel, traveling with the current off the coast of San Cristobal, along a small volcanic rock islet. Gently floating along the shore, we lock eyes with a giant bull sea wolf, or Lobos Marinos.
He does not back off, but dives under and around us, playfully yet territorially marking out his space. Galapagos and white-tipped sharks lurk in the depths below, rays majestically glide past. A colorful array of tropical shell the water as a puffer fish floats too close for his comfort and pops his little body out.
These sights feel precious, intimate, without the presence of crowds or other boats. Rather indulgently, the tender stands by in the lee of the islet where the currents ease, and we literally float to our pick up point.
Stepping from our boat onto the black rock shelf of Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island, is somewhat like stepping onto another planet. The sharp surface is furnished by the odd, paddle-like Opuntia Cactus. A key species in the ecology of the Galapagos Islands, the pads form a major food source for tortoises and iguanas.
Walking gingerly along this prickly, strange trail, we are led to a completely contrasting landscape. Powder-soft white sand, silky soft underfoot, this surf beach is bizarrely populate with hundreds of prehistoric looking marine iguana, which Charles Darwin named, “imps of darkness”
Like all the creatures in this equatorial archipelago, they gaze at us unperturbed by our presence. These herbivores are the only iguanas in the world that feed entirely underwater. Their attended tail allows them to glide, crocodile style, below the water’s surface. Physically imposing, with their shedding skins and long spikes, they also appear to regularly and unpleasantly spit.
To be more precise, they filter out the excess salt from the sea water by sneezing it out through their blunt, spiny snouts. It’s not pretty. Though all signs point to a creature best avoided, it is their very weirdness that makes them completely enthralling.
Uneroded pahoehoe lava, hardened bubbles, and tree-trunk moulds texture the surface. Stretching as far as the eye can see, this century- old lava flow has solidified into a sheet that runs to the edge of the sea. Standing here, you can imagine how it would have once bubbled and flowed toward the water, engulfing everything in its path. The flat, long lava shorelines erodes into lava pools, caves and inlets to be explored. Santiago is one of the most volcanically active islands in the archipelago, and Sullivan Bay’s rough terrain of flowing lava fields was unsurprisingly an intriguing stop to Darwin’s itinerary. Off to the northwest of the island, James Bay holds a unique pahoehoe flow.
During his stop on the island, Charles Darwin found pieces of glass embedded in the flow. They were found to be from quince marmalade jars, and the year of their manufacture, 1684, was moulded in their base. The volcanic flow had permanently embedded a marmalade stash left by buccaneers. This ow, now referred to as the “Marmalade Pot Flow”, therefore must have erupted between the jars manufacturing in 1684 and Darwin’s arrival in 1835. Today the “Marmalade Pot Flow” remains frozen in time within a black shiny veneer of basaltic glass.
In the cool and misty highlands of Santa Cruz , surrounded by otherworldly cactus and scalesia forests, lie one of the oldest creatures in the world, the iconic Galapagos Tortoise. No visit to the islands are complete without seeing these giant lumbering creatures, and after hiking for over five hours in the searing heat to see only two small tortoises we decide to drive to Reserva El Chato.
Once farmland, the rangers have preserved the region by hunting predators and creating a safe space to prevent the further destruction of the tortoise population. As they are slow and meaty, they were almost hunted to extinction by humans, and are now very heavily protected in grounds such as this.
Here you can see huge, mature wild tortoises in their natural habitat. These primordial creatures grow up to five feet long, weigh over 500 pounds, and have been known to live over 150 years, making them the largest turtles on earth, and the world’s longest living vertebrates.
Roam through the damp grounds, best done in enclosed wet weather shoe, around muddy ponds lined with their huge domes shapes, their heads buried under the mud. It is believed that they enjoy their pond baths as a thermoregulation mechanism for heating or cooling, depending on the temperature. They could be riddled themselves of ticks and mosquitoes, or it may just feel really good.
Most of these wild tortoises migrate to the lowlands for the wet season where they mate and nest before returning to the highlands for the dry season. It is said that the only way to be bitten by this creature is to place your hand within its open jaws and wait patiently. Though terribly unlikely, the tortoises jaws are strong and lined with sharp ridges, and could easily bite off a human finger if mistaken for food.
We are reminded to respect these docile, gentle animals with the two metre rule, which applies to most creatures within the Galapagos. Sudden movements or getting too close causes these sensitive beings to withdraw within their carapaces and make a hissing sound as air is being expelled from their lungs.
Sit patiently and quietly, and they may decide to take a closer look at you. I gently shift my position as one meanders past, almost nudging into me to get access to the rough pathway.
These gentle creatures have even come up with a passive aggressive means of fighting each other, where they face each other with their most ferocious glares, open their mouths and stretch their heads up as high as they can. The winner is the one whose head reaches the highest, while the loser pulls his head into his shell as a sign the battle is over.
In between the excitement of island visits, there’s plenty of time for reflection while travelling by boat. Some spend it looking over photographs from their last adventure, some disconnect completely from the hustle and bustle of ordinary life and lose themselves in the moment, while others struggle with the motion of the waves and nausea. I was all of these people, at different times.
Speaking of people, this is a problem that continues to be an issue for the growing Galapagos. There are so many recommendations and treaties in place from various levels of government and not-for-profit organisations that it is impossible to tell what is current and binding.
Since 2009, in an attempt to limit population growth, the government kicked out thousands of Ecuadorians from their residences in Puerto Ayora, the main economic hub. It is now impossible to apply for permanent residency within the islands. This has left the islands with an unsettling ethical dilemma, as many residents now feel that they are less important than the animals they protect for the benefit of a booming tourism market.
It is equally hard to argue with the government’s stance that without the wildlife there wouldn’t be a booming economy for the Ecuadoreans to benefit from. Regardless of the politics involved, the local population continue to dedicate their lives to not only protect and preserve, but also to provide access of this UNESCO awarded world heritage site.
Our guides were so informative and enthusiastic that by the end of the trip we felt like wildlife experts. Their local knowledge gave a deeper understanding to the history and nature of the archipelago, and enriched our experience.
Due to the fragile ecosystem of the Galapagos archipelago and its priceless natural resources, the Ecuadorian government heavily regulates the tourist industry on the islands. As much of the islands are National Parks, there are only one or two boats in a particular port or point of disembarkation at a time, and strict guidelines apply for the ship routes and island visits.
Permits to access the different islands and waterways are a premium cost, and no tenders are permitted to run to shore. Therefore, having arrived by superyacht presented many challenges for us. To set foot off the yacht requires a taxi boat, to access the islands takes planning, a registered local guide and heavily restricted boat hire. To expect the usual autonomy provided by travelling in your own vessel is to be gravely disappointed. It’s hard not to notice the many ways that the Galapagos Islands have been tainted by the immense growth in tourism over the years, to doubt that it can live up to its immense hype.
Documentaries play spectacular footage of the archipelago, capturing seemingly impossible angles of the countless endemic species. Fuelled by these images, I believed this famous archipelago to be a secret garden, a remote tropical paradise lled with indescribable wildlife, untamed yet unafraid.
I imagined perfectly. It was all of this and so much more. Some of these added extras may not have been what I expected or wanted, but they became a piece of the puzzle. The Galapagos lls the senses with the stuff of legend. The geography of the islands and variety of landscapes saw us peering over the rim of enormous crates, standing on rivers of lava ow, traversing salt water lagoons lled with amingos. And the wildlife. Nothing will prepare you for such close encounters with nature. Those impossible angles that the documentaries managed to capture? I caught them too.
Yes, there are a lot more people than you might expect.
Yes, it is expensive. You pay for the privilege of visiting one of the most remote and highly protected places in existence.
Will you regret it? Not for a second.