Galápagos & Ecuador | World Safaris

GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS

A trip to Ecuador’s Galápagos Archipelago is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for wildlife enthusiasts and photographers. Made famous by Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, these enchanted desert islands lying 600 miles off the Pacific coast of South America, are home to a myriad of unique creatures, including giant tortoises, marine iguanas, flightless cormorants, Galápagos penguins, swallow-tailed gulls, Darwin’s finches, and a wide variety of marine life.

World Safaris offers a variety of affordable options for visiting and exploring this amazing natural wonder.  World Safaris’ in-country partner Ecoventura operates a fleet of three modern expedition vessels that accommodate no more than 20 travelers.

A leader in responsible travel, Ecoventura was the first Galápagos tour company to offset carbon emissions and to install energy efficient power sources.  Their highly-trained naturalist guides and small group sizes (one expert guide for every 10 people) make for a truly personalized and enjoyable experience.  Travelers will also learn about the current threats to the archipelagos’ unique wildlife.

Shore excursions to the islands offer incredible opportunities for photography and to get up close and personal with many of the islands’ inhabitants. Being of volcanic origin, the geology of these islands is also fascinating, and there are many opportunities to observe and photograph fantastic ancient lava formations.

Unique Wildlife and Plants of the Galápagos

The Galápagos Islands are home to a wide variety of unique animals and plants that are found nowhere else on earth. Perhaps best known among these are the huge Galápagos tortoises.  Unique subspecies of tortoises are found on many of the islands, and are among the oldest animals on our planet, regularly living more than 150 years.

Galápagos wildlife display an interesting phenomenon called “island tameness.”  Never having to deal with predators (until very recently with the introduction of non-native feral cats and rats), these species did not evolve predator avoidance behavior.  As a result, it is possible to approach these animals very closely.  While this offers wonderful photographic opportunities, it is still inadvisable to get too close or to try to touch or interfere with the animals in anyway, and, in fact, it is illegal to do so.

Also unique to these islands are the land and marine iguanas.  Marine iguanas are highly unusual in that they spend much of their life foraging underwater on the marine algae that grows on rocks. Like all reptiles, they are exothermic or cold blooded and must bask on shore to warm up, so that they can be active.

The area is also home to many unique bird species, including the well-known flightless cormorant, a species that has lost the ability to fly, and Darwin’s finches, a number of species that evolved from a common ancestor to be able to exploit very different ecological niches.  This is reflected primarily in the size and shape of their beaks.  One species uses a tool (cactus spines) to remove insects from cracks and crevices.  Other birds include the brown pelican, tropic bird, greater flamingo, swallow-tailed gull, blue-footed booby, mockingbird, short-eared owl, Galápagos penguin and Galápagos hawk.

Marine mammals also inhabit ther area, including many species of whales and dolphins and the ubiquitous Galápagos fur seal.

Plants of the Galápagos are also unique, and include a number of different cactuses that thrive in the arid environment, such as the prickly pear, lava and candelabra cactuses.

Conservation Challenges

The Galápagos Islands and its unique fauna and flora are experiencing many conservation challenges, nearly all of which are caused by the presence of humans. The growth of tourism and associated development  in the region itself has been a major challenge, but the Ecuadorian government has placed many restrictions on the use and visitation of the islands which are intended to promote long-term conservation.  Tourism is carefully controlled and trained guides must accompany all tours that visit the islands. Chief among the threats are introduced or feral animals, which prey on or compete with native willdife. These include Norway rats, feral cats, and feral goats.  Recent successful attempts to eradicate these destructive exotics from the landscape has brought back many plant and animal populations.  Some plant and animal populations, such as giant tortoises and land iguanas, have also been recovered through captive breeding and reintroduction programs.  Pollution and overfishing are also threats to the marine environment, but the Ecuadorian government established a marine reserve around the park in 1986.  Global climate change may also pose a serious threat, as it could impact the frequency and severity of El Nino, a change in ocean currents, which brings warmer water to the area. Species which depend on the more productive cooler waters for food may experience dramatic populatioin reductions at this time.

A Walk in the Galápagos

Travel from island to island in the Galápagos is by boat. Excursions onto the islands are usually done in 4-hour segments, typically in the morning and afternoon.  Travel from your boat to the island is typically by a small dingy (known locally as a “panga”), landing on either rocks or sand beaches. Cameras and other valuables should be kept dry in waterproof plastic bags at this time, as spray is common.  Comfortable shoes that can get wet are a must for these brief trips to and from the beach.  Light boots or walking shoes are best, as some of the volcanic terrain can be rough on your feet.  Walking is restricted to certain paths to avoid disturbing the animals.  While on the boat, travelers should be on the lookout for whales,  dolphins and sea birds. Being able to snorkel or kayak in the surrounding marine reserve is one of the highlights of the trip.  The landscape itself is uncommonly beautiful and offers many fantastic oppostunities for photography and quiet contemplation.

My own time spent in the Galápagos was an ungorgettable experience, one that I will always treasure. For a biologist like me, a trip to these incredible islands was like a pilgrimmage of sorts.  While traveling through the region, I thought about what it must have been like for Darwin to have seen and recorded the unique fauna for the very first time, and what must have gone through his mind as he contemplated the origins of life on our planet, including human life.   Darwin called the islands “a little world unto itself.”  After many years of analyzing his results, he wrote in the Origin of Species, “The relations just discussed … [including] the very close relation of the distinct species which inhabit the islets of the same archipelago, and especially the striking relation of the inhabitants of each whole archipelago or island to those of the nearest mainland, are, I think, utterly inexplicable on the ordinary view of the independent creation of each species, but are explicable on the view of colonization from the nearest and readiest source, together with the subsequent modification and better adaptation of the colonists to their new homes.”  With these words, an entirely new view of the world had been established.

 

Michael Hutchins, Ph.D.

Founding Partner/Director, Conservation and Science

World Safaris