s
s
Sections
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
X

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

X

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

If You Go

Flights: Most flights to the Galapagos originate in Quito or Guayaquil, which connect with U.S. airports.

When to go: There isn’t a bad time to visit the Galapagos, although there is warm and wet season from January to May, and a cool and dry season from June to December, when prices tend to be discounted.

How to go: The most recommended way to see the Galapagos is boat-based trips with night spent aboard, typically five- to eight-day tours. Boats range from tourist-class yachts that start at roughly $300 per person, per day, to small luxury ships that start at around $450 per person, per diem.

If by land: There are cheaper land-based options to experience the Galapagos. Inter-island boats offer day trips with guided walks, wildlife watching and snorkeling, arranged through companies in Puerto Ayora and Puerto Moreno where there is also lodging covering all price points.

Online: adventure-life.com, liveaboard.com, royalgalapagos.com

FLIGHTS: Most flights to the Galapagos originate in Quito or Guayaquil, which connect with U.S. airports.

WHEN TO GO: There isn’t a bad time to visit the Galapagos, although there is warm and wet season from January to May, and a cool and dry season from June to December, when prices tend to be discounted.

HOW TO GO: The most recommended way to see the Galapagos is boat-based trips with night spent aboard, typically five- to eight-day tours. Boats range from tourist-class yachts that start at roughly $300 per person, per day, to small luxury ships that start at around $450 per person, per diem.

IF BY LAND: There are cheaper land-based options to experience the Galapagos. Inter-island boats offer day trips with guided walks, wildlife watching and snorkeling, arranged through companies in Puerto Ayora and Puerto Moreno where there is also lodging covering all price points.

ONLINE: adventure-life.com, liveaboard.com, royalgalapagos.com

It’s not every day you get to snorkel with penguins in the wild.

But in the Galápagos Islands, it’s possible to swim right up to them and even take a selfie with them, perched on an ocean rock, as they gaze unperturbed at the humans in their realm.

On a recent trip to the Galápagos, I had the opportunity not only to get that close to these unique species of penguins — the only type found north of the equator — but also to study other unusual birds, iguanas, sea lions and giant tortoises that showed little or no fear of people from their remote location.

The island archipelago 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, which famously provided Charles Darwin with the inspiration for his revolutionary theory of evolution, is a natural laboratory.

Isolated, and with no humans or large mammals to threaten them, the wildlife evolved without the usual fight or flight instinct.

“Animals seem caught in a state of fearless innocence,” Darwin wrote after he visited the Galápagos in 1835 as a young man on his epic round-the-world voyage on the HMS Beagle.

The journey my wife and I took in late October was also by boat, but a modern 111-foot long ship, a five-day, four-night cruise to a half-dozen of the islands, most of them uninhabited and part of an Ecuadorian national park with strict regulations that require an accompanying guide.

With only 16 passengers on the “Natural Paradise,” the Galápagos newest small cruise ship, we were ferried ashore each day to hike, snorkel or kayak with our live-aboard guide pointing out the intriguing varieties of plant and animal life, in between strolling a pristine, empty red-sand beach, or clambering over a hardened black lava field. The small ship is one of about 80 that ply the waters around the Galápagos offering such excursions, a few with up to 100 passengers.

There are another dozen or so live-aboards that cater exclusively to scuba divers, to take in the rich underwater environment, including near guaranteed sighting of hammerhead sharks, rays and green turtles.

Our cruise didn’t offer scuba diving, but we stayed an extra few days afterward in an AirBnB in the pleasant town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, so we could arrange to go on a dive boat with one of several companies that provide half-day trips.

It was thrilling, not necessarily scary, to be underwater with several bizarre, prehistoric-looking Hammerhead sharks lazily circling only 25 feet from us. Our dive master insisted the hammerheads found in the Galápagos are not aggressive, basically because they have a good natural food supply and aren’t interested in us.

Fortunately he was right, and we survived to attest to fascinating sights both under and above water in these “eminently curious” Galápagos Islands, as Darwin described them.

The geologically young Galápagos islands are of volcanic origin, some with still-active lava flows. Composed of 13 larger islands, six smaller ones and over 40 islets straddling the equator, the highest island is 2,600 feet in elevation with different bands of microclimates, including conifers and lush vegetation in the higher spots where more rain falls.

More tourists

But most of the islands are covered by semi-desert or desert vegetation, somewhat incongruous for a wildlife paradise. About 97 percent of the Galápagos is a protected area established by Ecuador in 1959, except for a few parts that were already colonized.

Tourism has steadily increased to the point where about 200,000 people visit annually.

We flew from the Ecuadorian capital of Quito to the Galápagos island of San Cristobal to meet our ship and were whisked to our deluxe forward cabin, which we were pleased to find had large windows on each side of the boat for optimum views of land and sea.

Our days were a comfortable, pampered routine of breakfast, going ashore to explore an unpopulated island, returning to the ship for lunch and a brief rest in our staterooms, back to the island in the afternoon for a snorkel and/or walk, and returning to the ship in time for happy hour and a gourmet dinner.

At night, our ship might anchor in a cove, or move to the next island destination.

For the most part, the Galápagos appear largely pristine and untrammeled although there have been many challenges with damage done by introduced species.

Even before Darwin arrived, pirates, fur hunters and whalers were taking a toll on the animal populations, especially on the giant tortoises that were used for meat because they could survive for months onboard ship until ready to be consumed.

Rats, dogs and cats, fire ants, snails and blackberry vines are just a few of the introduced species that have wrought havoc on the endemic flora and fauna. But there also have been concerted efforts to eradicate, or at least control some of the introduced species such as goats, that once threated to overrun some islands.

Educational film

These days, jetline passengers are shown a five-minute educational film before landing. It emphasizes the uniqueness of the Galápagos, advises to keep at least six feet away from the wildlife and refrain from littering.

On our shore excursions, we were cautioned not to touch the baby sea lions, some less than a week old, especially since something as simple as perfume, or sunscreen on our hands, could affect the ability to detect scent between the pups and their nursing mothers.

“No mom, no milk, no life,” said Peter Freire, our national parks guide, as our group watched a bleating infant sea lion chase after its mother.

Human contact with iguanas was not as much a concern. One of the curious three-foot long dragon-like lizards slowly ambled up to my wife, Virginia, who was sitting on the ground photographing the creature. It proceeded to place two claws on her thigh and lick her cell phone.

“For crying out loud, now what do I do?” she nervously asked our guide, who advised her to be still, then stand up slowly. The iguana turned around and moved away, much to my wife’s relief.

The Spanish who discovered the islands in 1535 also commented on the strange lack of fear animals showed toward humans.

They described some of the birds as “so silly they do not know how to flee” and gave the name “’bobo,” or clown in Spanish, to one variety. It got changed to “booby” in English, hence the description “blue-footed booby” for one fairly common Galápagos bird. These days, it’s inspired a dubious souvenir t-shirt that proclaims “I love boobies,” with an accompanying likeness of the bird.

But it was the giant tortoises, described as so big that each could carry a man, with a saddle-like, or “Galapago” shell that gave the islands their name.

Darwin said the huge, 500-pound-plus reptiles “surrounded by the black lava, the leafless shrubs and large cacti seemed to my fancy like some antediluvian animals.”

Almost gone

Once estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands before sailing ships made regular calls, the giant tortoise population was down to about 12,000 by 1959. But thanks to a breeding and hatching program, scientists have helped the tortoise population rebound to around 50,000.

Darwin noted that the shells varied from one island to another. He also observed that finches exhibited different traits from island to island. The curious and friendly birds seem to have evolved in different ways, depending on the topography, food availability and other particular characteristics of the island where they settled.

He was fascinated by the unique varieties of life and examples of divergence in almost every group of plants and animals as they adapted to their environments.

His observations were the basis for his landmark 1859 book, “The Origin of Species,” which upended Biblical teaching at the time.

It brought a new view of life on earth –– that species are continuously changing, noted Paul Stewart author of “Galápagos: the Islands that Changed the World.”

“We take for granted the fact that our ancestors descended from apes, birds evolved from reptiles and we all developed from some very ancient replicating molecules,” Stewart wrote. “It all started with Darwin’s visit less than 200 years ago.”

The Galápagos, Darwin said, “was the origin of all my views.”

“ I fancied myself brought near to the very act of creation,” he wrote. “Both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact –– that mystery of mysteries –– the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”

Get up close

For modern-day visitors like Ros Orr, a fellow cruise passenger and graphic designer who lives in London, the visit to the Galápagos was an unprecedented opportunity to get up close to the exotic wildlife, both land and sea, and to be awestruck.

“Anyone can be a photographer,” she said. “You can take pictures like you see in a magazine.”

She rhapsodized about the rich undersea life she witnessed in just one snorkel outing, including “massive school of fish,” stingrays, a small reef shark, iridescent blue-striped damsel fish, dazzling orange tails and more.

“To see them all in such a small area, felt like an aquarium,” she said. “We’ll never be able to go on holiday (again) to match up to this.”

Clark Mason writes on travel and adventures. You can reach him at clarkmas@sbcglobal.net

Show Comment