Galapagos is not on the regular beaten track for travelers. The small rocks one thousand kilometers off the coast of Ecuador, halfway between Nowhere and Nowhere Else, is not a place you stumble across by accidentally taking the wrong turn at a highway crossing. It is a place you very deliberate chose to go to because somebody told you it was worth going – worth all the long boring flights and all the hard-earned money.
And whoever told you that – was right! In our case, DHH told ES because DHH had been there before. Back in the day, in 2003 when the only restaurant at Baltra Airport was an outdoors coffeeshop and the Puerto Ayora main street was lined with Caribbean style huts, he spent 4 days on a small tourist cruiser. 20 years later the café has been moved inhouse and the main street has white paint, glass facades and even a separate bicycle lane. We could now afford to go back for a full week. Who says that the world is not moving forwards!
Our Globetrotter travel agent had us assigned to the Angelito, a 20-something meter yacht with space for 16 travelers. From afar she looks a bit square, like a not so very aerodynamic floating shoebox. Once on board however, we realize that she has a very practical design. On the main deck are 8 double cabins, and on the upper deck a spacious dining area that also serves as a lounge for reading, diary-writing and picture-editing. On the very top you can lie down and enjoy the salty breeze as the ship works her way along the Pacific. Some of our fellow passengers turned out to be semi-professional star-spotters, and they had a field night. The night sky is hardly as clear anywhere on land as it is on the ocean.
The Angelito is a very seaworthy little shoe box. The Galapagos waters are not protected coastline, and neither is the 60-hour journey to the mainland that the ship needs to do on a regular basis for mandatory certification and service. You need a vessel that can take a beating if the waves turn nasty. The Angelito, herself designed and build on the islands, has been doing just that for a full 30 years.
Life on board, however, is not really about life on board. It is about getting to and from all the rocks, bays and beaches that Galapagos is about. Our first visit ashore was in the afternoon of the day we boarded, and for that reason our first meeting with our Swiss guide Maja was about the do’s and don’ts of tourist life. Come to think of it, there were not so many do’s actually – but rather a large number of don’ts.
And the first rule of all: You do not stray! You walk the line. You walk behind the guide. You do not step off the beaten track. Thru the forest and the fields you walk on a footpath, on the beach you walk below the high tide marks, and on the black lava rocks you follow signs and markers telling you what areas to stay away from. You go where the guide goes, and nowhere else. Everywhere you watch out for sleeping, nesting, resting or feeding creatures that could be somewhere close to your feet. If a dead branch cracks under your shoe it is because you are 30 centimeters off the beaten track, and in the blink of an eye Maja is there to tell you not to do it again.
It does make sense, of course! Galapagos is one of the most famous and best kept natural parks in the world, with wildlife you very literally will never see anywhere else. Humans were once very close to ruin the place totally, and the strict regulations are there to make sure it does not happen again. So we do not go closer to any animal than two meters if it can in any way be avoided. We do not take pictures using flash. We do not run. We do not use drones. We do not pick up souvenirs from the ground, not as much as a grain of broken rock. We do not touch or feed live animals. We do not feed or touch dead ones either for that matter unless they have been dead lone enough to have turned into stone themselves.
So off we went, like little chickens following the mother hen. We walked sandy beaches where marine turtles had recently nested, leaving huge tracks like amphibious war machines. Sea turtles lay their eggs deep in the sand. The traces they leave when they are done make it look like the place has been visited by something it would have been very difficult to persuade Olaf Scholz to sell to the Ukraine.
The expecting mothers are nowhere to be seen, however. They only come ashore at night. When we visit in the morning they are back in the water, maybe mating again and preparing for another late-evening beach-baby party in a few nights time!
On our first trip ashore, we did a wet landing, jumping off the dingy barefoot and wading out of the water with our shoes in our hands. Next time we were supposed to do a dry one, but dry landings were few and far between on this trip. The tide was higher and the waves heavier than usual, and the supposedly dry rocks where we walked ashore were pretty much underwater. We tiptoed over some sharp and black and wet stepping-stones heading for what looked like a flat little lava area where we could stop and regain our balance.
But it wasn’t. It was 20 square meters of live bodies, black and grey marine iguanas resting in heaps. They covered every available inch of dry stone. ES let out a scream of horror! There were bodies and tails and claws and faces everywhere. They were lying beside each other, on top of each other, between each other, into each other and around each other. They were face to face, claw to nose and eye to tail. They didn’t make a sound, they didn’t even look up. They did, however, stink. If marine iguanas use deodorant, they do not use any brand we would care to recommend!
Even Maja had to give up her rules. This was not the place to keep a two-meter distance to anybody. With some difficulty we balanced around the outskirts of the heaps of bodies keeping a two-centimeter distance, enough to keep our walking boots from breaking the bones of somebody’s tail or crushing somebody’s claws to pieces.
Marine iguanas are not beautiful. They have flat little faces with narrow gunfighter-eyes and bullet-hole shaped nostrils. They have tight black lips, like somebody who has been dead for a few weeks longer than what was good for him. They have warts on their foreheads and spikes down their necks. They have skin looking as soft and cuddly as a bathroom tile. They appear like miniatures from Jurassic Park, like something that could jump you any minute, cover you from head to toe and start chewing your soft body parts without anesthetics.
They are, however, totally harmless. Their faces are flat because they live from algae. A short snout is more practical than a long one when you make your living gnawing plants off an underwater stone, and sharp claws are practical to keep you from falling off before you are finished. After a healthy breakfast in the cool water, they go ashore to digest their food and warm their bodies in the sun, before going back out again for lunch. If they spit at you while you aim at them with your camera it is not because they protest against being photographed, it is because they are getting rid of the salt from the food they are digesting. They actually shoot out the liquid thru their nose, another habit that does not go down very well in human social circles.
Our own private research make us realize that they do not eat crabs. The sparkling red and orange Galapagos crab share their habitat and crawl all over the dozing iguanas, without any of the two species ever attempting to eat the other. Once they are grown and can no longer be bird food, the Galapagos iguana has no enemies other than humans almost stepping on their tails.
After the shocking introduction we got used to the iguanas. We had to actually, because they were absolutely all over the place. We also got used to the sea lions that shared their cliff hangouts. A day or two later we also got used to the land iguana, a larger and a bit better looking cousin who stays in the woods and the grasslands. The body shape is roughly the same, but the male land iguana has a very inviting yellow color that makes us think a bit more of a cozy Disney movie and a bit less of the prehistoric horror-tales of Steven Spielberg. They came across as rather cool characters, nowhere as frightening as their black faced cousins down at the beach.
We surrounded our new friends and took their pictures from all angles. None of them protested. We did come across other groups of tourists from other boats occasionally. Some of those people did step out of the pathway for better pictures when their own guide was not looking, but then Maja made sure our crowd didn’t! The look she gave us was that of a very strict schoolteacher, somebody wanting to make sure her class would get better grades than the rowdy gang of mischiefs next door. The message was clear! Because you’re mine, you walk that line!
Therefore, we did! By then we finally had met the land tortoise, realizing they walked the line as well! The Galapagos giant tortoise was the animal that once upon a time gave the islands their name. The Spanish word Galapago, meaning tortoise, was used by the first Europeans who came to the islands in the 16th century.
These giants are built like WWII Sherman tanks. They can grow to 400 kilos and have been recorded to live for 175 years. With one short leg in each corner of a body made for battle and not acrobatics they also prefer the footpath when they move around. It is easier to walk a flat and firm surface than to negotiate a full cubic meter of solid steel across rocks and roots and bushes.
According to Wikipedia the giant tortoises of today inhabit 7 islands in Galapagos. Tortoise populations on at least three islands have become extinct in historical times due to human activities. From an estimated total of 250,000 individuals some 500 years ago the numbers came down to about 15,000 in the 1970ties, due to human overexploitation and introduction of new species like rats, hogs and goats. Throughout most of the 19th century sailors took large numbers, often hundreds at a time, on board ships as fresh meat. Tortoises were also exported to California during the gold rush of 1849 to feed miners. This practice came from the fact that they can live for up to a year without food or water. This can be very practical in the wild of course, but when they were stored for months in dark corners of dirty ships their very ability to survive suddenly became their downfall!
When we met them on our woodland walks, they looked like creatures out of a Tolkien story. They moved slowly, but steady and fully determined, unstoppable like computerized robots. They have no fear and show no emotions. Humans with dozens of clicking cameras are of no interest, the only thing that can make them think twice seemed to be an encounter with one of their own. When two of them met on our narrow path, the bigger one made sure that the smaller one got out of his way! The rule of the jungle, the survival of the fattest!
In 1964 a breeding program was started on Galapagos to repopulate the islands with their huge inhabitants. By then another problem had grown out of hand. Rats can stop reproduction by eating eggs and small hatchlings. Midway thru the last century, on the island of Pinzón, a large group of aging adults were found, but not a single young animal. Rats had killed all new offspring over a period of half a century!
We visited two of these breeding stations, in the main town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz and in the village of Puerto Villamil on the island of Isabela. Groups of grown individuals originating from the same island are kept together to reproduce. The eggs are collected and hatched in incubators, and the hatchlings are kept till they are big enough to be safe from predators. The «teenagers» are then taken back to the island where their parents originated, with the intention of building populations large enough to sustain themselves. To do this one also has to get rid of the rats, once brought there by the same ships that brought the hungry sailors, and on some islands, this has now been done with a considerable degree of success.
In Puerto Ayora we also met the prime symbol of the Galapagos giant tortoise, Lonesome George! He was found on the island of Pinta in 1971 as the last of his subspecies. He was already a senior citizen, maybe the last surviving young animal after all his friends and neighbors had been taken for meat and lamp oil around year 1900. He was brought to the Ayora breeding center where he spent more than 40 years, regrettably without producing any offspring. DHH met him there in 2003, when he would still stop for a chat and pose for a picture. In 2012 he died, at the age of probably well over 100. Now, in 2023, he can be found on display in a glass cage where he reminds visitors of what humans can do to kill of a species forever, but also of what we can do to rectify our mistakes if we recognize them in time.
2 thoughts on “Galapagos, Part 1: We Walked the Line”
Thank you for letting us vicariously join the adventure. Very glad to hear that this ecosystem is being carefully protected. 😀
LikeLiked by 1 person
By god I think you captured that first week perfectly. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about our adventure, and your pictures beautifully capture the narrative. Did you ever do photojournalism??😂😊
LikeLiked by 1 person