A Traveler's Guide to the Galapagos Islands

The Natural History of the Galapagos Islands
By Barry Boyce of Galapagos Travel
  |  Gorp.com
"October 8th - The natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves attention. Most of the organic productions are aboriginal creations [endemic species] found nowhere else; there is even a difference between the inhabitants of the different islands. Hence, 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." Charles Darwin, 1845

Darwin's astute observations were to set the stage for the development of the theory of evolution by natural selection as formulated in his famed publication, THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES; this book remains today as one of the major breakthroughs in scientific thought, and led the way for over a 150 years of biological research in what many have termed the"living laboratory of evolution" -the Galapagos Islands.

We tend to picture historic spots (such as the Galapagos) as just that- an empty stadium, a bare stage, the ruins that once flourished; "close your eyes," we say to ourselves, "and imagine the way that it was, for it was right here that it all happened." The amazing thing about the Galapagos archipelago, consisting of 13 major islands (as well as 6 minor islands and about 40 additional named islets) is that it's very young and still in the early process of formation.

This is precisely the feeling you get while touring the Galapagos Islands, located on the equator and about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. It begins with the misty, volcanic land/ seascapes. While touring the Galapagos and gazing from the bow of your yacht, the term "moonscape" seems more appropriate than "landscape." Indeed, with all the spatter cones, pit craters, lava tunnels, cinder slopes, ash rings, columns of steam, and ropy lava formations, as you put your feet ashore your mind echoes, "That's one small step. . . ." It was probably this somewhat surreal view that led the early Spanish explorers to give the islands their first name, Las Islas Encantadas - The Enchanted Islands.

It's not only the geology of these Enchanted Islands that is timeless, but the wildlife as well. You are immediately overwhelmed by the extraordinary nature and diversity of the animals - the same wildlife that so fascinated and inspired Darwin. You'll see giant land tortoises - some as large as 500-600 pounds. that were quite possibly around in Darwin's time, for these creatures are thought to live upwards of 125 years.

Another Galapagos creature seemingly of another time (some would say prehistoric) is the marine iguana. Often seen in a most curious (some would say bizarre) frozen pose atop lava rocks, the marine iguana is actually sun-bathing to raise its body temperature after a dive in the Pacific Ocean. The marine iguana is a competent diver and swimmer, the only sea-faring lizard in the world. While warming themselves, they will frequently spout forth or sneeze (some would say spit) brine out of efficient salt-excreting glands located in their nostrils.

The oddities of Galapagos wildlife are not limited to the reptiles; the birds have their share of interesting characters as well. Here you will see penguins on the equator, flightless cormorants who have traded their ability to fly for a streamlined body (to assist their swimming prowess), dancing blue-footed boobies, and frigate birds with pouches inflated like red balloons.

As you've gathered by now, things are a little different on the Galapagos. With isolation comes change, and on these islands, both the isolation and the adaptations have been extreme and therefore quite noticeable. This is what caught Darwin's eye so quickly and will catch yours as well.

Another truly fascinating aspect is the isolation from predators, including that noteworthy predator, man himself. As a result, the animals on the Galapagos have not learned or adapted themselves to flee or shy away when approached. One can get to within arms length of many of the Galapagos animals, providing for extraordinary photographic opportunities.

Some animals will not wait for you to approach them; they will approach you! Most noteworthy in this classification are the playful Galapagos sea lions, continuously streaking by, sometimes 2 at a time, and almost, but not quite touching you. This endless performance is awaiting your arrival.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 30 Mar 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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