Ecuador

Exploring the Galápagos Islands

“Shark, shark! There’s a shark over here!” I lift my head up from the water and see someone frantically pointing down from above the ocean’s surface and then put his hands together above his head to simulate a fin. For anyone who wouldn’t know better it could seem as if we were being warned for a ruthless flesh eating sea monster closing in on us. Instead, it is our guide excitingly showing us that a reef shark is circling around us just a metre below our feet. So I dip my head back in the lukewarm water to see a small shark of about 1,5 metre with a smooth grey skin and a white tip on its fin graciously swim by.

Our guide Milton, an enthusiastic citizen of the Galápagos who is originally from Guayaquil, has some more hand signals to lead us to the pearls of sea life in the archipelago. Hands together with fingers crossed and thumbs and little fingers moving is a turtle, hands linked by the thumbs making a flapping movement is a ray.

I am particularly thankful for the latter one when he spots the lesser seen manta ray and his guidance is needed to find the giant ray in the turbid water at a rougher snorkelling spot. I use all the energy in my body to kick my flippers back and swim through the waters at my quickest pace to watch the immense creature gracefully yet powerfully slide away. Exhausted but overly excited I find my breath again, satisfied that I have now finally seen a manta ray, something I unfortunately did not manage to do during earlier snorkelling trips off Lady Elliot Island in the Great Barrier Reef. As I rest my feet I dip my head back in the water and just float looking at the bottom of the sea where I see intricately patterned orange coloured sea stars and the yellow chocolate chip star fish. I can hear you think ‘chocolate chip, really?’ But yes, that’s its official name and upon seeing it you will agree the name is not even far-fetched. (I know I owe you a picture now, but I’m afraid you need to google this one if you’re curious to see for yourself).

Before I know it I am surrounded by a school of fish, velvety grey with a bright yellow tail: some fifty surgeonfish remain at just a hand’s length distance from my face and give me the chance to study all details of their curious appearance.  My favourite however, is the colourful King Angel Fish, with its cobalt blue body and yellow tail so bright it looks like it is ignited.

Surrounded by fish

“Holy shit, gigantic sea turtle over here!” That’s not the guide, that’s just me shouting out to my fellow travellers. Less subtle, but I’m pretty sure they still appreciate it. If it would be possible to drop your jaw while snorkelling without taking in big gulps of sea water, this definitely would have been my reaction to seeing this enormous creature feed on sea weed while slowly being rocked back and forth by the undercurrent. The shelled sea animal is over a metre long and has a tail the size of the smaller sea turtles I have seen on other snorkelling trips. It is a truly breath taking sight. After watching it munch at the same patch of weed for some time, our guide convinces us to continue swimming as he is confident that there will be more sea turtles swimming along the rocks. And right he is. We see so many of them that we could theoretically all just pick one for ourselves to admire for hours on end, as they do not shy away at all from our attention. But it is time to come back on board of our vessel again and head off to the next stunning snorkelling location.

Sea turtle

It is not the prettiest place we have snorkelled at, because there is a lack of coral reef in the ocean surrounding the Galápagos Islands and the visibility of the water is not the best, but honestly if there’s the possibility to swim with sea lions – you can still define it as a stunning place, right?

We jump in the water from the dinghy after a choppy ride from our ship to a rough black rocked cliff. Swimming along with the current we make our way through the waves but it is above water that I hear the barking sound of a sea lion. I lift my head up to locate it and see it jumping in the waters at the very same moment. It swims by at just an arm’s length distance, dives deeper into the water and then comes rocketing back up. Two others join in and they swirl around each other, bending their bodies and bumping into each other playfully. Just like the sea turtles and fish, they do not seem to care that they’re being watched. As a matter of fact, we have to back off several times to make sure we won’t touch them.

Sea lions playing with each other

As if that up-close show is not good enough for us, we adults turn into crazy beings encouraging a baby sea lion who’s still on shore to come in and play as well. You can’t really blame us though, as a baby sea lion is just the most adorable animal, with their fluffy hairs and clumsy movements.

The little one carefully lowers his snout to the water but when a waves comes crashing and wets his face, it returns to a dryer spot higher up the rock. Back to sun bathing.

We return to a dryer place as well, back to the ship, as it is not just life in the sea that makes the Galápagos a dream destination to visit. While the boat gently rocks from starboard to port, we make our way to the next island through the waters of the archipelago. We are accompanied by great frigate birds soaring through the skies right above our ship. It is a fascinating spectacle of female, male and juvenile birds bumping in to each other from time to time while changing formations.  

Male frigate bird with inflated red pouch
Frigate birds accompanying our ship as we set sail to the next island.

The wavy surface of the ocean is a colour play of turquoise and dark blue but no general remark can be made about the colour of the beaches or the foliage on land. Every island we pass by is unique. The animals they harbour have developed in such ways that they have become sub species, specialised to survive in the extremities of the islands’ ecosystems.

Sullivan Bay for instance, is a stretched landscape of bare black rock. After spotting three small penguins on the rocks from our dinghy, we set foot on the black surface ourselves. I take in the beautifully patterned solidified lava in which every ripple and bubble has been preserved. The island was covered by a pahoehoe lava flow in the late 1800s which means that the black swirls that stretch out as far as the eye can reach are relatively fresh. Crevices show the layers of lava rock below the black crust. In this barren land you would expect no form of life to possibly be present, but after seeing a lava lizard pass by my feet, my eyes catch the sight of the endemic lava cactus plant. It is the one of the only two plants that can survive here, miraculously.

Across the bay, Bartolomé island surprises us with a completely different but just as other-worldly landscape. The island is covered with volcanic sand and scattered with craters and spatter cones. But even here, low to the ground matplant grows in the tuff cones.  

Spatter cones on Bartolome Island
View of Sullivan Bay from Bartolome Island

Floreana on the other hand, south of the Galápagos archipelago, is rather lively with finches, lizards, the famous blue footed boobies and Galápagos doves roaming the red coloured soil. A trumpet orchestra wearing a pink costume awaits us in the salt pools. I watch the flamingos as they loudly communicate with each other for some minutes and then go back to feeding on algae, elegantly bowing their long necks in front of their slender legs to reach the water surface.

Flamingo orchestra
Blue footed boobie

We enjoy a leisurely walk through the green foliage spotted with white and yellow flowers – a result of the rainy season – and cacti with trunks that resemble those of trees. We reach a beautiful beach where we cautiously walk through the water, careful not to step on one of the many stingrays hiding in the sand, to look for sea turtles riding the waves close to shore. And then, we get really lucky. A female sea turtle has just started to make her way back to the ocean from the dunes in which she has just laid her eggs. I excitedly run to her, and then sit down to watch her struggle to plough through the sand with the little energy she has left. I almost feel victorious on her behalf at the moment she ultimately swims away from us.

The counterpart of the sea turtle, the land-based Galápagos tortoise, requires less wildlife spotting skills and luck as their giant posture stands out clearly against the grasslands in the highlands they call their home. Their bodies are covered by a thick shield that, in contrast to a sea turtle, not only covers their back but their belly as well. The tortoises move utterly slowly and clunkily, their stubby feet covered in scales. To be honest, they do not have a high cuddliness factor as their appearance is close to that of a dinosaur. All the more impressive though.

Of the islands included in our itinerary, Española is most abundant with wildlife. We require some patience to get on land as sea lions have claimed the dock, and during the hike we have to carefully put down our feet not to step on brightly red headed lava lizards or turquoise and red iguanas. During the months of March to September the island is taken over by hundreds of endemic albatrosses mating and nesting on its shores, but since we are here in January we were happy to just spot one waved albatross. The other side of the island however is a nesting paradise for Nazca boobies and we are lucky to see the little boobies being fed, struggling to stand and waving their wings in the wind. Their fluffy white feathers give them a cute appearance, but don’t be fooled. Nazca boobies lay two eggs while only one chick can survive. The struggle for the fittest is already settled before birth as the older of the two will use all its strength to move its sibling away from their mother, and leave it out to dehydrate and ultimately die.

The cruelties of mother nature become quite clear at the Galápagos, where the survival of the fittest is a daily reality. The beauty of it however is that evolution ensures animals can adapt to changing environments. Which, if you ever had a biology lesson at school, you know is what Darwin´s Origin of the Species is all about. The most impressive example of evolution perhaps comes from a more recent study in which scientists have performed measurements on finches living on Daphne Major for 40 years during which conditions on the island changed drastically due to the El Nino cycles in the Pacific. To adapt to the new circumstances sub species of finches were formed with different types of beaks adapted to the food that they would need to be able to feed on to survive.

And the sea lions, they just seem to enjoy every bit of the archipelago. I just cannot get enough of watching them frolicking around on the beach, their wet skins covered in grains of sand. Or how they sunbathe on land, with just their heads dipped in the water, blowing bubbles.

If I were one of them, I would choose the last beach we visited as my home base: white sand and bright turquoise waters. Paradise.

Instead, I take the short walk to the Post Office to let my family and friends at home know that in this paradise it is possible to swim with man-friendly sharks. Fingers crossed that someone who lives close to them will collect the post cards from the wooden barrel and deliver it to them. Just like the whalers used to do many years ago.   

Say yes to a Galápagos adventure – practical information:

The Galápagos archipelago, 906 kilometres (563 miles) off the coast of Ecuador, is a bucket list destination for many travellers. Unfortunately, it is also a very expensive one. And once you’re convinced that you are willing to spend on a very special destination, you have to take the second hurdle: define your itinerary. Hopefully the information below helps you out a bit!

Costs – What are the basic costs to visit the Galápagos Islands?

No matter how you decide to finally visit the Galápagos, you will always need to pay the $20 for the Transit Control Card before you board your plane and pay another $100 as park fee as soon as you arrive at the airport in the Galápagos.

Land based or sea based: daytrips from one of the main islands or a cruise?

We have enjoyed being on a ship for 8 days as this gave us the opportunity to snorkel and hike on the same day, with two different snorkelling activities almost every day. The Galapagos archipelago is spread out over an area of 45,000 square kilometres of ocean (17,000 square miles) which means – obviously – that you need quite some time to go from one island to the next.

While it is undoubtedly wonderful to make day trips to surrounding islands and beautiful snorkelling and diving spots, if you are land-based it certainly is impossible to get a true notion of the differences in animal species and landscapes in the archipelago. Being land-based is however way cheaper than booking a cruise, so it really depends on the money you can spend and the money you want to spend. If you’re short on money but not on time it can definitely be worth it to check out last minute offers either in Quito or in Guayaquil.

A seaborne trip is an expensive affair. There’s a variety in size and type of ships, with occupancy ranging from private tours to 200 tourists on board. Since you will always board the islands and access snorkelling spots from a dinghy, I highly recommend to choose a smaller ship as this will help you get the most out of your time. We have travelled with a ship that suited 16 people and that was fine. The ship had two dinghies which was ideal to head off but did also mean one part of the group was not sailing with the guide and missed out on parts of the explanation he gave whenever we spotted animals at sea. The boat was nothing extraordinary, but the food was good and the running water was hot. Less pleasant was the constant sound of the engine, even when we were anchored. This would be a reason for me to opt for a sailing cruise in the future, although being on a sailing boat might mean you have less space on deck for sunbathing – or making yourself comfortable with a bit of peace & quiet.

How to get there?

You always fly in via Guayaquil, either with Avianca or Tame airlines, although most trips depart from Quito. Depending on the trip you book, your flights will be booked by the travel agency or you have to do this yourself. From what we heard from other travellers in our group that booked a last minute tour, it was not an issue to find a last minute flight.  

Choosing your Galápagos Islands itinerary

As the islands are all unique it can be quite challenging to decide which islands you want to visit. All seaborne tours follow a set itinerary by the National Park which means you are not free to just cherry pick and create your own itinerary.

What helped me  – but it might make the whole thing more complicated because you know what you can miss out on – was to read about the natural beauty and animals living on each island in my guidebook (Footprint Ecuador & Galapagos). The website of the International Galapagos Tour Association also provides a detailed overview https://www.igtoa.org/travel_guide/islands.

My absolute favourites were Santiago and Bartolomé, Floreana and Española.  

What to bring on your trip to the Galápagos Islands

Camera:

Land animals do not shy away for humans which means that you can approach them closely – keeping in mind not to bother them (2 metres distance is recommended but definitely not always possible) – for great pictures. Birds however do not always sit still to pose for your camera so a zoom lens will still give you the best of the best. And under water camera will also make you a very happy person. But if you do not have one already, you can pretty much count on other people in your group to have one and ask them for some footage.

Outfit:

Swimming wear, rain coat, hiking shoes and warm clothing for on the boat. Not because of the chilly evenings, but because of the air-conditioning that will probably make you feel like you have entered a fridge. We enjoyed our hiking shoes for the rocky terrain, but any sturdy closed shoes will do. Prepare for wet landings as well with a dry bag and sandals or flip flops.

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