Ecuador’s Jurassic Park, Galapagos Islands: A Step Back in Time
By Mark Dimitroff
Huge charcoal volcanoes thrust up through the calm Pacific seas, their black fractured mass looming over us. Welcoming or warning … we’re not sure. Oversized Magnificent Frigatebird’s circle overhead, pterydactyl-like. The males, in mid-mating season, tar black with their huge throat sacs inflated like large glistening bright red balloons. White clouds frame the volcanoes and black pinnacles – picture perfect in an ominous way. It’s easy to imagine that at any moment, a dinosaur could come over the ridge into view. We survey this scene from Jurassic Park from the deck of the 113 foot Ocean Spray, as we look out over Bartholomew Island.
Of volcanic lineage, this collection of 13 main islands juts out of the Pacific 966 kilometres west of the Ecuadorian coast, sitting smack dab on the equator. Being borne of violent geological activity, these islands have no natural inhabitants. All flora and fauna have come from other locales to become the species particular to these isles. Over time, many of these species became endemic to the Galapagos. Certain species have become distinct and unique from one island to another, due to the rugged and unforgiving terrain which does not allow easy travel back and forth from island to island.
The Parks Directorate
The Directorate have total control over what does and does not happen on these islands, all in an effort to ensure the least amount of impact on the ecology and environment of the Galapagos (a World Heritage site) by the over 180,000 visitors per year that pay homage to the islands that made Charles Darwin famous many years ago. Upon arrival in the Galapagos, visitor’s passes are issued to everyone. When departing, these are surrendered, allowing the authorities to keep track of visitor traffic. All inbound luggage is X-rayed or inspected mostly to search for and confiscate foodstuffs and anything that could bring new insects or lifeforms to the islands.
Everything that happens in the Galapagos is strictly controlled by the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park and their marine counterpart. All boating anchorages both during day trips and overnight are dictated by the directorate and ‘freelance’ island visitation is forbidden. To visit islands by boat, one must cruise on one of the 83 licensed tourism boats, ranging from smaller, more intimate ships carrying 16 people to the larger cruise liners with 200 aboard.
In an effort to be extremely proactive in protection practice, the Directorate also took a controversial stance and in the mid 90’s outlawed SCUBA diving on regular cruise ships, limiting any boat-based SCUBA diving to those intensive dive boats called Liveaboards. This has been a key factor in keeping the underwater environment pristine and unharmed. Other professional and certified dive operators run day dives from both the islands of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal.
The Ocean Spray
We are on an 8 day “B” voyage of this 16 passenger ultra luxury mega catamaran, the pride of the Haugan Cruise line fleet. The Ocean Spray itinerary has us visiting 8 islands on our trip, 14 sites in all. A magnificent mega catamaran servicing the Galapagos, the Ocean Spray has eight luxury cabins and a dedicated crew of eleven. Service is paramount here, meals excellent and choices of wines and spirits superb. Our tour guide and naturalist Javier makes sure we are fully prepared with a detailed briefing prior to each land excursion.
We get an early start each day – up at 6 a.m. for a morning land tour before breakfast at which time Captain Camilo and crew move the Ocean Spray to a new location; some snorkeling on a secluded beach or directly from the Ocean Spray’s pangas (zodiacs); then back on board by 11:30 for lunch where we discuss what we’ve seen so far with fellow passengers; another location change precedes our afternoon land tour. Thus we pack an amazing amount into just 8 days.
Visitors come to the Galapagos to see the life-forms and the landscapes. Barren but beautiful, these lava islands never fail to impress on either count.
Countless examples of unusual life forms exist here on the islands. We see the tiny Lava Lizards on San Cristobal, aptly named from their natural evolution to blend into the lava landscape as camouflage… although no natural predators exist here to threaten them. While many would say that 20 cm’s or 8 inches is NOT tiny, these are just that when compared to their cousins the Galapagos Land Iguana and the even larger Marine Iguana – both of which grow to over 1 meter or just over 3 feet.
The black monsters – the Marine Iguana’s – lie around, baking without apparent care or concern for the intense heat of the blazing equatorial sun. This is not by accident as they have a unique metabolism in which they gather body heat from the sun, then go for a swim in the ocean to cool off – this being their only mechanism to regulate body heat as they do not sweat. Once cooled sufficiently, they bask in the sun again. Rinse and repeat, as their breed has done for millennia. Evolution, it seems, has not touched these creatures.
Their cousins, the slightly smaller Green Iguanas, live differently – inland amidst cacti and fruit bearing trees, being omnivores. They can be seen lounging around on rocks, beneath trees or on any surface … they OWN the islands and bask any and everywhere they want. As visitors it is on us to avoid them, and not the reverse; which can be quite challenging when they are in the middle of the only path forward. Not being aggressive to humans by nature, this is not an issue – but wild animals are just that, and caution must be heeded at all times.
Impressive Life Forms
Speaking of animals still untouched by evolution, Galapagos Reef sharks and Hammerheads frequent some of these waters, we were lucky enough to snorkel with the Reef sharks (and sea lions) while on the Ocean Spray and I was lucky enough to do a bucket list dive with Hammerheads and schools of pelagic eagle rays on a deep dive from a pre-cruise dive shop on Santa Cruz.
Giant Galapagos Land Tortoises frequent the Santa Cruz highlands, with the oldest and most famous of these, Lonesome George, passing away a few years ago of old age – well over 100. These giants have shells that can grow to over 5 feet in length – and three feet in height; and at the visitor centre where some large examples are on display they are big enough for visitors to crawl inside of and pose for pictures to show to friends and family back home. Over time, they have been hunted almost to extinction (Lonesome George was the very last of his particular breed) by new settlers and visiting mariners alike who prized them for their abundant and nutritious meat.
Nature Being Nature
Boobies galore inhabit the various islands. The Nasca Boobie, the Red-Footed Boobie and the infamous Blue-Footed Booby can be seen on various islands but all three do cohabit at spots like at Pitt Point on San Cristobal. Here all three can be seen in plentiful numbers, together. But it was here that the islands first reminded us of nature at its best and its worst – nature just being nature.
We happened upon a young Red Footed Booby hatchling chick sunning itself not far from its nest. It was stretching its new wings and getting used to the brave new world it was seeing for the first time. Pictures snapped, iPhone videos ran as we smiled at this sight. As an adult female came towards the chick we collectively paid no notice, until it started to peck at the hatchling, over and over again, unrelenting. What we were watching was a rival Nasca Boobie female culling the ‘competition’ to her own hatchlings. She was hard-wired to act accordingly when she saw weak or injured chicks that could compete for food with her brood.
Despite our plea’s to assist, our guide Javier warned us not to intervene, “… these are the ways of the islands”, he said, and that we were there “… only as observers and not permitted to affect or intrude on nature and its ways”, adding that Charles Darwin made his famous Survival of the Fittest statement based on his studies of wildlife in nature here on the islands. He quickly hastened us off in another direction to continue our exploration of Pitt Point.
A Rare Sighting
Nature continued to astound us island to island and eventually offered a counterpoint on Santiago’s Espumilla Beach. During our mid-morning hike we encountered a single baby Sea Turtle struggling to make its way from the nest 30 meters away from the water’s edge, to its eventual home in the sea. This lone 4 inch long baby was late out of the nest, probably having to dig itself out from much deeper than its siblings who had left hours prior. Typically this migration and race for survival takes place in the pink dawn twilight of the early morning, before the searing sun and wicked heat of the day kick in.
Javier was our cheerleader as our overjoyed group coaxed the little fella along with our encouragement and support. “I was born on these islands and have done this (guiding) for many years but what we just witnessed is very rare,” Javier, tells us. “This (the turtle bonding with the sea for the first time) I see maybe once per year – it is very unusual to see this because only 3 per cent of all sea turtle hatchlings ever make it to the sea from the nest.”
By the last day on the 8 islands and surrounding seas, we’d been in close contact with over 30 different birds and animals; exciting and bizarre, colorful and bland, dangerous and docile. We’ve hiked miles and snorkeled many hours. We’ve met interesting people from all walks of life around the world and we have learned so much along the way.
It seems each day has been more exciting than the last; and I wonder aloud if I really want to depart these prehistoric islands and go back home to the future.