Galapagos is made up of more than a dozen large islands and many more small islets. The largest of these include Isla Isabella, Santa Cruz, and San Cristobal. Other islands can be reached by boat, each offering a unique landscape or species. Isabella offers penguins; Seymour, the rare land iguana. Many visitors choose to visit each island by boat, some sleeping as their vessel move from island to island by night. This option was simply too expensive for us this time around. Instead, we based out of Santa Cruz and took days trips to nearby islands, spending much of our time in and then under the water.
The Galapagos Islands’ growth plan is based on the idea and practice of sustainability and conservation. No animal is to be touched, and one always stays a meter’s distance from the variety of large, lounging creatures: marine iguanas, sea lions, tortoises and the like. It became famous largely through Charles Darwin’s, The Origin of Species, in which he wrote about the evolution of small finches on various islands, noting how these small birds had evolved to meet the conditions on various islands. The Theory of Natural Selection. And while the writing on Galapagos animals is only a very small part of his work, Darwin has become a kind of founding father to Galapagos mythology and renown.
At The Charles Darwin Research Station, based on the island of Santa Cruz, naturalists work to preserve and reproduce some of the last remaining Giant Tortoises. These gentle creatures were nabbed by pirates and early colonists as an easy food source as they could live on ships without food or water for up to six months or longer. Preservation and breeding efforts began after researchers realized the creatures were almost extinct.
In 1978 UNESCO designated Galapagos as the first World Heritage site. A variety of conservation efforts have forced locals to adapt. For example, because of lobster overfishing (and the illegal harvesting of lobsters with their eggs) restaurants are allowed to serve lobster only two months of the year. Restaurants comply, and fishermen were encouraged to convert their vessels to serve tourists.
From the moment you set foot on Galapagos, you are entering a conservation zone. No fruit or organic matter is allowed. Your bags are carefully checked before you enter the plane at your departing city, and your luggage is sprayed with disinfectant while in the overhead compartment. Once you’ve landed, you step through a disinfectant puddle before entering the small airport, which is built with sustainability and energy conservation in mind (with levers that open when the temperature becomes too high). Then trained dogs are let loose on your luggage to sniff out natural elements (like my all-natural hand lotion, apparently).
It’s not just about animals; it’s also about the environment generally. One restaurant featured a sign advising their patrons that they didn’t offer straws because the instruments polluted oceans and didn’t biodegrade.
One of the joys of this adventure was introducing my 10-year-old son Aiden to the world of scuba. Only one adventure dive in, he’s ready to get his PADI license!
Galapagos is also about turtles: sea turtles at many of the islands and the giant land tortoises that wander many islands. We spent time visiting the rehabilitation centers of Isabella and Santa Cruz, as well as a private ranch on Santa Cruz that has tortoises of all sizes in their natural environment enjoying the rich vegetation of the rainy season. We sipped iced tea, as the bellows of mating turtles broke the calm. Unfortunately, the last giant Pinta tortoise, ‘Lonesome George’ died in 2012 having failed to produce offspring.
Visitors be forewarned: the equatorial sun is brutal and despite wearing 30 sunblock, hats, glasses and long-sleeved shirts at all times (also in the water), I was burned within minutes of exposure. April is apparently the hottest month, with the sun directly overhead.
I leave these beautiful islands with a heavy heart, knowing I’ve witnessed something unique indeed. Not just protected species that exist nowhere else, but a way of thinking that is also endangered. One that informs and educates, teaches respect and responsibility and shows us circumstances where man and nature can coexist peacefully – and result in economic bounty for local communities. How different the world would be if people in other regions showed similar respect to the land and seas, and to the creature inhabitants of each. My comfort is in knowing that my young son now knows this is possible. He has seen it in action, has seen the economic and natural promise, and vows to recreate it. It is the hope we should all share.
P.S. Here are a few more shots.
|Hour 8 in a day|
|Blue footed Boobies|
|Playful friends off Isla Santa Fe|
|First time scuba diving. First of many!|
|Beach heading to Tortuga Bay|
|Giant tortoises out and about|
|The dock at sunset|
|Fresh water pool|
|Sitting with a lazy friend. Isla Isabela|
|Preparing for a first dive|
|Kayaking at Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz|