If you ask someone for their travel bucket list, the Galapagos Islands are almost always near the top, and with good reason. The Galapagos are an exceedingly important group of islands, not only for their history with Darwin but for what they mean to our understanding of biology.
The opportunity to step back in time for a week and pretend that you are a National Geographic explorer lures many away from their comfortable living rooms to this remote archipelago off the Western Coast of South America. Here are a few reasons not only why you should visit, but why you should visit as soon as you can.
Island Trekking and Wildlife
Without a doubt, the wildlife is what draws most people to the Galapagos. The islands are home to some of the most unique animals in the world, many of which are endemic to the island group meaning that they don’t exist anywhere else in the world. Even more impressive than bearing witness to these strange quirks of evolution is witnessing the animals’ legendary lack of fear when it comes to humans. Before my visit to the islands, I really didn’t believe that this could be true. I thought it was probably an overstatement and that by now, surely, these animals had become skittish. I was shocked when on our first hike this famous Galapagos legend proved to be true. We walked within inches of blue footed boobies and their nests without attracting the slightest bit of interest from them.
The most unique land-based experience though was our afternoon spent with the migrating giant tortoises. We had seen the famous tortoises during a morning visit to the Darwin Research Institute, but that had not prepared me for witnessing them in the wild. The giant tortoises were midway through their annual migration from the highlands and we found them lounging about a large field. Walking into the migration area was like a trip through Jurassic Park. Throughout the farm were dozens of large boulders which, upon closer inspection, were actually giant tortoises. There aren’t words to describe the feeling of awe and immediate smallness – to witness something that has been an annual occurrence for millennia. After a week in the islands, there were countless experiences like these, but what was most special to me was being able to see these animals as they were meant to be. Not locked up in a zoo or other artificial construction, these majestic creatures were living their lives as they always have, completely undisturbed by man. It was nice to see an area of the planet that we haven’t completely screwed up – yet.
So much attention is paid to the land-based features of the Galapagos that most people don’t realize there is a rich underwater world to explore as well. Just as the isolation guaranteed survival of the land creatures, this same phenomenon protected the aquatic life throughout the eons. An additional geographic oddity enhancing the marine life here is the strange conversion of ocean currents, including the Humboldt current from Antarctica. This not only ensures a sometimes chilly water temperature, but also the presence of animals you wouldn’t expect, like penguins. The Galapagos penguin is the northern most living member of the species and isn’t exactly what one would expect. I blame Hollywood, but whenever I hear penguin my thoughts immediately race to the grand Emperor penguin, with its impressive size and distinctive features. The
Galapagos penguin is the dirty little brother of the Emperor. About a foot and a half in height, this speckled bird at first glance doesn’t look all that impressive, but the fact they survive so well in Galapagos is amazing in itself. Also amazing are the experiences one has with them while visiting. While there is a hard rule here of never, ever touching the animals, you can’t always avoid them touching you. Such was my experience one day while snorkeling near a colony of penguins. All of a sudden most of them jumped from their rocky roost into the water where all of their awkwardness disappeared as they darted about under water, looking for small fish to eat. There were dozens of them in the water with us and before I knew it, they started running into my snorkel facemask. They were determined to catch some minnows and apparently didn’t mind if we stood in the way. It was a surreal experience, floating in the water which was buzzing with the frantic feeding of dozens of penguins. You can’t experience this anywhere else in the world.
Penguins aren’t the only aquatic wonders though, in addition to some incredible snorkeling and catching sight of wonders like the white tipped shark and the impressive 2,200 pound Mola Mola, there are of course the sea lions. Not to be confused with seals, the Galapagos sea lions are found on almost every island and in the nearby waters. Our on-land encounters with them were cute, there really is no other word to describe them. They look and act like puppies and it is REALLY hard to resist the urge to run up and give them all a big hug. If I thought they were playful on land though, once in the water it’s an entirely different ballgame.
As was the case with the penguins, I wasn’t expecting a sea lion encounter. We were swimming along and out of the corner of my eye I spotted a young sea lion pup coming up for a closer look. He was definitely curious and spent a long time following us. Then, and there was no mistaking this, he started to play with us. He would do a simple underwater maneuver and then wait for us to copy him. Once we did, he would then come up with a more difficult acrobatic feat for us to mimic, and so on. We ran into new sea lion friends at almost every snorkeling stop and by the end of the week we all felt like sea lion pros.
See It Before It’s Gone
A trip to the Galapagos is unlike most other trips. While most people who visit technically are on vacation, the trip is most certainly an expedition. Guests spend their days participating in a frenzy of discovery with hikes in the morning and snorkeling and kayaking in the afternoons. Access to the National Park, which encompasses most of the archipelago, is limited and there are strict guidelines to how many people can visit, when and in what size ship. That being said, there are more tourists visiting than ever before. In just 20 years, the number of visitors has increased from 20,000 a year to more than 100,000 per year. The effect on the island chain is unknown, but it can’t be good.
On the one hand, the tourists bring in much needed revenue to keep the research facilities running and to ensure the ongoing preservation of this most unique place. Conversely, tourists bring pollution and their shear numbers threaten to permanently damage the unique balance which exists, and has always existed, in the Galapagos. The Galapagos were able to develop into a unique biosphere because of their isolation and the fact they are a barren series of islands. Once these two factors didn’t matter anymore, this precarious balance became seriously threatened and many scientists fear the worst.
It’s a strange dilemma for the tourist. As adventure seekers and explorers, we all want to visit unique and amazing areas of the world. It’s just who we are. And while intellectually I know that SOME tourist presence on the Galapagos is a good thing, mass tourism will surely destroy all that I love about the islands.
I’m not sure what the answer is when discussing the Galapagos, but if you want to experience the wonderful uniqueness that only these islands can deliver, then I would try to visit as soon as possible, before they are gone forever.