In the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, lies an archipelago rich in history, mystery and wildlife… including 26 endemic species of birds (plus three breeding endemics and numerous subspecies) and some of the world’s most charismatic marine life.
The Galapagos Islands were first ‘discovered’ in 1535 by a Spanish bishop whose ship, after departing Panama, drifted for weeks in windless seas and eventually arrived on a misty island that saved his life. While he named them the “Enchanted Isles,” they were renamed ‘galapagos’—the Spanish word for saddle—by subsequent visitors who found giant tortoises with saddle-shaped shells.
For centuries, the islands continued to be visited by explorers, whalers, and sailors, and they are now popular with nature travelers, who come to experience this otherworldly island teeming with wildlife, some so fearless they block our path and merely watch as we make our way past.
A quality naturalist guide will demonstrate how the Galapagos archipelago presents a fascinating study of the theory of natural selection. It was here that Charles Darwin posited this now widely accepted explanation for evolution—after observing minor and incremental differences in bird and tortoise species on different islands that have subtle microclimate features.
Today, about 30,000 people live in the Galapagos, mainly on three islands—Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal and Isabela—plus a very small community on Floreana. The Galapagos were formed by volcanics and some areas are still active. Even with just eighteen main islands surrounded by many smaller satellite islands and islets, the diversity of the limited number of species can be overwhelming.
You’d do well to plan an extended trip to the Galapagos and be sure to do your homework before selecting a trip itinerary. Try to learn which species live on which islands, as none of the 90 licensed boats go to all the islands in a typical 8-day tour so of course, want-list sacrifices must be made. Of the 13 varieties of Darwin’s Finches, for example, only one, the Small Ground Finch, is found on all the main islands. The Mangrove Finch, found on only one island, is highly endangered and the sites are off-limits to visitors. Waved Albatross, considered a breeding endemic, nests only on the island of Española from May through November. During this same period, known as the Garua (fog) Season, other seabirds also nest when the seas are cold and nutrient-rich. While the other months may be greener, the Garua season is more active for birds and the sea lions, marine iguanas, land iguanas, lava lizards and giant tortoises are always visible…if you visit the right islands! Bon voyage! Contributor: Kevin Loughlin/Wildside Nature Tours.
The best tours live aboard one of the 90 licensed yachts, however, four islands have hotels from which visitors can take boats to visit a few of the nearby islands, but not the best islands!
The Galapagos have two seasons… the Garua Season (June through mid-November) which is the cooler time of year thanks to the cold currents coming from Antarctica. This is the most pleasant season with little rain.
December through May will be hotter with some rain showers, but the ocean will be warmer for snorkeling and a bit calmer, too. However, the warmer waters deter seabird nesting and the rains bring more bugs, including mosquitos.