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The enchanted isles: no matter how much pre-reading and wildlife documentary viewing you do, nothing quite prepares you for the Galapagos Islands.

Day one, with my snorkel on, I quietly took in the colourful tropical fish beneath me. I had read that local species generally do not fear human interaction. There were no predators throughout most of their evolution.

Suddenly a set of huge eyes flanked by whiskers peered into my mask. A moment of terror. As my pounding heart slowed, I realised those eyes belonged to a curious sea lion pup who just wanted to play. And play we did--the sea lion darting around me in an aquatic hide-and-seek.

Around one thousand kilometres west of mainland Ecuador, the remarkable Galapagos archipelago is home to bountiful wildlife, unusual volcanic geology an intriguing history.

Another day, I took a snorkelling tour to a large rock which was split in two, the Leon Dormido or 'Kicker Rock'. Our guide, Oswaldo, did not forewarn us. When we returned to our boat after a short snorkel between the rocks, there was a collective gob-smacked silence. We had just swum over the top of manta rays, vast schools of fish, hammerheads and Galapagos reef sharks.

Back on dry land, we took a scenic bike ride across half the island and on our return, we stopped at La Loberia Beach. It was teeming with beach frolickers and sunbathers--the 'labradors of the ocean'--sea lions.

Sea lions everywhere. Do not expect to take in the view from any of the benches on Isla San Cristobal's main jetty. They seats are all occupied by sea lions, as is half the equipment at the foreshore children's playground. On the rocks, red ghost crabs skate about and marine iguanas bask in the sun.

More surprises await on Isla Floreana. In a protected cove, I barely had my snorkel on when 15 large green turtles swam around me. I was mesmerised. The turtles' front flippers can rotate 360 degrees, so their movements are precise and graceful. One turtle stayed almost motionless for several minutes, feeding on algae on the coral seafloor while a school of tiny white fish cleaned its carapace.

Most travellers tend to enjoy boat-based journeys around some of the 18 islands and the many islets of the Galapagos. I chose a land-based Intrepid Travel tour, which enabled me to stay on three of the main islands in small hotels and take daytime boat journeys between the islands. I enjoyed the additional shore time to explore, visit the local interpretation centres, meet local people and contribute towards their economy.

The interpretation centre on San Cristobal has excellent educational displays about Galapagos history, wildlife and reflections on issues that relate to the conflict between humans and the natural world. These displays include some hard questions about the impact of tourism, how it should be managed and the extent to which the local people and custodians of Galapagos' natural assets should benefit. Another issue involves land use and how much produce should be locally grown, rather than transported from the mainland.

On arrival at one of the Galapagos's two main airports and points of entry, I paid the mandatory US$110 National Park entrance fee, and received instructions on the islands' conservation rules, such as keeping at least two metres from the wildlife (tell that to the sea lions) and always being accompanied by a certified nature guide when venturing into protected areas. With so much to learn, it was great having the knowledgeable Oswaldo at hand.

Europeans first identified the Galapagos Islands nearly 500 years ago. The most famous visitor, Charles Darwin and his crew on the Beagle, sailed around the Galapagos for five weeks in 1835, collecting data that later became important evidence for his theory of evolution. Throughout the nineteenth century, seafarers took an estimated 100,000 tortoises for food and decimated the fur seal population, killing them for their valuable pelts. There were a few settlers in the 1800s and early 1900s who brought goats, pigs, rats and domestic animals, leading to both the extinction of plants and animals unique to the Galapagos, and the loss of habitat for many other species.

The Galapagos National Park protected areas were created in 1959 and cover 97 per cent of the Galapagos, with the remaining three per cent consisting of farms and urban areas. That same year, the Charles Darwin Foundation was launched and their operative arm, the Charles Darwin Research Station, followed in 1964. I visited the foundation's Breeding Centre on Isla Isabela where they have had great success with captive breeding of land iguanas and several species of tortoise. Their implementation of the archipelago's quarantine and inspection controls is vital with more than 30,000 residents and the constant movement of tourists. They have also made headway on ecosystem restoration. A visit to their Research Station on Santa Cruz is a must!

On the largest of the islands, Isabela, we took a small boat around to the islet of Tintoreras. On the way we passed Galapagos penguins (seemingly incongruous in an equatorial region) and several of the famed blue-footed boobies were perched on the rocks. A short walk around the islet and there were hundreds of lava lizards and marine iguanas, while a peak over the edge revealed white-tipped reef sharks cruising around the shallows. A full day hike took us up to the Sierra Negra volcano. The dense vegetation lower down has plentiful bird life, and higher up the trail took us across rocky lava fields, past giant cacti and to the craters' edge for fabulous views across the Southern end of the island to the sea.

One final Galapagos treat involves a visit to the El Chato Tortoise Reserve on Santa Cruz. In gumboots, we meandered across a grassy clearing until we found a team of prehistoric lawn mowers--dozens of Galapagos giant tortoises, munching their way through the grass. They ignored us.

Today more people visit or call Galapagos home than ever before, sharing space and resources with unique plants and animals. From my observation, tourism is strictly controlled. As numbers have grown, the Ecuadorian Government has revised regulations, particularly around boat movements, to distribute the volume of visitors more evenly throughout the islands. Concerns remain around the islands' capacity both for visitors and permanent residents. Without a doubt, however, the Galapagos is a captivating must-visit destination for anyone with a passion for wildlife and the environment. You have to see it to believe it.

Jane Crouch is the Responsible Business Communications Specialist at Intrepid Travel

Visit intrepidtravel.com/Ecuador
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Title Annotation:EcoTravel
Author:Crouch, Jane
Publication:Habitat Australia
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:0PACR
Date:Jul 1, 2014
Words:1072
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