The Galapagos Islands have long ranked high on my bucket list. A once in a lifetime visit considering my budget (it's pretty costly) and the fact that there are so many other places I long to experience. If you're planning a Galapagos journey, the two main options you must first decide upon is whether you want a hotel based trip or a boat based one. I did a short version of the latter since it allows you to see more islands and much more wildlife variety; however, this may not work as well for anyone susceptible to sea sickness.
- Use sun screen -- I forgot to apply this to my legs on the first full day when wearing swim attire. While I didn't inherit my father's Scots-Irish red hair, I DID inherit his skin--it refuses to tan... starts lily white, burns with shades of lobster red, peels, and returns to white... an extremely painful experience that can be alleviated when remembering to use sun screen.
- Get initial snorkling experience elsewhere -- I can swim decently but I'd never snorkled before. Everyone advised BE SURE to do this in the Galapagos--it's INCREDIBLE... and I'm sure it can be. BUT when your first time is with rented equipment and you're dumped into choppy water where the waves soon leap down your breathing tube...and the mask begins to fill up with water... this is NOT fun. I didn't sign up for a near drowning experience and I didn't even have an underwater camera to record my final moments!
The most amazing aspect I discovered in the Galapagos was finding just how unafraid the local fauna were. Even most of the birds allowed us to get quite close. Many posed for us, like professional models. I got to see most of the animals I had only read about that are unique to this area. Seals are everywhere that has any kind of beach or rocks, so you'll see plenty... They will just lie there on the beach, tempting humans to touch them. Just don't do it--we're advised against touching and disturbing any of the animals, and there were rumors that some silly disobeying tourist had been bitten by a large male sea lion that day.
Unlike Africa, I'm not sure what the Big 5 would be in the Galapagos, but following are the seven that most interested me... either due to their uniqueness to the islands or due to their rarity.
The most iconic creature of the islands, this Galapagos Tortoise is among the few that are caged (zoolike) in the Darwin Center that specializes in tortoise breeding. I have a picture of the most famous individual, Lonesome George, but he had his back turned to us and wasn't about to budge... so this guy will do. A few of the older tortoises were around when Teddy Roosevelt was President. I just got to see the captive individuals at the Darwin Center, but people on more extensive tours were able to hike in a sanctuary to see hoards of them roaming freely in the wild.
It was a great thrill to see this Galapagos Penguin our first full day as we approached Floreana Island. It's the only penguin that lives north of the equator and these guys are relatively rare.
A Blue-footed Booby! Along with the tortoise, these funny birds rank among the most iconic creatures in the Galapagos. We weren't there at the proper time to witness their hilarious mating ritual dance moves, but we found tons of them perfectly willing to perch stoicly and pose for pictures.
Note: that whiteness on the rocks is NOT mineral. I was wearing my Spanish "away" soccer jersey while taking a photo of one booby when a fellow group member pointed out the same white substance now on my back. I did change jerseys as soon as possible and tossed the Spanish one in my laundry upon return... so somewhere in the Phoenix sewer system are remnants of Booby poop.
Galapagos Iguana -- our guide called these red iguanas but others term them marine iguanas. They aren't a separate species from other iguanas found in the Galapagos Archipelago that don't have red markings (these are apparently due to environmental and dietary conditions), but these guys are more versatile than their Land Iguana cousins.... they can swim!
After sighting a number of Blue-footed Boobies, the remaining top priority I was hoping to see was the rare Galapagos Hawk ... and this magnificent fellow was waiting for us on Española! When he lit near some other birds, you should have seen them scatter! Guess we know who is king of the airways in those islands.
Also located on one peninsula of Española Island is the Galapagos Albatross. We were fortunate to see the last of a nursery since within a month all of them must find the courage to jump off the cliff and migrate to cooler climates as they embark on a lifetime without a helluva lot of rest... mostly flying and swimming for 40+ years.
Our last morning in the islands was spent cruising a swamplike area that sea turtles, sharks, and rays prefer. Most of these animals lurk under the murky water, making photography a challenge; however, one cove proved prolific. A number of Sea Turtles were heavily engaged in mating behavior. The female MUST be significantly larger than males in this species; otherwise, she wouldn't be able to surface while mating and would drown. We also witnessed each pair being surrounded by a couple of other males, who would swim up to the mating male and take a bite outta his tail--a not so subtle hint for him to dismount and give the next guy a chance.
Visiting the Galapagos Islands is a truly memorable experience, especially if you're interested in Charles Darwin, science, and/or nature. And of course it can be a blast for a family vacation (if you have the money). Kids love animals... and this is like an ultimate wild zoo experience as long as the kids understand that they can't touch these animals like in a petting zoo. (On the other hand, there's a decent chance that a sea lion may touch them on their sunning beach)
This is a small sample of what I was able to experience. Of course I took a lot more pictures, so if you're interested in details feel free to click on the links below: