Galapagos Islands History
The islands emerged about five million years ago, give or take a million, as a result of violent volcanic action. In geological terms, this should be considered a recent event.
As the young islands were cooling off, say, two million years later, some species gradually arrived. They were live organisms riding on “rafts of vegetation” from the shores of Central and South America. Unusual climatic events, like flooding, can take lots of vegetation rafts eventually to the ocean. Therefore, it is pure chance that allows a raft to eventually reach Galapagos. These early immigrants had to adapt to a peculiar new environment, and simply evolved — slowly — in a different direction from their continental ancestors. And, wonders of nature, they developed into species unique to the islands, with features not seen in their past ancestors.
In fact, when Darwin published his book On The Origin Of The Species, the nineteenth-century thinkers confirmed long held suspicions that species were not immutable, and praised the archipelago as a living laboratory. Since then, it has become the greatest observatory and laboratory of evolution.
The first human being in Galapagos was Tomás de Berlanga, a Spanish bishop who was navigating close to the shores of Central America on an apostolic mission in February of 1535. His boat had been stilled by calm winds, and the Panamá Current pushed it southward only to know that the arrival was to some mysterious islands, which had no evident charms. “Birds are so silly,” he wrote to the King of Spain, Charles V, “they know not how to flee”. The islands had been officially discovered. It was March 1535.
Eventually, the bishop’s party sailed back to the continent with the first encouraging breeze. The islands were reported to Spain, but no effort was made to colonize them based on the somewhat uninviting descriptions from Berlanga.
Anyway, having arrived less that 500 years ago, humans are some of the newest “living organisms” inhabiting the Galapagos.
Isolated and Remote
Sometimes the Galapagos become invisible, almost illusory at short distances, particularly in the dense veil of early morning. Remember the waters surrounding the islands are a bit cold for tropical standards. This produces a fine mist (known locally asgarúa) as cool air invades warmer patches of air. Thus, an early fog can be quite deceiving at telling what’s ahead. This is how the islands picked up the name of Las Encantadas (which can be translated as ‘enchanted’ but also ‘bewitched’): islands that suddenly appeared, as the mist evaporated, and islands that disappeared as the mist engulfed them.
Then, in 1570, a map of the Spanish New World drawn by a Flemish cartographer circulated in the Caribbean, showing the elusive islands, for the first time, with the unpoetic name of Islas de los Galapagos (Islands of the Giant Tortoises). This map, in buccaneer’s hands, was used to maraud up and down the Pacific in the 1600s.
During the 17th century and a good art of the 18th, the astute pirates found in the Galapagos a safe place to hide, repair their vessels, map future raids and stock up on fresh meat, killing tortoises by thousands. They apparently left no buried treasures and eventually decided that the Caribbean was more challenging after all.
Late in the 18th century came the whaler fleets that made the archipelago a centre of operations, but after a number of years the whalers, too, left when the profits weren’t worth the costly, lengthy routes. The whalers are, indeed, the human group that leaves the first devastating impact on the islands: thousands of giant tortoises killed, and domestic animals introduced. These events will prove later the reasons for having a strong conservation campaign in today’s Galapagos.
In sum, nobody really wanted the Galapagos — until 1832. On February 12th, Colonel Ignacio Hernandez, of Ecuador, with instructions from General Jose de Villamil, planted the Ecuadorian flag on Floreana Island, and took possession of what he named officially Las Islas Galapagos on behalf of his government. Sixty years later, in 1892, most of the islands received a Spanish name, all related to the Discovery of America.
Climate & Weather
The weather seasons of the Galapagos Islands are set and defined entirely by the arrival or departure of the currents that surround them.
The Hot Season starts in December and gradually works its way until May. Here, conditions are really tropical, as the waters from the Panamá Current bathe the islands. Seas are generally calm, and occasional tropical showers are expected to take place, turning the islands green and lush. Temperatures are hot and humid, and range anywhere from 26ºC-30ºC (79ºF-85ºF), while the water temperature averages 26ºC (79ºF). Underwater visibility is generally very good, around 20-25 meters (60-80 feet). This is the time when swimmers and snorkelers will experience a true tropical environment. Days are sunny and warm, and due to these conditions, our planned activities are scheduled and arranged in such way to avoid walking during the hottest hours of the day, when wildlife is not so active.
From June to November, a desert spreads gradually in this tropical paradise. As the southeast trade winds push the cooler water, evaporation decreases and this forms a thin layer of clouds that throughout the day opens and closes. This is known as the Dry Season, and it is here when the seas will show more wave action due to the strong prevailing winds. The fact that there is hardly any rain, has given the islands the category of driest place in the tropics. Sea temperatures drop to 20ºC-23ºC (70ºF-72ºF), cooling the air temperatures to 23ºC-26ºC (72ºF-79ºF). Due to the strong winds, a wind-chill factor should be considered for late afternoon walks or on deck navigation time. Even though most swimming will take place at midday hours, we advise snorkelers use a wet suit during this season.
Regarding Galapagos weather, one thing is for sure: there is no bad weather ever. Our advice to many of our guests who plan to return to the islands is to do so at a different time of the year than your first voyage. Then you will see the islands from another perspective that will bring many more enchanting surprises.
Bartolome Island (Bartholomew)
A very small island teemed with great views and wildlife next to its neighbour San Salvador (James) island. The most photographed view of the islands is found here, the famous Pinnacle Rock and the distant islands. A wooden staircase allows us to gradually ascend to the top of this large cone, without adding physical damage (erosion) to the path itself. This small island offers plenty of rewarding activities.
Wildlife highlights: Being a young island, it only allows pioneer species to conquer and thrive here. Geology and scenery are fascinating. Pinnacle Rock is by all means the best photographic attraction.
Visitor Sites: Bartolome’s Walk and Beach
Chinese Hat (Sombrero Chino)
Less than a quarter of a square kilometer in size, the tiny island of Sombrero Chino gets its name from its appearance, which is that of a Chinese Hat. Follow the trail around the cove and you will catch a glimpse of American oystercatchers in action, along with marine iguanas, lava lizards and Sally Lightfoot crabs. Starting from a crescent-shaped white sandy beach, this 400 metre long trail provides some wonderful landscapes to view. There are also some good swimming and snorkeling opportunities in the cove area amidst white-tipped reef sharks and tropical fish.
Española Island (Hood)
The most southeastern island, quite eroded, with an amazing cliff-side landscape and overwhelming wildlife diversity.
Wildlife highlights: Galapagos sea lions, lava lizards, Nazca boobies, blue-footed boobies, colorful marine iguanas, Darwin’s finches, yellow warblers.
Unique features: largest nesting colony of blue-footed boobies, only island with a Waved Albatross colony (April to December), mockingbird and lava lizard endemic to Española, interesting geological formations such as the famous “blowhole”.
Visitor Sites: Punta Suarez and Gardner Bay
Fernandina Island (Narborough)
The most western and youngest of all the islands. This massive large-shield volcano is the home of continuous volcanic activity via fumaroles, and seismic processes. From time to time an eruption may be witnessed too. Most recent eruption took place in April 2009!!
Wildlife highlights: densest colonies of marine iguanas, sea lions, nesting colony of flightless cormorants and penguins, Galapagos snakes, intertidal pools.
Unique features: Fernandina Island may be rated as one of the most pristine islands in the world, due to the absence of introduced mammals. Amazing recent black lava flows with evidence of both “pahoe-hoe” and “aa” lava, give you astonishing views of the only sea-going lizard while feeding upon algae. Intertidal pools bloom with marine life.
Visitor site: Punta Espinoza
Floreana Island (Charles or Santa Maria)
An island in the southern half of the Archipelago, dotted with parasitic cones, evidence of continuous and prolonged volcanic activity of a not-so-distant past.
Wildlife highlights: lagoon birds (stilts, whimbrels, ducks, egrets, and flamingos), sea turtles and rays (seasonal), Galapagos flycatchers.
Unique features: volcanic parasitic cones, greater flamingos, endemic Floreana mockingbird, endemic “hairy” Scalesia plant, flour beach, great snorkelling. Human history of the islands and post office barrel.
Visitor Sites: Punta Cormorant, Post Office Bay, Champion Islet, Baroness Cove.
Genovesa Island (Tower)
The horse-shoe shaped island has a volcanic caldera whose wall has collapsed, forming the Great Darwin Bay, surrounded by cliffs. Although no historical eruptions are known from Genovesa, there are very young lava flows on the flanks of the volcano. This island is known as Bird Island, because of the large and varied bird colonies which nest here.
Wildlife highlights: nesting colonies of Nazca boobies, red-footed boobies, noddy terns, shearwaters, tropicbirds, storm petrels and great frigate birds. Galapagos sea lions and Galapagos fur seals.
Unique features: the most seabird diversity such as boobies, frigate birds, short-eared owl, etc; interesting vegetation such as “spineless” prickly pear cactus from the genus Opuntia and “Palo Santo” forest.
Visitor Sites: Darwin Bay, Prince Philip’s Steps
Isabela Island (Albermarle)
One of the archipelago’s western islands and the largest of all. It is made of six large shield volcanoes fused into one island (Ecuador, Wolf, Darwin, Alcedo, Sierra Negra and Cerro Azul). Highest point in Galapagos is found at Wolf Volcano (1,707 m; 5,600 ft.).
Wildlife highlights: Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, sea turtles, marine iguanas, volcanic landscape.
Visitor Sites: Punta Vicente Roca, Urbina Bay, Tagus Cove.
North Seymour Island
A small island but packed with interesting creatures and views, created from geological uplift, and covered with typical arid vegetation; mainly prickly pear cactus and “Palo Santo” trees.
Wildlife highlights: Nesting colony of magnificent and great frigate birds, swallow-tailed gulls, blue-footed boobies. Breeding colonies of Galapagos sea lions and marine iguanas.
Unique features: Land iguanas, white coral heads along the shore, endemic “Palo Santo” trees.
Visitor site: One half of the walk is flat and easy walking along the beach, while the other half is rocky and over boulders. Good traction footwear needed. Snorkelling is possible when conditions allow.
Plazas Sur Island (South Plaza)
South Plaza is a small island off the east coast of Santa Cruz Island and forms part of two islands known as Islas Plazas. It was formed not by volcanic activity but by an uplift of the sea floor. It provides a wonderful cast of Galapagos creatures and beautiful landscapes.
Wildlife highlights: red-billed tropicbirds, swallow-tailed gulls, Galapagos land iguanas.
Unique features: this island was formed by lava up streaming from the bottom of the ocean. Despite its small size, it is home to a large number of species and it is famous for its extraordinary flora. Very attractive are the beautiful prickly pear cactus trees and of course the large colony of Galapagos land iguanas. Depending on the season, the Sesuvium ground vegetation changes its color from intense green in the rainy season to orange and purple in the dry season.
Rabida Island (Jervis)
Rabida is a small, central island exposed to the western upwelling- marine currents. Rabida’s impressive distinct red colour is due to the oxidation of iron rich volcanic material. A fine visitor site with great snorkelling.
Wildlife highlights: sea lion colony, brown pelicans, Darwin´s finches, Galapagos mockingbirds, doves, warblers, coastal and arid zone vegetation.
Unique features: seasonal nesting colony of brown pelicans, excellent snorkelling site.
Visitor site: Red Beach
San Cristobal Island (Chatham)
One of the largest islands in the easternmost end of the archipelago. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is a small town, and the capital of the Galapagos province. Its airport is one of the two that connect to the mainland.
Wildlife highlights: Colony of Galapagos sea lions, Darwin’s finches, marine iguanas, lava lizards, giant tortoises.
Unique features: San Cristobal mockingbird, San Cristobal lava lizard, coralline beaches, El junco (the only permanent fresh water lagoon in the Galapagos).
Visitor Sites: La Galapaguera, Cerro Brujo, Punta Pitt, Tijeretas (Frigate Hill), Interpretation Centre.
Santa Cruz Island
The second largest island of the Galapagos group with all seven vegetation zones included across its expanse. The largest human population lives on this island, mainly in Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the archipelago. Many urban features are found here: banks, ATM machines, souvenirs, art, restaurants and bars.
Wildlife highlights: Darwin’s finches, giant tortoises, Galapagos mockingbirds, vermillion flycatchers, herons, egrets, ducks, stilts.
Unique features: giant tortoises in the wild, giant tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station (young & adult), vegetation of the highlands including the giant daisy tree of the Scalesia genus, a variety of nature-active options and sport activities (hiking, scuba diving, mountain biking, kayaking, etc.).
Visitor Sites: Charles Darwin Research Station, The Highlands and the Giant tortoise reserve, Los Gemelos (Pit Craters), Cerro Dragon (Dragon Hill), Bahia Ballena (Whale Bay), Las Bachas beach
Santa Fe Island (Barrington)
Santa Fe is a small island located in the centre of the archipelago. Studies suggest that Santa Fe Island could be the oldest Galapagos volcano, there are sub-aerial rocks dating back 3.9 million years. The vegetation of the island is characterized by brush, palo santo trees and stands of a large variety of the prickly pear cactus Opuntia echios. The visitor site is a wet landing located in beautiful Barrington Bay on the northeastern side of the island. Large numbers of sea lions are found on the beaches in the turquoise waters of the bay.
Wildlife highlights: sea lion colony, Darwin´s finches, Santa Fe land iguana, giant Opuntia Cacti, Galapagos Hawks
Unique features: large Opuntia Cacti forest, home for the unique species of land iguana (Conolophus pallidus) in the world. It has one of the most beautiful bays, an ideal place for snorkelling.
Santiago Island (James)
This former large shield volcano looks more like a mountain range with hills, valleys and plenty of parasitic cones. An Ecuadorian group settled here within the 1960’s for a salt-mining related business. The island is now uninhabited and provides a great visitor site at Puerto Egas, which combines a visit along the rocky shoreline with time on its dark-coloured sandy beach, and at Sullivan Bay with its fascinating lava.
Wildlife highlights: the most diverse shorebird activity occurs here; Galapagos fur seals, Galapagos sea lions, hawks, Darwin finches, mockingbirds and marine iguanas.
Unique features: a rugged and well-eroded coastline made of tuff stone lies above a dark black lava flow. Such tuff stone was probably the result of a gigantic phreatomagmatic explosion (abrupt contact of water and magma) that even included base surge. Within the actual coastline, the most incredible habitat will host intertidal life, next to Galapagos fur seals.
Visitor Sites: Sullivan Bay, Puerto Egas.
The marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) is one of the most amazing Galapagos species. Few species show such amazing adaptations and evolutionary changes as these lizards, called “imps of darkness” by Darwin. For starters, there are no other ocean-going lizards anywhere. They arrived as terrestrial iguanas, and on one island, they may have evolved into their marine status and then spread throughout the archipelago. They are found on all Galapagos Islands – but nowhere else.
Their critical adaptations to a marine habitat include a reduced heartbeat and constriction of blood vessels near its skin to avoid temperature and oxygen loss. A shortened snout with small tricuspid teeth allow them to graze on the narrow algae they forage at low tide either submersed, especially in the case of larger iguanas, or those exposed by low tide favoured by smaller iguanas.
Marine iguanas also have a supersized supraorbital gland (marine birds also have this gland well developed) as a means of extracting excess salt from their blood flow, like kidneys, and sneeze it out several times in a day. For most of the day, in fact, when the tide is too high, Iguanas do little else but bask in the sun and “sneeze out” excess salt. Before the ideal temperature is reached, iguanas tend to lie at 90° angles to the sun. Once their favourite temperature has been reached, they turn their bodies towards the sun, raising the upper bodies to the same angle as the incoming sunrays, in order to minimize heat loss.
Their life span is shorter than land iguanas, believed to be around 40 years.
Like the Tortoises, land iguanas play an important role as an endemic resident herbivore, and is responsible for the dispersal of several succulent plants. Visitors have access to view the two species among our list of Big15, the Galapagos land iguana (Conolophus subcristatus) and the Santa Fe land iguana (Conolophus pallidus). The former live on several islands, while the latter, which has smaller dorsal spines and a more brownish colour, lives on little Santa Fe, an island of 24 square kilometres (9.3 square miles). Another species, the Pink land iguana (Conolophus marthae) that lives only in a single isolated volcano crater on Isabela Island, was described as a separate species in 2009. Rare hybrids are known to exist on South Plaza Island.
Land iguanas feed mainly on plants (mostly cacti and other succulent plants, so they can survive long periods of time without the need to drink water), but may also feed on anything else available, even carrion. To remove the small and annoying spines of cactus fruit (known as prickly pears or Indian figs), land iguanas are known to roll them repeatedly over sand and stones before eating them.
These reptiles have a life expectancy of about 50 to 60 years. Males are territorial, and their territories may include many females’ smaller territories.
Invasive mammals have taken a strong toll on these iguanas, with rats attacking eggs, feral cats eating the young, and feral dogs the adults. Feral donkeys and goats compete for food on a battle never won by the cold-blooded residents.
The National Park’s programmes to eradicate introduced species have helped the iguanas recover, allowing Galapagos land iguanas to be reintroduced on islands like Baltra where they had become extinct. Their current population is estimated at 10,000 individuals, scattered among some colonies within the archipelago.
The Black Turtle
This turtle feeds on ulva, the chlorophyll alga, on the roots of mangroves, as well on the leaves of the red mangrove. Males are smaller than females, with a concave plastron, claws on the bend of the front flippers (to grasp the carapace of the female) and a long tail. Sexual maturity is reached at 20 to 25 years. The mating season starts with the hot season, and the peak reproduction and egg laying occur in December – January. Group mating is easily seen in the lagoon of Tortuga Negra (north of Santa Cruz) in November. Eggs laying takes place generally between January and June, but may occur all year-round. Gestation lasts for about two months. The temperature of the incubation influences the sex of the individual. The egg-laying frequency is every two to three years. The main predators of the marine turtles are sharks, orcas and crabs.
Giant Tortoise or “Galapago”
Long ago, they roamed over most continents, but now only two remote places still harbour these giant reptiles: Aldabra near Madagascar and a world away on the Galapagos.
Before humans reached Galapagos, giant tortoises where abundant, with estimates ranging over 200,000 individuals. Distributed in 15 subspecies, they played – and still hold – an important ecological role as the local grazers. From their giant shells’ reminiscence with saddles, sometimes called galapagos, the 16th-century Spanish discoverers named the archipelago. Some islands have tortoises with a particularly notable, elevated frontal carapace.
The tortoises’ numbers rapidly diminished especially during the 18th and 19th centuries, the heyday of the whaling era. Tortoises were known to survive for months without food or water in the dark cargo areas of vessels. At the prospect of providing rare fresh meet, sailors captured thousands for slaughter. Four of the subspecies died out because of contact with humans, the last in 2012, although some hybrids may yet carry the genetic material of extinct subspecies.
Breeding programmes have been very successful in bringing many varieties back from the brink of disappearing. Some 30,000- 40,000 individuals now populate seven islands. While they are the archipelago’s most iconic species and name-givers, visitor rarely encounter these reptiles in the wild, large as they may be. This is because Galapagos is a dry archipelago, and on some islands their only opportunity for food is found in higher elevations, far from the path visitors may take.
The Galapagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus) are another example of the extraordinary biodiversity of the islands, thanks to their unique location. The intersection of the cold Humboldt Current and cold water from the depths of the Cromwell Current allow these sub-Antarctic birds to survive in tropical Pacific waters, plus providing unusually rich marine conditions. Penguins breed only during the cooler times of the year, as the colder temperature is associated with more food for these highly monogamic, sharp dressed, unique birds.
This third smallest of all penguins is endemic to these islands, found in larger numbers in the west on Fernandina and Isabela Islands, but smaller colonies live in Floreana, Bartolome and Santiago Island too. A total population of a little over 1,000 individuals makes this the rarest penguin in the world; hence, it is also classified as endangered by the IUCN.
Being small in tropical regions is not random. Flightless marine birds are particularly susceptible to the harmful changes in sea temperature, and sea temperature changes are the norm in Galapagos. The northern hemisphere winter brings warm yet poor waters to these islands. The Humboldt Current was, without any doubt, the carrier of the Galapagos penguin ancestors, and is today still one of the main food suppliers for these birds. As high temperatures could be fatal to these birds, they display, to a far higher degree than other penguins, a set of behavioural and physical adaptations. Counter-current heat exchange is enabled by a special setting of veins and arteries in places like the face, axillae and legs to allow heat to dissipate, more so as the overall plumage is less dense and the bird is small. Its greater surface area relative to its total size gives it a larger surface from which to lose heat when on land.
Along with the famous Darwin finches, hardly any other Galapagos species demonstrates the remarkable adaptive process of evolution better than the flightless or Galapagos cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi). It is the world’s biggest cormorant and the only one that has lost its ability to fly. In fact, it is the only surviving marine bird –other than penguins- that does not fly. Giving up flying is in fact a very unlikely adaptation for marine birds.
Every physical feature needed to be able to fly goes completely against moving efficiently under water: buoyant-generally hollow bones, feathers coated in oil (oil being lighter than water), long wingspans to increase lift, among others. To get underwater, boobies and pelicans have to plunge into it almost vertically given that it’s 800 times denser than air! Boobies may get deep, but eventually their pneumatic (hollow) bones and oil-covered feathers yoyo them back to the surface. Cormorants worldwide have reduced this problem by using very little oil to coat their plumages, but at a high cost: once drenched after a prolonged dive, they must spend long periods perched vulnerably atop trees until the water has dried off their feathers.
Uniquely, Galapagos cormorants have solid bones and no oil at all to spread along feathers that now look more like fur (fur is also more efficient than contour- feathers when considering aquadynamics). As Darwin wrote: “it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”
Also called the “waved albatross”, this is the largest bird in the Galapagos. They breed virtually exclusively on Española Island, except for a handful of albatrosses on the continental Ecuadorean Island of La Plata. This is one of the few species in Galapagos that has a fairly predictable breeding cycle; and for a very good reason: all couples and hatchlings must leave Española before the winds fade out in mid-January. Being so large and heavy, any albatross beyond that yearly event would be literally stranded until winds pick-up again around April.
When season switch back to the cooler, but dryer months, albatrosses return to Española-some having scored thousands of miles of foraging trips in the process! They, in fact, spend very little time of their long lives, atop dry ground. They either fly or sit calmly at sea most of their life. Land is for these big birds, only a matter of reproduction.
Belongs to the order of Pelicaniformes, which are recognized by reduced or absent external nasal slits.
Frigates, or “vultures of the sea”, are specially designed for the life aloft. Their wingspan is as big as that of the albatross. This bird, having lost the waterproofing of its black plumage, never lands in the sea. Frigates spend time gliding in circles in the sky. When in pursuit of other birds – especially boobies, for example, which they frequently harass for food- they may be very fast. Frigates may also catch small fish on the surface of the water with the mere swipe of the hooked beak.
During the courtship display, the male inflates a huge leathery red pouch under his throat. This seduces and attracts the female to the nest, which the male has already prepared for the purpose of mating.
Is very similar to the great frigate, but the male has a purple sheen on its black plumage, and the female has a black triangle on the white patch of the throat. The eyering is bluish green on both sexes. Unlike the great frigate, the magnificent frigate is an “inshore feeder”, and feeds near the islands. On North Seymour, where it is easily seen, courtship displays are observed throughout the year. It is also a tropical breeder, with long reproduction cycles. Only one egg is laid, with an incubation time of 55 days.
This beautiful white bird with short wings has two long and narrow feathers extending from the tail. A black line runs through the eyes, and the bill is coral red in adults. The juvenile lacks the two tail feathers. Its food being pelagic, the tropicbird is an “offshore feeder”. It feeds on fish and squid by plunge-diving during daytime. The Tropicbird reproduces in colonies, and lays only one red-brown, spotted egg in a crack of a cliff or between rocks. There is a noticeable difference between reproduction cycles of the tropicbirds on South Plaza, Genovesa and Daphne Islands.
Boobies are very common in the islands. Three species are seen in the Galapagos: the blue-footed, the red footed and the Nazca booby. All have an aerodynamic body and a long, pointed bill. All three live in colonies, but with various habitats.
The name “booby” comes from the Spanish word “bobo”, which means “silly”. The Spanish bishop who accidentally discovered the archipelago wrote to Charles V, King of Spain: “Birds are so silly, they know not how to flee.” In fact, they were so unafraid of humans that when these birds landed on ships at sea, they were effortlessly captured, becoming an easy meal for seamen. Even today, thanks to careful park management, the great majority of the Galapagos fauna shows no fear of humans, which means that our guests have an amazing close-up experience on the islands.
This is the lightest booby, with a weight of about one kilogram. Color is light brown, with a bluish beak. There is also a white variety, called the “morpho blanco”. The red feet are adapted to gripping branches; thus it is the only booby to nest in trees. The reproduction season depends on the availability of food. The chicks may easily die from hunger the first weeks of their life. Despite the high mortality rate, only one egg is laid. The time necessary to breed young does not allow an annual cycle of reproduction.
The red-footed boobies are the largest community of boobies in the Galapagos. The population of the archipelago is 250.000 individuals.
This is the most common booby. The Galapagos subspecies is endemic. Its lifespan is about 15 to 20 years. Unlike its red-footed relative, the blue-footed booby fishes inshore. It nests on the coast. The nesting site, on the ground, is marked by sprays of ejecta which draw a radiant white sun on the volcanic sand. Food is usually abundant, and allows two or sometimes three eggs to be laid.
The male is lighter than the female and plunge-dives more easily than female. The male whistles, and the female honks. During the mating season, the booby dances with its turquoise-blue feet, spreads out its wings, brings its tail up, points its bill to the sky and whistles loudly. This ceremony is known as the “sky pointing display”. The population of the blue-footed boobies has been estimated at 10,000, but it may be much more.
Formerly known as the masked booby but discovered to be a new species in 2001. Is the heaviest of the three boobies. The plumage is white, wings are fringed with black, and the beak is orange yellow. The conspicuous black mask on the eyes makes it easy to recognize. Like the blue-footed booby, the white Nazca booby nests directly on the ground and surrounds its nests with waste. It chooses the site on clifftops, where the air streams allow it to take of easily. The fishing zone is intermediate between those of the other booby species, is between islands. The population of the Nazca boobies is about 25,000.
The flamingos present in the Galapagos belong to the American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber), but are an odd southwest outlier considering that the remainder of the species breeds along coasts of Colombia and in much of the Caribbean. Their emblematic colour is linked to their diet (rich in carotenoids), and recent studies demonstrate that secretions from their uropygial gland (most birds have this gland, located near the base of the tail) also transfer pigments to the plumage coat. Young Flamingos lack the pink coat and feed on their parent’s “crop milk” secreted by another specialized gland in both male and female parents.
Flamingos have the largest and heaviest tongues among birds, while the blue whale holds the absolute world record of any animal. Interestingly, the feeding techniques of baleen whales (rorquals) and flamingos are very similar: both are able to filter large amounts of very small food in very large quantities with the help of specialized filters: the baleen plates in rorquals, and the lamellae of flamingos, small plates in their mandibles.
Courtship rituals among flamingos form one of nature’s most impressive shows. Adult males and females aggregate in close groups and start an intricate dance with necks cocked up while flashing their primaries (the long flying feathers at the wing tips). These are exceptionally pink and black as they are less exposed to abrasion, wear and tear and other factors that may weaken the colour intensity.
Despite its wide range, this species is rarely found outside the Caribbean. The most recent bird-count produced only 314 individuals in the archipelago.
Outside the Galapagos, the title of the top of the food chain belongs to large carnivores like the jaguar in South America or the polar bear in the Arctic. In the archipelago, this distinction belongs to the Galapagos hawk (Buteo galapagoensis), a large endemic bird of prey. As the apex predator, it has no natural enemies, but is classified as vulnerable by the IUCN. Genetic investigation indicates that it is among the most recent native arrivals to the islands, having reached them around 300,000 years ago, compared with the famous finches, who arrived two to three million years ago.
They are present on most islands, but are uncommon, with perhaps 150 breeding pairs. While unafraid of humans, people caused their extinction on Santa Cruz, Floreana, Southern Isabela, and San Cristobal by introducing rival predators and through outright hunting. They are also absent on Genovesa. This natural exclusion seems to be linked to the fact that Genovesa has no lava lizards, the key food species of Galapagos hawks. They also prey on young land and marine iguanas. Of course, given the nature of diversity on the Galapagos Islands, the hawks show a significant variety of sizes, with wingspans ranging from 116cm (46 inches) on Marchena to the largest, with 140cm (55 inches), on Española.
The ancestor of the Galapagos mockingbird is the longtail mockingbird. In Galapagos the four species and six subspecies of mockingbird are all endemic.
The noisy birds very curious by nature, are gryish brown dorsally and cream-colored ventrally. The beak is black and curved downward.
Predatory birds, they feed on small finches, lava lizards, centipedes and insects. They also crave the eggs of the sea birds, such as boobies and albatrosses. Very social birds, they have no fear of man, and are quite common to the archipelago.
The theory of evolution brought fame to Darwin`s finches. The dark-coloured birds are about the size of a sparrow and are distributed on all the islands. They are often very noisy birds and have no fear of man.
Although they belong to the finch family, they make a subfamily called Geospiznae, which is found only in the Galapagos and on Cocos Islands to the northeast. Thirteen species are endemic to the archipelago; all originated from an original species, Melanospiza richardsonii, found on St Lucia Island in the Caribbean. All the finches are strikingly alike, and it takes the trained eye of and specialist to distinguish them perfectly.
Abundant in the archipelago, sea lions gather in colonies on the sand or on the rocks. The male is polygamous, but there is no such thing as a harem in the strict sense of the word, for the female is free to come and go as she pleases, in and out of the group. The male is distinguished from the female by its huge size and by a conspicuous hump on the forehead, while the female has a smooth forehead.
The male is very territorial, especially at the beginning of the mating season, and patrols on the beach or in the water constantly to chase occasional intruders. He keeps an eye on the young, which may wander off too far from the safety of the beach, and may be attacked by sharks. The sea lion may dive to a depth of 30 to 60 meters, and dives down to 100 meters have been recorded. It feeds during the day.
Fur Sea Lion
This species originated in the southern hemisphere, and reached the islands via the Humboldt Current. Fur Sea Lion may be easily distinguished from the sea lion by its smaller size, its pointed nose, and big round sad eyes with a glossy glare. Most of the times it lies under rocks or in lava cracks, hiding from the sun.
SOURCE: THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS: A NATURAL HISTORY GUIDE BY PIERRE CONSTANT
The Galapagos Flora Sets the Pace
Most likely the flora of the islands started this way:
- With spores and seeds carried by the winds and “stopped” by the newly formed islands.
- By seeds stuck to feet and plumage of migratory birds, or passed through their digestive system.
- Via chunks of vegetation rushed to the sea by overflowing rivers and conducted throughout the ocean by the marine currents.
It happened then, it happens now. Not all seeding can “fuse” with the rocky land. Only those with simple germination necessities can adapt to the barren environment to survive and evolve in forms growing every day.
Going from shores to highlands, it has been agreed to define five zones of vegetation life in Galapagos:
- Coastal. The sea borders are apt to salt water plants like the Red Mangrove, with its typical aerial roots in Isabela and Santa Cruz; and the Beach Morning Glory abundant in Santiago.
- Arid. Cacti territories! Among a good variety, the big and famous Opuntia Cactus, (prickly-pear) in many places the only source of food and moisture for reptiles; and the graceful Candelabra Cactus. Among the newer black lavas you find Brachycereus Cactus (or aptly called lava cactus). Another typical of the zone, and common on all large islands, is a Bursera Tree of light bark called Palo Santo (holy wood), after the reddish sap that bleeds from wounds. High number of endemic plant species.
- Humid. Epiphytes like orchids, mosses, ferns and lichens thrive in this zone’s constant moisture and ornate trees and shrubs with color and charm. Typical at this degree of humidity are the Scalesias and Pisonias. Not much is said about the highlands of Galapagos, but in reality this is an amazing cloud forest with unique features.
- Miconia. Particular to San Cristobal and Santa Cruz, this zone is named after the ever-present Miconias that require high humidity.
- Pampa. In the populated islands this is farmland or Pampas. The temperature is low and grass is abundant; good to cultivate commercial products and raise cattle.
Sixteen species are endemic from the scalesia genera. This genus is spread out and adapted to different zones: arid, humid, and cliffs. It is distinguished by the shape of the leaves, and flowering heads.
Two endemic genera: Jasminocereus and Brachycereus, and one endemic species:Opuntia echios. Jasminocereus thuoarsii , also called the candelabra cactus, is a tall cactus found in the arid zone, and resembles Mexican organ pipe cacti. Brachycereus , is a small cactus with white spines, 50-60 centimeters high, which grows directly on lava surfaces.
The volcanic set up of the Galapagos can be explained by looking at the theories of Plate Tectonics and the Hot Spot. The platform where the islands started their volcanic growth lies right on top of the Nazca Plate. This plate, neighbours with the Cocos and Pacific Plates, moves towards the South American continent at a rate (call it island speed) of about 7 cm/year (2.756 inches), “carrying” the islands on top.
Underneath certain plates heat from the core of the Earth is transferred to the surface, these areas are called Hot Spots. Hot spots allow (magma) to percolate towards the plate filling up all cracks, crevices and in some cases reaching from below the bottom of the ocean, and eventually breaking the surface of the water. These forces create islands in the middle of the ocean, as is the case of Iceland, Azores, Canary, and the closest example, Hawaii.
As the plates move in one direction, and over time, a chain of islands will be formed. These islands will all be different from each other in terms of age, altitude, and other physical factors like erosion, colonization, etc. In Galapagos, the islands to the east are older than those to the west; this implies that the Galapagos Hot Spot is right under Isabela and Fernandina, the westernmost islands. As you visit the islands, you will notice how different landscapes are, and more so if you see the opposite islands from east to west. The islands continue on being active, and any new eruptions, will occur most likely in the west of the archipelago.
The ages of the varied islands differ a lot; Española (Hood), Santa Fe (Barrington) and Floreana (Charles) belong to the group of older islands with ages that range 3 – 3.5 million years. Islands within the middle range date anywhere between 2 – 3 million years, like Santiago (James), Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) and Bartolomé. To the west, we find the youngest rocks on both Isabela (Albermarle) and Fernandina (Narborough); these barely reach a million years.
Ecuador established the Galapagos Islands National Park in 1959 covering 90% of Galapagos islands area, all the lands are already included. The Galapagos Islands national park service started in 1967 until today. The Galapagos Marine reserve was opened in 1999 to preserve the marine wildlife in the sea near to the Galapagos Islands. For more, see www.galapagospark.org
Our environmental policy, allow us to generate in our guests conscience towards protection of the ecosystems we visit. All our expedition staff will motivate guests to follow the good environmental practices of our operation.
The Galapagos National Park Service regulates all visitor activities within the park’s boundaries, including the vessels itineraries. Visits both within the National Park sites and the Marine Reserve, are led by licensed Naturalist Guides. By following these rules, you are directly contributing to the ongoing preservation efforts of local institutions. Take only photographs and wonderful memories; leave only footprints.
- Please stay on the trails.
- Please do not disturb any wildlife or remove any native plant or rock material.
- Please make sure you do not accidentally transport any live material to the islands, or from island to island. Insular ecosystems are fragile biological units.
- Please be cautious at approaching wildlife, and always follow your Naturalists´ advice.
- Animals are not to be fed by humans. Particular attention should be given to water bottles.
- It is prohibited to bring food to the visitor’s sites.
- Please do not startle or chase any animal from its resting or nesting area.
- Smoking is not allowed on the islands, nor is it in any boat (dinghy) during your visits. The use of cellular or satellite phones is prohibited on the visitor’s sites.
- Please do not buy any souvenirs made from native Galapagos species (except for wood).
- Conservation is everyone’s business. Please do not hesitate to show your conservationist attitude. Become a Galapagos supporter and ask us about our conservation programs that support sustainability on the islands.