By Laurie Hindman
Beaches of white, black or red sand, clear blue waters, reefs of lava rocks crowded with miniature penguins mingling with three foot iguanas, orcas rising from the sea as the sun sets — sounds like a fantasy or at least a strange dream, but this is life at the Galapagos Islands.
My in-laws celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary by taking our family and my husband’s sister’s family on an all expense paid trip to the Galapagos Islands. They had been saving and planning this for years. “We want to be there when you enjoy your inheritance,” my father-in-law informed us cheerfully. Enjoy it we did! This generous gift was an amazing adventure we will never forget.
We traveled aboard a 186-foot yacht called La Pinta. It had twenty-three comfortable, above-water cabins with large windows. The crew was warm and welcoming and the food fantastic. Each day was fully scheduled with snorkeling, hiking, visits to towns, a tortoise reserve and the Charles Darwin Research Center. For every expedition a naturalist accompanied us. Our sons, Jackson, 14, and Everett, 11, our nephew, Brian 11, and two nieces, Sara, 17, and Christie, 15, soon had the run of the boat, visiting on the bridge with Captain Patrick, making announcements over the public address system for La Pinta’s manager, Fernando and ordering icy glasses of fruit punch from Antonio in the boat’s bar. Each day was packed with activity; each night as we slept, we sailed off to explore more of these enigmatic islands.
The Galapagos Islands are 600 miles off the west coast of South America and are owned by the country of Ecuador. There are 13 main islands and numerous smaller islands and islets. Only about three percent of the islands are inhabited; the majority of land is Galapagos National Park, which is closely controlled by the Ecuadorian government. The Galapagos Marine Resources Reserve surrounds the park, the worlds’ second largest after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. There is no commercial fishing and tourism is tightly regulated.
The islands are volcanic in origin and therefore consist almost entirely of oceanic basalt. It is the volcanic nature, the location, the swirling currents from the north and south and the equatorial climate that together have created the unusual landscape and often bizarre wildlife. The islands have highlands that consist of lush vegetation with peaks in the clouds, while the lower elevations are desert-like, with acres of lava flows, sometimes dotted with 35-foot prickly pear cacti. Along with this are mangrove inlets, tidal lagoons, and startling oases in the middle of lava fields, each with it’s own microenvironment and eco-system. The unique conditions allow the presence of unusual animal and plant life: sea lions, tropical fish, penguins, albatrosses, land and marine iguanas and huge tortoise that look like pre-historic, mythical creatures.
It was the adaptations made by different endemic species on the Galapagos Islands, over a course of many generations, which led Charles Darwin to develop his theory of Natural Selection and ultimately, evolution; in particular, the beaks of the thirteen species of finch. During his brief, eight-week visit to the Galapagos, he noticed the finches differed from island to island, depending on the environment. Finches that had only sparse desert plants available had beaks perfect for picking away at cactus seeds. Other finches had long pointy beaks ideal for stabbing insects found in the luxuriant vegetation of the highlands. Because the islands are isolated from the mainland and have never been connected to one another, the Galapagos are the perfect living laboratory of evolution.
Being located on the equator, we expected tropical heat and humidity. Not so! Due to the cooling Humboldt Current sweeping up from Antarctica, the air temperature stayed very pleasant and the water temperature was downright chilly at times. Most mornings started off cloudy and breezy; however, when the clouds lifted the rays of the sun made the Colorado sunshine feel like a weak heat lamp!
What was most amazing to us was the proximity to the wildlife. Because most of the animals have no natural predators on land, they have no fear and are abundant throughout the islands. Sea lions lounged on beaches, yawning as we walked past; blue footed-boobies perched on rocks along trails, preening their feathers as we snapped photos three feet away. We practically stepped on spiky four-foot land iguanas crouched camouflaged along the hiking trails. And Darwin’s famous finches hopped on the trails just inches in front of our footsteps. Giant tortoises, one close to100 years old and a good four feet in diameter, munched on grass in the highlands, seemingly oblivious to our “oohs” and “aahs.” If we got too near, the tortoise would issue a loud hissing sound and withdraw into his shell, but mostly he seemed bored by our presence.
Snorkeling was one of the main activities. We were issued “shorty” wetsuits by the boat crew but dropping off the side of the dingy into deep water, at a temperature of 65 degrees, took some courage. Still, once I went numb, I enjoyed the peek into the world under the sea. We saw a glittering school of salema fish, manta rays, stingrays, and our nieces spied the 6-foot Galapagos shark. We were told not to worry about these. “They only like the fishes,” said our Ecuadorian naturalist and guide, dismissively. “You don’t smell like the fishes.”
Off-beach snorkeling was more relaxing (and warmer). Backing into the aquamarine waters in full gear, we were immediately checked out by a curious streamer hogfish, bright blue with green stripes that swam one inch away, staring at our legs. Along the cliffs and reefs we saw blue and white octopi tucked shyly into the lava rocks, a wide variety of sea star and too many fish to count. Most bizarre was watching a marine turtle swim along the sandy bottom and the large, Godzilla-like marine iguanas diving down to snack on their favorite dish—the algae growing on the reefs.
It was the sea lions, however, that provided the most entertainment. Once, I was swimming back to shore with Everett and Brian, when a female sea lion joined us. She rolled on her side, gazing at me through her round, long-lashed eyes, then whoosh—flipped underneath and come up in between Brian and Everett. She even tugged playfully on Everett’s flippers! She followed us into the shallow waters before dashing back out to find someone else to play with. We were delighted!
The sea lions pups were as curious as their canine counterparts and were particularly interested in the kids. As we walked along the beaches the pups would flip-flop over to the kids, making “baaahing” noises. While you are never allowed to touch any wildlife, you may allow them to touch you. Our naturalist encouraged the kids to lie on the sand on their stomachs to allow a pup to investigate further. The sea lion gave the three boys a thorough examination, sniffing their heads, faces, and hands—even nibbling a little on Everett’s glasses and Jackson’s hat.
For me, the most exciting adventure was the whale sightings. It was late in the day and we had just disembarked into the “pangas,” or dinghies, for a trip to the beach and a hike along the cliffs. Usually, our extended family of eleven was altogether in one panga, but for some reason this time the adults ended up in one panga and the children in another. Suddenly, the panga loaded with the kids and a naturalist veered off from the beach and headed out to the open sea. Our naturalist’s walkie-talkie crackled with rapid Spanish and she cried out, “orcas!” Our panga driver made a wide turn in hot pursuit.
Sure enough, dead ahead, a large, glistening black fin rose from the water and disappeared. Overhead were perhaps a hundred shorebirds, also following the whales, to feed off of the bits and pieces left over from the orcas’ kills. We twisted and turned in our seats in the small boat waiting for one to appear; another sighting and the boat would veer away after it. A hundred feet across the water we watched as an orca swam below the second panga, surfacing a hundred feet away—the kids were thrilled! Having never seen a whale (Sea World doesn’t count) I had tears in my eyes and all of us were grinning from ear to ear. Later, after wading ashore and beginning our hike, we watched the orcas rising periodically as the sun set over the ocean.
On the last day, my boys joined my husband and I on deck to watch the sun rise one more time over these incredible islands. “If this is a once in a life time trip like everyone says, does this mean we will never be back?” Everett asked sadly. Leaving this unusual paradise was hard, but we left with amazing stories, over 4,000 photos of sea lions (thank God for digital cameras) and unforgettable memories.
<p>Sunset over Kicker Rock</p>
<p>From top: the blue-footed boobie, a giant tortoise hissing, the Hindman family on North Seymour Island, and one of Darwin’s famous finches.</p>
<p>Top: the ultimate ride for a Galapagos trek, the 186-foot yacht La Pinta.</p>
<p>Bottom: a sea lion pup examines Everett.</p>