The wildlife of the Galapagos Islands

If you’re anything like me, passionate about animal welfare and conscious of the well being of the natural world, finding travel destinations which don’t raise any ethical red flags can be a challenge. This is generally an even bigger concern when travelling in developing countries, where all too often you are confronted with a variable horror show of animal exploitation, torture, and a lax approach to environmental and wildlife protection.

Enter the Galápagos Islands. Straddling the equator 900km off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, these islands are one of the more successful examples of responsible conservation in a highly biodiverse environment.

Home to over 2,000 endemic species, the Galápagos Islands are for good reason often referred to as the “world’s petri-dish”. When Charles Darwin dropped the anchor of HMS Beagle in the archipelago in 1835, the weird and wonderful creatures he encountered contributed greatly to his theory of evolution which he put to paper in his famous 1859 work The Origin of Species.

Widely plundered during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the islands are now 97.5% protected National Parkland, and the waters surrounding them are one of the world’s largest marine reserves. In 1978, UNESCO recognised the islands as a World Heritage Site. Since this time there have been increasingly positive moves towards responsible tourism and investment in conservation by the Ecuadorian government.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully realise, like nearly all conservation sites, it would be best served if humans stayed away all together. However, this is a country, and a people – some 25,000 of them who live on the islands themselves – who have come to depend on tourism as a means of income. Income which was perhaps obtained in the past through significantly more damaging means. To propose zero tourism is a utopian view of it all which is unhelpful and unrealistic. Ecuador is a country which has seen economic hardships those in the west rarely have. The banking crisis of the late 90s in particular was a time of despair for the country, with suicides and migration shooting off the charts. Such economic woes, like anywhere in the world, has led in the past to the exploitation of natural resources without sustainability considerations.

Floreana Island beach, where stingrays swim right to the shoreline

It’s changing though, and I think for the better. Tourism is here to stay, and they are doing what they can to keep it sustainable. From what I saw, they are doing a good job.

For a start, this is not a cheap travel destination. This in itself almost rules out the spectre of mass tourism. My trip in early September 2017 consisted of a four-night cruise with G Adventures, for which I paid $3,300 Australian dollars, and this was far from a luxury vessel. Showering was a particular highlight, having to use my behind to keep the shower door, with its broken locking mechanism, from opening and closing as the vessel bobbed up and down on the water. Then there is the park fee of $100 US per person, which we were assured goes towards conservation.

Whilst mine was one of the cheaper cruises, the land based and camping tours, in which you zip in and out to the various sites via speedboat, are cheaper still.

My group’s travel guide was a published Ecuadorian naturalist, and his love for the islands and excitement over the biodiversity was obvious and infectious. This was a man who I knew would not be doing this work if he was ethically conflicted. Strolling the Martian-like interior of Rábida Island he would suddenly shout “Oh wow look it’s a Galápagos Hawk!”, before pursuing the bird ardently across the landscape. It’s as if he was seeing these beasts for the first time. In reality, he had published books on them and studied them for his entire adult life, and the enthusiasm was still there.

Galápagos Hawk on Rábida

It was rare to see more than one tour group on any given island. The time spent on the islands, and the amount of people on the islands at any one time, appears to be strictly managed. The overall number of visitors to the archipelago is closely regulated through the issuing of Transit Control Cards.

Selfies with animals on Galapagos: Hard but doable

Once you are on the islands your movements are also strictly controlled. Walking tracks set out by markers create a path no more than three metres wide. To stray outside these markers is a big no-no, as one unfortunate member of our group discovered. He received quite the verbal castrating from our guide, who made it clear that they are not there as a mere formality. There is no blind eye turned, no bending of the rules, at least not on my tour.

The distance you are permitted to be from the animals is limited to two metres. Again, the guide was not afraid to call out anyone who was pushing the boundaries. This certainly made for interesting viewing as guests struggled to take selfies with the various wildlife at an impractical distance. But it is doable.

Of course, occasionally, it is the animals who choose to flout these rules and get right up into your personal space. You may find yourself accosted by a playful sea lion while snorkelling, or have a fearless giant sea-turtle start munching on some sea grass right next to you (at which time you might try and get away with a sneaky pat). This absence of fear towards humans is clearly a good sign.

Galápagos tortoise on Santa Cruz Island

The beaches and inland areas are impeccably clean and, besides the trail markers, free from any visible human interference. In the unsettled regions there are no kiosks, no toilets, not even any benches. There is not a skerrick of rubbish and there is never anything left behind.

Only a tiny percentage of the archipelago is actually accessible for tourists. But there is nonetheless so much on offer to see. It all depends on how much time and money you have. My tour was confined to Santa Cruz, Rábida, Floreana, Española and San Cristóbal Islands in the south-central area of the archipelago. The first and last being the most populated islands, both serviced by their own airport.

I saw so much on just these few islands, that I came to regret not doing a longer tour. My wallet however held no such regrets.

The surreal landscape of Rábida made me feel I was on a different planet

Suffice to say the wildlife on offer is too numerous to list. It really is an animal lover’s paradise. The very first trip was to meet the giant and iconic Galápagos Tortoises of Santa Cruz island. Almost hunted to complete extinction last century, effective conservation measures and breeding programs have now increased their numbers to the point where they are slowly crawling out from under their ‘vulnerable’ IUCN status.

From here we boarded the boat, pulling up anchor during the night and travelling to Rábida Island. Strolling the red sands, we met our first Sea Lions, Galápagos Hawks and Eagles, other exotic birds and plants, as well as all manner of sea life during a snorkelling expedition in the invigoratingly crisp September waters.

Floreana Island offered Blue Footed Boobies, Nazca boobies, fur seals, as well as the giant and very friendly sea turtles (note: bring an underwater camera!) We even saw an exceedingly rare Galápagos penguin, said to number only about eight individuals on the island.

Then on to Española Island, which provided perhaps the most spectacular beach I have seen, where sea lions would laze on the golden sands by the dozen, soaking in the sun without a care in the world. More snorkelling here, with sharks, and plenty of tropical fish.

Another side of the island was teeming with Sea Iguanas, Flamingos, and my personal favourite; the Albatross, which I immensely enjoyed watching strutting around on their sea legs in a hilariously goofy fashion.

On San Cristóbal Island we visited the Interpretation Centre, an informative stop which chronicled the history of the islands; from the exploited blood bath of the past, to the very much protected treasure trove of biodiversity we see today.

Oh, you want to walk here?

There is also, of course, the natural beauty and geological attractions worth mentioning. These are volcanic islands, generating amazing landscapes which seem to differ from island to island. From the iron-rich red sands of Rábida to the golden yellow sands of Española. Punta Cormorant on Floreana offers green sandy beaches, while other islands have black ones. It is, for the millennials playing at home, one of the most ‘insta-worthy’ places you will find.

Albatross of Española Island

Of course, with this come reminders that this is a seismically active and isolated region. During my trip the La Cumbre volcano, on the far west island of Fernandina, came to life for the first time since April 2009. We also experienced a tsunami warning courtesy of the magnitude 8.2 Chiapas earthquake which occurred to the north of us, off the Mexican coast. This was the strongest earthquake recorded in the world in the year 2017.

Despite this excitement, there is no question in my mind that for the animal and conservation conscious traveler, the Galápagos Island is a hard to beat travel destination. Not only can you be assured that your touristic footprint is being kept to a minimum, you are guaranteed a full photo gallery, a lifetime of memories, and a new appreciation of the natural world.

Española Island beach
Geyser on Española
Baby sea lion on Floreana

/ by Jamie Wallace

Jamie Wallace is a Sydney-based police officer, media officer, and avid traveller, who is passionate about animal welfare and ethical travel experiences.