The Galapagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago straddling the equator in the Pacific Ocean. Situated about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the islands – a province of Ecuador – are one of the world’s foremost destinations for wildlife viewing. The islands offer a broad diversity of plant and animal species, many found nowhere else. Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos on the HMS Beagle in 1835; his observations later inspired his theory of evolution. The islands also provided a base for whalers and pirates. The former nearly wiped out the tortoise population in the 1800’s, taking them on-ship as a lasting source of protein. The first recorded visit to the Galapagos was that of the Bishop of Panama, who accidentally discovered them on his way to Peru in 1535.
The chain consists of 18 main islands, 3 smaller and 107 rocks and islets. Isabela, shaped like a seahorse, is by far the largest at about 2000 square miles, 75% of the total land mass of the Galapagos. Named after Queen Isabela, the island has six volcanoes, rises to 5600′ and is bisected by the equator. The youngest and adjacent island of Fernandina (named after King Ferdinand) has extensive lava fields, home to many interesting species The distance from south to north (Espanola to Darwin Island) is 137 miles. Four islands are inhabited, with a total population of about 25,000 people; only 3% of the total land mass is inhabited.
The geology of the islands is relatively young. There are numerous contemporaneous volcanoes , some with eruptions as recently as this year. The westernmost islands and their volcanoes are youngest, and are taller with well developed calderas.
Darwin visited four islands over a period of six weeks. He spent a considerable part of this visit studying volcanic activity and structures. He also noted that the mockingbirds were different island to island, and he collected dozens of birds to take back to England. He noted post trip that, while different and unique to each island, most of the birds were finches. This discovery started the development of his thought process on evolution.
Ecotourism in the Galapagos has grown substantially over recent years, with about 220,000 visitors in the latest year. 97% of the archipelago is a National Park, and ten islands are accessible only by sea. Ecuador has permitted these visits despite very strict conservation policies. Visitor sites are very limited, with only 54 permitted land sites and 62 scuba/snorkeling sites. Landings are limited to 20-25 people at a time, and the allowed walking areas are tightly controlled. While there are multiple tourist ships visiting each island at one time, these are typically smaller cruise vessels with 10-100 passengers only. Each vessel is limited at any given site to once per two weeks.
Typically the duration of a Galapagos cruise is one week, Saturday to Saturday. Our group of ten flew from Quito to the small island of Baltra (an old US Air force base), adjacent to the larger island of Santa Cruz. We were transported by bus to an ocean-side landing area, boarded on pangas (inflatable dinghies or zodiacs) and transported to our home for the next week. This was the Evolution, a 32 passenger cruise ship, really a motor yacht, owned by Quasar Expeditions and operated for our visit by International Expeditions. The spacious cabins (140 to 260 square feet) are situated on three different levels, with the lounge, office and dining ares between. The ship, refurbished in 2017, has a length of 192′ and a beam of 29′. It is operated with a crew of 18, plus two well trained Ecuadorian naturalists. Our guides, Cris and Bolivar, were outstanding – and lovely people to boot.
The yacht is comfortable, the crew like family, the food wonderful and the activities delightful. A typical day consisted of at lease one island landing, snorkeling from the panga (followed by a hot tub visit!) and a panga ride along the shoreline to view birds, penguins, sea lions and the like. Three lovely and delicious meals, ample beverages and a highly informative lecture were included.
Our cruise was designated as the Darwin route, from Baltra past Daphne Major to Isabela and Fernandina, back to Bartolome, to Santa Cruz and Rabida Islands, a stop at Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz to visit the Darwin Research Station and to see giant tortoises in the cloud forest, on to Espanola and finally to San Cristobal. We flew from there back to Quito after an absolutely wonderful experience.