Have you ever read a novel called ‘This Thing of Darkness’ by Harry Thompson? It is based on the true story of the voyages of H.M.S. Beagle by Captain Fitzroy, Charles Darwin and its crew. They explored South America and mapped the regions of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and parts of Chile before finally arriving at the enchanted islands of the Galapagos. It is not only a great read, but it is an incredible story of adventure, bravery, endurance, philosophical arguments and of course scientific discovery. I strongly recommend trying to get hold of a copy, even if it is probably now out of print. I bought my copy second hand on the internet. I read the book just before my visit to the islands and I can still feel its influence. I think the story enchanted me along with the islands.
We started our weeks cruise in Puerto Ayuro on the main island of Santa Cruz before starting our tour of the Western isles of Floreana (including Post Office Bay), Isabella Island (the largest of the group), Fernandino Island, Santiago Island, North Seymour and then returned to Santa Cruz.
The wildlife was absolutely stunning and has incredibly little fear of humans. Photography proved quite difficult as everything was a little bit too close for my camera to focus. In fact, nearly every time I saw a Galapagos Flycatcher, it inevitably finished perching at the end of my camera lens. I’ve never had this problem before!
On Santa Cruz, the main island, we visited a restaurant with a large privately owned nature reserve called El Chato. The bird life was good, but it was really known for the large number of Giant Tortoises that visited the area at this time of the year. There were probably hundreds of these giants meandering very slowly around the grasslands, or wallowing in the small pools that they had created. They must have thought we were hyperactive, as their speed of movement compared with our fast pace was very noticeable. This slow pace of life clearly suited them as they were very long lived and the oldest recorded tortoise lived to over 200 years old!
The next island we visited was Floreana, which was known for its few inhabitants; two German families who lived there early last century and a lonely place called Post Office Bay. The German families were famous in the nineteen thirties and forties for their Robinson Crusoe-type existence, but unfortunately they fell out with each other. It often happens that neighbours don’t get on, but the complete disappearance of one family and some later French settlers remains a mystery still to be solved. Did they leave voluntarily, or was it something more sinister? I don’t think we will ever know!
Besides a beautiful beach with very laid back and friendly Sea Lions, Post Office Bay was known for an old barrel on a post that had been there for centuries. Evidently, it was put there by whalers for people to leave messages and letters. Tradition has it that the next visiting ship is obliged to collect any post addressed to any of their destinations and subsequently deliver it. We left some mail and collected several messages with UK addresses, which we will post on our return.
Our boat was called MY Passion, which had a small crew of about 9 or 10 people including our very knowledgeable wildlife guide and was home to our small group of 12 people for a complete week as we toured the Western Isles. Our daily ritual was a birding/wildlife walk at 5.30am or 6am, followed by breakfast and then snorkelling in the crystal clear waters until lunchtime. Afternoons were normally a siesta, followed by a lecture or more snorkelling or kayaking and then a final walk before sunset. We soon got used to boarding and disembarking from the fast zodiacs which ferried us to the islands.
On one of our Zodiac trips we were accompanied by a large school of Bottle-Nosed Dolphins who thought it was great fun racing our boats, but it wasn’t really a serious contest as they were a lot faster than us. It was fascinating watching the adolescent males showing off their acrobatic skills by leaping out of the water.
It was an amazing feeling to walk amongst all the fearless Sea Lions, Tortoises and Iguanas, with the only worry being stepping on a basking animal. The birds were also incredibly tame, but a little more mobile. It was so different from normal birding where things fly away as soon as they notice you. Quite often we were the object of their inquisitive eyes! This was particularly obvious with the seabirds and it was quite common to sit close to Brown Pelicans on the beach whilst the Blue Footed Boobies were flying past us to their nesting ledges. Boobies look similar to Gannets and are similar in shape, flight and fishing techniques. However, their bright blue feet are a sight for sore eyes. They look as if they have been paddling in a pot of blue paint. It certainly doesn’t look natural.
Another seabird that was an absolute pleasure to watch swimming and coming to shore to its nesting cavities in the low cliffs was the endemic Galapagos Penguin that were often disturbing the very colourful Sally Lightfoot Crabs.
Whilst out at sea our boat was followed continuously by magnificent Frigate birds. I was wondering why until I saw our chef throwing the organic kitchen scraps overboard. As soon as this happened there was a mass of wheeling Frigate birds diving down to collect a tasty snack. It is obviously learned-behaviour as they normally act as pirates chasing innocent Terns and Boobies until they drop the food they were taking home for their chicks. I suppose it’s one way of earning a living.
On our many walks inland on various islands there were quite a lot of Yellow Warblers and Mockingbirds flitting about in the shrubby undergrowth. I was particularly fond of the Yellow Warblers as they were constantly searching for small insects and are a hyperactive tiny bird. Once seen, they were very noticeable in their bright yellow plumage and their orange caps. This bird is considered a sub-species that is only found in these islands. I have to admit that I was taking lots of photos of them as they are amazingly photogenic. It’s a good job that modern cameras are digital, as I would have spent a small fortune on film!
The Galapagos Mockingbird is an endemic species only found in the islands. When Charles Darwin was there, he noticed that the birds differed in size on different islands and were significantly different from the ones he had seen in South America. This led him to believe that the Mockingbirds on different islands were evolving to suit the environmental conditions through natural selection. It can be concluded that this fairly common omnivorous bird played a big role in Darwin’s theories about evolution and natural selection; a little bird, but punching above its weight!
Every bird I was seeing on the islands had its own story to tell and they were all new to me. I would love to write about them all, but I would be in trouble with the Editor for being too long-winded, so I will finish by mentioning a couple of waders that I enjoyed seeing closely. Well, the first one isn’t strictly speaking a wader, but it does have very long legs and feeds in deepish lagoons. It is a Galapagos Flamingo, which is believed to be closely related to the Chilean Flamingo. We were lucky to find a small family group in an inland lagoon. These Flamingos are a little bit smaller and a lot pinker compared to the Flamingos we see at San Pedro del Pinatar. I was quite surprised to learn that they are quite long lived and it is not unknown for birds to be 50 years old.
The next wader is a lifer for me (un bimbo), it is a Semipalmated Plover, so named for the partial webbing it has between its toes. If you look very carefully at the photo you can just see the webbing on its feet. It is a winter visitor in the islands and is really a North American wader, but a good tick all the same!
This just leaves me with my final offering, a bird that is relatively common in Europe; a Whimbrel. It is a winter visitor or partial migrant in the islands and has a huge world-wide distribution and will winter in places as far apart as Africa, South Asia and Australasia. It also breeds in Scotland, so it really is a world traveller!
Would I visit the islands again? I’m not sure. They are barren, the vegetation is scarce, there is little fresh water and there are lots of black lava flows. They are certainly not the sort of idyllic desert islands of our fantasies.
Am I glad that I visited? There is no doubt about it, I would probably go there again, because the islands and their role in Darwin’s theory about the evolution of species will always have a place in my heart.
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