Close Encounters of the Galápagos Kind

On the Galápagos Islands, you can get close to the wildlife. Photo courtesy Ecoventura

Life on a sustainable Ecoventura cruise in the Galápagos Islands is never dull: every day our group made two shore excursions to see exotic birds, strange reptiles and amusing animals. We hiked, sea kayaked and snorkeled at a different island daily—each more lovely than the one before.

A Galápagos trip is a crash course in species that live nowhere else on the planet. I felt like I crammed a full semester of zoology, ornithology and botany into a single week. Most important, experiencing the wildlife up close and personal solidified my commitment to protecting these species. (My husband and I make an annual donation to the Galápagos Conservancy now.)

By the way, the reason Galápagos animals and birds live in harmony—with no fear of humans or each other—is there’s no competition between species. They don’t prey on each other, so when we bipeds approach, they don’t see us as a threat either.

We’re taught never to touch an animal, which can be tricky. On an Española beach, a seal lion pup was so curious about us humans that we had to run away from him!

Here are some of the trip’s nature highlights:

The Nazca booby is just one of the booby varieties we saw. Photo courtesy Ecoventura

“I Love Boobies”

In the Galápagos airport, you can’t miss the T-shirts that say “I love boobies!” above a photo of these humorous birds. When I first saw the shirts I rolled my eyes, but I have to admit that by the end of my trip I was saying: I do! I do! I do love boobies!

We often saw both blue-footed boobies and Nazca boobies (identified by their white feathers with a large black stripe), and they’re the most charming birds.

One afternoon, at Punta Suarez on the island of Española, we watched a male blue-footed booby performing his courtship dance. He bobbed up and down. He puffed out his chest. He hopped on one bright-blue foot and then the other. The female seemed mildly interested, until he picked up a stick in his beak and presented it to her. She accepted! I think we witnessed a marriage proposal.

Sally Lightfoot Crabs and Sea Lions on Santiago Island

Sally Lightfoot crabs with a marine iguana. Photo by Tony Karacronyi, courtesy Ecoventura

I loved seeing these intensely-bright red-orange crabs against the black lava rocks. It’s fascinating watching them scoop up algae with their front claws and bring it to their prehistoric crabby mouths.

Their faces are laced with colors: blue, yellow and subtle striations of orange-red.Near the crabs, lava-black marine iguanas spit salt out of their dinosaur-like noses with a hiss. A little creepy, but very mesmerizing!

Later we snorkeled and spotted three green sea turtles, their flippers like gentle wings gliding through the water. They stopped to munch on clumps of orange and yellow sea lettuce.

A diver gets a peek at a sea turtle in the Galápagos' Pacific waters. Photo courtesy Ecoventura

The really big excitement was the two sea lions who swam past us as we snorkeled. They didn’t stop to greet us, but it was exotic to be just an arm’s length away. And I felt truly at a disadvantage as we lumbered through the waters while they elegantly whirled past.

The Birds of Isabella Island

As we hiked along the hardened volcanic-ash earth, we spotted the famous Darwin finches. (They were instrumental to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.) Their nests look like balloons with a small opening on one side.

Our guide, Orlando, explained that the males build two or three nests and wait for females to chose one. The picky female goes from one nest to the other, inspecting the real estate, so to speak, until she finds her dream home. There she lays and incubates her eggs, while the male brings her food. After the chicks have hatched, however, Mom takes off, leaving the male to do all the rearing and to act as flight instructor. She moves on to new romance with another innovative nest architect.

Next, we got back into the panga(small boat) and found penguins swimming about. One was taking a rest from fishing, however, and posed photogenically on a rock. Orlando steered the panga just a few feet away. Mr. Penguin opened his eye to check us out, then continued his nap. Click, click, click went our cameras.

Galápagos penguins: We watched them on land and torpedo-ing underwater. Photo: Ecoventura

The day’s grand finale: snorkeling off the panga. As soon as we slid into the water, cute little penguins zipped past us. At first I thought they were speedy fish, but then I noticed their white-and-black tuxedoed feathers, which shimmered with trapped oxygen bubbles. They were so cute, I laughed—which is tricky when you have a snorkel tube in your mouth.

Magazines are always advertising trips of a lifetime. Well, I’ve been a lot of places on the planet, but I can honestly say there’s no other trip like one to the Galápagos Islands. Unforgettable!

For more about the Ecoventura cruise, see my post: “Galápagos Islands: Take A Sustainable Cruise”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The male magnificent frigate bird has a scarlet throat pouch that inflates like a balloon in breeding season. Photo courtesy Ecoventura