Top 10 Galapagos Encounters

Article originally published in SilverKris Magazine (Singapore Airlines) Jan 2014

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Life has evolved undisturbed in the Galapagos Islands for millions of years. Brought to the world’s attention a couple of centuries ago by naturalist Charles Darwin the islands are more volcanic realm than lush tropical paradise. Although isolated in the vast Pacific Ocean they harbor an astounding diversity of life on land and sea with many species found nowhere else on the planet, giving the archipelago an almost mythical reputation.

Today 97% of the archipelago is protected by the Galapagos National Park and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A voyage around the islands is the best way to take it all in whether you embark on a multi-day cruise or move about independently. If you are not yet persuaded to journey into these dynamic islands where natural forces still predominate perhaps the following ten soul-stirring experiences might very well be all the reasons you need.

Walk among ancient giants: The iconic Galapagos giant tortoises, the largest of their kind, are also some of the oldest living creatures on the planet living up to 150 years. The tortoises are a symbol of conservation success having been brought back from the brink of extinction thanks to a pioneering breeding program. Interact with the charismatic giants in their natural environment at El Chato Reserve in Santa Cruz, Urbina Bay on Isabela, or Galapaguera in San Cristobal Islands.

Climb an active volcano: The Sierra Negra volcano of Isabela is the largest in the Galapagos and has one of the largest volcanic craters in the world. With a park guide like Daniel Carvajal from Puerto Villamil you can hike along the rim of the 9km wide caldera that last erupted in 2005 to learn about the island’s active geology. From the top admire magnificent vistas of nearby volcanoes and islands as the fog rolls into the caldera.
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Dance with albatrosses: The waved albatrosses are the largest birds in the Galapagos and with 2 meter wingspans they easily extract energy from the wind to cruise the Pacific. These ocean wanderers, however, breed almost exclusively in the Galapagos so the monogamous birds congregate by the tens of thousands to engage in their intricate courtship ritual, a mesmerizing dance of clacking beaks and exaggerated sways while parading around each other. The best place to see them is Suarez Point in Española from March to December.

Navigate among ancient volcanic craters: Galapagos waters are dotted with hundreds of islets, remainders of ancient volcanic calderas. Kicker Rock off San Cristobal is a landmark and it is a great place to snorkel among a dizzying array of fish that are attracted to the relative safety of the rocks. It is also possible to snorkel in underwater lava formations (Los Tuneles) that harbor white tip sharks, manta rays, eagle rays, and sea turtles off the mangrove shores of Isabela.

Hurdle over marine iguanas: The Galapagos marine iguana is the only seafaring lizard in the world. Resembling more a dragon than an iguana they are hard to differentiate from the black volcanic rocks scattered along the islands shorelines. However, at Tortuga Bay in Santa Cruz Island the marine iguanas contrast against the white sand beach and turquoise waters of this impressive beach. Sluggish and fearless of humans they don’t make an effort to move from the path as you walk by enjoying the landscape.

Swim with sea lions: Few creatures are as playful as a young sea lion. In Las Tintoreras, just a short boat ride from Isabela’s main town, it is possible to cavort with these youngsters in the water as well as sea turtles, penguins, sharks and large schools of fish. An exhilarating moment in the cold water with these animals is the stuff of childhood dreams.

Witness evolution: The unique flightless-cormorants are the only flightless seabird species other than penguins. With no land predators to fly away from the ancestors of this species concentrated on swimming to gather food and after many generations they have lost their wing function. Their small atrophied wings are evidence of transmutation. The best place to see this rare species is in Fernandina’s Espinoza Point and Urbina Bay in Isabela.

Marvel at colorful feet: Rene Heyer from Nova Galapagos Foundation describes Genovesa Island as a bird lover’s dream. Genovesa is home to millions of birds including the enchanting blue-footed and red-footed boobies. The spectacularly colored feet do not help these aerial torpedoes be less clumsy on land. Countless storm petrels, frigate birds, tropicbirds and swallow-tailed gulls fly in all directions while short-eared owls hunt during daylight hours.

Whale and dolphin watch: Nutrient-rich deep water upwellings concentrate in the Bolivar Channel between Fernandina and Isabela Islands. The nutrients attract fish, fish attract predators and none more efficient than the streamlined whales, dolphins and orcas that patrol these waters. An early morning cruise along the channel is recommended to catch these magnificent creatures in action.

Go deep: Virtually free of commercial fishing the waters of Galapagos support a dense and diverse population of marine life including 15 species of rays and 8 species of sharks, among them the whale shark. Carlos A. Lopez, manager at Finch Bay Eco Hotel in Santa Cruz, describes diving in the gloomy waters of Darwin and Wolf Islands as a place where marine life stops being fantasy and becomes reality, a description that applies to all the Galapagos Islands.

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