Visiting the Galapagos is a naturalist's delight.

Part III: After leaving the Rio Napo, we flew to San Cristobal via Quito and Guyaquil

Judy Underwood

Two marine iguanas with a Sally Lightfoot crab

The first recorded human visit was in 1535 when the Bishop of Panama's ship was blown off-course.  The Enchanted Isles was the early explorers' and sailors' name for the Galapagos Islands.  These volcanic islands straddle the Equator about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.

Marine iguana

The Galapagos National Park (GNP) was established in 1959.  Of the twelve islands open to visitors, there are only a few sites on three of the islands where one may visit independently.  Most individuals and groups must have a guide who is registered with the GNP.

Sally Lightfoot crabs

Charles Darwin visited in 1835, aboard the HMS Beagle.  The entire area, islands and surrounding ocean, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.  While the area is protected, the local human population of about 20,000 has continued to grow, primarily to serve the tourist industry.  

Incoming  brown pelican

After our flight from Quito, with a stop at Guyaquil for refueling, we landed at San Cristobal.  The oldest islands are to the east, while the youngest are to the west (the opposite of Hawaii).  San Cristobal is the easternmost and the oldest island.  We boarded the 75-foot Carina, designed to carry sixteen guests and a crew of nine.  There were sea lions all around the dock and more sunning on boats in the harbor.

Sea lion

We immediately sailed to the small island, Isla Lobos, island of the sea lions.

Sea lions

Sometimes we had wet landings, where we had to jump from the panga into shallow water; sometimes we had dry landings where the panga tied up at a dock.  Sea lions everywhere!

Beachmaster guarding his harem

In the panga

On returning to the ship, we had to remove the shoes we had worn on the islands and wear other shoes around the ship.  The island shoes were disinfected after each island visit to prevent the inadvertent spread of disease from island to island.

Lava heron

In the evening we sailed to our next island, Espanola, where we arrived sometime during the night.  In the morning, after some exploration, we went snorkeling around the island.  There was a night heron no more than two feet away, and a pelican flew in and landed among a group of us.  It did not feel as if the birds were tame.  It felt as if we were invisible.  Sea lions were cavorting underneath.

Green sea turtle

In the afternoon, we sailed around to another part of the island where we hiked over very difficult terrain for about three hours.  There was not much of a trail.  We hiked for fairly long stretches on lava boulders which might be stable or might be wobbly.  There were parts where our guide, Andres, walked us, one-by-one, to be sure no one fell.  To fall on these jagged rocks could have resulted in serious injury.

Great frigatebird with gular pouch

Nesting frigatebirds

The next morning, we awoke to find we were at Floreana, officially called Isla Santa Maria.  Penguins and flamingos on the same island!

Galapagos penguin

Greater flamingo

I was delighted to see a red-billed tropicbird, unmistakable with its long tail feathers.

Red-billed tropicbird

I also got a good look at the large-billed or Galapagos flycatcher.

Galapagos flycatcher

We visited the Post Office, started in 1893 as a way for sailors to send messages home.  We left postcards and picked up post cards to deliver if addresses were near our homes, no postage necessary.

At Post Office Bay

After lunch, we explored some small islands with the pangas, and encountered a huge pod of bottlenose dolphins.  Andres estimated that there were about 500.  They stayed with us even after we returned to the Carina.

Bottlenose dolphin

Bottlenose dolphin

We simultaneously observed the blue-footed booby mating dance and the waved albatross mating dance, both within about 30 feet of us.

Blue-footed booby dance

Waved albatross courtship

We did not see the red-footed booby, but the Nazca booby is quite beautiful.

Nazca booby

We watched a Galapagos hawk eat an iguana.

Galapagos hawk

The finches were studied by Darwin, and they are so identifiable that one who knows the island finches well will know which island he is on, just by observing the finch population.

Finch on Floreana

Finch on Isla Baltra

Our last island visit was to Isla Santa Cruz, where the Charles Darwin Research Station is located.  We finally saw the Galapagos tortoises, in captivity and in the wild.

E. T. phone home!

Galapagoes tortoise with hitchhiker

Land iguana

Tortoises can survive for many months without food or water, so they were an ideal food supply for the explorers and the whaling fleets.  It is estimated that a population of 200,000 tortoises was reduced to 15,000 over the 300 years of exploration and whaling in the Pacific.

The islands were ‘infected’ with goats, pigs, donkeys and cattle as well as rats, cats and dogs.  Since goats will eat most anything, they are considered the most serious pests in that they destroy the giant tortoise habitat.  There is now a major effort to eradicate them in order to return the islands to their earlier state.


As you can see, the Galapagos are truly the Enchanted Isles.

All photos by Judy Underwood

March, 2007
See Letters in March, 2009