Long ago a young Charles Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle and visited the Galapagos Islands. The amazing diversity of animals he witnessed there inspired Darwin’s work on the Origin of Species. Travelers of today can recapture part of history on Galapagos Cruises, taking advantage of the opportunity to see fascinating wildlife.
A typical cruise itinerary will include the chance to see a number of species unique to the Galapagos Islands. Some of these include:
The Galapagos Land Iguana, described by Darwin as “ugly animals” having “a singularly stupid appearance” we prefer to think of them as reminiscent of dinosaurs. They are often seen in the company of birds they share a symbiotic relationship with. The birds remove ticks and other parasites from the iguanas, and get a free meal as payment for their services. The iguanas are about 3-5 feet long, and can live 50-60 years. They were so abundant in Darwin’s time that he complained of not being able to find a place to pitch a tent among all the iguanas, but they later became almost extinct. Fortunately, there have been a number efforts to reintroduce them and rebuild their populations. Due to the success of these programs, visitors to the Galapagos Islands today can often see these creatures sunning themselves on the airstrips, crossing roads, or warming themselves on the rocks.
Visitors to the islands may see Galapagos Penguins, which are unique in several ways. They are the only wild penguins which ever cross the equator. At only 19 inches tall, they are among the smallest species of penguins. These two distinctions are in part responsible for another — that they are also reported to be the rarest of penguins. The heat of the Islands does not make it the most hospitable home for penguins, and they struggle with keeping themselves cool and not letting eggs and chicks overheat. Their small size also makes them vulnerable to everything from native snakes and crabs to introduced cats on land, and seals, sea lions, and sharks in the water.
Galapagos sea lions are another favorite of travelers. They are very social and playful animals, and quite common on the islands. Visitors can often see them sun-bathing along the shoreline, frolicking in the surf, and barking amongst themselves. Their natural curiosity often draws them to be as interested in checking out the visitors as the visitors are in watching the sea lions. However, local laws protect wildlife from being disturbed, so they should not be interfered with. Still, it can be fun to have sea lions approach up close and personal, and they have earned their reputation as the official welcome wagon of the Galapagos Islands.
(Want to know how to tell the difference between a seal and a sea lion? Sea lions have ears, seals do not!)
The Marine Iguana of the Galapagos Islands has the special distinction of being the only reptile in the world that has taken to the sea. Darwin obviously had no greater love for these than he did for the land iguanas, calling them “imps of darkness” and wrote that the beaches were covered with “disgusting clumsy Lizards … as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl.” In fact, the huge iguanas (up to 5-1/2 feet long) are clumsy on land, although they are poetry in motion when swimming. However, they are not always black, but vary in color by location (red, blue, and green tones depending on which island), sex (males are more colorful). Sometimes their faces look white, due to their ability to excrete salt through nasal glands. In order to eat, they dive into the water and use their teeth to scrape algae from the submerged rocks. During their time in the water, their bodies become cold and they must climb onto the rocks in order to warm up again. While their bodies are warming, they are unable to run away from attackers, so they may become aggressive and bite anything they view as threatening while they are cold. Although they are threatened by dogs, cats, and other introduced species, their population numbers are relatively strong.
Just as the Galapagos sea lions may form the welcome committee on land, the Waved Albatross may provide one by sea. Fortunate travelers may see their Galapagos Cruise Ship receive an escort by the waved albatross. These amazing birds with their almost 7-1/2 foot wingspans can remain at sea for long periods of time, and have a gland that removes salt from their bodies because they take in a lot of seawater. They are magnificent flyers, using the varying wind speeds over the sea to their advantage in order to glide for hours. On land, their courtship rituals are among some of the most involved and interesting, and the partners remain mated for life.
Of course, no Galapagos Cruise would be complete without the Galapagos Tortoise. Synonymous with the Galapagos Islands in the minds of travelers from all over the world with good reason, Spanish explorers called the Islands Galápago, which translates “tortoise. This all-around record-breaking animal is the largest tortoise, sometimes reaching weights around 900 pounds and over 6 feet in length. It also has one of the the longest lifespan of any vertebrate; one captive tortoise was known to live at least 170 years. In some places these tortoises travel in herds (bringing to mind my grandmother’s expression “We’re off like a herd of turtles!” meaning moving slowly). Although they normally eat 70-80 pounds of forage per day, they can survive as long as a year and a half with no food or water.
Of special interest are the tortoises’ mutualistic relationship with local birds. Finches gather and dance before the tortoise, making their offer. The tortoise responds in agreement by stretching limbs and neck far out of his shell, allowing the small birds to enter and pick parasites off the tortoise, giving food to the birds and relief to the tortoise. But sometimes an unlucky bird may find himself the victim of a not-so-honorable tortoise. Tortoises have been seen to wait until a bird is beneath them, then suddenly drop their shell onto the bird, squashing it. The tortoise then backs up and eats the bird, making a meal of its helper.
Without a doubt, the Galapagos Islands is home to some of the most unique and varied species of animals the planet has to offer. This is one destination anyone with an interest in wildlife or natural history will want to include on their life-list of places to visit!