travelling the seven parts of the world
Mar 27th, 2008

Galapagos Islands are one of nature's anomalies. Being islands located far off of the South American mainland, Galapagos Islands have been isolated for the overwhelming part of their existence. Even now this is the case - even though you can take a daily flight to the islands, visiting them is not easy.

Giant Tortoises

The most famous thing in Galapagos is undoubtedly, the giant tortoises that live there. Some of these tortoises measure up to 2m as far as the length of their shell goes, but most are a bit smaller. Females are much smaller than males, and you sometimes think you're looking at a baby tortoise. But you're not, in fact, there is no way to tell what the age of a tortoise (or most of the animals on these islands) is, scientists are only able to tell whether it is over or under 100 years old.

So yes, these guys can grow really really old. In fact, one of the tortoises Darwin himself took into captivity died only recently - we don't know how old he was when Darwin took him from the islands, but we do know that he was in captivity for 170 years.

I thought these guys lived so old because they didn't move much - as in, their body cells did not get used up as fast as it would be with humans. But apparently that's not the case, as a giant tortoise can have sex for several hours. In fact, this is such a daunting task, that a female giant tortoise runs from males until she is cornered! Once the female has been caught, the male gets on top of the female, and then does his thing until the female is so exhausted, that she can't move - something that takes hours! Apparently this is the only time that a male tortoise would say something, though we never did have the luck to hear it.

Giant Tortoises should not be mixed up with Maritime Tortoises - the maritime tortoise is much smaller and lives in the sea. The giant tortoise cannot swim at all (but can float), while the maritime tortoise gets on land only to lay eggs (males never step out on land). We did see maritime tortoises during the trip, and did get to swim along some.

Both maritime and giant tortoises lay their eggs in the beaches along the sea shore, where most of them are eaten by predators (survival rate is 10%). This is also why large portions of beaches are off limits to people.


Iguanas are probably the second most famous animals in Galapagos, and they look like a cross breed between a lizard and a dinosaur.

Just like with tortoises, there are 2 types of iguanas - land and sea. The land iguanas look better because they are bigger, while the maritime ones have superpower abilities.

The land iguana is yellowish brown, and is constantly dropping skin. Why is the iguana has skin always peeling off? One guide said "if we didn't have sun screen, we'd look like this as well!". Just like with the tortoise, there is no way to tell how old an iguana is, but they can grow 50 years old.

The maritime iguana is always black, but differs from island to island. All of these islands are volcanoes that have erupted at different time periods, so the lava looks slightly different. And since the iguanas have adapted to look like the lava, they are slightly different on every island. Their bestestest ability is to be able to secrete salt, meaning they are able to stay underwater for lots of time, mostly to eat algae.

Other animals

There are not many animals on Galapagos Islands, owing to the difficulties of getting to the islands, but the ones that are there, are very interesting. Here are a few:

  • Blue Footed Boobies. Not Boobies as in boobies, but birds, and they have blue feet. Nobody really knows why - could be due to adaptation, or their diet, or anything. They also dive after they food, which is a great sight, my only regret is that I didn't see it from underwater.

  • Flightless Cormorants. Just like cormorants that can fly, but these guys exchanged their wings for better swimming abilities. That was all good, until the humans came.

  • Frigates. There are lots of them, and the males have a red sack at the bottom of the chins, though we didn't actually see it in the end of the day. But there are lots of them, and they create one hell of a havoc.

  • Sharks. Everybody likes sharks, especially seeing them in front of you while snorkeling - makes you skip a heartbeat! The most common one is the White-Tipped Shark.

  • Flamingos. They are not from Galapagos, but everybody likes them, especially seeing them in wild.

  • Sea Lions. They are very comical, and they are everywhere.

  • Penguins. Yes, it is the equator, and the second smallest penguins in the world live here.

  • Others, such as crabs, lizards, hawks, and worst of all, humans.

However, the absolutely greatest thing about all of these animals is that none of them will run from humans. They have been living in isolation since the beginning of time, they have no idea what predators are, and you can get within an arm's reach of any of them.

How did these animals get here?

Precisely how animals got here is a mystery. Well, the ones with wings probably got here by flying, but what about others, like the giant tortoises? How did they get here? In fact, how did life get here at all to sustain these tortoises?

Imagine, a seed would have to be blown from the mainland, or taken on the wings of a bird, then fall in the right perfect spot for grass to grow. And trust me, these islands are full of wrong spots - most parts are rocky and inhospitable. What are the chances of this happening? Even worse - what are the chances of both a male and a female tortoise floating to Galapagos and then finding each other (or alternatively, the chances of a pregnant female arriving)? Or the chances of both a flower and a bee that is required to pollinate it arriving on the islands near the same time?

Whatever the chances are, once you put time into the equation, things start to become more clear. If the chances are one in a million, you've gotta only try it a million times to succeed, and if you have a million years to do this, you have plenty of time to try. Why giant tortoises, why not giant pigs? Well, because it just happened to be the tortoise. Somebody always wins the lottery, only the chances of it being you are small.

OK, so its a big tortoise. That's cool for photos, why do scientists care?

One of the main attractions of these islands is not the fact that there is a giant tortoise on one island and an iguana on the other, its the fact that there are giant tortoises and iguanas on every island, and on every island they are slightly different - they have adapted to the unique conditions of each island. So not only are these animals special, but they are different for each island.

The most famous example is the Darwin Finches. There are 13 different finches, and the only difference between them is the shape of the beak and their food source. It doesn't really take much to put two and two together and realize that each of the Darwin finches has adapted to a different food source. So at the start of time, there was just 1 finch. Then, different descendants of different finches would have children, and those children with beaks better adapted to the food sources of the islands would procreate and have more children, while those not adapted, would die of starvation. Then those children would have children, out of which the ones with the best adaptation would procreate more, and so on. Sprinkle a bit of time on this, and you have what is called evolution.

Same as with the finches, tortoises have adapted to have a different shell on each island. On some islands, where most of the food is on ground, tortoises have a flatter shell, while on other islands, tortoises have a large shell that lets them reach up high to get their food.

How fast is this process? Scientists are surprised by the speed at which things can go, and now they're already talking about the 14th finch.

How were the islands created?

Galapagos Islands are volcanic, and they are very recent. The oldest of the islands is 5 million years old, the youngest might be as young as 100,000 years old, a second as far as geological time goes. A new island might be popping up sometime soon - there is an active volcano just 45 meters underground!

Volcanic eruptions happen all the time. There was one just last year, one a few years before. Volcanic eruptions can also be very large - one large eruption on Fernandina Island wiped out the whole population of giant tortoises endemic just to that island.

The Galapagos Islands are over a large hot spot in the Earth's mantle. The whole of Earth consists of tectonic plates moving about, and the plate in question here is the Nazca plate. As the Nazca Plate moves eastwards to its inevitable doom under South America (it submerges), the hot spot in the Earth's mantle stays in the same place. This is why the oldest islands are in the east, and the newest ones with constant eruptions in the west.

At the same time, there is a lot of erosion from the strong Humboldt Current that comes from Antarctica, meaning that the older islands are simply being "worn away".


It is hot all throughout the whole year in Galapagos, the temperature differences between the dry and the wet seasons are minuscule, though the dry season is a bit colder than the wet. Galapagos are right on the equator, so days are always 12 hours long, and the sun in midday is directly above your head.

Water temperatures on the other hand differ a lot between the wet and the dry seasons. During the wet season, the hot Panama Current mixes with the cold Humboldt Current to produce normal water temperatures. It can also rain, especially in the highlands. During the dry season, there is no rain, but Humboldt current prevails, and the water temperature is very low (this is why penguins came here in the first place). As the hot air blows over the cold water, there is a lot of evaporation, so a large mist forms, covering most of the highlands.

The Cruise

Most of the cruises in Galapagos are the same, so it is merely the choice of ship that would make your cruise special.

You can choose from one of 3 lengths (3, 4 or 7 nights), but longer cruises are possible. The idea is that you start in a place, then after 4 nights you come back to the same place, then come back after 3 nights. So the ship sort of does 2 loops, and you can stay for either one or for both.

Ships also range from small private vessels to large luxury ships with 100 passengers, and even more crew.

We chose a 4 day cruise on the largest vessel around. The reason why we wanted a large vessel was simply because we didn't know how our bodies would respond to a cruise at all. For all we knew, we might be sea sick for 4 days. We weren't, and it was generally fine, but I dare not think what things would have been like in a smaller boat. Our group size was 12 people, so we didn't feel the fact that we were from a big ship on the excursions that much, the only thing that made it feel like that was the long waiting times for everyone to get on and off the ship. All national park trails are closely marked and you cannot go off trail, and you cannot go on the island without the presence of a guide. So no, its not possible to just sail to Galapagos, find a nice beach and stay there. If you're looking for solitude or to get lost in a crowd of animals, this is not going to be it.

The 4 hour trip we had in The Great Barrier Reef in Australia in a small yacht was enough to convince me of this. While me and Liene agreed that having less than 4 days simply wouldn't have been enough, things were starting to get a little bit repetitive - the birds especially are not that diverse, and we covered most on day 1, so by day 4 nobody cared about any of them but flamingos.

A sample of our day on such a luxury cruise:

  • Wake up call at 5:45 AM. (the ship cleverly works on Quito time so it appears as though you are waking up at 6:45, even though it is 5:45).
  • Breakfast at 6:00
  • Leave for shore at 7:00
  • Arrive back on ship at 10:30
  • Lunch at 11:00
  • Cruise to a different island, siesta
  • Leave for shore at 15:00
  • Back on ship by 17:00 (national park regulations say that everybody must be off of the islands and in their ship by 18:00, when the sun sets)
  • Briefing for the next day at 18:30
  • Dinner at 19:00
  • At 20:30 everybody sort of starts drifting away and goes to sleep
  • During the night, the ship sails to our next destination!

Needless to say, excursions on any boat and any cruise are very expensive, so most people we met were 3 times our age, though there were 2 or 3 young pairs as well, and a lot of kids, who were absolutely hilarious.

The total 4 day cruising distance was 650 km.