The Galapagos Archipelago: A Look at its Isles

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Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
by Jared Johnsen

For many travelers to South America, a trip to the Galapagos Islands is perhaps the highlight. With alluring animals of historic significance and with a tameness unheard of elsewhere in the world, these volcanic islands possess something that sends thousands of tourist sailing around their shores each year. Located about 600 miles west of the Ecuadorian coastline directly along the equator, rests, or rumbles really (much of its volcanoes being active), the infamous archipelago, home to creatures somewhat more alluring and exotic than the evolutionary finches Darwin wrote of.

Galapagos Islands
Galapagos Islands
The landscape that houses these fascinating creatures is vastly volcanic, incorporating some 13 volcanic islands with the oldest dating as far back 3.4 million years ago. It is a relatively mild climate, wavering between 80 and 70 degrees during a wet and dry season, with July to December being the dry season with cooler water and January to June being the wet and warmer season.

One of two islands will supply the landing to any air traveler to the Galapagos. One of them is Baltra Island, a small island narrowly separated from the larger island of Santa Cruz by the Itabaca Channel. Today the island is a military post of Ecuador where commercial planes land. Many tourist boats stop at Turtle Cove, just off its shores where it is possible to sight golden rays, green sea turtles, and white tipped sharks among other things. Just across the channel is Isla Santa Cruz. This shield volcano is centrally located in the archipelago and home to both the Darwin Research Station, where visitors may catch a glimpse of Giant Tortoises, and the National Park Headquarters. Santa Cruz is a much larger and developed island, containing the largest settlement called Puerto Ayora in Academy Bay and is the only island with a road built across its interior.

The other possibility for an incoming flight is San Cristobal. This island, made up of two coalesced volcanoes, is the most eastern island and happens to be the first island Darwin set foot on in 1835. Many tourist enjoy the rock formation off its shores called “Kicker Rock” where a once cone-shaped island has been carved into the magnificent shape remaining today.

Arial View of Isla Fernandina
Arial View of Isla Fernandina
In general, many of the eastern islands are shield volcanoes with gentler slopes than their counters on the western side, with an inverted “soup bowl” shape with deep calderas. Two easterly islands with this characteristic shape are Isla Isabela and Isla Fernandina. Corresponding to its large size, the biggest in the Galapagos, Isla Isabela is a place many tours spend more than one day if they reach its western shores. This island has six major volcanoes and contains palo santo forests, as do many of the isles. This is also a great place to see the marine iguanas and blue-footed boobies, though these animals are present in many places in the Galapagos. The most active of the volcanos, Isla Fernandina consists of a single volcano that has erupted every few years in recent years and reaches 1400 meters at its crest. This island is filled with many of the sea birds and in particular the flightless cormorant and also has the largest colony of Marine Iguanas.

In the south of the archipelago is Isla Floreana. This island is one of the older dating back to 1.4 million years ago. It is also a popular destination for tourist ships due to its historic “post office.” Begun in 1794 by Captain James Colnett, this barrel was a place to leave mail for other whalers to pick up heading in that direction. The barrel remains today for you to grab someone’s letter for them and carry it back to your continent or place one of your own. Flamingoes are usually visible in Flamingo Bay as well as sea turtles nesting near Cormorant Point.

Just east of Floreana is the oldest island in the Galapagos. The arid Isla Espanola dates back 3.4 million years. This is a particularly good place to see the blue-footed boobies do their dazzling courtship dance and is home to the largest colony of waved albatrosses. Along the coast are blowholes attracting tourists as waves crash into the shore and force intermittent surges of air out strong enough to send your hat 30 feet into the air amidst wildlife like the strikingly red marine iguana.

Another island of interest mainly due to its old resident is Isla Pinta. “Lonesome George” is the last remaining Saddleback Tortoise of the Pinta race (each island has its own race of Giant Tortoise). Today he is not on the island, but rather unsuccessfully being encouraged to mate and hence preserve his heritage.

In the north and directly east of the large island Isabela is Isla Santiago. Scurrying lava lizards, vibrant sally light footed crabs, and the Galapagos penguin are all here on the island. One animal here that is not native to the island is the feral goat, whose proliferation once threatened its Giant Tortoise population. The terrain here is a young volcanic surface, intriguing to the eye, though many tourists visit instead the close by Bartelome Island, where both the penguin and volcanic terrain are also found.

North still but farther east Genovesa or Tower Island contains a vast array of birds, including frigate, red-footed boobie, swallow tail gull, lava gull, Galapagos owl, and a great number of finches.

But, no matter which island you are fortunate enough to visit, each offers its wonders to the onlooker in a way unmatched anywhere else in the world. After your visit you will see how these islands truly are a special place on the planet.





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