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  The Amazing Galapagos Islands  





Ecuador’s most beloved and popular national park lies in splendid isolation; The Galapagos Archipelago is a unique world heritage. It is situated on the equator some 600 miles off the coast of South America; this remote volcanic archipelago remains much as it was millions of years ago. Made famous by Charles Darwin, the Galapagos Islands are no less enthralling now than they were a hundred years ago. Over the course of centuries, animal and plant life from the Americas reached the islands and gradually evolved into new forms. Many of its species are found nowhere else on earth. Every year, thousands of curious visitors journey to the remote islands to behold the wondrously variegated wildlife that inspired the origin of species.

Relatively young, the Galapagos sprouted out of the Pacific from a sub-oceanic lava vent on the ocean floor. This same process created the Hawaiian Islands, and it continues today in both island groups. In the Galapagos, the vent is gradually creeping east with the Nazca plate, forming more islands as it moves. There are currently sixty named islands, the principals being Fernandina, Isabela, Baltra, James, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal.

Appropriately, ninety-seven percent of the islands are considered a national park. The legendary marine and land iguanas, the giant tortoises, and seal colonies of the Galapagos are among nature’s most fantastic beings. Visitors will gasp at these stunning animals, all of which are highly approachable as their isolated evolution has not conditioned them to fear humans. Iguanas and tortoises bask in the sun like bored movie stars, feet away from the photo-snapping Homo sapiens. Though their indifference may make the animals seem humorously aloof, their very ignorance makes them vulnerable. A few bad experiences with humans can alter their behavior irrevocably and turn them reclusive. Respect their natural hospitality and keep your hands to yourself.

The climate in the islands is generally mild and comfortable. During the season known as the "Garua" (June to November) the temperature by the sea is 71°F, a steady and cold wind blows from South and Southeast, and frequent drizzles (Garuas) last most of the day, along with dense fog which conceals the islands. During the warm season (December to May) the average sea and air temperature rises to 77°F, there is no wind at all, there are sporadic though strong rains and the sun shines. Weather changes as altitude increases in the large islands. Temperature decreases gradually with altitude, while precipitation increases due to the condensation of moisture in clouds on the slopes. There is a large variation in precipitation from one place to another, not only with altitude but also depending on the location of the islands, and also with the seasons.

Galapagos is home to many unique, endemic animals, most of which are fearless due to the lack of natural predators. One of the best known, the giant tortoise, has evolved into fourteen distinct forms on the different islands of the archipelago. Other reptiles include the marine iguana which grazes on seaweed, land iguanas, lava lizards, geckos and snakes. The only terrestrial mammals are rice rats and two species of bat. The 13 species of small, brownish finches are adapted to a range of different foods and are known collectively as Darwin’s finches. They have been important to scientists trying to understand how evolution occurs, and include the tool-using woodpecker finch. Other endemic (only found in Galapagos) land birds include a hawk, dove, flycatcher, rail and four species of mockingbird. Among the endemic sea birds are a flightless cormorant, two species of gull, and the only penguin species which lives in tropical waters. The waved albatross breeds solely on Española Island, while colonies of blue-footed, red-footed, and masked boobies are found alongside frigate birds. Sea lions and fur seals are found around the coasts, while dolphins, whales and sea turtles are common. Over 300 species of fish have already been described from the rich ocean waters around the archipelago. There are also at least 1,600 species of insects, 80 spiders, 300 beetles, 150 mites, 80 land snails, 650 sea shells and other molluscs, 200 starfishes and urchins, 120 crabs, and many other smaller animals. The plants of Galapagos are equally fascinating. In the highlands are many species of endemic Scalesia (’tree daisies’) as well as tree ferns, bromeliads and orchids. Around the coasts are giant prickly pear and candelabra cacti while tiny Brachycereus cacti grow on barren lava flows. On the shores can be found vivid morning glories and mats of bright red sesuvium. Galapagos also has its very own, endemic species of cotton, tomato, pepper, guava and passion flowers. Many kinds of plants, particularly those belonging to the daisy family, have evolved on the different islands into whole arrays of endemic species, providing scientists with classic examples of what is known as ’adaptive radiation’.

The Galapagos also offer some of the world’s best scuba diving. Dive boats that tour the islands can be reserved on the mainland. Devil’s Crown, an atoll near Floreana Island, is a submarine wonderland that shouldn’t be missed. The shallows of this sunken volcano are burgeoning with an incredible myriad of corals and fish. Giant tortoises hover over the reef like living balloons, and sharks can sometimes be found, harmless and asleep on the sandy bottom.

The best way to see Galapagos is on a boat-based cruise although it is also possible to make day trips from a hotel on the islands. The islands are managed by the Galapagos National Park (GNP) which requires that all tourists are accompanied by a qualified naturalist guide. The Park has designated more than 60 visitors’ sites, enabling tourists to see all the best wildlife; the rest of the National Park is out of bounds to tourists.

Code of conduct:

It should always be remembered that the welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph:

  • Do not go too close
  • Do not leave the trail
  • Do not use flash if it might disturb the subject
  • Do not make lots of noise
  • Do not discard any form of litter
  • Do not smoke on the islands
  • Take only pictures leave only footprints!
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