Galapagos — a miracle of nature

If any place in South America tops the list of ever being a travel dream for me, it is undoubtedly the fascinating Galapagos islands. The first time I knew about them is when I saw an Attenborough documentary 3 years back. These volcanic islands are a part of Ecuador but are unique in their history and geography. The most amazing thing is that their separation from mainland (some 1000 kms) has led to an independent evolution of life here and the islands have a bunch of endemic species found nowhere else in the world.

Galapagos is like a 2-way time machine. The wilderness there made me feel that I was in the past. And, the tourism infrastructure made me feel that I was in the future. It’s a great example of how we should preserve such rich bio-diverse places and I hope for such a future for many more national parks and reserves in other places. It takes a lot of initiative and the right attitude from the government and locals to build and maintain a good system in place and I think Ecuador has done a great job, esp. for a developing country where there are always too many things to worry about. For example, there are strict checks on what one can carry to the islands as most of the damage that has been done to the endemic species over last few centuries is by the new plant and animal species which have been introduced there by human settlement.

Welcomed by beautiful forests and beaches

One of the most touching thing about Galapagos animals was their comfort with humans. They were significantly less afraid of people than we see other animals in the wild. Darwin’s finches, for example, would just come and stand very close to us, at times on our feet. We saw many species of these tiny and fluffy birds everywhere on the islands.

Cute little Darwin’s finches would follow us everywhere

And not just tiny cute birds, even the giant sea lions are very playful and don’t mind human proximity. Another unique Galapagos animal is the marine iguana. They keep resting (or nesting) camouflaged on the black coastal rocks.

Colony of marine iguanas chilling out (left), An iguana getting cleaning service by a finch (right)
Sea lions can sleep all day and don’t mind moving people away from their favorite spots

Although we have snorkeled before once with a guide, San Cristobal island had a few shallow sites which were ideal to snorkel on our own. It was a mixed experience the first time we did it because the currents were pretty strong. The floor also had some pretty sharp rocks and we ended up with a few cuts and bruises and spending energy just managing the current. It was all definitely compounded with the anxiety of doing it ourselves for the first time. We saw a bunch of small fishes though. Tried another time in a different site and it was much better with milder currents and amazing visibility so we got to see a lot more underwater life. Among many other colorful fishes, there was an eel peeking at us from a rock. Also bumped into a few sea turtles. I was very surprised at finding a pretty big one eating some sea grass right next to me. I started following it and lost track of where I was. On realizing that I may not be close to the beach, I looked out and started heading back. It’s so amazing when a giant sea creature befriends you, even for just a few seconds. All I could feel was gratitude!

We also did guided scuba diving at two sites. One of them was a ship which had sunk to sea floor some 100 years ago but hosts an amazing variety of fishes. Besides plenty others, we saw many starfishes and manta rays.

A sting ray (left), Sakshi and me (right)

One of the good things was that a bunch of beaches and other places are accessible on foot from the main towns on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal islands. For days when we ended up going a little farther, it was super easy to hitchhike. People would offer to ride us on their own when they saw us walking on the road :) Whether it was a trail to a beautiful beach/bay or a small hike to freshwater lakes or volcanic craters, it was so peaceful to just silently walk anywhere for hours. One interesting thing is lava tunnels — natural tunnels with solidified lava which used to flow through them in the past.

Birds everywhere
Lizard typical of dry forests (left), In a lava tunnel (right)

There are a few active research centers as well breeding centers on the islands. The breeding centers especially for giant tortoise — the animal most symbolic of these islands. Some 14 species used to roam freely here in hundreds of thousands but we’ve already made 3 of their species extinct and almost all others endangered, left to a few hundreds or thousands in number. This and many such stories make me think deeply about our relationship with our environment. Our greed makes us view it as a one-way relationship where we can do or take whatever we want but little do we wonder about the impact of our simple choices on the balance of nature. I was also reading the book “Silent spring” very recently and it clearly shows how short-term is our view with regards to other species. I have come to believe more that nature is still more robust and we can’t eliminate all life intentionally or accidentally. Our shortsighted activities will eventually just end up shifting the ecological balance from one to another and it’s pretty likely that the latter will not be a world favorable to us.

A young “giant tortoise” (left) and an old one (right)

Although our 6-day trip to Galapagos almost cost us an equivalent of our monthly backpacking budget, it was totally worth it and I hope that in future, I can contribute in some way to the wildlife conservation efforts on these islands which aim to ensure we don’t lose one of the planet’s most unique ecosystems. As I was flying back to normal world, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we should have gone there at all. The traveler in me doesn’t want to hear this at all but in many indirect ways, our trip might have just added a bit to the destruction of natural habitat for the animals and plants. It’s hard to be sure but this thought has haunted me ever since I left the island.