Bewitched, enchanted, beguiling. Those are just some of the terms explorers across five centuries have used to describe the Galapagos, an unmatched archipelago of islands drifting in the vastness of the open ocean, in the middle of nowhere.
I returned last week from a ten-day expedition through these strange mid-Pacific volcano mounts. The islands are not exotic in the sense of a South Pacific tropical paradise with swaying palm trees. Instead, their jagged lava landscape and their situation astride the Equator, in a mixing bowl of currents coursing from both hemispheres, nutrient-heavy water welling from the Pacific depths, and shifting trade winds bearing birds and other airborne life, have endowed them with truly unique species of plants and animals adapted to such a peculiar environment.
The Galapagos are home to sea lions and penguins from the Arctic and fur seals and flamingoes from the Americas, while tortoises, iguanas and other reptiles that somehow floated across the seas to the islands have taken on shapes, sizes and hues found nowhere else on the planet. Each island is unique in its assemblage of species, and every island has animals and plants found nowhere else.
My mission was the National Geographic expert accompanying a Lindblad-National Geographic Expedition through six of the Galapagos’ 13 biggest islands. It was one of the most extraordinary natural history adventures I have had in journeys to some 80 countries. And it lived up to everything I’d heard abut the place.
Flying time from Ecuador’s balmy port city Guayaquil to San Cristobal Island is 90 minutes on AeroGal, surely the only airline in the world to paint iguanas on its aircraft. Visitors arriving at Cristobal’s tiny rocky airfield are welcomed warmly by a sign that states: “Galapagos is peace, human history, and evolution … Help us protect it for generations to come.” Right in front of it is a rough green mat for passengers to wipe their shoes free of soil and seeds that might add to the growing menace of stowaway species that have been invading the islands.
“Galapagos is peace, human history, and evolution.”
After clearing Galapagos “Immigration” and receiving a Galapagos stamp in our passports, we were met by the naturalists of the National Geographic Endeavour, our home and transport for the week.
Our official tour guides, the naturalists are employees of Landblad-National Geographic, but they wear Galapagos National Park insignia and gently monitor compliance with the strict protocols all visitors must observe in the protected parts of the islands. We quickly established that not only are they knowledgeable about animals, vegetation and geology, but many also share tips on where and how to make the best photos in the Galapagos.
A short bus ride to the harbor put us in view of the Endeavour. We threaded our way past basking sea lions and wary crabs to a small flotilla of Zodiacs that ferried us to the mother ship, where we found the luggage checked in at Guayaquil already in our cabins.
There were mandatory safety drills and briefings about the voyage, and then we sailed to the far side of San Cristobal and our first encounter with the legendary wildlife of the Galapagos.
On the beach at a site known as Cerro Brujo, or “Wizard Hill,” we were greeted by a profusion of sea lions and shore birds.
After exploring the beach and being stared at by the wildlife for a couple of hours, the Zodiacs returned to take us home to the Endeavour, where the Captain’s Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party awaited us.
Next time on my Galapagos Expedition Journal: Swimming With Sea Lions
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.