ECUADOR’S GALAPAGOS ISLANDS HAVE ALWAYS CONJURED IMAGES IN MY MIND OF STARK LAVA FORMATIONS, TURQUOISE BAYS, TEEMING WILDLIFE AND A FRAGILE, UNIQUE ECOSYSTEM THAT ALLOWS A COMMUNION WITH NATURE UNLIKE ANYWHERE ELSE ON EARTH. HERE, I SPEAK TO DAN TOOMEY, AVID EXPLORER AND THE MAN BEHIND DIGITAL MEDIA AGENCY STYLE HOUSE CREATIVE, ABOUT HIS RECENT TRIP TO DARWIN’S ‘ENCHANTED ISLES’, TO DISCOVER WHETHER THEY LIVE UP TO THE FANTASY.
The Galapagos Islands are probably the most dreamy wildlife-watching destination in the world. I mean there’s a reason why the entire archipelago was named a World Heritage site in 1978, right? What took you there Dan?
The Galapagos archipelago has fascinated me since childhood. I knew I had to travel far to see it in detail after watching David Attenborough’s docos. It’s one of the last remaining untouched outposts of wildlife on earth which hosts the most unique and versatile collection of endemic land and aquatic species on the planet, at the conjunction of four oceanic currents. It’s almost like a living science experiment in a petri-dish; the land is crawling and the sea is teeming with life.
Once you had arrived, did it live up to the images you had in your head? Was there anything about it that surprised you?
Think extraordinary. Think out of this world. Think nature at it’s absolute purest. Being there felt like such a privilege. The unique thing about these islands is that they’re mostly devoid of vegetation and look more like a rugged lava moonscape, yet they’re such a lush showcase of biodiversity. Around 90,000 visitors make the journey each year with high expectations, yet on our 14-day journey we rarely saw any other tourists or locals so we truly felt at one with nature.
Meeting nesting albatrosses one day (you could almost pat them), sun baking with marine iguanas in the thousands in the afternoon and later snorkeling and observing these ancient creatures dining underwater on seaweed was amazing. We swam every day with a variety of friendly seals that would almost give your snorkel goggles a free chamois with their flippers, they swam that close. The list of activities and adventures we had was constant and very well planned, all on a luxury twin hulled boat with 12 other great international guests, my awesome mum and the entertaining and very knowledgeable crew. To top it off we ate three of the best meals per day prepared by the onboard chefs I have ever eaten in my life.
The archipelago is made up of 13 volcanic islands, six smaller islands and more than 100 islets. Which ones did you visit, and how did you decide which ones you’d see? Which one was the highlight?
When you arrive you hop off the plane, each visitor pays a $100 fee for the island’s upkeep, then almost everyone joins a boat since there are very few hotels to keep pollution at a minimum. You get straight into the experience, stepping over sea lions to board your boat on your way to island hop the seven million-year-old archipelago.
We had a twin hulled catamaran which slept 14 plus the crew. We made friends and shared stories over meals with our little group and got more of a one-on-one experience with our guide rather than being farmed out like a number on a big ship.
We visited seven islands; each of them offered completely different experiences in fauna, flora, land, sea and birdlife. Española Island was a highlight as it had amazing volcanic extrusions, colonies of iguanas, albatrosses, sea lions and much more. The marine life is so charged and abundant you feel quite safe when you’re snorkelling – the sharks are so well fed they wouldn’t give you a second thought. We spotted a few sunfish too, quite a rare sight so we all felt quite lucky to have shared the experience.
Since they’re located directly on the equator, the islands have a diverse arrangement of tectonic plates, oceanic currents and volcanic assemblies. The Humboldt Current carries cold water from the depths of Antarctica which clash with warm waters from the north, some bringing nutrients up to the surface from the ocean floor depths of over 4000 metres. We snorkeled over this area which was pretty eerie, sea lions would give a flick of their fins and dive vertically down never to be seen again. One of the most surprising animals that we encountered was penguins… on the equator?! The cold currents govern the climate on land and also bring sub-tropical conditions to the islands, adding to the diversity of the Galapagos.
Other islands we visited included San Cristobal, where we saw amazing birdlife, sea and land iguana colonies and an array of barren, cactus-lined vistas. Santa Cruz and Santiago Islands were also exceptional, having sea lion colonies, tortoises, blue-footed boobies and sally-lightfoot crabs (the famous bright red ones). We snorkelled a couple of times while the boobies were diving for lunch. I remember thinking I should have worn a bullet-proof vest; they’d enter the water like an arrow with incredible speed.
Another highlight was the panoramic views from the top of Bartolome Island and later swimming around the bay where we came across two pengin lovers who privately clicked beaks in front of my underwater lens and danced their dance before swimming away.
Penguins, iguanas, sea turtles, sharks, blue-footed boobies… The Galapagos is so incredibly rich in terms of wildlife and no wonder, seeing as 97 percent of the islands are national park. What creatures did you find most impressive? Are there one or two memorable wildlife experiences you can regale us with?
We were very lucky to be there in May, which was the breeding season for both blue-footed boobies and frigate birds. Frigate birds are like aerial vultures – they wait for island birds to return from fishing trips to feed their young, then harass them so much that they release their food to avoid being harmed or killed. The frigate bullies then catch the food mid air and return to their lairs on the cliff edge and await other victims. They also have a very impressive mating ritual – the male uses a large red ‘balloon’ on its neck and chest that it takes over a hour to inflate to attract a lady friend, but it still might take two weeks or more to get her attention.
Blue-footed boobies are also large birds with beautiful aqua webbed feet. They have a hilarious mating dance routine where they rock from foot to foot in front of their preferred spouse; the male whistles and the female honks as they sky-point in turn, show off and present each other with carefully chosen nesting materials. They’re the Islands’ favourite birds, and I recall seeing t-shirts for sale at the little airport with ‘I love Boobies’ written on them…
I’ve read that because there has been almost no impact from man on the Islands, the animals almost seem tame. Except that they’re not tame, they’re just fearless because they have no terrestrial predators, so they go about their business with people just metres from them. Can you tell us a bit about your experience with this?
On our first afternoon we disembarked at a beautiful and isolated sandy beach. We literally had to step over sunbaking sea lions and proceeded further down the beach. Suddenly iguanas were EVERYWHERE. They had no fear. We could photograph them and some of us were even spat on – not because they disliked us being so close, but because they spit to cool themselves down.
We always had to keep to sparsely marked trails and could sit right beside a nesting albatross to quietly observe and take shots. Iguanas colonies, land and marine, would not move a muscle, some seals even entertained us and seemed to love the lens more than Lindsay Lohan.
Our guides gave us a nightly run-down of the next-days activities and briefed us on what we would be seeing and how we would interact with the environment and how close you could get to the action. The only major danger is getting too close to sea lions when they’re in groups as they get protective but as described previously, they are amazingly playful and entertaining in the water and regarded as harmless.
I’ve read that all the guides at the Galapagos are trained naturalists. How did you find them?
The vast majority of Galapagos Islands’ reptiles and land birds are endemic to the islands. Even within the archipelago there are different species limited to one island, each evolving differently to each other yet they are located in such close proximity. It’s quite confusing at first as there’s so much biodiversity in one small location, but the guides truly brought it to life, and helped us understand and digest it all.
Most of the landscapes are far from stunning, they’re so arid as so little rain falls on the Galapagos. But our passionate guide Loco, who grew up in the area, truly transformed the desolate expanse into a wonderland of knowledge and life. I remember an afternoon hike on Santa Fe Island; we arrived at a large barren hillside that was sparsely covered with amazing five-metre cactus. Hardly a blade of grass, tiny hardy shrubs, rocks, a lot of bare dirt and cactus. Big deal. But venturing to the top of this hill then brought the picture to life. Below us were 200-metre sheer cliffs with thousands of nesting bird colonies, flightless cormorants, iguanas and life everywhere. Look in one direction and it’s almost surreal, devoid of life like the surface of the moon; look in the other direction and it’s teeming. Descending back through the desert environment we found groups of super happy looking yellow land iguanas living off juicy cactus pads, small flowers, ocean dew and other small animals, and Loco taught us all about the cycle of small succulents and cactus species that inhabited the hillside. Cool stuff.
Finally, why is it important for people to travel to the Galapagos, in your opinion?
Our planet has few untouched enclaves of natural beauty. The Galapagos fortunately was protected from mass colonalisation and has remained untouched and unspoilt in many ways. It sits atop crashing and colliding tectonic plates and has regular volcanic activity. Each island has it’s own sets of endemic species that have solely evolved on that island and that can be found nowhere else on the planet.
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