10 Amazing Things to See in the Galapagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands off Ecuador remain among the most untouched and unique habitats in the world, boasting numerous rare species and one-of-a-kind experiences.

Tour company Curious Traveller reveals why these little volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean should be on the bucket list of every keen adventurer.

1) Tortoises: The Galápagos' Oldest Citizens

The Galapagos Tortoise.

Giant tortoises were once found on most continents. Today, only two groups survive – one in the Galápagos and the other on Aldabra Atoll, in the Indian Ocean.

The Galápagos is named for its tortoises. The early Spanish explorers thought their shells resembled 'galapago' – the old Spanish word for 'saddle'.

There may have been as many as 250,000 tortoises in the islands in the 16th century, but due to harvesting for food and oil it’s thought that as few as 3,000 remained by the early 1970s. Fortunately, conservation efforts have since seen numbers rise to about 20,000.

These placid animals live to 100 years in the wild, and have surpassed 170 in captivity.

2) The Majestic Albatross

The difficult teenage waved albatross years. Espanola Island.

Unless you live in certain parts of the world – generally the higher latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere – albatross are a bird you know of, rather than get to see.

Almost the entire world population – perhaps 30,000 birds – of the glorious waved albatross breeds on 60 square kilometres of Española island in the Galápagos.

Albatross need wind to glide and soar, and the cool currents and resultant updrafts are what make their survival possible in the Galápagos, which is so close to the equatorial doldrums.

3) Little Blue Feet

A Blue-Footed Boobie.

Blue-footed boobies are a symbol of the Galápagos (cue a thousand t-shirt designs!) and best known for their courtship dance, which involves a lot of waving of blue feet.

Their feeding behaviour is just as cool. To get to their favoured small school fish, such as sardines, they plunge dive from heights of up to 100 metres, and can hit the water at close to 100 km per hour, enabling them to dive up to 25 metres below the surface.

Their skulls have special air sacs to protect their brains from the pressure.

4) A Protected Realm

Historical protective sign on Fernandina island

Ecuador, of which the Galápagos is a province, punches way above its weight when it comes to legally protecting nature, and the archipelago is a major beneficiary. Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution codifies the Rights of Nature – a world first. The constitution recognises the fundamental right of ecosystems to exist and flourish, gives people the right to petition on ecosystems' behalf, and requires the government to remedy violations of these rights. Therefore, it's nice to know this destination is being preserved.

5) Flying Pirates

A rare sighting of a nesting Frigate bird on North Seymour Island.

Galápagos frigatebird species – the Great and Magnificent frigatebirds – are the islands’ winged pirates. They take fish, small crustaceans and newly hatched green turtles in flight at the ocean’s surface, but they’re also prone to (great word alert!) kleptoparasitism: they harass other birds to regurgitate their prey, which they then snatch on the wing. Why go to this trouble? Remarkably for a seabird, their feathers have no waterproofing and they risk becoming waterlogged if they get too wet.

6) Volcanic Formations

The Galápagos islands are volcanic, and in many places the varnish of its molten creation has not yet worn off! Going for a walk, the sound underfoot is more like hitting a giant piece of crockery than most familiar pieces of solid, scuffed ground.

Some visitor sites are lunar in their barrenness, with just small plants, a colonising cactus and the occasional cricket to let you know you’re on planet Earth.

7) Ocean Lizards

The gorgeous marine iguanas.

How weird can a lizard be? Very, as it turns out.

Unique to the Galápagos, marine iguanas are the world’s only lizard that forages on algae in the sea. But the oceans around the Galápagos are relatively chilly – a number of deep-ocean currents converge there – so iguanas have to sunbake to warm up to about 37°C before they dip in and eat as much as they can before they cool down too much, then rest and repeat.

Pretty much all they do is warm, swim and feed. There’s a separate sub-species on each of the archipelago’s 18 major islands, each with unique characteristics. The smallest sub-type is found on Genovesa. To get past hard times, the Genovesa marine iguana has evolved the trait of shrinking its bones. No kidding.

8) People Live There Too

The Galápagos has a surprising human presence, with toursim creating work on the islands. A census in the early 1970s, when tourism was barely a thing, recorded less than 4,000 people living in the Galápagos. These days it’s more than 26,000. About half of them live in the largest centre, Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz island. As for tourists: about 1,000 visitors a year came to the islands in the 1960s; in 2015 more than 225,000 arrived.

9) Tropical Penguins

The cute, little (only slightly bigger than Australia’s fairy penguin) Galápagos penguin is the world’s only penguin found north of the equator – again, due to the convergence of the cold Galápagos currents. They need cool ocean-surface temperatures to breed, and are one of the Galápagos species at threat from climate change. Only about 1,000 breeding pairs are thought to survive.

10) It’s also a Marine Park

Wading with sea lions on Espanola Island.

Most of the Galápagos’ land area – 97 per cent – is in the 7,995 square kilometre Galápagos National Park. However, that’s an extremely small area compared to the 133,000 square kilometres of Galápagos Marine Reserve that surrounds the islands. The marine reserve was declared in 1986 – 27 years after the national park  and is a World Heritage site and one of the world’s largest reserves. In its waters you’ll find sea-lions, turtles, sharks, rays, marine iguanas and a colourful cohort of resident fishes.

[Images supplied by Curious Traveller]

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