by Supriya Manot
Photography by Supriya Manot, see more photos at funtravelog.com
Over the course of our five-day stay, we met several friendly creatures that redefined our preconceived notions of 'wildlife.' We first encountered the crustacean locals of Galápagos while awaiting our water taxi in Baltra, the primary port of entry in the archipelago. The reptiles were a shiny tomato red color and their tentacles dazzled in the sun. Lazing on black rocks adjacent to the tiny dock, the Sally Lightfoot crab's oblivion to our presence was both amusing and intriguing.
For the uninitiated, the Galápagos are a set of islands off the west coast of Ecuador. The islands were uninhabited by humans and animals for many years and the species that are now endemic to the islands possibly arrived via water or air. The story of the Galápagos is a fascinating tale and learning about how the animals adapted to survive in this remote part of the world is a marvel.
A short overwater journey took us from Baltra to the island of Santa Cruz, which was our chosen base for exploring other islands. Minutes into our first guided walk, we met the Galápagos dove. Unique to the region, these doves are commonly found in the lowlands of the archipelago. With their dark red feet and blue ringed eyed, the attractive bird merrily strutted about while our guide told us about the sunken craters surrounding us. The warm equatorial temperatures had a pleasing effect on us after months of Boston's cold weather. After paying a greeting to the yellow warbler and the Galápagos mockingbird, we drove to meet the quintessential natives of the region.
"Look around for tortoises," the guide said, as our vehicle entered a narrow lane with trees on both sides. Fun fact: the name Galápagos is derived from the Spanish word for the same animal. When Fray Tomas de Barlanga, the Bishop of Panama, arrived sometime during the 15th century, he noticed that the animals were hardly afraid of humans and it was in fact easy to hunt them. While the islands remained unpopular and undiscovered for years due to their far-flung location, it did not remain safe from pirates and poachers for long. Which is why, today, the preservation of natural habitat and the protection of these indigenous species is the biggest project for this small archipelago.
Lunch consisted of freshly squeezed passion fruit juice, a bowl of tropical fruits and an empanada—an Ecuadorian specialty. But I was looking around for tortoises, almost convinced that spotting them couldn’t be that simple, despite reading several blogs about the free movement of animals in the region. I glanced around and one was in a corner, under a tree. As we walked out of the enclosure, another tortoise inched right in front of us, moving in its characteristically slow fashion. This one was smaller and its head bobbed in and out momentarily. On our walk around the fields, we spotted many more tortoises in the wild either lazing in mud puddles or cooling themselves off in the water. We learned to distinguish the males from the females and identify older tortoises from younger ones based on the rings on their shells.
Animals that never made it to my childhood picture books were unconcerned about the fame their genetic relatives receive in other parts of the world. As we stepped on the rocks at the entrance of North Seymour, an island north of Baltra, we spotted a baby sea lion playing in the sand. Our guide pulled us aside to watch a male blue-footed booby bird court his female counterpart by spreading its wings and calling out to his ladylove.
We watched, amazed, as a great frigate bird laid an egg, another fed her offspring and a third puffed its bright red chest in a show of adulthood, all within arms reach. Walking through the island covered with wild bushes and trees, we almost missed the land iguana that deftly walked to the shade of a cactus tree. Blending with the brownish red soil, it was unlike no other animal I had seen before. Later we would meet its marine counterpart in South Plaza and Tortuga Bay.
Perhaps my life-changing moment occurred when I was braving the underwater world for the first time. The waters surrounding the island of Bartolome are ideal for snorkeling and this is where I took my first plunge. I met the most exotic shoals of fish, swimming through rocks and corals. But nothing prepared me for what came next. A green and yellow sea turtle, flapping its wings in perfect synchrony as it swam by us. The next day, we even saw a baby shark during our aqua expedition.
When nature puts up a show like in the Galápagos, man can only watch. For mortals like us, there is a blockbuster waiting at each corner, but only if we are careful enough to look and respect their existence.