Nowhere like the Galapagos

  • Story and photos by Elizabeth Armstrong / Herald Photographer
  • Saturday, March 19, 2005 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

In celebration of passing another decade in my life, my husband and I joined friends for a trip of a lifetime and a photographer’s dream: a visit to the Galapagos Islands, a wildlife paradise.

As with so many adventures, the planning and the anticipation were fun and extensive.

I purchased books, interviewed friends who had already traveled to the Galapagos, repeatedly quizzed our travel agent, visited Web sites and agonized over the choice of cameras and lenses.

Most of my travel weight is photographic. Forget the clothes.

The Galapagos archipelago, a chain of volcanic islands divided by the equator, is 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador. There are 13 major islands, eight smaller islands and many tiny islets.

The natural challenge of introducing, adapting and maintaining vegetative and animal species on these fragile, remote volcanic islands has produced animals species that are found no where else on earth.

The islands became internationally recognized after the voyage of HMS Beagle in 1835 captained by the renowned Robert FitzRoy and his young naturalist, Charles Darwin.

Despite the islands’ value as a “living laboratory of evolution,” as Darwin referred to them, the Galapagos have endured pirates and privateers, efforts of colonization and farming, the pillaging of the famous giant tortoises and the introduction of competing predators. During World War II, the Galapagos island of Baltra served as a naval base for the Allied defense.

Today the Galapagos are a site of significant scientific study and tourism, protected as a national park and carefully controlled by the Ecuadorian government.

In conjunction with the Charles Darwin Research Station, the Galapagos National Park Service is attempting to restore the natural balance of the archipelago to the environment that existed before the deleterious impact of man.

For our trip, the first choice we had to make was the type of boat on which we would spend a week of our vacation. The boats range in size from six to 100 passengers.

After a great deal of discussion we chose the 100-passenger ship Galapagos Explorer II. We anticipated that the larger ship would permit us to explore more of the islands and enjoy the company of a variety of fellow passengers.

In addition, we believed that the stabilizers would be handy if we encountered heavy seas.

To our great pleasure, we met travelers from all over the world on our ship. We were able to visit or see most of the islands and the seas were calm.

The other differences between the small and large vessels are more subtle, as each vessel is attended by at least one licensed naturalist per 16 passengers.

I loved our ship and learned so much from the naturalists that escorted us at least twice a day to each new site. We hiked over lava fields. We climbed a volcano. We ventured through lava tubes. We explored cliff-sides in the inflatable boats that are called “pangas” in the islands. We snorkeled nose to nose with sea lions and sea turtles, and swam in caves. We traversed paths in the foliage-covered highlands and relaxed on beautiful beaches.

I was impressed by the diversity in terrain, vegetation and animal species between the different islands so geographically close to each other. It was absolutely incredible to be within inches of a bird, iguana or sea lion. The animals have no fear of man.

Visitors to the islands are strictly limited to carefully defined paths so as not to disturb the vegetation or to damage nesting grounds, but no one has told the wildlife to stay off the paths.

More often than not while peering through my lens I’d receive a cautionary “watch out” as I nearly tripped over yet another sleeping sea lion or iguana.

On the island of Isabella, the land iguanas were literally in piles. My friend Linda had seen one too many marine or land iguana, but I swore I could see different personalities in those thousands of dragon-like faces.

In the highlands I rounded a forested path and saw the biggest giant tortoise I could ever have imagined. It was just the two of us staring respectfully at each other. In the wild, the giant tortoises are cautious and he drew his long neck back into his shell while making a hiss like a hydraulic brake.

On another day I saw 15 hundred-year-old giant tortoises with faces like E.T., munching on a salad of green leaves in a sanctuary dedicated to their survival.

I had nearly as much fun exploring underwater as I did above the surface. Sea lions blew bubbles in my face as they checked me out. One afternoon, I called to my fellow snorkelers that I was swimming with a huge green sea turtle only to discover each one of them was, too.

As a photographer I was particularly engaged by the courting behavior of the blue-footed boobies, the brilliant red throat pouch of the flirtatious male great frigate bird, the sweet behavior of a mother sea lion and her hours-old pup and the vibrant colors of the Sally lightfoot crabs.

Every trip ashore was another visual adventure. As much as I enjoyed the animals, the scenery was exquisite too.

On San Cristobal we watched the sun set over famous Kicker Rock while sitting on a beach covered by the finest white sand I’ve ever had the pleasure of digging my toes into. If you prefer copper or black sand, the Galapagos have that too.

I loved every moment of our trip and I captured as much as I could with my camera. One afternoon I took only my underwater camera on a panga ride to snorkel with sea lions. As I snorkeled I watched in awe as several sea lion pups played with a dead hammerhead shark directly beneath me.

Suddenly I heard the deep, resonant bark of a territorial bull sea lion a little too close for comfort. I swam faster than I can remember to the panga and threw myself on board.

I watched from the safety of the boat as the bull sea lion, with the hammerhead in his mouth, shook his head severely from side to side to break the shark into pieces that he could swallow.

As he shook, pelicans and frigate birds swarmed over the boiling water to grab a snack for themselves. I didn’t have the proper lens to capture the scene but I’ll never forget that image.

It is an incredible, challenging, expensive endeavor to protect and restore the balance of life in this fragile archipelago. Our naturalists told us that they envision the unique Galapagos Islands to be preserved by the experiences and information given to tourists, contributions to foundations and the education of young Ecuadorians.

As we spent our last glorious morning watching flamingoes and swimming in the turquoise water on Santa Cruz Island, I remembered a sign I had read on a dirt airstrip on the Serengeti plain in Africa. “Here the world is still young and fragile … held in trust for your sons and ours.”

Photographer Beth Armstrong: or 425-339-3440.

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