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By Sandy Preiss
Most folks who go on a Galapagos tour do so, at least partly, because they are fascinated by theunique and peculiar wildlife of these islands. It is said that every species got here by flying, floating, or swimming. This helps to explain the strange blend of species and lack of predators, which is why Galapagos wildlife is so fearless and friendly. Once the animals got here, evolution continued, leading to the incredible variety of subspecies. Still, no one is entirely sure how such an odd assortment of animals and plants ended up here.
I was lucky enough to go on an Opuntia adventure tour in the Galapagos, but as fun as the kayaking and mountain biking was, and as much as I enjoyed staying at their boutique Galapagos hotels, the wildlife was the highlight for me. So I decided to start a series of short profiles on these amazing creatures. Each post will focus on one of the most famous Galapagos species: giant tortoises, sea lions, marine iguanas, etc. But I’ll start off with my personal favorite: the charming Galapagos penguin.
These little guys are the only penguins that live in the northern hemisphere. They’re less than 2 feet tall and they live along the cooler lava coasts of the Galapagos, mostly on Isabela Island. What endeared me to the penguins most was the incredible contrast between their movement in water and on land. They awkwardly stumble across the volcanic rock with their wings outstretched, as if they are always about to fall over and trying to keep their balance. But as they slide into the clear water, they transform into bullet-fast, agile swimmers, using their wings as flippers to change direction on a dime and speed toward their next destination. It’s truly an incredible transition to see.
To my delight, this contrast wasn’t the only amusing habit that the Galapagos penguins have. Their characteristic hunched-over posture is also hard to miss. Our guide told me that this is to keep their feet in the shade. Since they evolved from a species adapted to a much colder environment, heat regulation is one of their primary concerns, and their feet serve as heat sinks. They keep them wet and shady in order to release as much heat as possible. For the same reason, they also pant just like dogs, which is a hilarious sight to behold. Their courtship display of rubbing their beaks together (just like Eskimo kisses) is also awfully cute.
Unfortunately, the Galapagos penguin is currently listed as endangered. El Niño hits them particularly hard, as the lack of nutrients in the water drastically reduce their food sources, and two major El Niño events in past decades have caused massive reductions in the Galapagos penguin population. The park service is working to further regulate fishery and build nest boxes in ideal locations, but it seems that if El Niño continues to get worse with climate change, the Galapagos penguins will have a tough road ahead. One thing that we, as tourists, can do to help preserve the Galapagos penguin (and this fragile environment in general) is to choose sustainable, land-based tours when we visit. Land-based tours create much less waste and have a much smaller footprint than cruises. Visiting this incredible part of the world really reinforces your sense of responsibility to care for it, so future generations can visit too.
The Galapagos Islands are like no other place on earth, and the unique wildlife is a big part of what sets these enchanted islands apart. Anyone traveling in Ecuador absolutely must visit, and the Galapagos Islands alone are worth a trip from the other side of the world! Opuntia’s wildlife discovery tours do a great job of putting you in touch with the Galapagos wildlife, and their Galapagos adventure tours still maintain a strong focus on wildlife as well. Opuntia’s land-based model gives you much more time to interact with the local wildlife, and many of their Galapagos hotels are surrounded by marine iguanas and sea lions. Don’t miss the Galapagos, and go with Opuntia if you want to go with the best!
The Galapagos Islands are home to an abundant amount of wildlife within a vastly diverse ecosystem. Both the ocean and the land are host to hundreds of animals, many endemic to the islands themselves. On your Galapagos Island tour, you’ll be on the lookout for wildlife, and these five animals are ones you will almost be sure to see!
1. Sea Lion: This is one animal you can be guaranteed to see on your Galapagos Tour as long as one of your stops is San Cristobal Island. Home of the sea lion, these critters make themselves comfortable on the boardwalk and beaches. Don’t be surprised if you hear them calling to each other in the morning when you step out of your hotel! Sea lions spend most of their time sleeping, but in the early evening you may be lucky enough to see them make their way to the ocean to play and eat!
2. Marine Iguana: Isabela Island is home to the marine iguana. La Playa del Amor is covered with lava rock, which is a great place to spot some iguanas sunbathing and warming up after coming out of the ocean. The Galapagos Island marine iguanas are the only iguanas that can live on land and in sea. They make their way to the ocean in late afternoon to eat and come back out around sunset. These iguanas blend into the lava rock perfectly, so watch your step and don’t get too close!
3. Blue-Footed Booby: During your adventures along the coast, look out for white covered lava rock—there are sure to be blue-footed boobies! These birds are known for their bright blue feet and elaborate courtship rituals. Observe long enough, and you may be able to see some male boobies dancing for their ladies!
4. Galapagos Giant Tortoise: This endemic Galapagos species lives to be more than 100 years. However, due to introduced species (such as dogs, burros, goats, etc.) it’s becoming harder and harder to see these in the wild. Luckily, breeding centers on each island will allow you an up close and personal view of these giants. Contrary to common assumptions, these creatures are actually pretty active during the day, which will allow you to see their slow, methodic movements as they interact with each other and forage for food! If you’re up for exploring, then some parts of Isabela and Santa Cruz islands have higher wild tortoise populations than others.
5. Darwin’s Finches: This is a guaranteed spotting, no matter where you are on your Galapagos tour. These finches that became famous during Darwin’s evolution studies are everywhere, in all beak shapes and sizes! Don’t be surprised if they visit your table at breakfast and attempt to climb into the bread basket to steal some food. It’s interesting to see all the different beaks that have evolved in these birds, which are actually more than fifteen species of different finches!
1. High SPF Sunscreen- Even if you are somebody that “doesn’t burn”, even if you want to get some color, lather yourself up with High SPF Sunscreen (at least 75 SPF). The Galapagos are the target of the strong, equatorial sun, which will burn right through your lower SPF sunscreens and ruin the rest of your vacation while you deal with a bad sunburn.
2. Underwater Camera- You don’t want to find yourself underwater, and face-to-face with a seal lion, or amidst a group of sea turtles without a way to capture the moment. With the ideal snorkeling spots on San Cristobal and Isabela islands, you’re sure to sea some great marine life. Even if it is a disposable one, make sure you have a way to prove to the people back home that you played with a sea lion in the ocean—they’ll never believe you if you don’t!
3. Small Backpack- For your day trips through the Galapagos, you’ll want to have a small backpack that you can carry your water, camera, layers of clothing, etc. in. Sometimes, you’ll need to carry your equipment to the snorkel site, too. So make sure to bring a small backpack that can hold the essentials, and leave your big luggage at the hotel.
4. Sports Sandals- For trips to the beach or even certain hikes, you won’t want to worry about getting your feet wet, but you still want traction over various terrains. “Thong” sandals can slip off your feet, and won’t give you much traction if you’re walking through lava rock formations on your way to a snorkel site.
5. Sunhat- On boat rides, hikes, or even relaxing on the beach, you’re going to want a big brimmed hat to keep the sun off of your face and neck. Make sure your hat has a tie for under your chin so it doesn’t blow off when you’re leaning over the side of the boat to check out a sea turtle or a ray!
1. Support the Local Economy- Cruise ships will bring all the food you are eating from your country of origin and because you won’t be staying in local hotels, all your money is going to stay in your home country. However, choosing a land based tour means that your meals for the day come from the island, and you return to a hotel at night, which means your money goes towards supporting the local economy, making your travel more responsible.
2. Make Your Own Schedule- Spend your time after your day trips doing what you want, where you want to do it. Explore town on your own time, take a walk to the beach, or relax in your hotel. You don’t have to worry about spending your evening on a cramped cruise ship.
3. Kid-Friendly- Many cruise lines have age restrictions for kids. Land-based tours allow children of all ages due to the fact that there’s no stressful adaptation to living on a cruise ship. With a land-based tour, you can visit the local playgrounds in the evening, and enjoy kid-friendly activities.
4. Eco-Friendly- Smaller group sizes go hand in hand with land based tours, which means your impact on the environment will be smaller. Also, cruise ships use a lot of fuel, adding to pollution.
5. Wine Glasses Stay on the Table– After a day tour in the hot sun, the last thing you want to worry about is a rocky sea while you eat dinner. Instead of risking a dinner full of waves and possible seasickness, your meals at the hotel will be quiet and private. No crowded dining rooms, or tables full of strangers. You’ll eat with your small tour group, without risk of your food sliding off the table!
6. Less Travel Time, More Fun- Cruise ships are slow moving and take up a lot of time traveling from place to place. With a land-based tour, you spend most of your time having fun and exploring. With Opuntia’s flow from island to island, you’ll never waste an entire day with transportation. Keep your days full with adventure, not hours on a boat!
7. No Wet Landings- Cruise ships inevitably will require several wet landings, which means you’ll be forced to tread through water to make it to land. This isn’t a big deal for some people, but groups with older individuals or children can find this to be an inconvenient task. Land based Galapagos tours never require wet landings, making them convenient and easy for everybody.
8. Variety in Surroundings- Depending on your tour, you will stay in either two or three of Opuntia’s boutique hotels. Instead of returning to the same room, on the same ship night after night, enjoy new scenery and accommodations on each island—each with its own character.
9. Free Internet and Accessibility- Cruise ships will often charge you for every thirty minutes of internet you use, which can add up when trying to keep in touch with friends and family back home. All of Opuntia’s hotels offer free Wi-Fi to all their guests, which means you can relax in the comfort of your hotel at night and send updates and pictures to loved ones. Many hotels even have areas with computers to use, in case you don’t have your technology with you.
10. Peace and Quiet- Enjoy silence as you stroll down the boardwalk on San Cristobal, or sneak away to your hotel room for a nap after an afternoon hike. Choosing a land based tour means you have the option of getting away from your group and enjoying the Galapagos Islands one-on-one, the way they were meant to be enjoyed.
San Cristobal, of the Galapagos Islands, is home to the largest population of sea lions of the entire archipelago. This island is the only one that has a boardwalk, lined with shops, hotels and restaurants. Casa Opuntia, the premier Galapagos hotel on San Cristobal, makes itself at home at the end of the boardwalk, right next to the water.
This boardwalk attracts hundreds of guests. Not only human guests, but also….sea lions! As you step out of Casa Opuntia on your way to an island tour you are instantly greeted by blubber and flippers. Using the concrete for heat and sunbathing, you’ll need to watch your step!
That’s not the only place you’ll find them, though. If you’ve got plans of watching the sunset from a bench on the boardwalk, you’ll have to search for a seat. Many sea lions make these benches their personal napping spots, day and night. So good luck finding a place to sit, they’ll yell at you if you try to move them!
Isabela Island, the newest and largest of the archipelago, is known for its lava fields and large populations of wildlife–specifically giant tortoises and marine iguanas, which both resemble prehistoric life. If you’re lucky enough to stay at Iguana Crossing, Opuntia’s premier Galapagos Hotel on Isabela, you’ll get to see marine iguanas crossing the road to go feed in the ocean every afternoon, and the lava rock wall that sits in front of Iguana Crossing is a great place to find marine iguanas relaxing and warming up in the sun.
Take a quick bike ride to La Playa del Amor, and you’ll be able to see hundreds of marine iguanas basking on rocks and sheltered in the shade beneath bushes. This is where you’ll be able to admire and gaze at these magnificent creatures, with robotic movements and dinosaur-like eyes.
They’re not going to waste energy to crawl away from you as you approach, so it’s up to you to keep a safe distance. When marine iguanas feel threatened, they’ll spit, and being carriers of e-coli and salmonella, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of that!
If you are partaking in one of Opuntia’s Multiactive Galapagos Tours, then your bike ride will continue down a windy road towards the Wall of Tears. As you ride through dense vegetation, you may be lucky enough to see a wild tortoise cross your path. If you fail to see one in the wild however, don’t worry!
One stop of your Galapagos Tour, the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center on Isabela Island is home to hundreds upon hundreds of Giant Galapagos Tortoises. The largest of the resident breeding tortoises are kept in the front of the breeding center behind a low, stone wall. So, they are easy to view and willingly approach visitors to say hello.
The conservation efforts of the Breeding Centers around the islands are imperative to the survival of these ancient creatures. Introduced species such as dogs and burros, threaten the future of Giant Tortoises. However, in addition to protecting this species, Breeding Centers offer visitors an easy way to get up close and personal with one of the oldest living creatures on earth!