Jennie Lay finds prolific wildlife on unforgettable Galapagos trip
July 23, 2018
The Galapagos produce a perennial fountain of cool photos. If you're a fan of science or travel mags, you've certainly spied the islands' curious wildlife and stark volcanic landscape. You've probably had Instagram encounters, too: the cerulean foot of a blue-footed booby, the Godzilla-like gaze of a marine iguana, the lumbering girth of giant tortoises.
This article is from the summer issue of Steamboat Living magazine.
But honestly, there's no comparison to a personal encounter with this fiercely protected chain of islands 600 miles off Ecuador's Pacific coast. You can't know the depth of this ecosystem and its largely unmolested wonders until you've dangled your toes in the Humboldt Current, ducked for an incoming albatross and tiptoed around a blue-footed mama bird turning her eggs.
I tried to keep my expectations in check. I hoped to see a few blue-footed boobies; I didn't predict hundreds of them at an arm's distance. I prayed to encounter a single, notoriously playful sea lion; I didn't imagine entering their romper room every time I jumped in the water. I figured finches for another little brown bird; then I finch-obsessed like I was researching “On the Origin of Species.”
Nothing in the Galapagos is understated. The endemic wildlife is prolific, and it behaves unlike any birds or mammals or reptiles you've ever encountered before.
On Day 1, a wide-eyed sea lion bubbles up and flashes his puppy-dog pupils at me as I prepare to jump off the Zodiac. My glee-o-meter is off the charts before my mask and snorkel hit the water. No photo can do the next 45 minutes of underwater swoops, twirls, somersaults and teeth flashes justice.
A 7-foot Galapagos shark rolls past my fin. The starfish linger leggy and blue, plump and red. I become one with a bait ball of shimmery little fish and catch the flash of a darting penguin. Then I head ashore.
Vegetarian marine iguanas surf the waves, then pile up on the beach in heaps of body heat. Flamingos reign over a brackish pond. Darwin's famous finches flirt on a white sand beach. I become obsessed with birds: Nazca boobies, tropicbirds, oystercatchers, pelicans and magnificent frigates with their flashy red inflatable throat sacs.
I made this unforgettable 12-day hike and kayak journey with 13 other travelers and Natural Habitat Adventures, World Wildlife Fund's conservation travel partner. The 75-foot Nemo III catamaran was our not-so-humble abode — a decadent live-aboard base camp we sailed between islands so we could slide in for early and late hikes and point-to-point paddles. This was the national park's pioneering paddle permit, and we hit the water with our human power daily.
Urbanization remains minimal in these volcanic islands. We make a single Galapagos "town" visit on Santa Cruz to access the interior. After a spectacle at the Puerto Ayora fish market — where gluttonous sea lions and pelicans are clearly defeating capitalism — we head into the misty highlands to spend a secluded night at Tortoise Camp. A 500-pound giant tortoise snoozes under my treehouse, and within minutes I bump into a dozen more on this private reserve that's beating back invasive plants to reclaim prime tortoise habitat.
For a week, my senses are blown wide open. I've snorkeled with hulking moss-covered sea turtles, swapped postcards at a legendary pirate den and channeled Darwin while spying on giant tortoises under a full moon.
Photos will never capture the magic these creatures cast upon my heart.
Story and photos by Jennie Lay