Wildlife in the Galápagos is awesome, stunning, or whatever other superlative you can come up with, it really is! Visiting these islands is an experience of a lifetime!
The Galápagos Islands are located on the equator, about 1,000 km (600 miles) west of Ecuador in the Pacific. There are a dozen or so major islands, and lots of small ones. The largest one is Isla Isabela, the main island for the tourists is Isla Santa Cruz, with Puerto Ayora the main tourist center. Five of the islands are inhabited, the others are protected. There are about 20,000 people living in the Galápagos, about half of them in Puerto Ayora. The Galápagos Islands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Galápagos were discovered in 1535 by Tomás de Berlenga, the Bishop of Panama. They were used by pirates and fishermen. These visitors slaughtered the large tortoises by the thousands for food. Many of the subspecies are extinct now. One of them, the subspecies from Isla Pinta, has only one surviving member, Lonesome George, who is in the Darwin Research Center in Puerto Ayora. The Darwin Station has a breeding program for the Galápagos tortoises to re-introduce them into the wild. Tortoises of different subspecies are raised till they are 3-4 years old and then repatriated to the island where the subspecies belongs.
All the Galápagos islands are protected in the Galápagos National Park. The entrance fee for the park is $100.00. This sounds a bit high at first, but when you consider that there are only about 50,000 to 60,000 visitors per year, the resulting income of $5-6 million is not nearly enough to maintain such a huge park. I was quite happy to pay this small fee for seeing an extraordinary nature reserve. Visits to the islands are restricted to the official visitor sites. All boats must have an official park guide on board. Hopefully this will help to maintain the islands and their flora and fauna.
One of the most serious problems that the wildlife has is the introduction of foreign species. Domestic animals such as cats, rats, and goats create havoc on these islands. Some small successes have been made in eradicating introduced species, but only very few. One very annoying introduction are the mosquitoes. The islands used to be free of biting insects. Now the mosquitoes even carry Dengue Fever in the Galápagos.
Being on the equator, the weather in the Galápagos islands is nice year-round. Temperatures are around 30°C (90°F). There is the occasional tropical rain shower, but most of the time it is sunny. The water is relatively warm in most places (around 25°C (77°F)), but there are very cold currents around in some places. These cold currents have temperatures of around 15°C (59°F), which makes for very cold scuba diving.
During my trip I was scuba diving for 7 days, and then visited four islands on land (Isla Plazas, Isla Floreana, Isla Seymore Norte, and Isla Bartolomé) in addition to Isla Santa Cruz.
Isla Bartolomé is a fairly young volcano. It has only the very earliest pioneer plants that colonize freshly formed volcanoes. Near Isla Bartolomé is Cousins Rock, a small white island. It is white from sea bird guano, and has a great diving spot. This is where I saw the sea horses.
Isla Santa María (mostly called Floreana) is one of the inhabited islands. We saw mostly cultivated land on our short drive around. You can see plenty of birds. Some of the rock formations were quite interesting. Altogether I didn't have enough time to see much on that island.
Isla Plazas has nesting sea birds, a colony of Galápagos Sea Lions (Zalophus wollebaeki, german: Galápagos-Seelöwe, french: Otarie des Galápagos), endemic to the Galápagos islands, and a large colony of Galápagos Land Iguanas (Conolophus subcristatus, german: Drusenkopf, french: Iguane terrestre des Galápagos), as well as Marine Iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus, german: Meerechse, french: Iguane marin des Galápagos). The iguanas are quite interesting looking creatures.
Isla Seymore Norte was the most interesting, with a colony of Blue-footed Boobies (Sula nebouxii, german: Blaufußtölpel, french: Fou à pieds bleus), Masked Boobies (Sula dactylatra, german: Maskentölpel, french: Fou masqué), Great Frigatebirds (Fregata minor, german: Bindenfregattvogel, french: Frégate du Pacifique), and Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens, german: Prachtfregattvogel, french: Frégate superbe).
Isla Santa Cruz is one of the islands that has wild Santa Cruz Giant Tortoises (Chelonoidis porteri). There is a nature reserve for the tortoises, but it is much easier to see them on a private farm, Rancho Primicias, next to the tortoise reserve. I hired a cab for $20. That included the tour around the Rancho and a walk through the lava tube nearby. The largest tortoise that I saw was over 1.5 m (4.9 ft) long, and over 150 years old. These tortoises are amazing creatures.
The major part of my visit was dedicated to scuba diving. Scuba diving in the Galápagos is, without a doubt, the most mind blowing experience in the Galápagos! This was the best scuba diving that I have done so far. Swimming among a school of 10-20 sharks is awesome. If you behave right, sharks don't attack scuba divers, so I wasn't worried. One time when one of the sharks swam right at me though, I retreated a bit to give him way .
There are not too many corals there, but the variety of fish is immense. Besides the sharks (Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks (Sphyrna lewini, german: Bogenstirn-Hammerhai, french: Requin-marteau halicorne) and White-tipped Reef Sharks (Triaenodon obesus, german: Weißspitzen-Riffhai, french: Requin-corail)), we saw several different kinds or rays, moray eels, all kinds of reef fish, sea horses, and the ever-present sea lions playing around us. Besides the fish, the starfish are really interesting. The cushion sea star, and chocolate chip sea star and the blue sea stars are quite spectacular in their colors. Other fish of note were barracudas, trumpet fish, stone fish and puffer fish.
I didn't see dolphins while diving, but we saw lots of them while driving to the dive sites and back. We also saw a school of Short-finned Pilot Whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus, german: Kurzflossen-Grindwal, french: Globicéphale tropical) playing around our boat for a while. A school of manta rays feeding of the surface was quite spectacular. Seeing them jump out of the water is quite a sight. Another impressive sight are the sea turtles. The largest that we saw was about 2 m (7 ft) long, a huge creature.
The day trips for diving go to different islands. The boat trip takes between 45 min and 2.5 hours. The longest trip that I took was a trip to Floreana, the shortest was one to Gordon Rocks.
I had a new digital underwater camera. Having the viewing screen in the back of the camera finally allows me to see what I am aiming at. Unfortunately I can't focus my eyes that close anymore. Reading glasses in the dive mask are out of the question, so I have to figure out something else. I hope that one of the flat reading lenses may work, I'll try that next time. Unfortunately I had a problem with the case leaking. The moisture condensed on the front window, which blurred a lot of images. Fortunately it didn't damage the camera.
From my experiences during this trip I have a few recommendations if you want to visit the Galápagos:
1. If you plan to do both scuba diving and land visits, please do yourself a favor and do the land visits first. The land visits are very interesting, but they are completely eclipsed by the spectacular scuba diving, they seem ho-hum after diving. If you do the land visits first, they are much more captivating.
2. For scuba diving you have two options, live-aboard or land based. I stayed land based, and I liked it very much. I like to have a solid bed. The diving was so spectacular on land based trips, that a live-aboard tour isn't really necessary, unless you want to go to the outer islands Darwin and Wolf. The diving there is very challenging and only for really experienced divers. I would have been in over my head if I had tried that. Even the diving on day trips from Santa Cruz is quite challenging due to very strong and very cold current, certainly not for beginners.
3. For the land visits on the other hand I would suggest a live-aboard cruise. The day trips from Santa Cruz don't let you see very much of the islands. I can imagine that you can experience a lot more during a cruise.
4. To get there, you can fly either through Quito or through Guayaquil. Staying overnight in Quito can be a headache (literally, because of the altitude). You will probably sleep pretty badly because of the altitude. On the other hand, Quito is certainly worth a visit of 2-3 days. If you don't want to visit, it is better to fly through Guayaquil.
There are quite a few hotels in Puerto Ayora, so it would probably be OK to just go there and arrange everything when you get there. Arranging scuba diving on a day-by-day basis is no problem, there are several scuba diving operators. The same goes for day trips to other islands. A live-aboard tour however, should probably be arranged in advance.
Altogether, the trip to the Galápagos was a trip of a lifetime. I can really most strongly recommend a visit there. It is amazing!