When most people think about Galapagos they probably know something of its unusual wildlife and maybe that Charles Darwin visited. I will come to all that in due course – but if you’ll forgive me – I’ll like to start with a story of personal regret, which explains why, for me, this trip, was so special.
The reason was that in 1987, as a young man of 23, I was offered the chance to go on a dive trip to the Galapagos. Also due to be going on this trip was Flip Nicklin, National Geographic’s whale photographer.
I was a young stupid idiot at the time and thought these chances in life happen all the time – so instead of grabbing the chance of a lifetime – I said “thanks but no thanks”. The stupidity of turning down that trip to the Galapagos has been eating at me for the last 27 years! What was I thinking!
Then, unbelievably, I was offered a second chance. Paul Steele, the BaldHiker himself, sent me a text – would I like to go to the Ecuador and the Galapagos for here on BaldHiker? I thought about it really hard for at least a millisecond….. if someone had to take one for the BaldHiker team … then I guess I was willing to do it… obviously it would be a sacrifice but someone needed to go….
As you’ll see from my bio I trained as an ecologist so I knew something of Galapagos’ wildlife, the importance of the islands to Charles Darwin in the Voyage of the Beagle and his subsequent master piece The Origin of Species. Those of you that know of Darwin’s trip on the Beagle will know that much of his geology field work was actually undertaken on mainland South America but his five week visit to the Galapagos in 1835 was still pivotal to his thinking in outlining evolution through natural selection.
So why are they so important? Why did they influence Darwin so much? Those of you that have read a little of the islands will no doubt know that the different islands of the archipelago have slightly different climates. Some have freshwater, some do not. Some are high, some are not. Some are affected by the cool southern ocean currents, some less so. The islands in the west are still volcanic and young (in geological time) the ones in the east, now no longer active, are older (in geological time).
All this diversity of habitat type and the relatively limited number of species of planets and animals that made it to the islands from the mainland have turned this little group of islands into an evolutionary laboratory. Not many land mammals got to the islands. There are only 6 land mammals in Galapagos: 4 species of small rodents and two species of bats. All but one bat are endemic (found here and only here). In the absence of mammals reptiles dominated the islands (until man turned up and introduced himself and many other plants and animals). Tortoises became the architect species on many islands – the lack of predators, the isolation and the long, long time periods also meant they grew big and diversified – 14 sub-species developed (4 of which are now extinct) – some on different islands, some just on different volcanoes on the same island.
Bird life is equally unusual. The cool water ocean currents from the south (the Humbouldt current) brought penguins. Finches arrived and then diversified into many species and sub-species.
The warmer currents from Central North America (the Panama current) brought sea lions. Once on the islands it is difficult to leave, as the currents would sweep you west into the Pacific where your chances of survival as a land animal are almost zero. So, once a species arrived it either survived, adapted and evolved or died out – if you die you don’t pass on your genes – so this massive evolutionary pressure drove speciation and many of species of animals and plants on the island are endemic (found only here).
As the Galapagos Conservancy put it:
“The Galapagos Islands are home to some of the highest levels of endemism (species found nowhere else on earth) anywhere on the planet. About 80% of the land birds you will see, 97% of the reptiles and land mammals, and more than 30% of the plants are endemic. More than 20% of the marine species in Galapagos are found nowhere else on earth. Favourites include the giant Galapagos tortoise, marine iguana, flightless cormorant, and the Galapagos penguin—the only penguin species to be found in the Northern Hemisphere”.
In my short trip we visited four islands – San Cristobal, Española, Santa Cruz and Baltra – but even this gave me a sense of the differences. A small example is that on islands without land iguanas and tortoises the cacti species don’t need to expend energy growing to an enormous size – they grow low and even have soft spines – where land iguanas and/ or tortoises are present they grow tall and have tough spines. This type of difference pops up again and again in the Galapagos. There are books and books written on it and I’m not qualified to give a full accurate account. I would highly recommend you read The Galapagos: A Natural History by Henry Nicholls to get a full and readable over view of the island’s natural history and its importance to us all.
For now enjoy the photographs. I have added species names and their location where I could.
Finally, if other readers will forgive me, a personal message to Terry, Chuck and Flip Nicklin – I finally made it guys – it was awesome – but I still wish I’d come along with you in 1987 – what was I thinking – Galapagos with the National Geographic Whale photographer and I turned it down…… idiot….