During our descent into the Galápagos Islands, I started to get excited about all the things I was about to see and experience. I had spent so much time soaking up information in preparation for this trip, and now it was time to visit and explore the real thing!
Our flight arrived on a small island known as Baltra Island, one of the few islands not created by an actual volcano but formed by uplift. Uplift is the act of the sea floor lifting up above the surface due to pressures caused by molten rock below. This is actually a very good place for an airport, because it tends to be very flat compared to the islands created by volcanic eruptions.From the airport we took a small bus across Baltra Island. The bus dropped us off at a small docking area where we were met with beautiful turquoise blue waters and a couple of pelicans riding the wind currents along the edge of the island. We then boarded a small (people-only) ferry that took us on a seven-minute ride to Santa Cruz Island, one of the main islands of the Galápagos. Looking around, I was amazed at how far I could see. Across the ocean were small islands to the west, and looking south and east there was Santa Cruz Island, vast and obviously born from volcanic activity, the long slope up eventually disappearing into the clouds. Our next ride from the ferry landing to the small town of Puerto Ayora was in a taxi; however, it was not what we might think of as a taxi here in the U.S. All of the taxis on Santa Cruz Island are 4×4 trucks because not all of the roads are tar or cobblestone, and the rains can make dirt roads turn to mud. Heading south, we made our way up to the highlands, from the dry north to the south end of the island where it is wet, and we were suddenly in the cloud forest, surrounded by thick clouds and moss-covered trees. Reading about the many different ecosystems found on one island did not compare to actually experiencing it firsthand. (You can see by the two pictures I took how different it really is, and to think I took these two shots just minutes apart from each other.) Of course, being there in person, I was ready to just head out and start exploring. I could not wait to see the amazing wildlife that I knew was out there; however, I would have to be patient, as strict rules are in place about how visitors can travel and explore the islands. Honestly this is for the best. As with any ecosystem, there are delicate balances that exist, and many could be horribly disrupted if visitors to these captivating islands went unchecked. Given the late time of day of our arrival, the only thing I really had the opportunity to do was walk around the town of Puerto Ayora and see what wildlife visits the shores of the town. One of the first animals I saw was a marine iguana soaking up the last bits of the afternoon sun. Not a moment later I was fortunate enough to have a lava gull land within a few meters of me and give out a nice call. This was particularly exceptional, because the lava gull is considered the rarest of all gulls, with an estimated 400 breeding pair in all of existence. Of course, the brightly colored Sally lightfoot crab was hard to miss. The low evening sun reflected brilliantly off these sea-going invertebrates, and there was no way to ignore their contrast against the dark lava rocks they were resting on.
Sure, I was anxious to get out and see the massive and majestic tortoises that the Galápagos Islands are famous for. But I have to be honest with you, this first evening of getting acquainted with some of the “locals” was quite a treat.
Rick Schwartz is a zookeeper and the San Diego Zoo’s ambassador.