Galápagos Islands: Snorkelling with hammerhead sharks and marvelling at giant tortoises

“Extreme tameness…is common to all the terrestrial species…A gun is here superfluous; for with the muzzle I pushed a hawk off the branch of a tree.” (Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle)

I did not push any birds off branches as the English naturalist, during his famed trip to the Galapagos Islands in 1835, confessed to. I did, however, witness firsthand the incredible tameness of the wildlife.

It started with pelicans, dive bombing for fish inches from our bodies as we bobbed in the warm turquoise sea, off Las Bachas, on the north of Santa Cruz island.

Our four-day cruise aboard the Nemo III catamaran accompanied by naturalist Edwin Alba Martinez had just begun.

“Galapagos is like a repetitive movie,” he said as we stepped ashore over dark volcanic rock scattered with bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs onto soft white sand.

He didn’t mean it would be boring. Rather, that we would see what on the surface level appeared to be the same species over and over again. In fact, they would all differ slightly across the volcanic archipelago islands.

These small differences, from lengths of beaks to behavioural factors, are what Darwin famously observed. They helped form his theory of natural selection.

Our first stop was Las Bachas, one of the top sea turtle nesting sites on Santa Cruz Island. A breeding project for turtles began here four years ago and scientists have found each turtle will only lay up to 80 eggs, not hundreds as they previously thought.

They have also been tracking the turtles’ movements by taking photos of the right side of their faces, which act like a fingerprint. Edwin explained how they’ve discovered turtles on San Cristobal island only ever travel around San Cristobal. Meanwhile, turtles from other Galapagos islands have been found as far as Mexico and Colombia.

Day two 

From the moment you walk up the 25-metre rock face at Prince Philip’s Steps on to Genovesa island, you feel you’ve entered another world.

A world where humans are just visitors and birds reign supreme.

Peculiar Nazca boobies are dotted everywhere: under the bushes, sat in the blazing sun and directly in your path. It feels as if you must move out of their way, not the other way around.

The white seabirds and their blue-footed cousins breed all year round and lay their eggs on the ground. They fear no predators on Genovesa.

The red-footed boobies, however, nest in trees. This distinction gives even the most amateur bird spotter a chance at correctly identifying the different species.

The boobies make a circle with their droppings and new chicks have to ensure they don’t step out of it or they won’t be feed. “The circle is the difference between life and death,” said Edwin.

That’s not the only way the chicks have to try and survive. Their innocent, fluffy, white sibling is always waiting for the perfect opportunity to peck out their eye, to make them blind and kill them. Only the most cunning of the two will live on to adulthood.

Next, we went to try to spot an owl that, rather unusually, isn’t nocturnal.

Even so, the short-eared owl was hard to find and we only saw it, hunting from a distance, by using binoculars. On Galápagos, food is so abundant that the short-eared owl, like a picky child, cuts out the breast meat of its prey and leaves the rest. We found bird wings discarded on the ground, the breast perfectly removed.

As we left ‘bird island’, a red-footed booby was waiting on a branch by the steps, turning its head expertly as if posing for our photos.

Next came the most spectacular experience of the trip…

Kitted up with our snorkelling gear, we began exploring the deep water off Genovesa island. Bright yellow fish, colourful parrot fish and huge schools of smaller creatures swam up close.

For the main attraction, you had to look deeper.

Edwin grabbed my hand and guided me to the spot, as a dozen large hammerhead sharks glided through the water below us. I shouted “wow” through my snorkel as they peacefully swam by, paying no attention to the gawking humans above them.

Day three 

Galápagos sharks swam under our boat as we prepared to disembark and walk upon a 122-year-old lava flow at Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island.

Darwin visited Santiago from October 8-17 1835 and the bay is named after Bartholomew James Sullivan, his first lieutenant on HMS Beagle.

The map Darwin drew of the island is similar to how it looks today except, now, there is a huge piece of rock sticking out that was hidden in the ocean until the violent eruption in 1897.

Iguanas are the best detectors of volcanic activity, Edwin said. They run down onto the sides of the island. “Four or five hours later ‘boom’,” he added. “Maybe they can feel the temperature rising.”

The hard, black lava covering Sullivan Bay spreads as far as the eye can see and looks like magnificent sculptures in some parts. The intense heat formed bubbles in the lava, other sections look like glittering twisted clothes or hair.

I climbed inside one huge crevasse, feeling as small as the tiny lizards who are the lavas’ only inhabitants.

New life is, however, beginning to form. Small plants are starting to peek through, spreading out and breaking through the sandpaper-like expanse of molten rock thanks to birds dropping seeds.

Escaping from the heat of the lava field, we snorkelled off the edge of Sullivan Bay.

Most of the fish stuck close to the rocks and as I peered inside the caves, I came face-to-face with a whitetip shark. Its small dark eyes stared intensely back at me and, needless to say, I turned around and left it in peace.

French explorer Jacques Cousteau once described them as “the most dangerous of all sharks”. Luckily, in the Galapagos, the whitetips have enough food not to bother with a stray English woman.

Later in the day we sailed to a different side of Santa Cruz and walked with land iguanas at the aptly named Dragon Bay. Unlike their seagoing cousins, marine iguanas, the land species live a solitary life. They only come together for mating or fighting over territory.

The Galapagos land iguana is endemic to the archipelago and lives in the dry lowlands of six of the islands. With their yellow and green scales, sharp claws and distinctly unimpressed face, they are still, somehow, adorable.

Thanks to a captive breeding programme at the Charles Darwin Research station, they are once again roaming on Santa Cruz after being wiped out by feral dogs in 1976.

Day four 

After an early 5 am start on our final morning, we headed out to see the magnificent Galapagos giant tortoise.

The islands’ most famous resident sleeps for around 16 hours a day but was kindly awake for our arrival in the highlands of Santa Cruz.

We found a dozen of the supersize creatures, which can weigh up to 900 pounds, wallowing in a mud pool. They mud performs a thermoregulation function, keeping them warm and also cooling them down.

Visitors to the Galapagos must always stay two metres away from the vast array of creatures, and the giant tortoises commanded instant respect. If you got too close they would quickly retract their E.T-like head into their shells.

A loud hiss sound also warns off inquisitive humans, although it’s actually just the sound of air escaping from their lungs under their heavy shells.

Tortoises can survive a year without food or water so pirates and whalers would take them from the Galapagos, eating them during long voyages and using their shells made from ketamine for oil to burn in lamps.

Conservation efforts are helping to restore the population after the loss of between 100,000 and 200,000 creatures. The introduction of rats, pigs, ants, dogs, cattle, horses and goats by humans also devastated the Galapagos population, with three species of giant tortoise thought to have gone extinct.

The majestic creatures live, on average, for a century and females can breed their whole life although their fertility slows down.

Mating season is in November and eggs hatch in February or March. Mother tortoises do not stick around to care for their babies. They cover their six to twenty ping-pong ball sized eggs with urine and faeces and abandon them. The hatchlings must then make their own way in the world, slowly but surely travelling to the highlands in search of food.

The oldest tortoises are easy to spot because the rings on their shells fade with age. To be in the presence of these ancient creatures is an incredible feeling, and just like leaving the Galapagos – a place of awe and wonder – it was hard to say goodbye.

2 thoughts on “Galápagos Islands: Snorkelling with hammerhead sharks and marvelling at giant tortoises

  1. Very interesting article Sarah ! I learned so many things about the animals living there. I can’t wait to explore this amazing place.


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