Galapagos: Close Encounters of the Wild Kind

Galapagos: Close Encounters of the Wild Kind

Posted on October 11, 2016   •   Written by

A Thomson Family Adventures trip to the Galapagos Islands offers families a wealth of up-close wildlife viewing

Swimming down shark-populated lava tubes in the Galapagos. Photo courtesy of Tracey Stark

The author and her family snorkeling through a lava tube known as the “sharks’ canal” after the whitetip reef sharks who nap there during the day. Photo by Tracey Stark

“Sharks in the Galápagos are well fed,” said guide Alejandra Mosquera. “So they don’t need to eat you.”

I hesitated briefly as my kids and I followed our snorkeling leader in the chilly waters of the Galápagos Islands toward Loberia Chica, known locally as the “sharks’ canal.” But I trusted our Ecuadorean guide’s earlier assurances that the archipelago’s whitetip reef sharks are “98 percent vegetarian.”

In fact, they didn’t even wake up for us as we swam along a roofless lava tube used as the sharks’ napping nook. Snorkeling down the corridor – at times so narrow we were eye-to-eye with the bountiful blood-orange Sally Lightfoot crabs popping color against the stark-black lava rocks – we were silent, stunned by the sharks beneath us who slept unperturbed, even as a sea lion darted past.

It was one of many times during our weeklong Thomson Family Adventures Multi-Sport family trip that left our group of five parents and five kids (ages 8 to 11) in jaw-dropped awe, wondering “Are we really here? Is this really happening?”

An itinerary deviating from the more typical boat-bound options in this UNESCO World Heritage site, our land-based Galápagos trip had begun the day before on Isabela, the archipelago’s seahorse-shaped, largest island – roughly the size of Rhode Island.

One of only four inhabited islands of the 19 in total (13 major; 6 smaller), Isabela offers a glimpse of what makes these isolated, volcanic outposts so extraordinary that they inspired 19th-century British scientist Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

“Isabela has everything in terms of wildlife, flora, fauna and activities,” says guide Miguel Carrera. “This is my favorite island because everything you want to see in the Galápagos is right here.”

That was evident from the moment our tiny panga (water taxi) landed at the island’s main town, Puerto Villamil, its pier and beaches strewn with sea lions snoozing in the sun. Off the dock, a sea turtle snacked on a seaweed-covered buoy line, oblivious to our astounded stares.

Just across from our hotel, Iguana Crossing – a beachside, a boutique hotel with sophistication to match any in Miami’s South Beach or Mexico’s Riviera Maya – we practically tripped over the plentiful marine iguanas, their languid, black bodies camouflaged expertly against the lava rock.

Behind the hotel lay rich wetlands, where we spotted flamingoes searching for shrimp in the brackish lagoons like ungainly, stilted ballerinas.

And that was all before dinner.

Surfing in the Galapagos

The Thomson Family Adventures Multi-Sport vacation in Galápagos included a surfing lesson on Isabela with Galápagos Bike & Surf. Photo by Michael Mundt

The next day, we took a short panga ride from Puerto Villamil to Islote Las Tintoreras, a small volcanic island named for the tintoreras, or whitetip reef sharks, that we encountered snorkeling later in the afternoon. En route, we spied three Galápagos penguins, the only penguin found north of the equator, standing at attention for our eager cameras.

Close by were some much-anticipated blue-footed boobies, their indigo feet dazzling against the leaden rocks. Said to have been named “bobo” after the Spanish word for “dumb” by explorers who thought them clumsy on land, no Spaniard could have guessed the glee with which a child would exclaim centuries later, “I see boobies!”

“That’s a 1,000-year-old joke right there,” said a dad in our group, Jim Lord, who traveled from St. Louis his two kids and wife Jennifer – a gregarious Midwesterner equal parts den mother and camp counselor – who had designs on only one thing: swimming with a sea lion.

As we continued to the Islote, she broke into song to the tune of “O Christmas Tree.”

“Oh sea lion, oh sea lion, come and swim with me-ee,” Jennifer sang. “I can feel it working.”

Soon we disembarked on the small island, what my husband described as an “iguana wasteland,” tiptoeing along the 40-minute walking path past reptiles of all sizes, including one baby without a tail, likely from having escaped becoming a bird’s snack.

Discovering the skeleton of a sea lion on Islote Tintoreras, a small island near Isabela, Galapagos

Discovering the skeleton of a sea lion on Islote Tintoreras, a small island near Isabela. Photo by Michael Mundt

We meandered through a sea of of black ‘a’a lava, a Hawaiian term for the jagged shape that Carrera explained would make you cry “ah, ah” if you walked across it barefoot.

Along the shoreline were reminders of the challenging conditions in this isolated Eden: the complete skeleton of a sea lion – the kids took turns holding its fan-shaped flipper bone – and the mummified body of a sunbaked iguana.

As our group headed back to the panga, a playful sea lion popped up his head, seeming to smile as he surfed the shallow waves as if to say, “Come join me!”

“See? I knew the sea lions could hear me!” Jennifer said.

Close encounters with wild animals are a big part of what make the Galápagos so exceptional.

“Back home, if you want to see a wolf in Yellowstone, you have to really look for it; if you go to Alaska to see a bear, the animal won’t just come to you,” Michael says. “But here in the Galápagos, there’s a profusion of life everywhere.”

“Humans have created such fear in animals in nature,” says Jennifer, whose husband was the only one lucky to snorkel nose-to-nose with a curious sea lion. “That hasn’t happened here yet.”

Snorkeling in the Galapagos

Snorkeling with guide Che Che in the chilly waters off of Santa Cruz. Photo by Michael Mundt

Darwin once described the Galápagos as “a little world within itself,” the result of several factors, including Antarctic currents sweeping nutrient-dense waters to the archipelago, drawing prolific marine life to it.

Additionally, the archipelago’s extreme isolation – some 600 miles west of Ecuador – and its extensive history of volcanic activity have spawned endemic plant and animal species like lava cactus, marine iguana and Darwin’s finches.

But we were most excited to see the world-renowned Galápagos tortoises, named for the old Spanish word for saddle, “galapago,” which early explorers used to describe the shell shape.

We had seen them in captivity during a brief tour of the Arnaldo Tupiza Chamaidan Giant Tortoise Breeding Center (about 1 mile from Puerto Villamil), where we got a peek at a hatchling roughly the size of a man’s palm. But the more authentic encounter took place days later on Santa Cruz at El Chato Ranch Tortoise Reserve in the island’s lush, green highlands.

Boys standing with a tortoise shell in the Galapagos

An up-close encounter with Galápagos tortoises at El Chato Ranch Tortoise Reserve in Santa Cruz included a chance to climb inside one of the animals’ giant shells. Photo by Michael Mundt

“First one who spots a tortoise gets a prize: dessert!” said our national park guide, Che Che (chay chay). He slowed our van so we could search. Before long, as we advanced toward the reserve’s entrance and spotted their hulking mounds more and more frequently, we were all clamoring for dessert.

“I saw the first one,” Che Che teased. “But we can all share the prize.”

As we followed Che Che through the verdant grasses, the endangered behemoths dotted the landscape, hypnotic in their somnolence. He explained that these tortoise were once viewed as a nuisance to ranchers and farmers, among the few landowners claiming some of the archipelago’s 3-percent private land (97 percent is protected). Now they allow the tortoises to roam freely on their fertile lands

“What we want here is harmony,” he says of the national park’s conservation efforts with landowners. “Everyone is happy.”

Up ahead, a group of tortoises lazed in an algae-filled lagoon that Che Che called the “turtle spa.” Our group stopped to snap pictures, heeding the required six-foot buffer zone as we posed near the prehistoric beasts, the world’s largest at up to 550 pounds, more than our group’s five kids combined.

“I don’t understand how they can move with that heavy shell,” said my eight-year-old son, Colin, having felt the weight firsthand, taking turns with the rest of the kids shimmying inside one from a deceased tortoise. “I’ve never seen anything like it!”

And that’s precisely why Carrera says experiencing conservation-minded vacations like these are critical for young travelers.

“The kids learn a lot about the Galápagos and how important it is to take care of a place like this,” Carrera says. “A trip like this can inspire kids for the rest of their lives.”


Heather MundtHeather Mundt is a longtime freelance writer and editor from Colorado who believes the truest form of adventure travel means bringing along the kids. She lives in Longmont with her husband, Michael, and two sons.

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