Isles of evolution

Also known as the Sleeping Lion, Kicker Rock is located in the middle of the Galapagos Islands sea. It is also a nesting site for blue-footed boobies
Also known as the Sleeping Lion, Kicker Rock is located in the middle of the Galapagos Islands sea. It is also a nesting site for blue-footed boobies Photos by the writer

The Galapagos Islands are famous for their large number of endemic species. These islands and species were studied by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle. His observations and collections contributed to the inception of his theory of evolution by natural selection
Sudha Mahalingam

The baby sea lion looks up at us with beseeching eyes as if asking for his mom. She has gone hunting in the ocean. He seeks us out despite the fact that the beach is packed with sea lions – mothers, adolescents, babies all sprawled in groups, their brown coat shimmering in the sun. Should something happen to his mother, the baby will be orphaned and face sure death. No other mother will adopt him. One would not guess that when hundreds of sea lions lie next to each other in great conviviality as though they are one large family.

We are in the Galapagos Islands where the authorities of the Galapagos National Park have ordained that animals be left well alone, even if they are dying. All a visitor is allowed to do is to gawk at those weird and wonderful creatures in their natural habitat, take as many pictures as he/she wants, and return home without leaving a trace. Considering that islands had been ravaged by humans for several decades and only now the authorities are beginning their sincere efforts to restore the islands to their primitive glory.

Located in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles away from Guayaquil, the port town in Ecuador, these islands are a veritable paradise for endemic species of fauna and flora found nowhere else on earth. Watching a programme on the Galapagos finch on the National Geographic channel, I had been inspired to see for myself how these small sparrow-like birds could enlighten Charles Darwin to come up with his trail-blazing scientific discovery of natural selection and evolution.

Visiting Galapagos is not easy. Starting from San Cristobal, we will be visiting most of the islands during the 8-day trip, all of which have to be spent aboard a yacht since Galapagos National Park does not permit visitors to stay on any of the islands. The choice of Letty, a yacht operated by Ecoventura proves to be fortuitous since it offers a selection of island visits.

Formed by volcanic activity and relatively recent in origin, Galapagos islands have evolved their own unique species of animals and birds. The remoteness of the islands has ensured their isolation from human intervention, turning the islands into a natural laboratory for evolution. In fact, it was after a visit to these islands that Charles Darwin came up with his iconoclastic theory of natural selection and evolution of species.

Sea lions are the most ubiquitous animals in the Galapagos and it is evident that they enjoy a special status here. In the inhabited islands like Santa Cruz or Isabella, they are sprawled everywhere, even on the roads. Clumsy of movement and excellent swimmers, sea lions are found in many other parts of the world. What makes Galapagos sea lions unique is that they are unafraid of humans.

Like the marine iguanas whose most threatening gesture is to blink when you get very close to them. They look helplessly at you and make no effort to move away. Of course, they are cold-blooded reptiles that need to soak in the sun through their scaly backs before they absorb enough energy to move. Marine iguanas are a Galapagos specialty and they come in rainbow colours especially during the mating season. The biggest can be four-foot long while babies are usually a foot long. They are so ubiquitous you learn to step gingerly across them and pick your way through these islands. It is a joy to see rocks strewn with marine iguanas of all sizes sunning themselves. There are also land iguanas which don’t go to sea for their food. Surprisingly, all iguanas are herbivores.

We spend eight days aboard Letty which sails by night and docks at islands during the day to let the visitors aboard go wildlife watching or snorkelling. We go snorkelling every day to view the kaleidoscopic delights of the underwater world. Often, we swim with sea lions, race with friendly Galapagos penguins, are watched with curiosity by white-tipped sharks which in these parts, are said to be non-threatening. Shoals containing millions of striped salema fish is one of the most enthralling spectacles of the underwater world.

Of the 10 major islands in Galapagos, only five are inhabited. San Cristobal and Baltra have their own airports although Baltra is used mainly by the islanders. Santa Cruz is the largest inhabited island with a population of 8000. In fact, there is a long line of souvenir shops with replicas all animals found in Galapagos since no one is allowed to bring or take away anything to Galapagos. Whatever personal effects you bring into the island will have to be carted back to the mainland.

Santa Cruz is one of the greener islands. On the highland meadows, one comes across so many land tortoises, massive in size and very slow of movement. Darwin, during his historic voyage on HMS Beagle, rode one of these gentle creatures. But most sailors, pirates, buccaneers and scientists found the meat of the giant tortoise such a delicacy that they killed literally thousands of them for food. Now the Darwin Research Station at Santa Cruz has launched a massive project to breed tortoises in captivity and release them to their respective islands.

The prettiest of all the creatures on Galapagos are the red-footed and blue-footed boobies, the colour of their feet being a reflection of the algae that constitutes their diet. We come across many pairs nesting everywhere. Galapagos birds are unused to predators and hence have no fear of humans. Visitors can go as close to them as they like and the animals and birds make no attempt to flee. In fact, the yellow warbler and the mocking bird come and sit on your bags and demand water, but Ivan, our guide cautions us against quenching their thirst. The natural habitat must be preserved as pristine as possible. Male frigate birds puff up their red neck pouches to balloon size and make such comical sounds and movement to attract the attention of the females. The bigger the pouch, the better the chances of mating since the bigger birds can build better nests. We wish him good luck and pack our bags to go back home after the most memorable trip of our lives.

Quick facts

How to get there: Delhi-London-Miami-Quito-Guayaquil-San Cristobal. Flying time 24 hours not counting waiting time for connecting flights. American airlines flies to Quito; Lan Ecuador flies from Quito to Guayaquil; Aerogal flies from Guayaquil to San Cristobal

Where to stay: Visitors can stay only on boats. Contact

What to see: Wildlife endemic to the islands

What to eat: Ecoventura will organise meals — predominantly seafood. Vegetarian options available on request

What to buy: Galapagos coffee


A sperm whale swims off the coast of Mirissa in southern Sri Lanka. Sperm whales are not the easiest of whales to watch, due to their long dive times and ability to travel long distances underwater. However, due to the distinctive look and large size of the whale, watching is increasingly popular. Mirissa is among the world’s top spots for seeing blue whales and sperm whales with the whale-watching season running from November till April. Photo: Reuters/Joshua Barton

From sea to plate

A Norwegian fisherman holds a cod fish caught on a trip to the Arctic Barents Sea. Cod quotas for 2013 are at a record high off north Norway despite a crisis for world fish stocks. Photo: Reuters/Alister Doyle 

A vendor in Baghdad grills cut-open carp used in Iraq’s signature dish masgoof. Sales of masgoof are on the rise with many Iraqis frequenting restaurants in Baghdad and other cities, as once rampant violence has declined to some extent. Photo: AFP /Ali Al-Saadi