The Galapagos archipelago is a group of raw volcanic islands straddling the equator in the Pacific Ocean, some 1,000 kilometres off the coast of South America. The islands were formed along the fault line on the western edge of the archipelago, and then, over the millennia, drifted eastwards. The combination of this east-to-west age progression and the relative newness of the islands have created the best-known example of the progression of evolution. This natural laboratory is now carefully preserved and regulated. This protection and the paucity of natural predators are responsible for the world famous spectacle of a fauna that is completely unfazed by human presence. It is mainly this approachability that draws up to 100,000 visitors a year to the islands.

Although a haven for animal life, the number of species on the island is limited. The Galapagos bird list includes a scattering of migrant species including Whimbrel, Tattler, and Franklin’s Gull and 57 resident species of which 25 are endemic to the islands. It is feasible to have close views of most of the endemic species during a standard one-week cruise of the islands.

The list includes thirteen species of Darwin’s finches, the Lava Gull, Galapagos Penguin, Dark-rumped Petrel, Galapagos Flightless Cormorant, Lava Heron, Galapagos Martin, Vermillion Flycatcher, Short-eared Owl, Galapagos Hawk, Galapagos Dove and Galapagos Mockingbird. Add to this, spectacular sea birds, such as Boobies, Frigate Birds, Tropicbirds and Albatross, all of which are unusually approachable. Even the most dedicated bird watchers will be distracted, however, by close encounters with sea-lions, fur seals, tortoises, land and marine iguanas and a particularly rich marine life.

The plant life, although more abundant than the animal life in terms of variety, is restricted to about 560 species. Of these, almost 230 are endemic. Three endemic species are thought to have become extinct, and many others have experienced dramatic declines in recent years. It is thought that between 20 to 30 plant species and subspecies on the islands are currently facing extinction.

The Galapagos National Park

The fragility and importance of the island ecosystems has resulted in the Ecuadorian government declaring the islands a National Park. To protect the archipelago the National Park Service has developed rules which all visitors must adhere to. In summary these are:

* Visitors are restricted to officially approved areas, and must be accompanied by a recognised naturalist guide

* Nothing must be removed from the island and material must not be transported from island to island

* Food should not be taken onto most of the islands

* Visitors should leave the protected areas by sunset

* Visitors should not touch, feed or startle the animals.

Although these rules are undeniably necessary, visitors used to and expecting a more relaxed regime, including being able to explore areas independently, may find them restricting.

The Charles Darwin centre at Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island is the centre of conservation and ecological research for the archipelago, and is open to visitors. Terrestrial conservation focuses on management of invasive species and how to restore the native biodiversity and ecosystems. The principal marine concern is the effects of overexploitation. The effects of human extraction upon the resources are being studied to develop sustainable management of the Marine Reserve.

Visiting the Galapagos

The usual way to explore is to use one of the several dedicated boats as a base. Cruise lengths vary from day trips to a week or more and the schedule of most boats accommodates visitors arriving by plane at Baltra airstrip. A Galapagos Park Naturalist Guide accompanies each boat.

The boats range from the basic to the luxurious, from small charters to cruise ships capable of sleeping 100 guests. There is no best time of year to visit, the equatorial climate is sub-tropical, allowing cruises to operate on a year round basis. Temperatures are determined mainly by the ocean currents and prevailing winds. Generally, December to May is warm and sunny; June to November is cool and breezy. Most species of bird nest year-round, so travellers can see courtship, mating, eggs incubating and hatching and chick rearing at almost any time of the year.

Text Source:             Fatbirder

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