The Galápagos: Nature’s Laboratory

Why the sea lions, blue-footed boobies and more are so docile at this ecologically significant archipelago

While snorkeling along the rocks of Devil’s Crown, a volcanic crater that protrudes from the equatorial waters off the coast of the Galápagos’ Floreana Island, I find myself nearly nose-to-nose with a native sea lion. He seems just as eager to check me out as I am him. Yet right as we’re about to fully nuzzle, I flinch and shriek into my mask, unaccustomed to the idea that any large animal would want to play around without eventually hurting me.

Galápagos sea lions are typically harmless pinnipeds happy to have a little fun in the water. But what’s curious about this chain of 20 enchanted islands is that here, all of the endemic creatures are relatively docile. We encounter birds, turtles and iguanas of varying sizes and species who all appear alarmingly comfortable surrounded by a few dozen tourists who are only slightly less invasive with their cameras than the paparazzi spotting celebrities at LAX. The animals’ fearless attitudes most notably puzzled Charles Darwin, whose five-week stay on the Galápagos Islands in 1835 helped inform part of his theory of evolution by natural selection.

“Fear of any particular enemy is certainly an instinctive quality, as may be seen in nestling birds, though it is strengthened by experience, and by the sight of fear of the same enemy in other animals. The fear of man is slowly acquired, as I have elsewhere shown, by the various animals which inhabit desert islands,” Darwin explains in his seminal book, “On the Origin of Species.” In other words, animals in the Galápagos have lived there for several hundred years without being hunted or harmed by humans so they’re simply not bothered by our gawking.

Another fascinating aspect about the Galápagos—which also prompted Darwin to think more deeply about evolution—is that the archipelago was at no point in history ever attached to a mainland continent. The islands, located 600 miles west of Ecuador, are the result of a volcanic hotspot pushing them to the surface. They formed millions of years ago completely devoid of any flora and fauna.

Everything existing here today originally arrived by flying or swimming Olympic distances (some small insects and plant seeds were probably carried in on another animal or via strong winds). What Darwin noticed is that these organisms eventually adapted to their strange new environment and evolved into new types of species befitting of the barren terrain.

What makes visiting the Galápagos so interesting is exactly that; wildlife here is like nowhere else on earth. So much so, scientists have dubbed it “nature’s laboratory.” According to the Galápagos Conservancy, about 80% of the land birds, 30% of the plants, 20% of marine life and 97% of the reptiles and land mammals are endemic. The marine iguanas here—whose primitive black scales act like solar panels to keep them warm—are the world’s only sea-going lizard, which can dive to depths of 40 feet in search of food.

Each island has its own vibe both in terms of wildlife and landscape: sting rays and flamingos on Floreana, blue-footed boobies and magnificent frigatebirds on North Seymour, Sally lightfoot crabs and penguins on Fernandina, giant tortoises (up to 500 pounds) and a moonshine distiller on Santa Cruz, flightless cormorants, palo santo trees and Darwin Lake on Isabela, and so much more. We even spot a humpback whale one morning.

There are several ways to tour the islands, but thanks to our host, LATAM Airlines, our trip involved six days at sea aboard the sustainable Santa Cruz II vessel. Visit the Metropolitan Touring website for more options in which to explore this truly unique archipelago.

Images by Karen Day