South & Central America

The Enchanted Islands

The Enchanted Islands

Located in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, 973 kilometers off the west coast of Equador in South America, is the archipelago of volcanic islands known as the Galapagos or the “Enchanted Islands”. The archipelago comprises 13 main and 6 smaller islands, with 107 rocks and islets scattered over a total area of 45000 square kilometers, between latitudes 01 40 N and 01 36 S and longitudes 89 16 W and 92 01 W.

Seasons of the Galapagos 

Equatorial winds, ocean currents and, at times, El Nino, influence the Galapagos’ tropical climate which undergoes two seasonal changes annually.

Warm and Wet Season

Between December and May, trade winds from the north and the Panama Current bring warm weather and intermittent heavy rainfall to the islands; the average sea and air temperature rises to 25 degrees Celsius, and sunshine and clear blue skies predominate. The warm waters of the Galapagos are excellent for swimming, snorkeling and scuba-diving.

Cool and dry or Garua Season

From June to November, trade winds from the south and south-east and the Humboldt Current from Antarctica cool the Galapagos’ weather; the average temperature drops to 22 degrees Celsius, clouds and frequent light rain (“garuas”) predominate and a dense mist covers the islands. Strong winds and turbulent seas may be evident during the months of August, September and October.

Wildlife of the Galapagos 

Many of the endemic species on the Galapagos are unique to the islands. Due to centuries of isolation, the Galapagos flora and fauna have adapted to their environment and developed features not found in species from other parts of the world. It was in the Galapagos that the nineteenth-century British naturalist, Charles Darwin, began formulating his Theory of Evolution based on the process of Natural Selection.

During the warm and wet months between December and May, wildlife in the Galapagos’ tropical and cactus forests thrive. The Galapagos Land Iguanas can be found on the lava rocks adjacent to the Galapagos volcanoes; these iguanas feed on raw cacti.

The warm season is also the mating time of the Galapagos Hawks, the islands’ main scavengers. Nests of the Galapagos Hawks, which are fashioned from sticks, grass, bark and leaves and may reach 120 centimeters in diameter, can be found low in trees, on lava ledges and on the ground, with the mating pair in them.

Another species active during the warm season is the Galapagos Mockingbird, the nest of which can be found in trees and cacti.

During the garua season from June to November, the cool waters are rich in fish and algae, the staple foods of the Galapagos’ sea birds and other marine fauna, which are active during this period. This is the peak tourist season of the Galapagos.

The Galapagos’ unique marine fauna include the Blue-footed Booby, Galapagos Frigatebird, Waved Albatross, Flightless Cormorant, Swallow-tailed Gull, Galapagos Penguin, Marine Iguana, Green Sea Turtle and Galapagos Tortoise.

Named after the Spanish word for “clown”, “bobo”, the comical Blue-footed Booby is famous for its blue legs and feet and characteristic courtship dance.

A pilferer, the Galapagos Frigatebird snatches food from other birds. The male is noted for its prominent red airsack which becomes inflated during mating.

The only living albatross found in the tropics, the Waved Albatross is a strong flyer and can remain in the sky for months and even years without touching land. Its peak mating month is October, when its courtship ritual can be viewed on Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos archipelago.

Also found on Isabela is the Flightless Cormorant of the Galapagos – the only living cormorant which is unable to fly but swims instead.

The Swallow-tailed Gull is the only nocturnal sea bird in the world, hunting the squids and small fishes which feed on the plankton near the surface of the ocean at night. It is noted for its distinctive alarm call and fleshy eye-ring which changes in color from black to red during the mating season.

Believed to have been brought to the Galapagos by the Humboldt Current during the last Ice Age, the Galapagos Penguin is the only tropical penguin living north of the Equator.

Found on shores, mangrove beaches and marshes, the Marine Iguana is the only iguana adapted for survival in the oceans, and, unlike its land counterpart, feeds on algae instead of raw cactus. During mating, its black skin changes to a reddish hue, in an attempt to attract a mate.

Also known as the Galapagos Marine Turtle, the Green Sea Turtle feeds on algae and is a swift and powerful swimmer. The male of this species never comes ashore. During the breeding period between June and December, the female Green Sea Turtle lays her eggs at night on the shores of the Galapagos islands.

“Galapagos” is derived from the Spanish word for “saddle”, and this archipelago receives its name on account of the saddle-backed tortoises found only on its islands, most often at the edges of the volcanic calderas. The Galapagos Tortoise averages 13.5 kilograms and has a life expectancy of one to two centuries.