Rich Beattie

Protecting the unique creatures of the Galápagos Islands is a shockingly recent concept. And the preservation battle is far from over.

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My group heard about one of those battles at Punta Pitt, on the northeastern tip of San Cristóbal Island. The area had only recently reopened to travelers after the park service suspended visits to eliminate the feral cats that were hunting red-footed boobies. As my group walked up a steep dirt trail through a surreal volcanic landscape that felt like the moon, we saw the swallow-tailed gull. We saw the frigate bird. But it will apparently take a while for the red-footed boobies to return in significant numbers; we saw none of them.

Yet just the fact that we all walked the same well-defined hiking trail is an achievement, and a relatively recent one. In the 1980s, boats overflowed with tourists, who could wander wherever they liked, trampling the life out of the flora. Even into the ’90s, the Galápagos was still the Wild West.

But regulating the experience hasn’t meant diminishing it. And nowhere was that more evident than on the island of Española, where, on a crisp September morning, face-to-fur meetings came fast and furious. Our excursion began with a landing party of sea lions greeting our dingy on the beach. We stepped over them, only to stumble upon hundreds of Christmas iguanas, still huddled en masse against the overnight chill, their red splotches forming a Jackson Pollock–like canvas on the sand.

We continued on to a front-row seat just a few feet from two albatross doing a frenetic mating dance, slapping their egg yolk–yellow beaks against each other repeatedly before sticking them straight up in the air with a guttural cluck (then walking away from each other, apparently uncharmed). We passed two eagles standing guard on a rocky outcropping. And the hike capped off with a pair of blue-footed boobies hanging out on the trail, sunlight bouncing off their bright webbed feet. 

It was a dizzying showcase of evolutionary magic.

The Surprising Secret of the Galápagos Islands

My group heard about one of those battles at Punta Pitt, on the northeastern tip of San Cristóbal Island. The area had only recently reopened to travelers after the park service suspended visits to eliminate the feral cats that were hunting red-footed boobies. As my group walked up a steep dirt trail through a surreal volcanic landscape that felt like the moon, we saw the swallow-tailed gull. We saw the frigate bird. But it will apparently take a while for the red-footed boobies to return in significant numbers; we saw none of them.

Yet just the fact that we all walked the same well-defined hiking trail is an achievement, and a relatively recent one. In the 1980s, boats overflowed with tourists, who could wander wherever they liked, trampling the life out of the flora. Even into the ’90s, the Galápagos was still the Wild West.

But regulating the experience hasn’t meant diminishing it. And nowhere was that more evident than on the island of Española, where, on a crisp September morning, face-to-fur meetings came fast and furious. Our excursion began with a landing party of sea lions greeting our dingy on the beach. We stepped over them, only to stumble upon hundreds of Christmas iguanas, still huddled en masse against the overnight chill, their red splotches forming a Jackson Pollock–like canvas on the sand.

We continued on to a front-row seat just a few feet from two albatross doing a frenetic mating dance, slapping their egg yolk–yellow beaks against each other repeatedly before sticking them straight up in the air with a guttural cluck (then walking away from each other, apparently uncharmed). We passed two eagles standing guard on a rocky outcropping. And the hike capped off with a pair of blue-footed boobies hanging out on the trail, sunlight bouncing off their bright webbed feet. 

It was a dizzying showcase of evolutionary magic.

Rich Beattie

The Surprising Secret of the Galápagos Islands

Dipping my mask and snorkel into the azure waters of the southern Galápagos brings a silent, serene world into focus: skinny purple angelfish with golden tails nibble on orange coral, while pink-tinted bluechin parrotfish wriggle through lush lawns of sea grass.

Suddenly, my eye catches something big closing in fast, almost brushing my right side. It’s a sea lion, as long as me, that somersaults, doubles back, then starts literally swimming circles around me. She’s just playing, showing off—but it is a lion, after all, and it takes my breath away. Still, before I can react, she swims right up to my mask, and for a couple seconds, we’re nose-to-whiskers, gazing curiously at each other before, with a push of her flipper, she zips off.

It’s the kind of wildlife encounter one might expect on islands that lie 600 miles from their continental landlord, Ecuador. And not just any group of islands, of course, but the laboratory for one of history’s most significant scientific discoveries, and an area that still plays host to species found nowhere else on earth.

But as renowned as these volcanic landmasses are, the idea of protecting the Galápagos is a shockingly recent development. It wasn’t long ago that overfishing, irresponsible tourism, and a nonchalant attitude toward invasive species threatened the entire ecosystem. Without the relatively new—and ongoing—effort to preserve what’s here, that beautiful, intimate dance with my sea lion friend might never have happened.

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