By Susanne Rust
Six hundred miles west of Ecuador’s coast, the Galapagos Islands are a chain of volcanic islands — some still active — home to some of the world’s richest biodiversity and endemism. Nearly 80% of the species found on the islands aren’t found anywhere else on Earth.
Along the rocky outcrops, marine iguanas bathe in the hot sun before plunging into the cool waters, where they swim alongside Galapagos penguins, and below the soaring, diving blue-footed boobies.
A confluence of oceanic currents meets at the Galapagos, giving rise to the extraordinary richness of wildlife — where southern ocean, cold-water creatures, such as penguins and fur seals, are found alongside equatorial and North Pacific critters, such as sea lions and hammerhead sharks.
On land, the ecosystems range from desert-like to lush and tropical — depending on altitude, wind exposure and geological age of the island. On Santa Cruz Island, for instance, the northern end is rocky, sandy and dry. But ascending the island’s volcano, and to the south, the ecosystem becomes lush and cool. Giant tortoises amble through tall grasses, munching on banana leaves and — to many local farmers’ annoyance — outdoor crops.
It is a crime to hurt or kill a tortoise in the Galapagos — penalties range from the low to high thousands. Car and truck drivers stop to lift tortoises seen crossing roads. Sometimes, however, the tortoises are too big to pick up. So everyone just has to wait.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has caused financial hardship for the islands’ human tourism industry, the animals have had the run of the land, sea and air since international lockdowns were imposed in March. The islands were reopened to tourists in late August but officials say that the numbers are less than 20 percent of what they were early in the year and that most visitors are Ecuadorian residents, not the foreigners tour operators count on.
Those who plan to visit the Galapagos must show a negative Covid-19 test before boarding flights to the islands from Quito and Guayaquil.
Credit: Los Angeles Times