At first glance, the landscape of the Galapagos really does look hostile and barren - all jutting lava rocks and bare rocky pinnacles. Very 'Master and Commander'.
But on closer inspection, the place just teems with life. Here is a brief run-down of some of the endemic species we saw at (very) close quarters during our final week of touring the isles.
Weighing in at an impressive 250kg (or 550lbs) and living for 150+ years, Giant Tortoises are sadly at risk of extinction from human predation - they were once killed in huge numbers for their meat and for their oil, to light streetlamps. Only one surviving individual from Pinta Island now exists, the 80-year old Lonesome George. Efforts are being made to hook him up with a couple of frisky 30-somethings from another island to continue his line, but frustratingly, he's just not that into them.
No other examples of these huge beasties have been found in South America, so where did they come from? No-one knows for sure, but it's thought that normal-sized tortoises may have floated over from somewhere in the Seychelles millions of years ago, and once on the Galapagos, evolved gigantism because of a lack of natural predators... until we showed up
Penguins on the equator?? Bizarrely, yes - made possible due to the aforementioned Humboldt current bringing cold waters to the Galapagos from the south Atlantic, and with it, bringing tasty fish at shallower depths. These diminutive birds are only about 30cm tall! We had the opportunity of snorkelling with a few of them and found out that they're pretty crap swimmers, actually. Never mind, they look cute.
Galapagos Sea Lions
Ridiculously photogenic and ubiquitous to most islands, you can't help but fall in love with these playful and inquisitive clowns. The "unofficial welcoming committee" of the Galapagos. I want to be a sea lion, they are just awesome creatures and look like they have the most fun ever. Plus they get to dive and eat raw fish all day, which is pretty much all I want to do.
Jon sounds uncannily like one, as evidenced here.
About a metre long, yellow. They feed exclusively on cactus fruit, which they have learned to roll around on the ground to break the sharp spines, before tucking in. They are totally unbothered by humans, often walking right in front of you so you have to change direction in order to avoid stepping on them.
These guys have evolved to feed on algae on rocks in the sea, so they freedive for up to half an hour amidst the crashing surf. They're usually black, but on Floreana Island are red due to their eating the red algae that grows there. They have a nasty habit of shooting jets of super-salty water out of their noses at you if you get too close, which is charming. And they look really smug whilst doing it.
Hybrid Land/Marine Iguanas
A spot of cross-species wife swapping has resulted in these sterile black/yellow hybrids. Mum is a land iguana (who is bigger than) dad, who is a marine iguana. They hang about with land iguanas but can't go into the water like dad can.
Responsible for the proliferation of 'I Love Boobies!' t-shirts in EVERY shop in Santa Cruz. They don't have any natural predators so they just nest on the floor, kicking out a bit of dirt to form a depression in the ground and then pooing in a circle around it to keep biting ants from wandering in. They partner up for a season at a time and share babysitting duties, taking it in turns to sit on the eggs for up to 8 hours at a time whilst the other stretches his/her legs, goes down the pub, or goes to find some food. They often hatch 2 chicks, but only feed the first-born, so the younger sibling always dies. Males have smaller pupils than females, and whistle (females kind of squawk) which is how you can tell them apart.
Quite stately-looking, they are the biggest of the boobies (boobies galore!) on the islands. I don't know much else about them to be honest.
These birds are thieves. They steal most of their food from other seabirds, and also eat their chicks and baby sea turtles. The males have large red neck pouches which they inflate to attract the female of the species. They have beautiful black plumage that looks shiny like a vinyl record.
They have an awesome courtship ritual which is a bit like a clackety thumb war. We didn't manage to video it as our camera batteries died but here's a little something from you-tube.
Thirteen different species of finch exist on the Galapagos. Their markedly different beaks, adapted to different food sources, piqued the interest of a certain Charles Darwin after he visited the islands on HMS Beagle in 1836, which led to his revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection. There's one species that uses a twig to poke insects out of tree trunks, and even a vampire species that sucks the blood of Nazca and Blue-footed boobies.
Sally Lightfoot Crabs
The males are orange and blue and the females are purple/red. Juveniles are black so they are camouflaged against the black rocks on which they gather - they're a favourite food source for many sea birds.