Sea Kayaking the Galapagos Islands

galapagos sea kayaking
The sun sets over the Pacific as a gentle surf washes the rocky shoreline of San Cristobal Island in Ecuador’s Galapagos Archipelago.

Story by Tim Farmer
Photos by Chad Case

Our kayaks cruised quietly over the clear water, just yards away from swirling, foamy waves that crashed against a sheer black cliff. Soaring hundreds of feet into the turquoise sky, Punta Vicente Roca is a place where sea and earth meet dramatically. Almost exactly on the equator, it seemed an unlikely place for us to see penguins. But there they were—perched on the rocky, volcanic shoreline—a pair of the small, flightless creatures looking like tuxedo-clad waiters. We paddled closer, and the two Galapagos penguins stood their ground, oblivious to our bright yellow kayaks and orange PFDs. The Galapagos Islands are the only place on the planet where these evolutionary oddities exist.

A volcanic archipelago composed of 13 major islands and a handful of smaller islets, the Galapagos are renowned as the crucible of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. They are scattered over 28,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean, roughly 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The islands lie above the intersection of two tectonic plates that are still being thrust upward by the restless earth. The Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela Island had its most recent eruption in October 2005, and still vents gases continually. Some days the smell of sulfur drifts for miles across the open sea.

It’s no wonder that the islands are a naturalist’s playground. Dozens of species that exist here are found nowhere else on earth, including giant tortoises with unique subspecies that differ from one island to the next, and ferocious-looking marine iguanas, the only ocean-feeding reptile in the world. But it was the birds that caught Darwin’s eye, in particular the finches. He noticed that their beaks varied from island to island, and appeared to have adapted over time to specific food sources available on their respective islands. But such thinking was heresy at the time, considered antithetical to traditional creationist views. Darwin himself was a creationist, and didn’t change his own mind until he returned to England and began to weigh all he had seen.

Dozens of species that exist here are found nowhere else on earth.

Darwin happened into his trip to the Galapagos quite by chance, the third choice of Captain Robert Fitz Roy, who was seeking someone to accompany him on a mission to chart the east and west coasts of South America and to log a series of navigational points as the ship circled the globe. Fitz Roy knew that, as captain, he could not develop friendships with the men under his command; so he sought out a companion, a friend of appropriate social standing, to accompany him on the trip. In return, the companion would get to visit exotic and remote locations as the HMS Beagle traveled the world. Fitz Roy’s first two choices to join him—a naturalist and a botanist, both clergymen—turned him down. It was the second man, John Henslow, who recommended Darwin for the trip.

At the time, Darwin was a 22-year-old student who had bounced from medicine to divinity and eventually to geology before it was considered a formal field of study. His apparent lack of direction in life outraged his father, a prominent physician who considered his son a failure. When the elder Darwin learned of his son’s intention to join the expedition, he was adamantly opposed and refused to allow him to go. His uncle persuaded Darwin’s father to allow his son to take the trip that would shake up the worlds of science and religion forever.

Sally Lightfoot Crab Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.
A Sally Lightfoot Crab munches seaweed on Santiago Islands, the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.

The Beagle set sail in 1831, and spent the next three years charting the coasts of South America. It wasn’t until 1835 that the ship and Darwin reached San Cristbal, the easternmost of the larger Galapagos islands. Over the next five weeks the Beagle charted the islands, creating maps so accurate that they were in use for more than a century. Darwin spent as much time as possible ashore, not only because he was interested in the geology and wildlife, but also because he was afflicted with terrible seasickness. During the five-year voyage, he spent only 18 months aboard ship.

While in the Galapagos, Darwin saw distinct differences in the tortoises, mockingbirds, and finches occupying the islands that could not be easily explained through the conventional wisdom of the day. Still, Darwin did not have a eureka moment in the Galapagos. In his journals, he confessed that the contradictions struck him with wonder, but it wasn’t until years later that he laid out his theory of natural selection.

Sunrise in the Galapagos Islands. sea kayak
Sunrise in the Galapagos Islands.

The concept—that organisms evolve over great spans of time—was not new to science, even though Darwin gets all the credit. French scientist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck had proposed a similar theory he called trans- formism years earlier, but it was Darwin who was able to demonstrate the phenomenon that was so evident among the animals of the Galapagos. He completed the puzzle by describing how the process takes place.

Although Darwin published numerous scientific papers and several books on coral reefs, geology, and zoology as well as his widely read account of the expedition, The Voyage of the Beagle, it took another quarter century for him to compile the scientific evidence needed to publish a paper on the subject of natural selection. It met with little attention, but the next year, 1859, Darwin published his book The Origin of Species, focusing a spotlight precisely on the sharp divide between the concepts of creationism and evolution. That spotlight waxes and wanes like phases of the moon, but to this day it’s hard to say the word evolution without including Darwin’s name in the same breath.

One naturalist told me that another tour company now forbids its naturalists to use the word evolution when speaking to guests, evidence that Mr. Darwin still causes uneasiness for many people. Nonetheless, even non-scientists can appreciate the incredible diversity of wildlife and relatively unspoiled environment found in the Galapagos. The area has been protected as a national park since the 1950s, and the Ecuadorian government controls immigration to the islands. Groups are limited in size and it’s illegal to enter the park without a certified park naturalist. Still, the park is under tremendous pressure from a growing tourist economy that brings jobs and opportunities to the region. Without tourism, there wouldn’t be money to preserve the islands and restore native species, but the added visitation stresses the local resources and increases environmental degradation.

It’s a delicate balance, and some wonder if the scale needs to be recalibrated. About 100,000 tourists visit these remote islands annually, and the numbers continue to rise. The government finds it hard to turn away the money that tourism adds to the economy. Park visitation accounts for a whopping third of the country’s $430 million-a-year tourism industry.

In 2006, the Galapagos began allowing 500-passenger cruise ships to ply its waters. Also in 2006, the park began allowing the smaller 100-passenger ships to carry kayaks on board for guests. I was on one of the first such trips, aboard Lindblad Expeditions’ MS Islander. A few companies are even beginning to offer kayak camping at specific sites. However, heavy seas and long crossings rule out kayaking between most islands, especially since a park guide must accompany each group.

galapagos sea kayaking
Ocean surf washing in on rocks with dramatic sky at sunset.

The park’s volcanic silhouette, rising from the sea, is a fascinating study in geology, but it is the rich diversity of wildlife and their relative indifference to man that makes the Galapagos such an incredible place to visit. I counted more than 200 sea lions within a few yards of my footprints in the sand during one short walk on the beach at Gardner Bay, the northernmost part of Española Island. One young pup even came in to the water to play in the waves, mimicking the people and darting curiously past our group. Marine iguanas remained motionless as we stepped around them. All sat patiently, providing endless opportunities for photography, hardly more than an arm’s length away.

The wildlife realize that man is no longer a predator on these islands. On the contrary, it is through the efforts of naturalists and scientists that many of the islands’ native plants and animals are able to reproduce andincreasetheirnumbersinthewild.The Charles Darwin Research Station, on Santa Cruz Island, breeds native Galapagos tortoises, releasing them in the wild once they are about six years old and large enough to survive predation by native hawks and introduced rats. Hard work to eradicate these and other invasive pests brought to the islands by mariners and settlers is allowing the regeneration of native plants that tortoises, iguanas, and other species depend on for food. Only time will tell if these efforts can offset the increased pressure from growth and tourism.

During a short walk in the town of Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island, I saw new construction on almost every corner. It’s a bustling town of about 15,000 residents, the largest in the archipelago, with new hotels and exclusive homes lining the shores. The islands lack adequate freshwater to meet growing demand, and sewage disposal is equally primitive. Since 1998 the Ecuadorian government has limited immigration from the mainland in an attempt to control growth and manage the fragile resources.

By chance, I was visiting during one of the many celebrations of Ecuador’s declaration of sovereignty over the Galapagos Islands in 1832. I was waiting for the last Zodiac back to the ship, and dozens of swimmers in a competition were leaving the dock a few at a time in small boats to be dropped into the ocean for a three-kilometer swim. It was a raucous conglomeration of young and old, all with numbers inked on their shoulders. Even amid the throng of boats and numbered swimmers, colorful Sally Lightfoot crabs scrambled on the rocks, and brown pelicans, great blue herons, and blue-footed boobies patrolled the shoreline.

The remoter islands offer a much more natural landscape, where evidence of human impact is rarely visible. Five of the archipelago’s 13 major islands are inhabited, but the others seem to have changed little since Darwin visited almost 175 years ago. Despite tourism, development, and man’s best attempts to manage the wildlife, it is the animals that truly rule the Galapagos. Giant tortoises sometimes block the dusty road to the tortoise research center, and it takes four strong men to gently lift the animal and move it out of the way. With no land predators, cormorants have lost the ability to fly. Marine iguanas sneeze salt out of their nostrils to expel it from their bodies. All kinds of weird, wonderful, and bizarre animals have developed unique characteristics because of their isolation in this remote tropical archipelago.

The park regulates group size, where visitors are allowed to go, and where kayaks can land, but happily the indigenous animals roam freely, a fact that was underscored on the last day of my visit. As I waited with a group of other tourists for a bus to the airport, sea lions sprawled across the benches that weren’t in direct sunlight. We sweltered beneath the equatorial sun while the sea lions enjoyed the only cool shade around.

I was lost in thought, considering all I had seen on the islands, after boarding my flight back to Quito. A young Ecuadorian man, seated next to me, was stuffing his belongings into the overhead compartment when something shiny caught my eye. It was a trophy, a foot and a half tall, so out of curiosity I asked in my limited Spanish, “Que es eso?” He proudly displayed the trophy, and on its engraved inscription I could read Puerto Ayora and the date. He was a winning competitor in the swimming race I had seen.“Tercero,” he said, holding up three fingers. “Tercero,” he repeated, smiling. Third place. “Bueno,” I replied, searching for superlatives. “Muy bien!” Although we’d each had very different experiences during our visit to the Galapagos, I knew that we would both return home with happy memories.

This story first appeared in the December ’06 issue of Canoe & Kayak.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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