Snorkeling with sea lions, penguins and sea turtles, oh my! Hiking with endemic Galapagos animals, including iguanas, beautiful birds, giant tortoises and more. If you have the chance to visit the Galapagos Islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, go for it. You will not be disappointed. Every day is filled with wonder, joy and gratitude being in the presence of such amazing wildlife.

Whales and porpoises played around our boat, cartwheeling in the air right under our dangling feet. Magnificent frigatebirds soared above us. And as if snorkeling with penguins was not enough, we had a baby sea lion inspect us up close and personal with big, round curious eyes. Oh, and then the sea turtles would float by with their massive bodies swaying in the warm currents.

A land tortoise at Tortoise Camp

A land tortoise at Tortoise Camp. © Dale Weiler and Loti Woods.

Giant Tortoises

While most folks get to see the giant tortoises on one of their daily shore trips, we had the rare privilege of spending the night at a private Galapagos Tortoise Camp run by Natural Habitat Adventures, the great group we were with for our adventure. Walking down the path in the early morning, a giant tortoise hissed at us and seemed to be saying, “Sit, watch and learn.” So we sat on the path for 20 minutes watching this wonderful creature walk out of the grass and slowly make his way down the path and back into the grass. We learned it was a male by the large size of its tail.

Endemic Galapagos Animals

Endemic Galapagos animals abound. Wingless cormorants, marine and land iguanas, Galapagos hawks and doves are everywhere. In fact, we had trouble not stepping on both the iguanas and the sea lions camped on the beach. But this was just the beginning. Eagle rays and golden rays (neither of which are endemic to the Galapagos) danced under our panga/Zodiac as we glided through the mangrove swamp that serves as a nursery to young birds (pelicans, penguins and boobies). On hikes, we saw the famous Galapagos finches upon which Darwin based his theory of evolution.

A noddy bird nest filled with plastic in the Galapagos

A noddy bird nest filled with plastic in the Galapagos. © Dale Weiler and Loti Woods.

Heartbreaking Moments

But there were also heartbreaking moments. Seeing a bird’s nest filled with plastic spoons and brightly colored straws housing a newly laid egg made us painfully aware that even the most remote wild places are not immune to pollution. Then our guide snagged a piece of a plastic bag before a sea turtle could eat it, which could have ultimately had lethal consequences for that turtle. The most haunting moment, though, was seeing a baby sea lion crying next to its mother with a fishing hook and long trailing piece of fishing line hanging from its mouth. Luckily for this sea lion, our guides reported the baby’s location to local rangers. Hopefully, a vet was able to remove the hook and the baby will survive.

Unexpected Surprises

Sea lions sleeping in the Galapagos

Sea lions sleeping in the Galapagos. © Dale Weiler and Loti Woods.

There were also unexpected surprises. Learning that there is very little fresh water in the Galapagos was unbelievable. We were even more stunned to find there is minimal edible food native to the islands. We envisioned lush tropical fruits and vegetables, waterfalls, etc. But the land is rather barren and dry, with cactus and scrubby bushes resulting from past volcanic activity. Many of the islands only receive four inches of rain a year. Yet, the Galapagos animals adapt (again, Darwin’s theory) and are abundant.

We are inspired by all the Ecuadorian government is doing to preserve and protect the Galapagos, a World Heritage site, from impacts brought on by the number of people descending on the islands (which of course, included us). More than 97 percent of the land mass in the Galapagos Islands is designated as a national park. Luckily, tourists are highly regulated and must have a guide with them at all times when visiting one of the 19 islands.

The biggest threat to the Galapagos Islands? The introduction of invasive species. Blackberry bushes prevent some birds from nesting because of the thorns. Feral goats destroy tortoise and iguana habitat. In all, more than 1,700 invasive species have been introduced.  The good news: the government has implemented an aggressive campaign to eradicate some of the worst invasive species. The bad news: several birds, including the mangrove finch, are on the verge of extinction because of introduced insects.

Lessons Learned?

Snorkeling with a sea turtle in the Galapagos

Snorkeling with a sea turtle in the Galapagos. © Corrin LaCombe

Lessons we learned? Once life is gone, it is lost forever. Wildlife, especially Galapagos animals, deserve lives free from human intervention as much as possible. Yes, we intrude when we visit their habitat, but hopefully, we observe, get inspired and inspire others while leaving a minimal footprint. And then we help protect this very special place.

What are we doing? First, we are trying to minimize or eliminate our use of plastic. We are now using reusable bamboo straws when we dine out instead of plastic ones, we carry reusable grocery bags and water bottles, and we are trying to buy products with less plastic packaging. Baby steps to start, but we have to begin somewhere.

Second, we are investigating several promising ways to assist conservation efforts in the Galapagos. And third, true to our mission to use art for wildlife conservation, Dale is perusing his rock pile to see what Galapagos animal might be residing inside a piece of stone. Once he finds the perfect stone and the sculpture is finished, all proceeds from the sale of the sculpture will be donated to wildlife conservation. Stand by for updates.

This story was written by Nat Hab travelers Dale Weiler and Loti Woods, and originally appeared on their Weiler Woods for Wildlife website.