Compass Blog

Kensington's Explorers in Residence Series: Galapagos Islands

Most tropical vacations offer plenty of sun, sand and surf, but few destinations offer this together with the uniqueness of the Galapagos Islands. First explored by Charles Darwin on his Beagle expedition, his studies here became the basis for his famous report on evolution, The Origin of the Species.  Now it was my turn! My son Herb and I visited the island of Plata, known as Isla de la Plata to the locals and often referred to as the Poor Man’s Galapagos. There are no hotels, restaurants or zoos here, but we were treated to an extravagant showcase of pelicans, petrals, frigatebirds, terns, albatrosses and the infamous blue and red-footed boobies, a unique species of bird that nests on the ground, like penguins. These unusual birds breathe through their mouth since nature took away their nostrils because they interfered with diving for fish. The birds are also very tame and unafraid of humans.  I walked up to the birds – mother, father and chicks – and aside from some non-threatening chirping, the birds didn’t move. I probably could have picked one up, if I was so inclined. But I wasn’t because this is a nature preserve and direct contact with the animals is not allowed. It’s easy to see why early explorer to these islands, Sir Francis Drake and his men called them “Idiot Birds” for not having the good sense to be afraid of them. Drake and his men did more than bird-watching while visiting Isla de la Plata. It is also believed they hid a chest or two of silver and gold somewhere on this island, which gives us the island’s other name, Silver Island.  Legend has it that in 1573, Drake raided so many South American coastal villages and galleons that his ship, the Golden Hinde, was too heavy with loot to return safely to England. He ordered his men to hide the treasure here and to this day, not one doubloon has been found! While Herb was eager to search for buried treasure, I was able to convince him the wildlife here was much easier to find. Giant tortoises swim in the waters here and will often surface from the depths when fed. Our guide tossed tiny pieces of watermelon overboard and slowly, their heads emerged to gobble the treat.  I asked if it was permissible to swim with these impressive reptiles and I was told I could. I strapped on my snorkeling gear and had the experience of a lifetime! With plenty of watermelon morsels to keep them near our boat, we had a spectacular experience swimming with these magnificent creatures. We also were treated to exotic and colorful marine life swimming around the coral reefs of this island – angel fish, stingrays, neon fish, all noticeably larger than those found in the Caribbean and in abundant supply! There are several color-coded routes snaking through the island, each one promising close encounters with exotic wildlife. Be prepared to spend at least three hours on this hike and much of it involving vertical climbing. The top of the route we took was 3,000 feet above sea level – but the breathtaking view makes it all worthwhile! “Breathtaking” being the operative here – the steep climb and reduced oxygen left all of us gasping for air when we reached the top. Other Galapagos Islands offer more comfortable and controlled experiences with many of the animals found in zoos. These are excellent destinations as well, especially when you book your trip on a cruise ship! But we found the one-on-one experience with land and marine life in their natural habitats extremely rewarding and memorable. Lots of trips offer you a chance to swim with the dolphins, but how many give you a chance to swim with a Galapagos Tortoise? With several endemic species to see, these tropical islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador offer a rare glimpse at how animals can survive and evolve with relative geographic isolation. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is one of the most remarkable oceanic ecosystems in the world. Click here for more information on Kensington’s tours  Galapagos Tours.

Mark Terry, Explorer in Residence

Mark Terry is a Fellow International member of The Explorers Club and recipient of the Canadian chapter’s highest honor, the Stefansson Medal for his international field work “documenting our natural world”. As well as a Community Leader for the David Suzuki Foundation, Mark is also this year’s winner of the Gemini Humanitarian Award, presented by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television in recognition of his work with the United Nations with his documentaries. Working closely with the world’s scientific community in Antarctica and the Arctic earned him the recognition of the United Nations Environment Programme in 2008. His last two films – The Antarctica Challenge: A Global Warning and The Polar Explorer – were made in partnership with the UNEP and both premiered at the Climate Change Conferences in Copenhagen and Cancun. Together, both films have won 20 international film awards for excellence. As a member of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Canadian Council for Geographic Education, the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and the University of Alberta's Northern Research Network, Mark lectures and speaks regularly about the environmental issues affecting the fragile eco-systems of the polar regions and, by extension, the world.

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