Close encounters of the fearless kind, this is perhaps one of the strongest impressions that many visitors take home after a Galapagos trip. Of all the Galapagos mammals it’s probably the Galapagos Sea Lion that most contributes to this impression.
The way these endemic sea lions lie sprawled in many of the same haunts that tourists wander about gives the impression that they are on vacation too. Just lacking a sturdy deck chair to complete the picture, they lounge on boardwalk benches in Puerto Ayora, beaches all over the islands and low rocky shorelines such as La Lobería, a rocky beach 30 minutes walk from Puerto Baquerizo on San Cristóbal Island. Sea lions will come right up to you apparently as inquisitive about us as we are about them. Naturally, this means great photo opportunities present themselves all the time.
But why are Galapagos mammals and even birds and reptiles so tame or to be biologically correct less fearless than animals in other parts of the World?
Charles Darwin noticed this as well when he wrote that he was struck by five things in the Galapagos Islands; endemic flora and fauna, missing species such as amphibians, that species resemble but are different to their cousins on the South American continent, animals differ from one island to another and fifth – the tameness or fearless nature of the animals.
Biologists observe that in general animals and indeed mammals are less frightened and tamer on islands. Because there are fewer predators on islands they tend to be safer places to live. In a dangerous environment it makes sense for animals to flee when they sense even minimal danger but in ‘safe’ environments such as the Galapagos then running away when larger animals approach is just a waste of energy.
As you can imagine it’s actually a little more complex than this. All animals have an innate or genetic predator response. Galapagos mammals like all others are born with this response. They are genetically conditioned that they have no predators, at least on land. In addition to the innate predator response they have a learned predator response. So if a new predator shows up and starts eating them then they would after some time alter their behaviour to flee.
The Galapagos Islands more than most island groups have been without predators for most of their 4 million year existence. Human beings didn’t show up until around 400 years ago and although initially they hunted some species close to extinction, relatively speaking, the islands have been predator free for 99.99% of their history.
So now you know why Galapagos mammals just sit there posing for your photos. It’s not because they like their photos being taken but more that they have an innate and learned conditioning that tells them you and your camera are not dangerous.
In common with most islands or island groups, excluding marine mammals there isn’t a tremendous variety of Galapagos mammals. This is because it’s just not easy to arrive at oceanic islands some 600 miles off the continental coast if you’re not swimming or flying. Perhaps half the mammal species were introduced by the first settlers and have become pests as they have wiped out native and endemic species. Here we’re talking about dogs, cats, donkeys, goats, pigs and 2 species of rat. Over the years they have damaged the natural ecosystem in the Galapagos by destroying vegetation, eating birds and eggs or even competing with and wiping out their Galapagos cousins. Conservation authorities have implemented programs to eradicate or remove these ‘invader’ species
For example the endemic Galapagos rice rat, which was thought to arrive from South America on vegetation rafts during a time span of hundreds of thousands of years can now only be found on Fernandina and Santa Fe islands as the black and brown rats that arrived on the first settler’s ships proved to be dominant on all the other islands leading to the rice rats demise. As a result this mammal is difficult to see now due to scarcity and limited distribution.
There are two types of bat on the Galapagos. The endemic Galapagos bat lives on the two most populated islands of San Cristobal and Santa Cruz, it feeds on moths and beetles. The native Hoary bat lives on the same islands and can be seen flitting around at night feeding on flying insects but during daylight hours they roost in mangrove trees. It’s also found in North America.
The Galapagos fur seal is classed as an endemic species because there is only one other colony in the world in northern Peru. Despite their name they are more closely related to sea lions than seals. They look similar to the Galapagos Sea Lion but are smaller with bulging eyes and more pronounced ears. Their coat appears to be furry and is much thicker. Even though there are similar numbers of Galapagos Fur Seals and their sea lion cousins, they appear rarer because they are out of sight living in cooler habitats such as rocky shores which offer a lot of shade.
They were nearly hunted to extinction for their insulating coats but they now number about 30,000 in total and can be best seen at the Puerto Egas tide pool inlets of Santiago Island and at the coral beach at Darwin Bay on Genovesa Island.
The remaining Galapagos mammal species are either dolphins or whales. One thing absolutely guaranteed to thrill you and have you rushing to the railings of our cruise yachts is the sighting of a huge and acrobatic Humpback Whale as you cruise the Galapagos waters. They are often seen breaching where up to 3/4’s of their huge 50 foot, forty ton bodies lift out of the water in an explosion of power, grace and agility. They’re best seen between June and October.
Another Galapagos whale that causes more than a stir of excitement is the Killer Whale. There is something chilling about seeing the 4 foot high dorsal fin of the ocean’s largest predator gliding over the ocean surface waters as it tracks unseen prey.
Other Galapagos whales are less common but the Pilot Whale and even ‘ole Moby Dick himself, the Sperm Whale frequent these plankton-rich waters.
You are more likely to see Bottle Nosed Dolphins or the Common Dolphin on board a cruise yacht. The former especially has a playful and inquisitive nature and loves to play in the slipstream water of the bow or the wake water. They travel in pods of up to 30 individuals and can be seen everywhere.
If you get the chance to snorkel or scuba then you are very likely to get further chances to interact with Galapagos mammals. Dolphins and fur seals are documented as approaching divers but it is the inquisitive Galapagos Sea Lion that comes within touching distant as they stare though your mask.
These are close encounters of the natural kind that linger in your memory long after you arrive home.