Eco Etiquette on The Enchanted Islands: Stepping Right on the Galapagos

  • Heather Rath
  • 23 March 2011

“Watch where you’re stepping!”

I flinch. Our naturalist guide, Nikolas, is talking to me. Excited by being mere inches from the stuffed toy–like sea lions on Española Island, one of many in the Galápagos archipelago in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador, and eager for a close-up portrait, I have committed a cardinal sin by straying from the marked path.

Giant tortoise with author's husband, Norm

A giant tortoise with the author's husband, Norm, in the Galapagos Islands. Photo courtesy of Heather Rath

“See these rock boundaries?” repeats Nikolas. “They are there so you know where you can walk and where you can’t. If you wander all over you can do so much damage. Without knowing it, you can step on iguana egg nests buried in the sand or a bird’s ground nest. So just remember – please – stay on the path.”

Nikolas is not being mean; he is expressing his love of wildlife with enthusiasm and passion for the flora and fauna he protects on these remarkable islands. His stern voice is an appreciated warning for our small group of 10 like-minded visitors who have come to marvel at the uniqueness of life on the Galápagos.

A sea lion mother nurses her pup on the Galapagos Islands

A sea lion mother nurses her pup on the Galapagos Islands. Note the black-and-white trail markers to be respected by all visitors. Photo courtesy of Heather Rath

Unfortunately, I stumble again into the pit of ignorance although this time I am not alone.

“Puh-leeze!” pleads Nikolas to everyone. “No flashes on the camera! This is not good for the animals. And please do not touch them. They have no fear of humans since we do not harm them.” A sea lion pup, nursing from his mom, looks up with big warm brown eyes and then nonchalantly turns back to his milk supply. We are enchanted. No wonder these are called The Enchanted Islands.

Slowly but surely I am learning the proper rules of etiquette in the Galápagos National Park and Marine Reserve as we carefully wind our way along narrow trails, some of them treacherous and slippery from water and shards of hard lava.

A blue-footed booby on the Galapagos Islands

A blue-footed booby waits patiently for fisherman's throwaways on the Galapagos Islands. Photo courtesy of Heather Rath

We move on and quietly observe a mama, papa and baby blue-footed booby family, the chick a mass of ruffled soft feathers. The bird’s bright blue feet, coloured as if a child has used a paint-by-number set, are used in a mating ritual in which the adults lift up their feet and dance around, sometimes pointing their wings towards the sky. “You see,” whispers Nikolas, “you might have stepped on their nests if you wandered off the trail.” We get the message as we watch the fascinating family at our feet.

On we tread – carefully. We come across a pair of mating marine iguanas, the red and green male (“We call them Christmas iguanas,” says Nikolas) atop the squirming red and black female. Again, we are only a few feet away.

"Christmas" (red and green) land iguana on the Galapagos Islands

A "Christmas" (red and green) land iguana on the Galapagos Islands. Photo courtesy of Heather Rath

Suddenly, to Nikolas’s delight, he spies a waved albatross. “This is something,” he exclaims. “I thought they had all left the island but this one is young and still a bit heavy.” The waved albatross must actually take off like an airplane over the island cliffs relying entirely on the southeast trade winds to carry him to feeding areas. We watch the bird run back and forth repeatedly in a practice session. Soon he will shed enough weight as he matures and be able to lift off.

Sally Lightfoot crabs (named by English seafarers) scamper over a black volcanic landscape like bright orange plastic toys, their multi-coloured markings a work of art.

Sally Lightfoot crab on the Galapagos Islands

Sally Lightfoot crabs dot the volcanic rocks of the Galapagos Islands. Photo courtesy of Heath Rath

On another island, we come face to face with giant tortoises and catch a glimpse of Lonesome George, about 90 years old, the last survivor of the dynasty of land tortoises from his island. Found in December 1971, he was moved to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island in March 1972. Repeated attempts by scientists to mate him with a subspecies have been unsuccessful because there cannot be an exact DNA match.

There’s so much to share about these enchanted islands! Perhaps this appetiser will entice you to visit and experience the abundant wild and marine life there. It is a humbling and powerful education into Mother Nature’s extraordinary survival processes.

A rainbow brightens the Galapagos Islands

The original name of the Galapagos Islands was Las Islas Encantadas, Spanish for the Enchanted Islands. 'Galapagos' means 'saddle' in Spanish, inspired by the shape of the shell of the Saddleback Tortoise. Photo courtesy of Heather Rath

Note: Following the devastating Japanese tsunami of March 11, 2011, reports say island authorities are still assessing the damage caused by the related waves. Unfortunately their arrival coincided with a high tide and resulted in waves nearly six feet high. There was enough warning to evacuate island residents, including Lonesome George and other giant tortoises, to higher ground. However, some nesting sites of sea turtles and marine iguanas have been affected on one of the islands.

Rules of the National Park:


  • Stay on the trails.
  • Do not disturb any wildlife or remove any native plant or rock material.
  • Make sure you do not accidentally transport any live material to the islands, or from island to island. Insular ecosystems are fragile biological units.
  • Be cautious when approaching wildlife and always follow your naturalists’ advice.
  • Animals are not to be fed by humans. Particular attention should be given to water bottles.
  • It is prohibited to bring food to visitor sites.
  • Do not startle or chase any animal from its resting or nesting area.
  • Smoking is not allowed on the islands or in any boat during your visits. The use of cellular phones is prohibited on visitor sites.
  • Do not buy any souvenirs made from native Galápagos species (exception: wood).
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Heather Rath

Since winning a writing contest at the age of 11, Heather Rath knew writing would be a major part of her life. When she grew up, she was sequentially a reporter, editor of a weekly newspaper and a monthly business magazine before becoming head of communications for a multi-national company. During this time she edited and contributed to two anthologies of southwestern Ontario writers. Her writing has been published over the years in various publications and some of her work for children has been translated into Braille. She is a member of CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators & Performers). Heather and her husband, Norm, live in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Their passion is travel.
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animal conservation, birds, ecotours, Ecuador, local knowledge, national parks, personal experience, responsible travel, South America, traveller tale, WHL Group newsletter, whl.travel,

5 Responses to “Eco Etiquette on The Enchanted Islands: Stepping Right on the Galapagos”

  1. Cézar Siqueira says:

    Hi. Mrs. Rath. My name is Cezar Siqueira and I worked at CTGAS in Natal, Brazil, where we have met. I would like to say your landscapes are really interesting. Also, in some of them, I could see Mr. Rath. My wife, Solange, our sons, Isabele and Pedro, and Me are now living in Vitória, a city in the Southeast of the country, near Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte. I am happy you are both fine. Please, say hello to Mr. Rath. I hope the new travel is already to come. Best regards, from these Brazilian friends.
    Cezar Siqueira

  2. Shirley Frazer says:

    Thank you so much for this interesting and informative article. My husband’s father spent time there while serving in the military. He filled my husbands head with such interesting tales of the wonders of nature he observed while on the islands. He has always wanted to spend time there and may just do so after reading Heather’s fascinating story and enjoying her pictures.

  3. Thanks for the lovely posting and photos, Heather.
    It´s great to know that tourists and locals alike are so interested in maintaining the ENCHANTMENT of the islands!
    I have always thought it would be a great idea to have the National Park Rules reviewed on video on the planes to the islands, so that tourists are aware of the rules beforehand.

  4. Steve says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience Heather.

    It’s common for visitors to be enthralled by the disinterested nature of the animals and it echoes a story I heard just last night.

    I was at the launch of the photographic exhibition “Galapagos” by New York-based Ecuadorian photographer Fernando Espinosa Chauvin at Customs House in Sydney (http://whatson.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/events/9906-galapagos-photography-exhibition-fernando-espinosa-chauvin) and in his introduction the Ecuadorian Ambassador to Australia, Raul Gangotena, related the story of someone who’d recently visited Galapagos. The visitor explained that he was very upset that the guide wouldn’t let him venture off the designated pathway and the Ambassador wasn’t quite sure how to react. That is until the visitor added, much to the Ambassadors relief, “And that is exactly what I would expect from the guide and the authorities if this magical place is to be protected as it should”.

    A great message, and attitude, for all all of us with an interest in sustainable tourism.

  5. Lindsay says:

    Ah this takes me back to Sept 07 when I was in the Galapagos! I remember well how I had to train myself to be precise about where I was walking, and my constant amazement at how close we were to the animals. At first it was so difficult not to reach out and pet the sea lions, but by the third day it really sunk in that this was their domain, and we were just flies on the wall.

    Thanks, Heather, for reigniting the memories! Great piece 🙂

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