ISLANDS OF BIODIVERSITY: The other "Galápagoses"
Text & Photos: Justin Lotak · 6 min read
Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands are a true paradise of nature, with 97% of its land surface conserved as a national park, along with 51,000 square miles of its surrounding marine areas conserved as the Galápagos Marine Reserve. People from all over the world know the name “Galápagos” and dream of visiting these islands that still thrive with many of the species that were there when Charles Darwin debarked onto the islands from the HMS Beagle in 1835. And if one has the opportunity to visit – they should certainly do so, but responsibly; the government and those working on behalf of conservation have done a tremendous job of ensuring that the wildlife of the Galápagos is conserved or is being restored, all the while supporting a growing tourism industry on the islands. But the Galápagos can be a difficult destination to visit, both due to its remoteness and because of the high costs associated with visiting the islands. Plus, they are already experiencing an abundance of tourism attention that can be harmful at times. Thankfully, around the world many other lesser-known islands host their own unique ecosystems, and the traveling community is beginning to take notice and cherish what these other islands can offer in terms of unique flora and fauna. Intact ecosystems and their continuous conservation are something that an increasing number of people are willing to pay to witness, and whether for their endemic species, evolutionary importance, or rich biodiversity, many islands around the world claim to be different regions’ “Galápagos”.
When traveling to fragile ecosystems, which include all the islands mentioned below, it is very important to be responsible and to minimize your impact on the respective environment. Invasive species can easily travel via clothing, boots, boats, and food products. Therefore, please do your part to ensure you are not bringing anything foreign to the islands, and read more on how you can minimize your impact prior to your visit (we are developing a responsible tourism handbook, which will be available on www.conservationatlas.org soon).
Here’s a sample selection of some of the world's “Galápagoses”:
MONA ISLAND: “THE GALÁPAGOS OF THE CARIBBEAN”
Mona Island is part of the Puerto Rican archipelago and is 22 square-miles in size. It’s located 41 miles west of mainland Puerto Rico. Aside from some rangers and biologists, the island managed as the Mona Island Nature Reserve hosts no human inhabitants, but it is possible to visit it. In fact, many Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts from Puerto Rico come to this island to learn about its biodiversity and to improve their outdoor skills. For wildlife, Mona Island is one of the most important breeding grounds for the hawksbill sea turtle. It also hosts endemic species such as the Mona Island Iguana, the Mona Yellow-shouldered Blackbird, and the Mona Boa. Though the island has incredible beaches, caves and coral reefs, the environment can be harsh and those that would like to see this remote place will need to ensure they do proper planning prior to arriving, given that there are no amenities. It’s a 3-4 hour boat ride away from the mainland, and visitors need to bring all their own food and water. There are campsites at Playa de Pájaros and Playa Sardinera, and camping is allowed with a permit from May – November. Hunting of invasive species (goats, pigs and wild cats) is allowed December – April.
SIBUYAN ISLAND: “THE GALÁPAGOS OF ASIA”
Sibuyan is a 172 square-mile island that is part of the Philippines, and it has remained isolated from the rest of the surrounding islands since its formation. For that reason, and because much of its forest is still intact and protected as Mt. Guiting-guiting Natural Park, the island hosts one of the most diverse and dense forests in the world. Ongoing research is still occurring and the number of species on the island is still unknown, yet the mining industry is attempting to develop some of the its mineral resources. Therefore, we think this island deserves to be mentioned; conservation-based travel can have a real impact for the benefit of nature preservation on islands such as this, and if the Philippines are on your list of countries to visit, Sibuyan offers photographic opportunities of species found nowhere else.
KANGAROO ISLAND: “THE GALÁPAGOS OF AUSTRALIA”
This 1,701 square-mile island lies 13 km south of mainland Australia, and has a growing tourism industry with approximately 140,000 tourists each year. Conservation areas include Flinders Chase National Park, Seal Bay Conservation Park, Cape Gantheaume Conservation Park, Cape Bouguer Wilderness Protection Area, and Ravine des Casoars Wilderness Protection Area. Species to note are the little penguin (which is fittingly the smallest species of penguin), the glossy black cockatoo, the Kangaroo Island kangaroo, the short-beaked echidna, and the Kangaroo Island dunnart. Most visitors come to the island via ferry from Cape Jarvis on mainland Australia.
MACQUARIE ISLAND: “THE GALÁPAGOS OF THE SOUTHERN OCEAN”
Macquarie Island, or “Macca”, is in the southern Pacific Ocean, about halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica, and is politically part of Tasmania, Australia. The island is approximately 50 square miles in area, and hosts an incredible amount of wildlife. Over 80,000 seals from four distinct species call this island home. Thirteen species of seabirds come to breed here, including two that breed endemically on the island, and Macquarie hosts about 3.5 million seabirds in total! For that reason, BirdLife International named this place as an Important Bird Area, and it also has been a United Nations World Heritage Site since 1997. Getting to the island can be difficult, but there are options to visit with various cruise or photo expedition companies.
SOCOTRA: “THE GALÁPAGOS OF THE INDIAN OCEAN”
Socotra is a four-island archipelago in the Arabian Sea, and is part of Yemen. Its remoteness and size (at 1,466 square miles) makes it a haven for roughly 700 endemic species, and the islands are frequently described as being unlike anything else on earth. Endemic species to note include the Dragon’s blood tree, the Cucumber tree, the Socotra sunbird, and the Socotran chameleon. The ongoing civil war makes it impossible to fly to these islands at the moment, but their unique biodiversity deserves to get mentioned for when the political situation improves and tourism becomes more available.
THE CHANNEL ISLANDS OF CALIFORNIA: “THE GALÁPAGOS OF THE NORTH”
The Channel Islands are a group of eight islands that lay just off the Californian coast, north of Los Angeles. Five of them (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara) make up Channel Islands National Park, and their surrounding marine areas are protected as the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Despite their proximity to the huge L.A. population, the islands receive an average of 70,000 visitors per annum, compared to around 170,000 per year on the Galápagos. Endemic species include the Channel Islands spotted skunk, the San Clemente loggerhead shrike, and the island fox. The surrounding waters host rich kelp forests and it is not uncommon to see gray whales, blue whales, humpback whales and California sea lions nearby. Below are a few photos from Channel Islands’ Santa Cruz island (not to be confused with the Galápagos’s Santa Cruz Island):
There are plenty other examples of “Galápagoses” around the world, and we love that the respect for island biodiversity has become serious in the minds of much of the public. It wasn’t long ago when humans used to arrive at islands around the world and continuously cause extinctions of species found nowhere else. We are thankful that those working for the protection of island biodiversity have reversed this horrible trend, and that many island ecosystems are getting the protection they need. For further reading, the book “The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction” by David Quammen is an excellent resource on the subject of island biodiversity.