The Galápagos Islands
- An archipelago of 13 volcanic islands spread across 45,000km 2 some 1,000km from the mainland of Ecuador.
- They were originally discovered by a Bishop from Panama in the 1500s – not Charles Darwin as is popularly believed.
- Nearly 9,000 species call the Galápagos Islands home. Endemic species – found nowhere else in the world – are common throughout the islands, and many are nearly unchanged since prehistoric times.
- The Galápagos was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 1978. In 1986 it was also declared a marine reserve, 2nd only in size to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
I had wanted to come here my whole life.
I arrived into Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island around midday on Friday 4th. I scouted around for a room in the scorching heat and then set off immediately to talk to operators about a last-minute cruise. It is possible to do the islands independently, but the most important ones are only accessible by boat and under the supervision of a guide. I had heard that sometimes you can get a deal if you turn up and are prepared to wait. I decided to chance it as I had 10 days on the island and I only wanted to do a 5 day cruise.
I ended up talking to an Aussie girl whose cousin I had met in Cartagena. Alice had fallen in love with a local dive master three years ago. They were now married & had their own dive shop. I was keen to dive with the hammerheads & also price a dive cruise. The latter was way out of my price range. I liked Alice. She was informative, not at all pushy, and organised. She had a good view about the majority of boats which were going out the next week. She told me that La Encantada had the best itinerary of them all.
I paid a little more than I had budgeted for. I could have travelled in South America for another 1½ months. I told myself it was less than I normally earn in a fortnight – in exchange for a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity. Even if I did get another chance to come by this way again sometime… who knows? It’s not completely unthinkable that there might come a time when the fragile Galápagos would only be open to an elite group of scientists and the super- uber-rich. Currently the Galápagos sees some 100,000 visitors pa which, despite best endeavours of the authorities, is naturally having an impact on the islands.
On Sunday morning, I went back to the airport where our group was convening. We were met by our Juan, our tour guide. He was a stocky Galapagonean with a friendly round face and a big sincere smile. I put him in his early 50s & guessed he had probably been very fit in his younger years and would have undoubtedly been quite popular with the ladies. He had a reassuring demeanour about him and I could see straight away he was a no-bullshit kinda guy. I liked him instantly.
In the bay where all the boats were docked, La Encantada looked like a simple little country girl in amongst a bunch of sophisticated city women. I admit to thinking I might have been getting one of the flasher boats for my money. But when we got on board, I was really surprised. For starters, she was a lot bigger than she looked (70ft) from the shoreline and she was so well appointed.
The first thing we saw when we went below was a lovely dining room set for 12, with proper linen. Each of the berths had decent sized bunk beds with colour coordinated manchester and their own bathrooms with a hot water shower! My friend Martin would have been beside himself. I was beside myself! This was going to be a very different cruise from the one I had taken in Belize or the one from Panama to Colombia.
We had the first of many delicious 3 course meals cooked by a professional Chef, while Juan introduced us to the rest of the crew and gave us our first briefing.
Over the course of the next 5 days we stopped at 5 of the islands. Every day we took guided walks with the most knowledgeable Juan, who had been living on the islands for more than 40 years and had been guiding for 20. He wasn’t formally educated but you can bet he knew more than a beaker-full of scientists all put together.
He had eyes like a hawk and showed us everything there was to be seen: dozens of different birds, iguanas, insects, and plant life (of which there is a lot more than you might expect on volcanic islands). He would tell us about their history on the island, their mating habits, and give us insight into their future. He shared with us what the locals and scientists were doing to preserve the future of the endangered species. And whipped out facts & figures faster than Wikipedia.
Needless to say, the Galápagos Islands are just phenomenal. Beyond words & pictures in many ways. Definitely one of those places you just have to go and experience for yourself. But I will do my best to share with you what I saw & felt…
The Islands are ugly & unforgiving in many ways. But there’s so much beauty that belies the callous exterior. Armies of intimidating cactus steadfastly stand their ground on an arid volcanic landscape – making the islands seem so unwelcoming. Added to this, at the time we were there – it was harshly hot and uncomfortably dry.
Alighting from the dinghy onto jutting jet black rocks, we saw hundreds of Sally Lightfoot Crabs – all brilliant red-orange with luminous aqua-blue underbellies – slowly swarming around, making the rocks come alive.
Everywhere we looked – there were these prehistoric land iguanas. Some sleeping all piled on top of one another, some coolly munching on little yellow flowers, some just staring you down with their wrinkly old eyes. You had to be careful not to walk on them, there were so many. (My only real disappointment of the trip was I never got to see the freaky underwater iguanas underwater, which woulda been well wicked, but you know: this is nature not a theme-park. Nothing is guaranteed.)
I’m not much of a bird watcher ordinarily – but I quite got into it on the Galápagos. There’s just so many different species. And really weird-arse looking ones, at that. On the first day, we saw one of my favourite birds: the pink flamingos. They remind me of ballerinas: despite their long ungainly legs and thin long necks, they look so elegant & graceful. Most of all I love their colour. Apparently, it’s a result of their diet.
Sitting in the sparse, harsh, trees that looked like they were dying of thirst – we saw Magnificent Frigate Birds. Huge red bulbous throats on a beautiful streamlined body. All the boy birds were showing off, trying to attract the girl birds. “Look at me! Look at me! See how big my big red bulb is!” How they managed to defy gravity when they were flying was beyond me.
We saw many Blue Footed Boobies, for which the Islands are famous for. They look a little like an oversized seagull but prettier and they have these big webbed duck’s feet in the perfect shade of sky blue. It was amazing at how close they would let us get to them. We were lucky enough to see a pair of them do a little mating dance: somewhere between an African tribal dance and a square dance. They would noisily clack their beaks together in a chopstick kissing game. And then stomp around in slow mo on the sand. Then the boy bird tried to get the girl bird to go back to his place. And they waddled on up the track for some business time. I loved that we didn’t even exist in their world.
We snorkelled every day, and every day we spotted a staggering diversity of fish (evidently more than 400 different species) swimming along happily in amongst turtles, manta rays & lots of different types of sharks. The meeting of two different oceanic currents is what brings this astounding array of aquatic life to Galápagos.
One of my favourite sites though, wasn’t the best in terms of underwater life. Not that we could see anyway. The day we went, the waters were unfortunately quite cloudy and visibility was at best 3m. But it was an absolutely stunning rock formation protruding from the dark blue seas, a place called Kicker Rock. Rising 150m out of the ocean, it was quite a sight to behold. It had split into two and you could swim between its towering walls. Another moment of realising how ancient the earth is, and how small we are by comparison. I love these moments that nature sometimes gives you. So humbling.
For me though, the highlight of the whole trip was snorkelling with huge colonies of happy go lucky sea-lions who just wanted to plaaaayyyyyy!!! They just love to come darting up to you at break-neck speed, and then zoom off in a completely different direction at the last second, they’ll roll their big bulbous bodies around in contorted circles, and if you imitate them, they’ll be your friend forever.
Their big brown cow eyes are so soft & sweet, and they have these cute as a button love heart-shaped noses, tough-as-nails looking whiskers and long long teeth – the latter of which can make them look a tad scary sometimes. The babies are just like underwater puppies and cannot get enough. But you don’t want to be getting too close to the bulls. To illustrate why – they can grow up to 2m long and weigh up to 360kg. Comparable to some motorbikes. They can get very protective of their families, so they’re not really something you want to be pissing off.
We had quite a few sessions with these guys, and I can honestly say it was never enough. I could have played with them all day.
Another highlight of the trip was on the last day when we visited the Darwin Research Station and got to see Lonesome George – the only surviving giant Pinta tortoise. I think his story is worth sharing. Because it really highlights the need for us to take better care of our planet and its natural inhabitants for future generations to enjoy.
Discovered on Pinta by accident in 1971 – George, weighing in at 90kg, was relocated to the safety of the Charles Darwin Research Station. Quite how George is or how long giant tortoises live no one actually knows.
His subspecies, Geochelone nigra abingdon is now officially extinct in the wild, according to the World Conservation Union. Of the 14 different types of Galápagos tortoise, three are now extinct.
For centuries, predators (& this includes us) have hunted these gentle reptilian beasts for their meat & their eggs. It is thought that the last tortoise of George’s kind was carried away by scientists in 1906.
In order to prevent Lonesome George’s genes dying out, the Charles Darwin Foundation has put up a $10,000 reward for any zoo that can offer him a female Pinta tortoise. It seems unlikely this will ever happen.
The research station has tried repeatedly to mate George with tortoises from another island, but so far he seems very uninterested in any advances.
However, the research station refuses to admit defeat. They even employed Sveva Grigioni, a “beautiful” 26-year-old Swiss zoology graduate, to spend four months trying to “rouse the fire in Lonesome George’s loins”. This unenviable job involved coating her hands with the “genital secretions” of female tortoises and engaging in “manual stimulation” of George. Apparently such “genital massage” in the cause of conservation is common. Although locating a tortoise’s penis is a highly skilled, indeed delicate, operation, at least it isn’t dangerous. Grigioni’s ministrations did indeed succeed in awakening George’s interest in female tortoises: “he started to try copulation but it was like he didn’t really know how…” Poor old George.
Today George is on his own again, as the woman known as “Lonesome George’s girlfriend” has returned to Switzerland. But the search for a female tortoise “to put the spark back in Lonesome George’s love life” goes on.
A sign at his enclosure reads: “Whatever happens to this single animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands.”
La Encantada’s itinerary
Day 1 (Sunday 6 May, 2012)
- Baltra / Playas Las Bachas
- South Plaza Island
- Santa Fe Island
- San Cristobal – Leon Dormido & Los Lobos
- Kicker Rock
- Floreana Island
- Post office Bay
- Champion Island
- Puerto Cormorant
- Darwin Research Centre