Switching off flight-mode on my phone I was able to track our flight progress out west into the Pacific. Eventually I caught sight of one of the Galapagos islands and I couldn’t help a giddy thrill – Darwin, evolution, finches and all the rest came to mind. We circled an island – shaped like a hollow cone it betrayed the volcanic provenance of this island chain in the middle of nowhere.
Just getting to Galapagos and paying the entrance fees means a starting cost of $700 before even setting foot there. In the end I figured when would I be so close and have the time to do it again. I found a last-minute deal on a 5 day boat cruise a few weeks before and gave myself a few days afterwards to do day trips of my choosing and this worked out to be a perfect mix.
The number of boats and routes are strictly controlled to avoid flooding any one place with tourists and ours was the 5B route heading out East to the islands of North Baltra, San Cristobal, Espanola, Santa Fe and back to the main town of Puerta Ayora.
Our boat Yolita II left the next day with 16 guests on board and a great mix too – an extended family from US, sisters from Connecticut, aussie solo traveller sharing cabin with me, two friends from Holland, couple from Austria and some friends from Chile who we all thought were a couple but weren’t and a quiet Russian man who made up in photos any deficit in chat.
All aboard we headed out for our first stop on North Baltra Island. What becomes quickly apparent is the bizarre tameness of the animals. Walk straight up to them and they simply stare you down. Iguanas, birds and sealions – none have any predators on the islands and so they’ve never developed fear of humans, one of the many ways this island chain is an ecological unicorn.
Our second day started in spectacular fashion with a 6.30am snorkelling session where I saw more large marine life than in any scuba dive – dozen turtles, a school of sharks, tuna and rays glided by completely oblivious to the thrilled tourists bobbing away above them and occasionally diving down to swim alongside – if only for a few seconds. Then it was back on the boat for breakfast and to our next stop of Cerro Brujo.
There are a few reasons why the Galapagos are unique – the first being their remote location and age. They have never been colonised by land mammals, only birds, reptiles and sea mammals like sea lions.
The second is how they have formed – as plate drifts over a hotpoint in the crust islands form volcanically but continue to drift eastward. This means the most easterly are the oldest and have the most developed ecosystems, vegetation etc. while those in the west are barren volcanic landscapes.
The third is their location at the confluence of multiple ocean currents from the south, north and west. All three combine to create an environmental variety with different ecological niches both to the South American mainland and indeed each other. Unfortunately none of this was explained by our guide and we were left to do our own homework on the matter!
The islands are famous for their different species of finches and it is true that Darwin did collect specimens of these. He didn’t however comment much on them or even mark which island each was from it was instead the differences of the mockingbirds that caught his eye. While the specialised beaks of the finches do provide a clear-cut case of evolution by natural selection based on their food source this was established after the fact and somehow the association with finches and Darwin has stuck.
Over the next three days we moved between islands visiting sea lion colonies, bird nesting sites and snorkelling our way around. Snorkelling with the sea-lions was great fun. Less lions and more dogs of the sea they are curious in the extreme and obsessed by go-pro cameras on sticks – complete attention seekers!
An inevitable progression of these holidays is that the first iguana is snapped like a movie star and by day five iguanas don’t get a second glance unless they are particularly colourful or large. The sea-lions always got a look in, if only because they are so playful and charismatic.
Evenings progressed with a few drinks or cards and the total digital detox of being miles from anywhere was pleasantly relaxing. I did feel hard done by when, sitting in the shade reading in the middle of the day, I managed to burn my front badly apart from a slightly lighter spot where my Kindle was. The equatorial sun is not to be messed with – even second-hand reflections!
After day five we were back on land and headed to the Charles Darwin Institute to see the Giant Tortoise breeding centre before retreating to later find the cheapest happy hour in town. At one point whether it was being back on land or the three strong caipirhinas for $10 which had the room wavering.
The next day myself, Kim and Stephanie, the two sisters from the US and Tom my Aussie roommate headed up to the hills to see the giant tortoises loafing about au naturel. We didn’t have to go far to find them but they must be a nuisance to drivers as when approached by a car in the road they just tuck up and don’t move!
Some monster-sized tortoises gave us a good hiss as we went past although that seemed about the height of their aggression.
Back along the route there were lava tunnels formed deep in the past and sink holes – all clues to the dynamic creation of the islands.
On our last night on the islands we met up with Romkje and Marica the two Dutch friends for a slap up seafood dinner of things some of the marine species which don’t seem to be conserved!
On my way through the airport I spotted frequently the BBC Galapagos documentary on DVD but also this gem ‘The Mysterious Islands’.
Produced by Vision Forum Ministries and a creationist ‘documentary’ about the islands. The authoritative review and endorsement from a group called ‘Answers in Genesis’ had me laughing all the way to the plane.