I grew up on tales from my biology teacher father about the voyages and discoveries of his hero, Charles Darwin. I have always wanted to visit the Galápagos Islands, where Darwin’s observations of the shared traits and subtle differences of species which make up the diverse wildlife inspired him to develop the theories of evolution and natural selection.
Actually setting foot in a place I have known for my whole life via teachers, books, pictures and museum exhibitions felt like visiting the Promised Land.
Most people on the islands are Darwin geeks who care passionately about nature and conservation. But the Galápagos attracts all walks of life; even creationists come to marvel at the flora and fauna, some of which exists nowhere else on earth.
One guide we met believed that these islands were the Garden of Eden; the animals have a carefree life without fear of humans or other predators. There is even a forbidden fruit: the apple-like manzanilla, poisonous to humans but a key part of giant tortoises’ diet.
The main island of Santa Cruz is surprisingly busy, with 20,000 inhabitants – I had always pictured the Galápagos to be more of a wilderness.
We went to pay respects to “Char-less Darwin” as he is known here (my last name is always pronounced “Dook-ess” throughout South America).
Although this statue was a respectable tribute to the local hero, in other places on the islands Darwin is depicted as a freaky Poseidon-like deity…
There are several giant tortoise reserves around the islands, all committed to preserving endangered species and preventing another sad story like that of Lonesome George, who lived for decades as the last surviving member of his subspecies, and died recently without passing on his genes to any offspring.
Thankfully, many tortoises are thriving at these sanctuaries. Mark and I were lucky enough to visit during feeding time, which only happens once every couple of days.
It was quite hypnotic watching these ancient creatures creak over like grumpy old men, to munch painstakingly slowly at the leaves.
We were also allowed to check out the breeding area. Tortoise eggs are taken from their underground nests (mothers don’t miss them as they abandon their eggs once they’ve been laid anyway). The eggs are incubated until they hatch (fascinatingly, the sex of the tortoise s determined by the temperature of the eggs during incubation) and then the tortoise babies are kept safe from dangers like hungry rats and careless goats for the first three years of their lives. This ensures the babies have a much greater chance of reaching maturity and ultimately helps to keep tortoise population numbers up.
Although much more wildlife exists on the more remote and less populated islands, Santa Cruz island is home to many sea lions, who seem to enjoy much of what the town has to offer. Sea lions snoozing on park benches, lounging in small boats, or begging for scraps at the fish market are a common sight.
Similarly, the pelicans on Santa Cruz use the main harbour as a convenient lookout point before they dive for fish.
Santa Cruz’s beach at Tortuga Bay is a fantastic place to spot marine iguanas.
Usually the black reptiles can be found on dark lava rocks, but here, against the super fine white sand that looks and feels like talcum powder, they stand out beautifully.
While we waited for a multi day trip to the more far-flung islands to become available, we went on a couple of day trips.
Isabella island has a lagoon which white tipped sharks use to sleep in. Although these sharks do not attack people, I was glad that we could see the lagoon from the safety of dry land.
Dangerous or not, something about the way sharks move gives me the shivers!
The Galápagos islands have some of the best scuba diving spots in the world. As a diving novice I wasn’t allowed to go to Gordon Rocks (you need at least 30 dives under your belt before you’re deemed experienced enough to navigate the changeable currents). For the first time in months, Mark and I split up for the day: I went on a dive boat headed for the more manageable, but still excellent, dive site at Seymour while Mark went off to Gordon Rocks.
Although you’re virtually guaranteed to spot dozens of hammerhead sharks there, Mark was unlucky and saw none at all, but still saw plenty of white tipped reef sharks, sea turtles, rays and many types of big pelagic fish.
Amazingly, a snorkelling excursion we signed up for at Kicker Rock on San Cristobal island was miles better than either of our scuba dives, or indeed most of the 70+ dives of Mark’s whole experience.
The water was cool, clear turquoise and just brimming with wildlife: Galapagos sharks (which don’t bother humans unlike tiger or great white sharks), massive sea turtles, rays, and about a million different kinds of colourful fish.
At one memorable moment we had to swim through the narrow channel of a gorge between two tall, sheer towers of rock.
As the channel was only a couple of metres wide so it was a bit of a thoroughfare for sea creatures passing through. Because of the narrowness, the current of the water passing through was really strong and we had to swim hard to navigate the ebb and flow of the swell. It was incredible doing this with a snorkel mask on, able to see all these different species right under us, all swimming hard against the current like we were. It was like being part of a wildlife documentary!
A motor boat took us between the three snorkel locations – at one point Mark and I were sitting on the bow of the boat as it roared past mini islands, through stunning turquoise water with the sun beating down and the wind in our hair, thinking of our friends slaving away at work back home…and how much they would hate us if they could see where we were!
The final snorkelling spot was one of a few places where we were able to play with sea lions in the water. So memorable!
We managed to get a deal for a last minute, 4 day 3 night cruise. It may be more fitting to say “boat trip” as this poky thing, ironically named “King of the Sea”, is hardly the type of luxury vessel normally associated with the word “cruise”.
It was big enough for some impressive jumps and divebombs from the roof though, and we had a fun, young group.
Over the four days we visited the islands of San Cristobal, Española and Floreana. We saw hundreds of sea lions…
There are about 28,000 sea lions living on the Galápagos, the same number as human inhabitants. They’re so chilled out around people that you can join them for one of their many naps…
As well as black marine iguanas, some of the islands like Floreana have coloured species…
I think the one on the bottom left looks like he is showing off full sleeve tattoos. Well ‘ard. Look at the chap on the top left, eating a discarded sally lightfoot crab shell (for the calcium, apparently).
Here are some which got away…
After a few days in the Galápagos, we saw so many sharks while snorkelling that I stopped feeling uneasy about them. I love this photo – two white tipped reef sharks sleeping ON TOP of a ray!
There are also huge flocks of blue footed boobies – apparently their feet become even bluer when it’s mating season, but they were pretty blue!
Like the sea lions, they’re totally nonplussed by humans so you can sit and chill with them.
Hundreds of them can be found around the cliffs of Floreana, where they circle overhead and dive down to pluck fish out of the crashing waves.
The waves hit the cliffs with such force, the spray is as strong as a geyser. Sometimes unfortunate iguanas get shot 20m straight up into the air by the water!
There always seemed to be a new type of bird to look at in the sky.
Clockwise from top left: oystercatcher, mockingbird (Darwin had his eureka moment when studying the beak lengths of mockingbirds from different islands); albatross, flamingos, frigate bird (with its red chest puffed out to attract a mate), Galápagos hawk.
Although visiting the islands is famously expensive (flights, entry fees and costs of mandatory tour guides add up), we let our credit cards take the hit. Knowing this would be a once in a lifetime experience and that access is very likely to restricted in the future for conservation purposes made the eye-watering cost easier to bear – and the experience was worth every penny (and subsequent debt!)
Please can I stay forever and be a castaway, or a stowaway on a pirate ship?!