Some of us will go to all four corners of the planet for a wildlife encounter. I have sat with silverback gorillas on the volcanic slopes of Rwanda, followed wild dogs for two days through grasslands of South Africa, hiked in the Sumatran jungle for a glimpse of an orangutan and sat in the dark as dawn broke just to hear the black gibbon song in North Vietnam. So Galapagos for me was a bucket list adventure. And now that I have been I would say to anyone who wants to listen – make it a must do trip for you as well. There is something for everyone from guided wildlife walks, zodiacs, kayaking to snorkeling, diving, swimming or just bobbing in the water off the beach. And at every turn there is a nature encounter as species as diverse as marine iguana’s, penguins, boobies, sea lions and giant tortoises’ wander freely through the volcanic landscape. You can explore beaches of black, green and red sand or just lie in the sun on your boat.
When Charles Darwin first sailed in the Galapagos Archipelago aboard the HMS Beagle in 1831 he knew he had discovered something extraordinary. As history tells us it was this magical group of 19 islands, in the Pacific Ocean off Ecuador that inspired his theory of evolution which he later published in The Origin of Species. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site the Galapagos Archipelago, once known as the Enchanted Islands by Spanish sailors during 15th Century when fog would make the islands disappear, is an eco tourism wonderland.
I was lucky enough to spend eight days exploring the western islands with Ecoventura on the first hybrid yacht in Galapagos known as Eric, whose solar panels and wind generators have lead the way in sustainable tourism in the region. Ecoventura also work with the local communities to help them manage the natural resources of the islands by establishing the Galapagos Marine Biodiversity Fund in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund as well as the Ecology Project International that works with high school students around the globe.
I had one of those once in a lifetime trips that left me with no doubt that my love affair with Galapagos had only just begun. My first day on the boat I was kissed by sea lion and by the end of the week I had swam with penguins, watched green sea turtles mate in the surf, danced with a few blue-footed boobies and encountered my first hammerhead shark!
On my first morning, our 28 metre cruiser ‘Eric’ seemed dwarfed by the size of Leon Dormido (more commonly known as Kicker Rock) rising over 100 metres out of the Pacific Ocean. It was just after 7am and daybreak offered a magical light display as we watched frigates, gulls, pelicans and petrels go about their business on its grassy tuff. This incredible rock formation on the north east tip of San Cristobal Island is a nesting site for many birds including the blue-footed booby whose mating dance is high on my encounter wish list. For over thirty minutes our boat circled this giant landmark before we moved inside for breakfast.
With a hot meal in our stomach and cameras at the ready we jumped in our panga and headed for the white coral beach called Warlock Hill (Cerro Brujo) eagerly awaiting our first look at the endemic species of Galapagos. A visual feast awaited us.
Sea lions were sleeping between the volcanic rock and tide line, marine iguanas roam completely unaware of our arrival and ghost crabs pop in and out of their sandy homes as waves gently wash up and down the soft and silky beach. A gentle walk revealed marine green turtle tracks where a female had come to shore the night before and laid around 150 eggs in the hope that in a few months some of her young would survive the treacherous journey to the sea where birds, crabs and iguanas waited, wanting a tasty treat.
We then settled down on the beach for some snorkeling. The water was crystal clear, warm and salty offering great buoyancy and I got my first personal taste of the delight of swimming with sea lions. One cheeky rascal swam around me, gave me a few graceful acrobatic movements and then came right up to my mask, whiskers and all, eye to eye. I was hooked.
The next five days was a series of land and sea adventures that all had something fresh and different to share. Espanola – which is uninhabited by man and the oldest, southern most Island of the Galapagos – has one of the largest endemic marine iguana populations and Gardner’s Bay is home to what the locals call Sea Lion Kindergarten. Here in the protected shallow pools sea lion females teach their young pups how to swim, fish and survive. Nothing equals the playfulness of sea lion pups and if we had done nothing else all day I would have been more than satisfied but this was only the beginning of what this beautiful wildness would show us. The rocks were covered with marine ‘christmas’ iguanas, crabs, Galapagos doves, Darwin finches, lava lizards, frigates, mockingbirds and Nasca boobies, literally in the hundreds. No matter where you looked something in nature was unfolding – a Galapagos Hawk stalking their prey or green and red coloured male iguana’s fighting for the attention of females.
Next stop was Floreana one of the four human inhabited islands of Galapagos with the smallest population of around 144 people. We jumped out of our pangas on a rich green sand beach covered in sea lions in search of the Greater Pink Flamingo in the islands brackish lagoon. We only managed to find two flamingos so spent the half an hour calf deep in the surf watching two sea turtles keep the population thriving!! Two days later on Bartolome, after spending our morning with the penguin population, we stumbled upon four more flamingos feeding on algae right beside the water line meaning we were able to get within a metre of them. And being the pinkest of the species their plumage is breathtaking.
That afternoon was spent snorkeling in the clear crystal waters off Pinnacle Rock and whilst I was following a school of fish a small curious face appeared in front of me. This particular penguin was also following fish, ducking and diving after them as they kept changing direction to avoid him. He stopped for a moment, saw me directly in his path and then continued following his dinner, which by this stage meant he swam around my stomach in two circles and disappeared between my legs. It was brilliant. The next forty five minutes was the best snorkeling yet with sea stars, octopus, reef sharks, mantra rays, sea turtles, sea lions, hundreds of tropical fish, a black stingray and plenty of diving penguins. It’s days like this that make you want to stay here forever.
We also visited South Plaza and the tiny island of North Seymour where land iguanas and their marine cousins thrive as well as gulls, frigates and boobies. It’s here that you get up close and personal with the birds and walk beside their nesting sites watching them feed and care for their young chicks. In April the Albatross arrive and start their six month stay mating and covering the cliff tops in young chicks eager to learn about the world.
No trip to Galapagos would be complete without the Giant Land Tortoise from which the islands derived their name. They are gentle giants who live an estimated 150 years and can grow as large as 200kg. Despite hundreds of years of pillaging by buccaneers and sailors, which wiped out many island populations in the region not to mention the Norwegian canning factory, some species survive and are now thriving. Darwin Station is also a must do to really get a full picture of the chequered history and positive future outlook of these volcanic islands.
I did not even see half what Galapagos has to offer but I would endure twenty seven hours of airtime in a heart beat just to see to the blue-footed booby dance on the cliffs of North Seymour once again.