A trip to the Galapagos Islands offers an escape to an untouched animal wonderland, writes Elisabeth Easther

Visiting the Galapagos Islands is like stepping inside a Discovery Channel documentary — the wildlife, often described as ecologically naive, (not to be confused with tame) barely appears to notice humans and, although visitors are instructed to stay at least 2m away from the wildlife, that's not easy when a sea lion is making a beeline for you, or a marine iguana is doing its best impression of a rock.

And there were the encounters that bordered on spiritual — as I was snorkelling with turtles, one took a break from cropping on seagrass to semaphore me with her flippers. I felt the connection — and I wondered, do animals anthropomorphise about us?

But enough whimsy — here are some hard facts. Ecuador is recognised as one of the most megadiverse nations on Earth, bursting with a huge range of flora and fauna. All those creatures and features in a country only about 15,000sq km bigger than New Zealand. And, in a most impressive game of wildlife one-upmanship, where Africa and Borneo have the Big Five, The Galapagos Islands have the Galapagos Big 15.

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Bird nerds and reptile-philes are guaranteed thrills. For the record, my son, Theo, and I ticked off 11.

How to get the best experience? Once in Ecuador, most fly from the capital Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil before flying to the islands, about 1000km west. Then join a cruise — there's no better way to see these 19 islands (and many rocks) than from the water.

Joining the Santa Cruz II on the island of Baltra, I felt a wave of relief that the backpacking was over. For five days I no longer had to be on the lookout for food, digs and danger. As we relished our first meal, we set a course through a sparkling blue sea for a pretty little cove called Las Bachas. There, we were transported to shore on inflatable "panga" boats, and our guides, most of them Galapagos born and bred, led us on our first wildlife walk.

Within minutes of landing on a white sand beach, we had spotted pelicans, boobies, sally lightfoot crabs and a turtle nursery, knocking off four of the big 15 without even trying.

The Santa Cruz II expedition ship in Galapagos Islands.
The Santa Cruz II expedition ship in Galapagos Islands.

And everything was stupendous. We loved the blue-footed boobies, many putting on daring diving displays. We relished the preening pelican giving himself a good old seeing to while his missus sat on their nearby nest — fancy being able to hold up to two gallons of water in your beak!

Baby lava lizards lounged on rocks, supermodel stilts tottered about and a great blue heron posed for photos, but the day's biggest treat was a pair of flamingos, like two animated garden ornaments.

As is customary on quality cruises, each day a guide would give a lecture.

Day One was all about beaks. Each bird had evolved its appendage differently to assist with hunting. Some beaks can dig deep, others dive. Some work like pliers, others like hammers. The flamingo has a special tongue that pumps out mud to filter for food.

In comparison, birds of prey have beaks like meat hooks — pity those poor iguanas — and boobies' beaks are perfect for diving and holding slippery fish. Nature is so clever.

On Day Two we were woken by the graunching sound of the anchor at Buccaneer Cove on Santiago Island, where the steep cliffs and rock formations were buzzing with birds. Once on land we were treated to sea lions frolicking in lava rock grottoes and had to pick our way between prehistoric-looking marine iguanas.

We learned that crabs have two penises — that is a fun fact no matter how grown up you are. As for the birds who have adapted so the fella is nocturnal and the lady is diurnal — I could think of human partnerships where that'd be a recipe for success.

We could have lingered longer on land, but deep-water snorkelling beckoned and we shared the ocean with giant manta rays, a shark, turtles and countless fish of many hues, including a school of silver fish in striped pyjamas whose sides caught the light like mirrors, alerting the pterodactyl-like pelicans searching for prey.

It's hard to imagine, but the next day ramped up a notch and, surrounded by seals basking on the rocks, we swam with Galapagos Penguins, the only kind to live north of the equator. Those sturdy little waddlers on land were so graceful in the water as they grazed on the all-day sashimi buffet.

Arriving at Genovesa Island on Day Four we climbed a set of stone steps to find a paradise of birds. The ground was so blanketed by down it was as if someone had slit open a sleeping bag.

Everywhere we looked we saw chicks. The red-footed boobies sat relaxed in their nests and mocking birds followed us like fantails at home. Gulls, boobies, frigate birds, petrels — we even spotted a rare short-tail owl dining vigorously on a recently perished petrel.

Day Five arrived too soon. We moored outside the quaint town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobel Island. Disembarking at leisure to soften the blow of journey's end, we stopped in at the Cerro Colorado giant tortoise breeding centre — the perfect end to the perfect trip.

It was up to these magnificent creatures to bid us farewell and our blue-ish feelings were replaced by a bubble of happiness — no longer sad at what we were leaving behind but happy for the extraordinary time we'd had.

Holidaying in the Galapagos. Photo / Elisabeth Easther
Holidaying in the Galapagos. Photo / Elisabeth Easther

CHECKLIST

Details:

has a range of Galapagos tour packages, including a seven day Eastern Galapagos Cruise on sale for $6895 per person for bookings before November 30, a saving of 15 percent.

Further information: See santacruzgalapagoscruise.com
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