An encounter with ancient creatures of the Galapagos.
Even the most amateur of photographers leave the Galapagos with impressive images of the islands' inhabitants. Only the most dedicated creatures have made it to these far-flung chunks of land off South America, and survived and evolved in a largely predator-free environment, so they are fearless of tourists.
This is a place where the rules of the food chain are turned on their head. Sea lions either playfully pose for the camera or belligerently bark at frightened tourists trying to pass on the jetty. Prehistoric-looking iguanas litter the coral white sands, lying ominously still where they're at risk of being stood on. Blue-footed boobies perch clumsily in low-hanging shrubs. Waved albatross, majestic in the sky, perform mating rituals on the path where they've made their nests. To these inhabitants of the islands, humans are just one more strange species to be noticed but not feared.
This collection of creatures, swept to the shores of the Galapagos by evolutionary chance, profoundly influenced human thinking when they become the catalyst for Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution. When the scientist visited the islands in 1835 he was fascinated by the animals' adaptation to survival in what can be a harsh environment, and his theories changed forever what mankind knew of its place in the world.
All of this means that to even the most seasoned traveller, a journey to the Galapagos elicits childlike excitement. My plane from Ecuador's capital, Quito, is full of well-heeled American and European retirees seeking adventure in their twilight years. The plane fills with excited chatter as our first glimpse of the Galapagos comes into view. A strange island, flat, low-lying and treeless, passes before a perfect volcanic cone rises sharply out of the sea. Large cactus trees greet us on landing at the airport on Isla Baltra, a strip of tarmac in marshland. Immigration is little more than a large shed with open walls to allow a breeze to slice through the clammy 35C heat. I have just landed in my very own Treasure Island adventure story and I'm excited.
After a 10-minute bus ride from the airport, we are zipping through turquoise water to our ship, the Beluga. She exudes the classic charm and beauty of a bygone era without any of the ostentatious glitz of today's super yachts. A ruffled, cheeky pelican peers at us as we speed from the jetty; a sea lion glides through the water close to our Zodiac.
The Beluga's crew are like something out of the 1970s American television series, The Love Boat. They greet us in starched white uniforms, the captain resplendent in his hat. George, our steward, is a good-looking, solidly built Ecuadorian. He ushers our group of 13 through each day and is always attired in a waistcoat and bow tie by the time pre-dinner drinks are served each night. Our guide, Silvia Panchana of Enchanted Expeditions, is a no-nonsense Swiss who has lived on the islands since 1984. She came through South America as a young backpacker and made a last-minute decision to visit the Galapagos. First she fell in love with the wildlife and later a ship's captain.
Our tour of the central and eastern Galapagos takes us to seven of its 13 islands, each of which is different in appearance, age and wildlife. Our first land excursion is on Isla Santa Cruz, a skip and a jump from the airport. The sky is steel-blue and stormy. A rainbow hovers over a lagoon where we watch greater flamingos feed, strikingly pink in the dim light. We walk through a towering cactus forest and observe large, yellow land iguanas lying still, ancient survivors from another time and place. We can't stop taking photos and Sylvia jokingly tells us we are lucky the days of celluloid are over. We return from our leisurely island walk to see a beautiful sunset.
The jokers of the Galapagos are the sea lions. As we snorkel in a rocky bay, they swim alongside, just metres away, staring at us inquisitively. I gain courage and dive, and they dive with me, circling. I can't resist playing with them; it's thrilling and at times frightening when they come too close. I discover they love it when you blow bubbles they can chase. I have never interacted with animals this way; they seem so like humans and I think what fun it would be to take a couple home.
The island's most famous inhabitants, from which the Galapagos derive their Spanish name, are the giant tortoises. We set off in search of some in the lush highlands of Santa Cruz and even though I expect them to be large, I am startled by the sheer size of a male in the flesh. Their grey, wrinkled heads are not pretty, and their eyes seem sinister, but their massive shells are beautiful. Covered in intricate hexagonal shapes, they show the scars of many years.
I discover a large male in the undergrowth feeding on guava fruit, his face covered in the pink flesh of his meal. He is soon surrounded by excited onlookers wanting to touch him and take photos. He's distressed but his slow gait makes escape impossible.
It's easy to see why giant tortoises have fared badly since humans discovered them on the Galapagos: as well as being slow, they can live without water for up to a year, and are nutritious to eat, making them a popular choice for passing pirates who would pick them up and keep them on board their ships until they were ready to eat them.
At the Charles Darwin Research Station we glimpse Lonesome George, the sole surviving subspecies of giant tortoise from Pinta Island. He's thought to be in his 90s and, understandably, there is much interest in his sex life. He died soon after our visit but some of his sperm has been put on ice in the hope that some of his genetic material will be preserved through breeding.
Everyone I speak to is fervent when describing their experience of the Galapagos. It's a quirky and fantastic anomaly on our planet. It's unique, and a privilege to experience.
This also makes the islands big business and visitor numbers have increased dramatically over the past 30 years, from 10,000 a year in the early 1980s to
a whopping 200,000 last year.
The Ecuadorian Government thinks this figure can increase further without disrupting the fragile ecosystem. Silvia is less sure and she's concerned about the future. "I don't want to see it all fall apart, it would be very painful. If you grow something very quickly you may get to the point where it is too late to put the brakes on. The Galapagos is a very special place, everything is upside down, it will be difficult to turn back the clock if we go too far."
As our Zodiac whisks us back to the jetty from which we embarked eight days earlier a sea lion barks at us lazily. He is clearly not concerned by such matters.
Caleb Hulme-Moir spent six months this year travelling from the south of Argentina to northern Columbia. To read more about his travels visit calebstravels.wordpress.com. Enchanted Expeditions hosted him on a Galapagos tour. See enchantedexpeditions.com.
Tips for organising your Galapagos holiday
* It's expensive to get to Ecuador so it's worth paying extra for a good tour once you arrive. A good operator will ensure English is spoken, wildlife viewing is maximised and air-conditioned rooms provided.
* Choose your itinerary carefully. A tour of the western and central islands offers volcanic landscapes and potential to see more turtles and whales. The central and eastern islands are less volcanic but offer more wildlife.
* Don't go for less than an eight-day tour. This is the right amount of time to properly explore the islands.
* If you opt for a cheaper operator make sure that the ship promised to you is the one you actually embark on.
* For the best last-minute deals fly to Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz, and shop around, but be prepared to wait for a few days to get on a tour.