The remote Galapagos Islands are a fascinating window into the world of their creaturely indigenous inhabitants, writes Vanessa James.
It's early morning and a hot, dry wind courses across the pitted red-brown landscape as we cluster together, scanning the bare volcanic rock with binoculars. Someone spots one - there! The tawny short-eared owls are just visible against the darker rocks as they turn their heads back and forth, back and forth, before launching into the air and swooping feet-first on their unsuspecting targets. They have plenty of choice - hundreds of petrels and terns swoop and dive along the cliff edge above the pounding waves. But this one is chasing iguana.
Closer to us, a yellow-crowned night heron perches in a dead shrub. Frigate birds nest on clumps of sticks on the ground or low branches, some with eggs and some with fluffy white chicks with bald brown heads. The fat rounded spines of furry lava cacti soften the harsh landscape.
These barren hunks of lava jutting forbiddingly from the ocean - rejecting sailors and settlers for centuries because of their lack of water and soil, yet home to thousands of unique birds and animals - are the Galapagos.
We set sail five days ago on the Lindblad Expeditions ship the National Geographic Endeavour, heading south from the island of San Cristobal to Espanola, then Floreana, Santa Cruz, and now Genovesa. There are 70 land-based and 75 marine visitor sites on the Galapagos, and a restricted number of tourists are spread across them via a complicated approval process between tour operators and the Galapagos National Park Service. During our whole time in the archipelago, we haven't seen a single other vessel.
The Endeavour is one of the largest boats in the Galapagos, and her 96 passengers have to be split into groups with a maximum of 16 to comply with National Park requirements. Each day we disembark in Zodiacs to explore the islands by foot, in kayaks or by snorkelling and diving.
We visit 18 sites, seeing the myriad unique plant and animal life, including blue- and red-footed boobies, pelicans, flamingos, lava lizards, iguanas, turtles, tortoises, finches, mockingbirds and whitetip reef sharks. Part of what makes the Galapagos so special is that the wildlife does not recognise humans as predators, and we can walk right up to nesting birds, snorkel with sea lions and crouch behind giant tortoises without distressing the animals.
Exploring the islands is a breeze aboard Lindblad Expeditions' Zodiacs. Photo / Vanessa James
The boat is full of inspirational and interesting people, including Tjadra and Jochem, self-funded veterinarians from the Netherlands "on a mission around the world to treat animals, contribute to conservation and create better awareness about animal welfare". Dogs in particular create significant issues on the Galapagos because of a lack of knowledge about animal care in the resident population. Tjadra and Jochem vaccinate, de-worm and spay and neuter dogs and cats, and provide essential veterinary care. They've been sponsored on this cruise by Lindblad. We are also joined by four Galapagos teachers as part of Lindblad's Teachers on Board programme, which aims to enhance the environmental knowledge of local teachers so they can pass this on to their students.
Despite the tight controls, our trip is packed with activity and delight. On a ride around Santa Cruz, Tjadra and I sit on the front of the small boat, our legs hanging over the side as the Zodiac noses around the red mangrove forest. Reef shark pups dart in the shallow water around the mangrove roots; further out, the heads of eastern Pacific green sea turtles pop out of the water and duck under again. A Galapagos penguin darts in front of our boat, a great blue heron takes off from a rocky outcrop studded with Sally Lightfoot crabs, and blue-footed boobies dive at breakneck speed into the water.
Before this trip I had assumed tourism was the main threat to the Galapagos Islands. After seeing how the Lindblad-National Geographic Fund for Conservation and Exploration supports education and conservation, I understand the delicate balance: without funding from tourism, the islands as we know them would probably no longer exist.
Introduced plants and animals represent a major threat to the Galapagos. The islands are managed by legislation commonly referred to as the Special Law for the Galapagos. The law restricts migration, where people can live (97.5 per cent of the islands are national park) and the kinds of pets they can keep. The population has grown rapidly, driven largely by tourism and a boom in the sea cucumber fishery (an Asian delicacy), to nearly 30,000 from about 3000 in the 1970s. Just over half the population live in poverty, with a minority having access to potable water and wastewater systems. It's a constant struggle to balance the subsistence needs of the local people with the intensive conservation measures required to preserve these beautiful, unique islands.
The Galapagos Islands' myriad unique plant and animal life, includes blue- and red-footed boobies, pelicans, flamingos, lava lizards, iguanas, turtles, tortoises, finches, mockingbirds and whitetip reef sharks. Photo / Vanessa James
As we cruise around Floreana Island in the Zodiacs, the stench of slaughtered goat wafts across the water. We see cat prints crossing turtle tracks, and a dead rat on Bartolome Islet. Eliminating the introduced species presents a major - and expensive - challenge. Removing goats from Santiago Island took 52 months and cost $7.3 million. Insects, seeds and diseases arriving in unmonitored cargo also present a significant threat. There is a sense the Galapagos are at a crossroads, faced with a final opportunity to stem development and tip the scales towards conservation.
This trip is not only about wildlife spotting. As we circumnavigate Daphne Major Islet, the sun drops to the horizon and we gather on the bow for a Champagne toast.
The next night, the ship's horn sounds to bring people to the bridge and we count down and cheer as we cross the Equator.
On our last morning the Zodiacs, waiting alongside the ship, attract hundreds of noddy terns, pelicans and blue-footed boobies. As we watch the birds paddling in the water, great shapes appear beneath the surface and send the birds into a sudden frenzy. A massive school of giant trevally and a dozen blacktip reef sharks hunt and dive in the crystal-clear water beneath us.
The final call comes to leave the ship. Jochem and I wait on the stern of the boat, hoping for another sighting of the sharks as the other passengers queue in the corridors in orange lifejackets. Finally, four enormous sharks glide past us just beneath the surface, their white undersides clearly visible in the pure water.
Getting there: LAN Chile has six direct flights from Auckland to Santiago, Chile a week. LAN Airways operates between Santiago and Guayaquil, Ecuador.
Tours: Lindblad Expeditions has two ships cruising the Galapagos: the National Geographic Endeavour and the National Geographic Islander. Cruises depart every seven days.
Vanessa James travelled to the Galapagos Islands with the help of Lindblad Expeditions.