Lindy Davis enjoys her close encounter with the unique wildlife of these remote islands
The promise of an up-close encounter with lava lizards, blue-footed boobies and red-lipped batfish was an opportunity too incredible to pass up.
Home to the gigantic whale shark and several species found nowhere else on the planet, the Galapagos Islands had until recently been nothing more than a red dot on my world map.
A visit to the remote cluster of volcanic islands isn't spontaneous. Strict guidelines limit the number of visitors to the nature reserve, in order to protect the fragile archipelago that sits on the Equator about 1000km off the coast of Ecuador.
There are various options for touring in the Galapagos depending on budget and time, but all are by boat.
Due to the islands' isolation, the climate is determined almost entirely by ocean currents, which in turn are influenced by trade winds. This can vary according to the season and despite it being more tropical in the summer months, wetsuits are recommended for diving and snorkelling. I'm used to sailing in relatively comfortable conditions in the South Pacific and wouldn't contemplate venturing out in anything above 15 knot winds.
But if you visit some of the more remote Galapagos islands be prepared for rough conditions on open seas.
After flying from Miami to Ecuador with an overnight stay in Quito, I take a two-hour flight to Seymour Airport on the island of Baltra and, finally, a shuttle to the marina.
On board, we are briefly introduced to the other passengers from Canada, Peru, the US and Israel. The couple from New York have clearly gone to great lengths with their wardrobe preparation. Dressed top-to-toe in camouflage gear, they could've easily passed as official Galapagos guides.
I'd been advised to pack casual layering garments, a warm jacket and hiking shoes for island walks. I'd also add binoculars and seasickness medication to the list. The local currency is US dollars and the trips largely all inclusive, leaving little to purchase other than the park entrance fees.
The boat crew mostly speak Spanish but our guide Hansel is bilingual. He has been in the nature guiding business for 30 years and assures our group there isn't a single question he can't answer. The 10-day cruise option gives us the opportunity to see as many different animal species as possible and includes a stop on Fernadina, the youngest volcano and most pristine ecosystem, and home to the most intriguing iguanas.
Some of the smaller atolls are nothing more than white sand coral beaches, while others are formed from stark volcanic rock with moonlike craters.
Black Turtle Cove is the first stop on the northernmost part of Santa Cruz Island. The inlet is surrounded by mangroves and only accessible by inflatable. Small black and white-tipped reef sharks, baby hammerheads, sea turtles and beautiful speckled rays drift around. Frigate birds and swallow-tailed gulls circle overhead as we head in the direction of Genovesa. A blanket of stark white poop covers the rock of the aptly-named Bird Island. A group of red-footed boobies gather together squawking raucously on the headland as though we've disturbed their lunch break.
We pass Santiago Island, with its impressive rock formation known as the Chinese Hat jutting precariously out from the cliff edge. The water is deep emerald and clear enough to see 6-10m below. Stepping on shore at Darwin Bay I'm greeted by an enormous sea lion. If I'd encountered him this close on a West Coast beach in New Zealand, things may have been different. But here, where there is no imminent sense of threat, the great creature is hauling himself along the sand practically smiling at me.
After a short walk along the white sand beach, we head inland through mangroves filled with nesting birds. Nazca and red-footed boobies live here, along with a colony of swallow-tailed gulls. Many have nests showcasing the most gorgeous looking chicks I've ever seen. With long necks, downy feathers and large inquisitive eyes, they show no fear as I stand beside the nests.
This is our first opportunity to snorkel among colourful reef fish, hammerhead sharks and rays. A group of sea lions play in the tidal pools and we swim nearby, still keeping a respectful distance.
Back on board the boat we head to Darwin Station on Santa Cruz island. It was here Charles Darwin conceived his theory of evolution and first worked on The Origin of the Species.
The Research Station has an established breeding programme for tortoises and currently has hatchlings from 70mm to adults that measure 1.2 metres. The tortoise is native to seven of the Galapagos Islands and its shell size and shape varies depending on its origin.
A sub-species known as the Pinta Island tortoise is now extinct after the last remaining creature, "Lonesome George", died in 2012. Tortoise numbers have severely declined and although it isn't ideal seeing them in captivity, the Research Station programme is designed to protect them.
The next stop is Bartholomew Island, an extinct volcano with red and green volcanic formations and the famous Pinnacle Rock. A moderate walk up 375 steps leads to the summit, with arguably one of the best views of the Galapagos. Clusters of lava cactus and a few hardy pioneer plants are scattered sporadically on an otherwise barren landscape.
The afternoon is spent at the oddly-shaped Isabela Island, the largest in the Galapagos, formed after six volcanoes merged into one land mass. The Equator runs directly across its northern section and as we approach it becomes clear the island is a playground for penguins. Hundreds are lined up on the rocks, flippers outstretched ready to launch into the water.
The most challenging of the walks comes at the Sierra Negra Volcano — the largest basalt caldera in the Galapagos. A recent rain shower has left the ground wet and slippery. I spot a few small finches feeding in the scrub, but not much else.
The east coast of this island is Elizabeth Bay and we stop to observe a family of sea lions on the rocks. It's here I get my first glimpse of the most adorable species of bird, the blue-footed booby.
Decked out in a coat of plush white feathers and with feet that look like bright blue gumboots, it's hard to take the booby seriously. It's even harder when we are fortunate to witness the mating ritual, which involves a fair bit of strutting, foot stomping and shrill whistling. Once the female is aroused by this absurd performance, she reinforces the male's behaviour by fluttering her wings and signalling she's ready to join him. It's nothing short of comedy.
Fernandina, named after the Spanish King Ferdinand, resembles images I've seen of the Moon's landscape, but with lava fields that stretch out to the edge of the ocean. No foreign species has ever been introduced to this island, making it one of the world's most pristine ecosystems.
After a 2km hike past the nesting site of the flightless cormorant, I stumble on a squirming grey mass of spiny reptiles. Thousands of lava lizards are piled on top of each other in compromising poses, clearly having no issues with personal space.
It's estimated there are around 400,000 marine iguanas on Fernadina, believed to have originally been transported on fallen trees from the jungles of South America, crossing the ocean to eventually arrive in the Galapagos. Despite their mainland diet of juicy leaves, they adapted to eating seaweed and gradually evolved shorter snouts, tougher claws and sharper teeth. They can shrink their bones to a body length 20 per cent smaller when times are tough and there's little food, regrowing them again once the climate is warmer with plenty of food.
Observing iguanas requires patience. They sunbathe on the black lava rock until their body temperature almost reaches boiling point. Once the first bunch look ready to make a move I join them, to watch what could best be described as alien water ballet. Swimming effortlessly through the water, they twist and turn before diving to graze on rocks covered with green algae, known as sea lettuce.
The cold Humboldt current means the iguanas eat as much as they can in as short a time as possible before clambering back to bask on the black lava rocks. It isn't long before the sneezing starts. Iguanas have special glands between the eyes and nostril that eject excess salt with a stream of air from their nostrils. They are undeniably one of the weirdest creatures on the planet.
Egas Port on Santiago island is hugely memorable for the tan-and-brown Galapagos hawks that perch on low tree branches silently watching the quick-footed lava lizards. The trail leads to the coastline with tide pools and grottos where several groups of seals sleep peacefully on the beach. Many of them have young pups, but none are fazed by our approach. After thoroughly exploring this island there's an opportunity to swim with sea turtles before starting the longest and roughest boat ride back to San Cristobal.
We hit the open sea and the wind is gusting 25-30 knots. Almost all the passengers are either on anti-nausea medication or wearing acupressure seasickness armbands. My suitcase has spiralled from one side of our cabin to the other and I'm writing a goodbye letter just in case. Potent whiskey sours are the only way to counter the high seas.
Despite my being green around the gills, our last stop is worth the effort. This island is named Sea Lion Island for good reason. As we arrive, we are greeted by noisy, boisterous sea lions. Frigate birds circle high above and there are dozens of blue-footed boobies with newborns.
It's a memorable finish to an epic 10-day journey. There isn't a single island here without natural beauty or spectacle, a close encounter with nature you won't find anywhere else on Earth.
Getting there: G Adventures' 10-day Galapagos tour travels through the archipelago's central, south and east islands on board the spacious Monserrat. The tour is part of the Jane Goodall collection, a selection of wildlife-focused tours endorsed by the world renowned primatologist. Maximum capacity is 20 persons, and there are two naturalist guides on board.
Further details: See galapagos.org.