Eleanor Barker has a once-in-a-wildlife experience in a biological wonderland.
Rushing through the wharf of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, I almost ran smack into a pelican. The enormous bird was utterly unruffled, posing like an aspiring National Geographic model as I paused to snap photos. Meanwhile, other passengers gingerly step over a lazing sea lion and I make a mental note to always look where I am walking.
Life in the wild
It is no exaggeration when Sir David Attenborough calls the Galapagos islands, "a biological wonderland like no other". This remote archipelago off Ecuador is host to the world's largest concentration of animals endemic to one place; animals that were swept from the mainland and forced to adapt to their harsh new home. It was here that Darwin conceived his theory of the mechanism of evolution, "the survival of the fittest". It was the only possible explanation for the variety — and the quirkiness — of the animals that thrive here.
Evolution and adaptation proceeds in the Galapagos at an extraordinary speed. A seaweed-eating, ocean-going iguana can shrink its bones when times are hard and regrow them when food is plentiful. Tiny penguins on the equator behave like none other, each year moulting twice and raising an impressively large brood of chicks. Blushing skink-size lava lizards are the main food source for the top predator, the Galapagos hawk. The islands play host to a large cast of one-of-a-kind animals, charismatic native Ecuadorian species and a seedy underbelly of pests that your tourist dollar helps "take care of". Many species vary in size and shape according to the conditions from island to island, giving compelling evidence to Darwin's disruptive theory.
Humans have never belonged here and we are not catered for. The climate is arid and the landscape is never the same. For millions of years the only human visitors were seafarers who arrived by mistake or to hunt. The larger birds and sea lions in particular seem to have forgotten that homo sapiens ever did them harm, and they can be jaw-droppingly playful and curious. The scientific term for this is "ecologically naive" and this naivete creates a dream trip for animal lovers.
Visitors are instructed to stay at least 2m away from the wildlife but that's not easy when a century-old turtle swims by to give you a once over, or a seal wants to play, or a blue-footed booby (think fabulous gannet) wants to investigate your camera. Happy amateur photographer, happy nature enthusiast, happy everyone.
Amazing animal encounters happen constantly. On a snorkelling excursion off Santa Fe Island, I am examined by the plainly curious face of a juvenile Galapagos sea lion. The cold of the water is forgotten as we play, diving and surfacing together. Away from the other snorkelling humans, vulnerable seal pups and the bolshy alpha male, we swim together until I cannot delay returning any longer. As our group sails away in the small pango, or rubber boat, my friend pops up to see where I have gone.
The suite life
To really explore the Galapagos, go by sea and go in spring. The day trips popular with the backpackers that swell the port town of Puerto Ayora involve a considerable oceanic commute, which inevitably eats into your time with the animals. Trust me when I say that you will not want to be parted from them prematurely. Superyachts and their crews do not face such time limitations. No mega cruise ships are allowed in the Galapagos and each vessel's path is carefully regulated.
In October, it was baby season in the islands. Our own "baby" cruise ship, the Isabella II, was built in 1988 and is a low-emission 4.5-star yacht, with 20 guest suites, a well-frequented bar/lounge/Powerpoint presentation area, small library and a large sundeck with Jacuzzi.
The staff includes three passionate naturalists and a long-serving wider team of about 10, testament to the good environment on board. You'll want to ensure you have brought enough cash to tip the incredible service at the end of your journey.
Life was good on the Isabella. We ate three wonderful meals a day, the highlight of which was the tropical fruit and fresh seafood. Complimentary cocktails were provided every day (you pay for extra alcoholic drinks). One cloudless night a naturalist gave a lecture while tracing the visible constellations using an astronomy laser. All the lights of the boat were shut down and for the first time I witnessed the night sky completely unhindered by light pollution.
Over the five cloudless spring days we spent on the Isabella II we fell into a comfortable routine. Every morning after our wake-up call and after breakfast we'd set out for a walk, the first of the three expeditions we made to the islands each day.
On these memorable walks the naturalists would split up to give biology lectures to three small groups of camera-wielding humans. We learned about the behaviour of sea lions — the males get a rough deal, forced to starve and exhaust themselves protecting the young until another bloke comes along to beat them up. We saw a number of the very well protected, very cute seal pups.
Later, we had a chance to examine the high-rise nests shared by the great frigatebird, or magnificent frigatebird, or both. The great and magnificent are different species, but they intermingle and it can be hard to tell the difference. On top of these impressive constructions are frigatebird chicks, which are not as cute as seal pups but still very fluffy.
In the afternoons, the choice was between going on another walk and snorkelling trip, or a walk and a trip in a glass-bottomed boat.
On the ocean swims I witnessed the most gorgeous array of fish, sea lions and coral, occasionally joined by a penguin, shark or stingray. I went on every snorkelling trip possible except for the last one; a mistake as it turned out. The wildlife performance that day featured an adolescent sealion frolicking with a pelican in a rockpool. Learn from my mistake and go snorkelling at every opportunity. You can nap in New Zealand and the luxury of a cruise is more pleasurable when you've had a full day out adventuring.
At the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island you will meet the largest species of tortoise in the world, the Galapagos tortoise. Steven Spielberg modelled ET after this species and you can see the resemblance. Their population dwindled to as few as 3000 individuals as recently as the 1970s but thankfully both the biologists and the tortoises have done a great job at making tortoise babies and there are tens of thousands today. You can get remarkably close to the elder tortoises, but go slowly and on your bum — otherwise you'll scare the poor dears into making a Darth Vader noise and retreating into their shell. T
On a walk at Sulivan Bay on the east coast of Santiago Island you can bear witness to life at its very beginning. Lava that flowed less than 100 years ago spreads as far as the eye can see, the rippling black landscape clashing intensely with blue sky above. You might know the scene from the film Master and Commander. It appears a wasteland, but our guide points out thrilling signs of life. The pioneer plants, brachycereus cactus and minute mollugo carpetweed plants, are quietly making soil while the pioneer insects slowly pollinate. The ever-present lava lizards have made a perilous journey to eat those insects and get eaten by birds themselves. Bright orange sally lightfoot crabs, Galapagos doves and Darwin's finches add to the biodiversity, but it will take at least 1000 years before this island is in its prime.
The excursions are suitable for all fitness levels — and so rewarding. One of the naturalists mentioned a previous passenger who had neglected to tell them his wife was a multiple amputee. Once the Isabella crew figured out how to help her embark and disembark, everything went smoothly. She even made it up the 374 steps of Bartolome Island, carried by her husband on his back.
Every walk or snorkelling trip allows for leisurely breaks for meals, snacks, siesta — or the deck chairs and jacuzzi. Does it sound like heaven yet? It really was.
Latam flies from Auckland to Santiago, with connections to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.
A five day/four night cruise on the Isabella II starts from $5168 per person twin cabin. For more information go to southamericatourism.co.nz