Venture to the Galápagos Islands for a one-of-a-kind experience – and a really wild show. Brimming with wildlife from sea-lions to blue-footed boobies, we show you how to have a green boat trip here...
It's not every day that you get photobombed by a sea lion. Out of nowhere, the creature darted right up to my face mask, whiskers twitching, its outsized, glistening eyes peering directly into mine. Then it was gone, effortlessly wheeling through the waters off Fernandina Island, as playful as an aquatic puppy. There were turtles too on our daily snorkels; I soon gave up counting how many and simply watched as they propelled themselves down towards the seabed with graceful strokes or were gently tugged to-and-fro by the Galápagos' current. I'd fallen under the spell of these elemental isles from our first cruise stop. Charles Darwin sailed around the Galápagos archipelago on the HMS Beagle in 1835 and, in an age of overtourism, cruising is still considered the best way to see as many of the islands and their wild inhabitants in the greenest way possible. I was stopping off at six of the northern and western islands on board Ecoventura's newest state-of-the-art vessel, the MV Theory, getting up close to their iconic wildlife on daily hiking, snorkelling and kayaking trips, while leaving barely an impression. The experience was proving as enlightening as it was entertaining.
Cruising in the Galápagos used to be about sea-water showers and cramped conditions but I was having an entirely different experience. My home for seven nights was less 'ship', more 'floating boutique hotel', with just 10 spacious cabins holding 20 passengers, gourmet meals, an open bar and top-notch service. With passengers accompanied by two knowledgeable and inspiring Ecuadorean naturalist guides - as well as veteran marine biologist Jack Grove on this particular cruise – Ecoventura's guide-to-passenger ratio is one of the best in the Galápagos.
Most importantly, the boat's eco-credentials are impeccable. The ship's hull has been designed to save energy and cut emissions, all plastic straws and single-use bottles have been banned and organic local produce is used where possible. Each guest is given a refillable metal water bottle and biodegradable toiletries, and encouraged to use reef-friendly sunscreens and natural insect repellents. And among other eco-friendly initiatives, they've partnered with the Charles Darwin Foundation to create the Galápagos Biodiversity and Education for Sustainability Fund, supporting the management of natural resources.
At our first briefing we were told that there was to be no touching or feeding the wildlife, no food or selfie sticks on the islands, to stay on the trails at all times and we weren't to take anything away, not even the smallest shell or stone.
As soon as I set foot on Genovesa for our first hike, I realised that the rule about staying two metres away from the wildlife was going to be difficult to follow. Juvenile red-footed boobies – dressed in a uniform dull brown – circled above us and squabbled below, practising their take-offs and landings to a soundtrack of shrill squawks. Their gregarious turquoise-beaked elders perched in bushes like strange fruit, gripping the branches with their red webbed feet and preening their feathers atop their nests, apparently oblivious to our presence.
Swallow-tailed gulls with their vivid red-ringed eyes picked daintily through the shallows, but it was our guide that pointed out the earth-coloured short-eared owl, perfectly camouflaged in the midst of the island's rocky highlands. Unfazed by the arrival of the paparazzi, the bird occasionally swivelled its head 180 degrees to give us a long, hard stare as if in rebuke for interrupting its hunt.
Nesting next to the trail were handsome Nazca boobies, dubbed the lone rangers of the Galápagos for the distinctive black 'face masks' that adorn their snowy white plumage. They lay two eggs but typically only one hatches as both parents opt to incubate the stronger-seeming egg. And as we cooed over the fluffy white chicks being shaded from the equatorial sun by their mother's bodies, we learnt that the largest booby species hides a dark secret – a penchant for paedophilia.
"If both parents leave the nest to forage for food, some adult boobies seek out the most vulnerable chicks and subject them to sexual and physical abuse, before pecking at its neck meaning that it often dies from an infection," our guide Karina explained. It certainly put a new spin on the survival of the fittest.
Giant tortoises, one of the archipelago's star attractions, have also survived against the odds. In 1535, an envoy of the king of Spain deemed the islands too inhospitable to be interesting, but he was followed by 17th-century buccaneers, whalers and seal hunters who made use of the handful of islands with a fresh water supply, while decimating the giant tortoise population for sustenance.
Today, the conservation efforts of breeding programmes and the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz are redressing the balance. And although the world-famous giant tortoise, Lonesome George from Pinta, never produced any offspring while in captivity, unsung hero Diego - a centenarian and counting from Espanola - has fathered more than 800.
On the large seahorse-shaped island of Isabela, we encountered one of these gentle giants in the wild, lumbering along at a leisurely pace, stopping to tug at some vegetation with its wide mouth; so close that I could make out the folds of skin on its neck, the rings on its shell and its dust-covered claws, while I could only imagine what its small but curious eyes had witnessed over the last century.
Cruise operators are tightly controlled in the Galápagos, with numbers strictly capped and each stop carefully scheduled by the National Park authority to avoid bumping into other ships. In contrast, land-based tourism, which has seen a rapid growth in recent years, is less well regulated. When Darwin visited, the archipelago had around 300 residents, now it's closer to 30,000, corralled outside the borders of the national park – 97% of the archipelago is protected – on four inhabited islands.
The dichotomy is that humans are both the archipelago's most important protector and its greatest threat, with the ever present risk of upsetting its delicate balance, from illegal fishing to the increase in construction, rubbish and pollution, and the introduction of invasive flora and fauna that can overwhelm, and sometimes eliminate, native species.
We dropped in on diminutive Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. It's a charming place, with its curious collection of galleries and boutiques, slow-food restaurants serving up organic highland coffee and craft beer, and sea lions hanging out at the fish market. But after the splendid isolation of the people-free islands, it felt like arriving at a big city.
Back at sea, I discovered that another advantage of opting to explore the islands on a small vessel such as Theory, is its proximity to the water. Through my cabin's floor-to-ceiling windows or lounging on the deck – or in the hot tub – I could watch red-billed tropicbirds skimming the water or pelicans nosediving for food; it was perfect in the morning when we were joined by a large pod of dolphins.
I leant over the bow and watched entranced as these marine mammals rode the waves, their sleek bodies propelled along with barely a twitch of a flipper. A mother coasted side-by-side with her calf, teenagers twisted and turned and swam on their backs, while others leapt out of the water, slapping it noisily with their tails. It was a joy to witness.
Less immediately loveable are the marine iguanas that Darwin described as "hideous-looking, stupid and sluggish in its movements". But when I came across a marine iguana love-in on Fernandina – the most pristine island in the archipelago, and the youngest too, at less than a million years old – I was utterly transfixed. Hundreds of these ocean-going lizards were huddled together, blending into the ripples of volcanic stone – a scaled foreleg nonchalantly resting on its neighbour's head here, a clawed foot slung over a crested spine there. They are cold-blooded in every sense, so it wasn't for companionship but warmth that they hung out together. And the iguanas lay perfectly still to conserve energy, save for when they sneezed out saltwater from their nostrils with a heave of their bodies.
Desalination glands are just part of their evolutionary adaptation from the land-based iguanas that arrived on the Galápagos millions of years ago. Flattened tails help them to cut serpent-like through the water, their razor-sharp teeth and rounded snouts allow them to scrape algae off rocks, while their sharp claws enable the lively lizards to clamber determinedly up steep rocky cliffs.
Breaking this expanse of volcanic grey was the marine iguana's miniature cousin, the red-headed lava lizard, as well as a number of flamboyant orange Sally Lightfoot crabs, thought to have been named by sailors, so the story goes, after a Caribbean dancer – thanks to her colourful skirts or the crabs' nimble legs. The softer-shelled young come in unobtrusive browns and blacks, but the older crustaceans who sporadically shed their shells to grow, are unashamedly gaudy and, we discovered, fearlessly feminist. During intercourse, the females are on top in case of a predator attack, allowing them to escape with the sperm, leaving behind the sacrificial male.
I also saw another side of Santa Cruz, boarding one of Theory's two pangas (crafts) to explore the red mangroves around Black Turtle Cove. On route we passed an unexpected Galápagos penguin surveying the scene from a clump of rock – the only penguin to live north of the equator, or with a webbed foot in both hemispheres, thanks to the cooling effect on the water of the Humboldt and Cromwell currents.
Inside the mangrove channels we switched off the engine and drifted gently, peering into the limpid water to look for spotted eagle rays and pufferfish, as baby white-tipped reef sharks circled the boat. Only mating green sea turtles disturbed the tranquil scene as first one head, then two, then a flipper rippled the surface. "A male will cling on to the back of a swimming female," our guide Yvonne explained, "and it's a ritual that can go on for hours involving multiple, increasingly impatient, males." Later, we sailed along the Santa Cruz coastline to climb Dragon Hill, a jagged peak looming over a sun-scorched landscape inhabited by its namesake diminutive dragons – prehistoric-looking land iguanas, mild-mannered herbivores that seem to wear a permanent smile (and who are under threat from introduced animals). And even in such a dry, apparently uninhabitable environment there were bickering mockingbirds, sweet-voiced yellow warblers and a pair of Darwin's finches - one of 13 distinct species that have famously evolved to have different beaks, each one suited for different available food types.
The islands too were all remarkably different, not least in their flora, from the phallic-looking pioneer plants that sprang from barren-looking lava, to the statuesque candelabra cacti whose dawn-blooming flowers are enjoyed by finches and lava lizards. The opuntia cacti, or prickly pear as it's better known, in true Galápagos style has developed a trunk to prevent iguanas stealing its fruit, while the aromatic palo santo trees are redolent of Quito's gilded colonial churches.
Our last stop was Rabida, one of the smallest islands in the archipelago at just under five square kilometres. What it lacks in size, though, it makes up for with kaleidoscopic colour: iron-red sand, cobalt-blue water and salmon-pink flamingos dipping their beaks into an emerald-green lagoon. Below the surface was equally vibrant, as I snorkelled through schools of yellowtail surgeonfish, luminescent blue parrotfish and striped, blacknosed butterflyfish.
Afterwards, a stroll along the beach gave me the chance to reflect on my whirlwind week in the Galápagos. I'd got close enough to the resident wildlife to hear blue-footed boobies clacking beaks, dolphins whistling to each other and land iguanas chomping on cacti. I'd watched a sea lion climbing inelegantly on to a mangrove branch, photographed marine iguanas locked in an embrace and marvelled at the swimming prowess of flightless cormorants. I'd also learnt that it's our duty to tread as lightly as possible here, to protect the fragile ecosystem of this unique laboratory of evolution.
By the time I'd clambered inelegantly into the panga to be whisked back to the awaiting Theory, my footsteps had been erased from the beach by a tide that never waits, leaving a mother sea lion and her pup curled up together like the yin-yang symbol and the island, as Darwin put it, "a little world within itself." Exactly how it should be.
The author travelled with Journey Latin America. A 12-day holiday to Ecuador and the Galápagos islands includes a seven-night cruise on board Ecoventura's MV Theory on a full-board basis, excursions, National Park entrance fees, the INGALA transit card, transfers, domestic flights in Ecuador and international flights from Heathrow.
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