Seven go kayak­ing

The thrills of a pad­dling ad­ven­ture around the Gala­pa­gos

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination - JAC­QUE­LINE HAGAN

RE­MEM­BER when we were wel­comed to Australia by the smell of in­sec­ti­cide as quar­an­tine of­fi­cers sprayed the plane?

They still do that when you land at San Cris­to­bal air­port on one of the 14 main is­lands of the Gala­pa­gos Ar­chi­pel­ago, sit­u­ated along the equa­tor 972km west of con­ti­nen­tal Ecuador.

The Charles Dar­win Foun­da­tion, guardians of this UNESCO World Her­itage site, and the Ecuado­rian gov­ern­ment are se­ri­ous about clear­ing the is­lands of all in­tro­duced species and re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing those whose ex­is­tence is threat­ened.

Our flight from Quito in main­land Ecuador has taken 90 min­utes. Champi, our hand­some, English- speak­ing lo­cal guide, meets us for the five-minute bus trans­fer to the dock and we are bowled over by our first sight of Nemo II, the 23m cata­ma­ran that is to be our home for the next eight days.

Sea lions are loung­ing around the jetty and play­ing in the shal­lows. Champi has to hus­tle us with our lug­gage into the panga, the small boat that de­liv­ers us to Nemo II. There are seven of us from Fre­man­tle and five from the US and Canada, so we fill up the six twin and dou­ble en­suite cab­ins; there are also six crew mem­bers, in­clud­ing Champi.

Our first task is to prove to Champi that we can cope with the dou­ble blow-up kayaks in the rough seas if we should cap­size. My hus­band and I are the first on our kayak and as we tip it over, some­one yells ‘ ‘ Shark!’’ j ust in time for us to see the 2.5m fish cir­cling around Nemo II and un­der our kayak.

It proves good mo­ti­va­tion to show Champi how quickly we can right a kayak and get back on board. His at­ti­tude is that sharks have plenty to eat with­out both­er­ing kayak­ers.

The Gala­pa­gos is all about the legacy of Charles Dar­win and the in­flu­ence that changes in en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions have on the evo­lu­tion of species.

As each of the ar­chi­pel­ago’s 14 is­lands has its own mi­cro-cli­mate, there are sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences be­tween each. With Champi’s ex­pert guid­ance, we are soon able to see dis­tinc­tions in the beaks of the fa­mous Dar­win finches; de­pend­ing on the food avail­able on each is­land, the beaks evolve to en­able the birds to eat ei­ther cac­tus leaves or seeds on the ground.

Be­cause there have tra­di­tion­ally been few preda­tors on the is­lands, the an­i­mals and birds are not afraid of hu­mans. It is es­pe­cially amaz­ing to be so close to large seabirds. On the is­land of Es­panola, we walk through the nest­ing grounds of the al­ba­tross and the blue-footed booby. We stand about 1m from nests where an al­ba­tross cou­ple are fenc­ing with their beaks in a mat­ing rit­ual.

Blue-footed boo­bies are also en­gag­ing in their typ­i­cal mat­ing dance, whereby the male points his wings to the sky and the fe­male re­sponds by lift­ing each of her big blue-webbed feet in turn, as if she is danc­ing.

The birds seem to be obliv­i­ous to our pres­ence.

Onthe beaches, there are many sea- lion colonies. The calmer coves shel­ter the moth­ers and pups and a dom­i­nant bull. The wilder and more ex­posed ar­eas house the bach­e­lor colonies where the males gather and build up their strength to chal­lenge a bull for his colony. Amid the sea lions are the ma­rine igua­nas; both species loll all over each other, but when they take to the water they are ag­ile and quick.

While we are snorkelling, sea lions swim along­side and igua­nas move past us as they go up and down to feed on the al­gae on the rocks on the ocean floor.

We swim with gi­ant manta rays 3m in di­am­e­ter.

One day we are lucky enough to see blue-footed boo­bies div­ing for fish and zoom­ing past us into the water like fly­ing ar­rows.

There are al­ways many brightly coloured reef fish around when­ever we are close to shore — it feels as if we are swim­ming in an aquar­ium.

It is Au­gust and the water

is 16C; even with a wet­suit, it is pretty chal­leng­ing. So, if snorkelling is your thing, con­sider Jan­uary or Fe­bru­ary, when the water tem­per­a­ture can be 28C. But re­mem­ber you won’t get to see nest­ing birds in the hot­ter weather.

One of the sig­na­ture an­i­mals of the Gala­pa­gos is the gi­ant tor­toise. When Dar­win ar­rived, the tor­toises were on many of the is­lands and each had a dif­fer­ent cara­pace, de­pend­ing on the food they ate. Un­for­tu­nately for tor­toises, the whalers and pi­rates dis­cov­ered they were easy pick­ings — and a very nice change from ship bis­cuits and ran­cid meat. Thou­sands of tor­toises were taken and kept in the holds of ships for up to a year to pro­vide fresh meat.

On the is­lands where tor­toises lived near the coast, they were soon wiped out and these species have be­come ex­tinct.

On is­lands where they lived in the moun­tains, it was much more dif­fi­cult to carry a 250kg tor­toise to a ship and hence they have sur­vived. Tor­toises can now be seen in the wild only on the is­land of Santa Cruz, where they live far from the coast. They are truly won­der­ful, am­bling at a slow but steady pace, and we mar­vel at their size.

As well as cap­tur­ing tor­toises, in 1793 whalers set up a bar­rel on the is­land of Flore­ana to serve as a mail­box. It was not un­usual for whalers to be away for five to 12 years; they dropped off let­ters in this bar­rel which would then be taken back to port by oth­ers, and ul­ti­mately de­liv­ered to loved ones. This bar­rel sys­tem is still in op­er­a­tion, so we have a fun af­ter­noon drop­ping off post­cards for our grand­chil­dren in the hope they may be de­liv­ered one day, just as they were so long ago.

But most of all we are here to kayak. Gen­er­ally there is a pretty strong swell and of­ten con­di­tions are rough; each of us needs, at least once, to prove our skill in right­ing a cap­sized kayak. We es­pe­cially en­joy the days when we kayak in the late af­ter­noon along­side cliffs and then out into the ocean and on­wards to a bay where Nemo II is moored for the night.

We have great times go­ing into high caves in the rocks and bat- tling the surf to get into lit­tle coves. We of­ten see tur­tles swim­ming be­side us and myr­iad seabirds over­head.

We spot sea lions in hard-tore­ach places where they scram­ble straight down a cliff.

And the best thing about af­ter­noon trips is that when we get back on board, night is fall­ing and it is time to head to an­other is­land, sip­ping cham­pagne and ad­mir­ing the sunset from the top deck.

We love our boat and turn our noses up at the larger ves­sels we see from time to time with their crowds of pas­sen­gers — well, 30 seems like a crowd when we are only seven Aus­tralians and five new friends.

AP

A ma­rine iguana stops to sun­bathe on vol­canic stones on the shores of San Cris­to­bal, one of the largest is­lands of the Gala­pa­gos Ar­chi­pel­ago

JAC­QUE­LINE HAGAN

Nemo II ac­com­mo­dates 12 pas­sen­gers in six twin and dou­ble en­suite cab­ins

AFP

A gi­ant tor­toise on the is­land of Santa Cruz

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