Talk to the animals
Wet, wild and wonderful in the Galapagos
We humans, explains our expedition leader Mauricio Tomala, are just another species roaming the Galapagos Islands. “The animals see you as another animal — homo sapien turistica,” jokes Tomala while briefing passengers aboard Santa Cruz on the protocols of exploring the archipelago that rewrote our ideas on evolution.
“Sometimes people will see a blue-footed booby sitting on a rock facing the wrong way and they start whistling and telling him to turn around. Don’t do that. They only understand Spanish!” Tomala jokes. His 79 passengers today — from the US, Britain, Germany, Japan, Israel and the Antipodes — laugh along with him. See? We’re already adapting and evolving to our ecosystem for the next five days.
Behind the laughter, it’s a time of high emotion for the crew of Santa Cruz, a custom-built vessel that has helped pioneer expedition cruising in these waters. It has been on the job since 1979, when just 12,000 visitors a year made their way to the islands straddling the Equator about 1000km from Ecuador’s mainland (by 2013, there were more than 200,000 annually). We’re on board for Santa Cruz’s last days in the Galapagos before it is replaced with a newer, more fabulous model relocated from the Chilean fjords. (See below.)
Most passengers are unaware of the impending changeover. They’re focused on what wildlife they’ll see during shore excursions. The ship’s owner, Metropolitan Touring, has developed the Big 15 — a list of species that ranges from the famous blue-footed boobies and giant tortoises to frigate birds, fur seals and flightless cormorants.
We’re sorted into groups (I become a Gull) and assigned a naturalist. Between guiding her Gulls on land, Lola Villacreses is snapping photos of Santa Cruz to remind her of the good times. “My heart is here,” she says. “This is like my other home. This ship is like a school for all other companies — you have a good reputation if you work here. It is a legend that pioneered this [type of expedition cruising] in the islands.”
There’s nothing like getting straight down to business. We head ashore on our first afternoon. Using the “Galapagos handshake”, a double wrist-grip, crew members swing us into the bobbing panga (rubber dinghy) that will shuttle us between ship and shore. As we bounce along, the breeze tugging our hair, Villacreses uses every association she can muster to memorise her 13 Gulls, connecting our names to those of friends, family and fellow guides.
Our northern Galapagos itinerary incorporates seven islands. From Baltra Island (home to one of the archipelago’s two main airports), we nip over to the first of our visitor sites. Ships here follow itineraries that dictate which sites to visit on mornings and afternoons; this scheduling means we rarely spot another vessel. The panga drops us at Playa Las Bachas on the northern shore of Santa Cruz Island, the most populated (at least with humans) of the archipelago’s five inhabited isles.
Two blue-footed boobies pose on rocks just offshore. They’re facing the right way, but I don’t snap a photo, thinking they’ll be everywhere. Turns out the only other blue-footed boobies I will see are those on souvenir T-shirts.
The beach’s name is a mangling of the word “barges” — the US Army left a couple behind after World War II to rust away in the sand — but something more exciting is down the beach. We step around turtle nests in the dunes to a lagoon where an American flamingo stalks through the brackish water, hoovering up the carotene-rich brine shrimp that add such brilliant colour to its plumage.
The Galapagos Islands turn ordinary people into avid birders. There are plenty of flashy species — the flamingo, red-footed boobies, vermilion flycatchers — that are worthy of a T-shirt cameo. Darwin’s finches aren’t nearly as photogenic, but my heart beats faster when we spot a ground finch, then a cactus finch, on Rabida Island. It’s as though Charles Darwin himself has materialised in front of us in his coat, britches and neckerchief.
It was the variation in the beaks of these birds — from the long, probing beak of the insect-eating warbler finch to the hefty seedcrushing beak of the ground finch — that prompted Darwin to argue in his 1859 text On the Origin of Species that similar species isolated from each other could evolve separately through favourable variations.
We cruise across the Equator