Talk to the an­i­mals

Wet, wild and won­der­ful in the Gala­pa­gos

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - KA­T­RINA LOB­LEY

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

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