An­i­mal Planet

FOR LOVERS OF WILDLIFE AND THE NAT­U­RAL WORLD, THERE’S NOWHERE ON EARTH QUITE LIKE THE GALA­PA­GOS IS­LANDS. Paul Kay TRAV­ELS TO THE RE­MOTE AR­CHI­PEL­AGO FOR A CLOSE EN­COUNTER WITH THE CREA­TURES THAT GAVE DAR­WIN HIS BRIGHT­EST IDEA

Hong Kong Tatler - - Con­tents -

The re­mote ar­chi­pel­ago that makes up the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands is the ideal hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion for lovers of wildlife

dawn of time The com­bi­na­tion of stun­ning land­scapes and wildlife make the Gala­pa­gos a dream des­ti­na­tion for na­ture pho­tog­ra­phers

THE AR­CHI­PEL­AGO HAS AL­WAYS OC­CU­PIED A NEAR-MYTH­I­CAL PLACE IN THE IMAG­I­NA­TION. A STRANGE LAND AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD WHERE CU­RI­OUS CREA­TURES ROAM VOL­CANIC ISLES LOCKED IN AN ETER­NAL CY­CLE OF FOR­MA­TION

Unique— like un­spoiled and breath­tak­ing—is a lamentably overused word in the mod­ern travel writer’s lex­i­con, but if any­where is de­serv­ing of the de­scrip­tion (and ar­guably all three), it’s the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands. Al­most 1,000 kilo­me­tres off the coast of Ecuador, to which they be­long, the vol­canic isles are the very def­i­ni­tion of re­mote and, thanks to that splen­did iso­la­tion, have walked a truly sin­gu­lar evo­lu­tion­ary path. The ma­jor in­spi­ra­tion for Charles Dar­win’s On the Ori­gin of Species, in which the pioneer­ing nat­u­ral­ist lays out his the­ory of evo­lu­tion through nat­u­ral se­lec­tion, the is­lands are home to a va­ri­ety of crea­tures that can be found nowhere else on Earth. In­deed, about 80 per cent of its land-based mam­mals, rep­tiles and birds are en­demic, mak­ing the Gala­pa­gos a mustvisit for any­one with even a pass­ing in­ter­est in the nat­u­ral world.

For me, and I sus­pect for many oth­ers, the ar­chi­pel­ago has al­ways oc­cu­pied a near-myth­i­cal place in the imag­i­na­tion. A strange land at the edge of the world where cu­ri­ous crea­tures roam vol­canic isles locked in an eter­nal cy­cle of for­ma­tion, a place that could be some fan­tas­ti­cal cre­ation from the pages of Jules Verne or Frank Her­bert. It’s a re­lief to note, then, as my plane de­scends to the is­land of Bal­tra, that there are no gi­ant pre­his­toric mon­sters or man-eat­ing sand­worms in ev­i­dence.

Af­ter ar­rival at the small air­port and short trans­fers by road and wa­ter, I find my­self on board La Pinta, a 63-me­tre ex­pe­di­tion yacht that is one of the most mod­ern and feted to sail these wa­ters. Re­fur­bished in 2007 and able to ac­com­mo­date 48 pas­sen­gers and 31 crew, it’s a fine ves­sel from which to ex­plore the Gala­pa­gos, and boasts a sun­deck with Jacuzzi, a li­brary, a lounge bar and a gym among its fa­cil­i­ties. But such ameni­ties are merely a back­drop to the Gala­pa­gos’s nat­u­ral trea­sures, and so we waste no time in jump­ing aboard the pan­gas (mo­torised dinghies) and mak­ing for North Sey­mour, a tiny is­land near the cen­tre of the ar­chi­pel­ago.

Disem­bark­ing on North Sey­mour’s jagged vol­canic rocks, we get an in­stant in­tro­duc­tion to a se­lec­tion of the an­i­mals from the mar­vel­lous Gala­pa­gos menagerie. The rocks come alive with the scut­tle of the won­der­fully named Sally Light­foot crabs, which are an eye-catch­ing mix­ture of bright red, or­ange and elec­tric blue, while swal­low-tailed gulls land nearby. A fam­ily of sea lions loll lan­guidly in our path, en­joy­ing the late-af­ter­noon sun­shine, and a flock of the aptly named mag­nif­i­cent frigate birds swoop by just me­tres away, dis­play­ing their two-me­tre wing­spans and scar­let throat sacs, which the males can in­flate to the size of a bas­ket­ball to at­tract a mate.

It’s hard to know where to point the cam­era as there’s so much to see, and by the time we leave the shore to fol­low the trail in­land, our small group has col­lec­tively shot enough pic­tures to fill a mid-sized hard drive. Like the fauna, the land­scape is rich and var­ied; even on this small is­land, it ranges from black vol­canic rock to ochre earth to green scrub.

As the sun sinks to the hori­zon, read­just­ing the colour pal­ette of the land­scape, we en­counter one of the most fa­mous res­i­dents of the Gala­pa­gos, the blue-footed booby. These medium-sized marine birds are no­table not only for their turquoise-blue feet, but also their in­quis­i­tive na­ture and some­what com­i­cal ex­pres­sions. Like most of the an­i­mals we en­counter, the booby

pre­his­tory pre­served Clock­wise from top: the var­ied colours of the is­lands’ rocks and veg­e­ta­tion make for vi­brant vis­tas; blue- footed boo­bies take flight; a Gala­pa­gos green tur­tle

LO­CATED ON TOP OF A VOL­CANIC HOTSPOT AT THE JUNC­TURE OF THREE TEC­TONIC PLATES, THE GALA­PA­GOS ARE THE RE­SULT OF ERUP­TIONS THAT HAVE CON­TIN­UED FOR MIL­LIONS OF YEARS,

THE MOST RE­CENT BE­ING IN APRIL 2009

that crosses our path seems to be com­pletely un­af­fected by our pres­ence and looks on in a vaguely quizzi­cal man­ner as we snap away hap­pily be­fore grac­ing us with a pho­to­genic dis­play of his out­stretched wings.

To max­imise time on the is­lands, the larger dis­tances are cov­ered while you sleep, and so the fol­low­ing morn­ing I awake to a slow­burn­ing sun­rise be­tween Fer­nan­d­ina, the most west­erly is­land in the ar­chi­pel­ago, and Is­abela, the largest. As the day dawns, so does the re­al­i­sa­tion of just how dif­fer­ent the is­lands are from one an­other, as both ver­dant hill­sides and rocky cliffs come into view. Lo­cated on top of a vol­canic hotspot at the junc­ture of three tec­tonic plates, the Gala­pa­gos are the re­sult of erup­tions that have con­tin­ued for mil­lions of years, the most re­cent be­ing in April 2009. Due to con­ti­nen­tal drift, the is­lands move al­most eight cen­time­tres to the east each year. They vary in age from the baby of the bunch, Fer­nan­d­ina, at 700,000 years old to long-in-thetooth San Cris­to­bal at more than four mil­lion years old.

Said to re­sem­ble a sea­horse in shape, Is­abela is per­haps the most var­ied and dra­matic of the Gala­pa­gos. Strad­dling the equa­tor, its 100km­long spine is made up of six vol­ca­noes, five of which are ac­tive. Our first port of call is Punta Vi­cente Roca, a cove in the north dom­i­nated by the ex­tinct and semi-sub­merged Ecuador Vol­cano. Be­cause of its steep cliffs and wave­lashed rocks, get­ting ashore is not an op­tion here, so we clam­ber aboard the pan­gas to take a closer look.

The rugged beauty of the is­land is ab­sorb­ing in its own right—from the re­mains of lava flows to un­du­lat­ing black and tan lay­ers of tuff—but as ever it’s the an­i­mals that steal the show. The Gala­pa­gos marine iguana is unique in be­ing the only lizard in the world that swims in the ocean, and sev­eral dozen of them bask on one rocky out­crop. On the other side of our dinghy, a pair of flight­less cor­morants, their wings long since ren­dered use­less for flight by evo­lu­tion in favour of wa­ter skills, dive for fish, while a fam­ily of pen­guins (the only other bird to have made this evo­lu­tion­ary leap) look on ap­prov­ingly from the rocks.

But we’re only see­ing half the story, so we don wet­suits and snorkels to ex­plore the world be­low the waves. Punta Vi­cente Roca is one of the best spots for snorkelling in the Gala­pa­gos, due to the large va­ri­ety of marine life that con­gre­gates there, and I soon find

AF­TER EN­COUN­TER­ING SUCH AN AR­RAY OF AMAZ­ING AN­I­MALS AT CLOSE RANGE, IT’S EASY TO BE­COME BLASÉ. BUT THE GALA­PA­GOS IS­LANDS’ ABIL­ITY TO SUR­PRISE SHOULD NOT BE UN­DER­ES­TI­MATED

my­self in the midst of a mes­meris­ing sub-aquatic bal­let. Sea lions and pen­guins dive and glide past chas­ing schools of fish, while sea tur­tles pro­pel them­selves through the wa­ter just a few feet be­low. There are cameos, too, from an oc­to­pus, chang­ing colours with sur­pris­ing speed as it hides be­tween some rocks, and a spot­ted ea­gle ray that swims past with ef­fort­less grace.

The re­main­der of the voy­age fol­lows a sim­i­lar rou­tine as we ex­plore the is­lands to the west and cen­tre of the ar­chi­pel­ago over the next few days, punc­tu­ated by talks from La Pinta’s eru­dite trio of nat­u­ral­ist guides and op­por­tu­ni­ties to leap into the ocean from atop the boat. On Fer­nan­d­ina, we see hun­dreds of black marine igua­nas form­ing a liv­ing car­pet on the rocks, and Gala­pa­gos hawks hov­er­ing so still on ther­mal cur­rents it looks as if they might be frozen in the sky. On Santa Cruz, we meet the is­land’s gi­ant tor­toises, which can weigh up to 300kg and live to 150 years old; else­where we see land igua­nas, pel­i­cans, flamin­gos and a host of smaller birds that are unique to the Gala­pa­gos. The wildlife sight­ings con­tinue even when we’re back on La Pinta, as we spot hump­back whales, sharks and a pod of some 20 dol­phins from the com­fort of the sun deck.

Af­ter days of en­coun­ter­ing such an ar­ray of amaz­ing an­i­mals at close range, it’s easy to be­come blasé. But the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands’ abil­ity to sur­prise should not be un­der­es­ti­mated, as I dis­cover when I ar­rive at Santa Fe for the fi­nal ex­cur­sion of the trip. Sea lions are ev­ery­where as we dis­em­bark from the pan­gas, var­i­ously nap­ping, play­ing in the surf or wad­dling awk­wardly on the rocks. It’s a great op­por­tu­nity to see the an­i­mals up close, but one that is eclipsed an hour or so later when we’re snorkelling on the other side of the is­land.

Hav­ing pre­vi­ously only glimpsed sea lions in the wa­ter, and from a dis­tance, I sud­denly find my­self sur­rounded by them. As I swim close to the rocks, more than a dozen, in­clud­ing a 100kg-plus bull, come up to check me out, and be­fore long they’re in­clud­ing me in their games, bit­ing play­fully on my flip­pers and play­ing an aquatic ver­sion of chicken in which they take turns to tor­pedo di­rectly at my mask be­fore swerv­ing at the last sec­ond. It’s an ex­hil­a­rat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to be so close to these wild but play­ful crea­tures, and it’s with great re­luc­tance that I fi­nally climb aboard the panga and leave the sea lions and their neigh­bours to this strange haven at the edge of the world.

di­vine di­ver­sity Clock­wise from top left: A Gala­pa­gos land iguana; mil­lions of years of vol­canic ac­tiv­ity have blessed the is­land with an abun­dance of dra­matic cliffs; sea lions bask on the un­spoiled shores

ex­plod­ing with life From top: Gala­pa­gos pen­guins; steam and mag­matic gases bil­low from the rocky vol­canic

ter­rain of the ar­chi­pel­ago

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