The lost world
An increasing awareness of environmental issues and their impact has led to more people travelling to far-flung destinations. Mavis Teo finds the two-day journey to Galapagos worthwhile for its inimitable wildlife.
The Rubenesque beauty grunts and edges closer, splaying her voluptuous figure carelessly over the bench we share at the Puerto Ayora p ier. S he d oesn’t s eem t o notice that in my bid to avoid contact, I’m inching perilously close to the bench’s edge. Despite the rather fishy odour emanating from her f leshy haunches, I brief ly contemplate reaching out to pat her. After all, she looks rather endearing, with her dense down glistening in the sun and her whiskered nose twitching like a puppy’s. Sandie Salazar, my nature guide, stops me in my tracks. Apparently, despite this female sealion’s charms, it is illegal to touch any wild animals in Galapagos.
Sea lions are a subject close to Salazar’s heart. She studied them for 12 years as a marine biologist at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the town of Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz, the most populated island in Galapagos, before switching to become a guide. Luckily for me she put a stop to my friendly overtures – while we wait for our water taxi to take us to a cruise ship to explore the island of Plaza Sur, she regales us with anecdotes of not so lucky
visitors who were attacked after touching the seemingly benign creatures. Animals in Galapagos are highly protected – so much that they have never learned to fear humans and often brazenly approach you for a closer look. Several creatures here – the giant Galapagos tortoises, blue-footed boobies, flightless cormorants and marine iguanas can be considered truly exotic, endemic only to Galapagos.
A cluster of 13 volcanic islands, six smaller islands and many more islets in the Pacific Ocean, Galapagos is 1,000km off the coast of Ecuador. It boasts a diverse landscape, from jungles teeming with wildlife to volcanic land filled with black lava rocks. Though it sits on the equator, the water temperature hovers at 18 degrees Celsius on average, sometimes dropping to 15 degrees and necessitating a wetsuit that’s at least five millimetres thick for scuba diving. It’s also the only place on earth where you can see wild albatrosses and penguins basking in the tropical sun. Galapagos’ unique attractions have led to a steady increase in the number of visitors – from just 40,000 in 1990 to around 224,755 in 2015. This is in part fuelled by affluent travellers in Asia seeking off-thebeaten-track experiences. Bespoke travel agencies, such as Jacada Travel, say they are seeing growing interest in such expeditions from countries like Singapore and Hong Kong. “There’s an increase of about 30 per cent in bookings to remote destinations like Galapagos. It’s the sense of isolation, epic landscapes and amazing wildlife that draw
people in,” says alex Malcolm, founder and managing director of Jacada travel.
a 10-night cruise on a liveaboard to explore most of Galapagos, including the farther islands like darwin and wolf, is the most practical way to see most of the archipelago and is extremely popular with snorkellers and scuba divers. But with only five days to spare, I tasked Jacada to put together an itinerary with day cruises to various islands for snorkelling, scuba diving or trekking. For sealife enthusiasts, the waters of Galapagos hold many attractions due to a confluence of three currents at the archipelago, which results in a rich marine food chain. during my one day of diving with scuba Iguana, we saw sharks of varied species, including hammerheads. we also encountered plenty of angelfish, surgeon fish, bumphead wrasse, turtles and even the occasional fur seal wheezing past us. one swam right up to me, peering into my mask before dramatically somersaulting away. the grand finale of our second and last dive of the day was when a school of manta rays soared above us as we were about to make our ascent.
I made santa Cruz, one of the three main inhabited islands, my base. Most of the local population of close to 30,000 live here. on the main streets of the de facto city centre, little
For sealife enthusiasts, the waters of Galapagos hold many attractions.