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.

Robb Report (Malaysia) - - Travel & Fine Dinning - Pho­tos My­loupe/ uig/getty Im­ages, wildestani­mal/getty Im­ages

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.

All 14 rooms and suites at Pikaia Lodge come with bal­conies or ter­races from which guests can en­joy the jaw­drop­ping views.

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