Beyond wildlife: a human history of the Galápagos
It is hot. Eighty degrees Fahrenheit (26C) hot. But – somehow – the waves look almost glacial. I watch them approaching, navy then ice-blue as the crests thin, before crumpling on to the shore with a whoosh that I hear as a hiss. The island’s unwelcoming “beach” is made up of volcanic boulders, black and cinder-grey. At my feet, on scrubby ground, lie two decomposing chicks, their remaining down appearing like frothy scum; there are no natural scavengers here, nothing to tidy death away. I scan the horizon: no fishing boats, no ships, no nothing. If I wasn’t so hot, I think I’d shiver.
I wander back to join the others – serious wildlife buffs, with kit bags and telephoto lenses, who have come ashore from National Geographic Endeavour II, a new ship operated by the expedition cruise company Lindblad-National Geographic. Here, at least, there are signs of life. My fellow passengers are gathered around a guano-splattered nest where a group of male frigatebirds are inflating their neck pouches, grotesque red balloons of skin that flop around like blubber. As I move in closer, there is no response; it’s almost as if I’m not there. And from the birds’ perspective, I’m not. So irrelevant are we humans in the struggle for life that has played out over millennia in the Galápagos Islands, the animals scarcely acknowledge our presence.
We were, after all, late arrivals in this remote archipelago 600 miles (965km) off Ecuador. There were never indigenous people here, only travellers who arrived by mistake. The first recorded visitor was Tomás de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, who drifted off course en route to Peru in 1535. First his ship was becalmed in the doldrums, then he was surrounded by boobies and other birds “so silly that they do not know how to flee.”
“These islands were always hostile to man,” says Aura Banda, a Lindblad naturalist, as I sip a welcome pint of lager that evening. “All people saw was lava. They couldn’t find fresh water, and there were no tropical produce such as coconuts.”
For those who actually wanted to set foot on them, the islands also had an inconvenient habit of not staying put – or so it seemed to the early Spanish sailors, led so astray by strong local currents that they christened the archipelago “Las Encantadas” – the bewitched.
But there were a couple of positives. “Close to the equator, you find many
Fifty years after the first tourists set foot in the archipelago, Neil McQuillian uncovers the colourful characters behind Darwin’s fabled islands
Clockwise from main: sea lions on Santiago Island; the National Geographic Endeavour II; the ship’s library; Post Office Bay, Floreana Island; a face carved into tuff rock on Floreana Island; Isabela Island, formerly known as Albemarle