Be­yond wildlife: a hu­man his­tory of the Galá­pa­gos

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - THE GALAPAGOS -

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

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