State of origin
Follow Charles Darwin’s footsteps in the lap of luxury
Just to be sure I haven’t been dreaming, I write down a list of all the wild creatures I’ve seen in the Galapagos Islands. I note that I’ve been barked at by a sea lion, had a blue webbed foot waggled at me by a booby bird, been eyed-up by a pelican sitting close enough for me to smell its breath (like a filthy fish factory), and been given a time-weary stare by a tortoise that might have been 100 years old.
Then there has been an iguana, a black, scaly creature that looked as if it might eat me for dinner. Meanwhile, a flock of frigate birds, chilling descendants of dinosaurs, has hovered above. No, it hasn’t been a dream. I really have seen all this and within the first few hours I have spent on these volcanic Pacific specks known as “the Enchanted Islands”.
When it comes to wildlife, Galapagos delivers. There are about 4000 species here, 40 per cent of which are found nowhere else on Earth, and each remarkable, from the tiny, vulnerable Darwin’s finches to the lumbering giant tortoise.
Your first glimpse of the islands might be a disappointment. It was Charles Darwin, father of evolutionary theory, who said “nothing could be less inviting” after he visited in HMS Beagle in 1835. The arid, volcanic landscape, scattered with desiccated vegetation, reveals none of the magic these islands hold. This is a close-up kind of place that needs careful examination to reveal its true richness, the exception being the chubby and unavoidable sea lions that stick their noses in everywhere. I first meet them sprawled along the harbour wall on San Cristobal Island, asleep and not giving a damn about those of us eager to join our ships. They are everywhere — in the doorways, in gutters and at cafe tables, too, if no one stops them. “Remember, they are wild,” we have been warned. “And they have big teeth.” We take a step back, but are beguiled.
The ship we are about to board, if the sea lions allow us, is the recently commissioned MV Origin, complete with a Darwin Deck, of course. From the shore it looks as if an oligarch’s private yacht has steamed into town. Darwin would have recognised that this stylish little ship is, in itself, a good example of evolution in action.
This is no place for larger cruise ships. Our boutique cruiser, holding no more than 20 passengers and 14 crew, leaves barely an imprint on the islands it visits. Its hull is designed not just for good looks but for efficiency and its emissions, from both engines and humans, are contained and controlled.
Ecoventura, which built the boat, is a certified Smart Voyager (an ecological program developed by The Rainforest Alliance) and has raised more than $US300,000 ($407,000) for the Galapagos Marine Biodiversity Fund. In 2012, the company partnered with Ecology Project International to provide local teenagers with a field course in conservation. The craft carries two naturalist guides to facilitate the split of passengers according to interest or activity level. Those who want to keep active while at sea can take out kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and snorkelling equipment, or use the gym.
The expansive windows of my cabin (there are 10 in total) reach down almost to sea level, so I can lounge on the soft, broad bed and feel as if I can trickle my fingers in the water as I read Darwin’s journal of 1835. Outside the only two settlements on the islands, with a mere 30,000 inhabitants, little will have changed since then.
Darwin Deck is for eating good, fresh food from an inventive galley, and enjoying the local beer which, agreeably, comes free (as does whisky). This news pleases two of my fellow passengers, a retired Scottish lawyer and his wife, now world travellers, nervously trying to work out if they’ve made the right choice having stated emphatically, “We are not the sort of people who do cruises.” We are 16 in total — my other co-passengers are retired Americans, “bustin’ out all over” with enthusiasm, as is their way.
It is a shock to discover our days start at 6am to be ashore by 7.30am with the sun just up. This is clever timing, though, for by 11am we are glad to be back in the cool of the ship. Hot expeditions are usually followed by snorkelling, except on the day the sharks arrive when, for some reason, it seems less popular. There are no harbours so ships anchor in sheltered bays. Landings are wet or dry. If wet, you will be jumping from an inflatable Zodiac into surf and making your own way up the beach. If dry, you will be able to step ashore on to land, usually rocks. The walking is varied, and some can be done in flip-flops. Others are more strenuous and require a certain sure-footedness to jump from boulder to boulder, remnants of volcanic outpourings. Those who bring collapsible walking poles are grateful for them.
With each stop among the islands carefully scheduled two years ahead by the National Park authority, which even determines landing and departure times, this is not a trip for the free spirit. Our ever-smiling guide Billy (all guides must be Galapagos-born and educated to degree level) briefs us on the rules. “No approaching the animals, no feeding, no departing from the tracks,” he tells us. Then with a sigh and a big grin, he adds, “In fact, you can’t do anything much, really.” Inter-island sailing takes place at night. If you meet another group ashore it will never be of more than a dozen people. Without these rules, the place would be as packed as a theme park.
And so to the wildlife, which seems to line up to be inspected, as if on parade. You will pass within centimetres of booby birds and frigates and they will never flinch because they have no predators in this unique world where humans and animals coexist on equal terms. Darwin found this remarkable, as do I. Lizards do not even scamper, and albatrosses will not dream of leaving their nests at the sight of you walking by. Needless to say, absolutely nothing disturbs a sea lion from its slumber.
We visit six islands in all and no two are the same. We see pelicans on San Cristobal, unique marine iguanas on
Fur seals at Punta Carola, San Cristobal Island, top; giant tortoise, above; magnificent frigatebird, above right; marine iguana, below