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The GREATEST show on earth

The Galapagos Islands may be a trek — but nowhere in the world has such an array of wildlife. And a cruise is the ultimate way to experience...


IGUANAS laze in the airport garden. Finches flit about the departure lounge. sea lions make a noisy welcome party at the boat pier where sharks lurk in the shallows and blue-footed boobies show off their diving prowess, hitting the water at 60mph.

It’s the greatest show on earth — and I’ve only just landed on Baltra Island, the gateway to the remote galapagos Islands, 600 miles off mainland Ecuador, in south america.

It has taken three days and three flights to get here, including a 14-hour haul from amsterdam and a two-night stay in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, to acclimatis­e to the altitude of 2,850 metres, before a two-hour onward flight over the andes.

Yes, getting to the galapagos, in the Pacific Ocean, demands a huge investment in time, effort and money — but for nature lovers it is the most unusual wildlife-watching destinatio­n in the world. all creatures great and small are ever-present and fearless of humans because the islands were isolated for so long.

Even more thrilling is that much of the wildlife is not found anywhere else in the world. To preserve this unique environmen­t, tourism is strictly controlled by thehe galapagos national Park Directorat­e, whichh issues licences only to a handful of expedition ships. I am joining Hurtigrute­n Expedition’s 90-guest Ms santa Cruz II for a voyage around the eastern islands.

naturalist Charles Darwin reached here onn HMs 15, Beagle 1835). almost He stayed 188 years five weeks ago (september and his mis observatio­ns were the inspiratio­n for hisis theory of evolution by natural selection — itsts plants, birds and reptiles had developed in isolation and displayed varying characteri­stics sgs on different islands.

We make two or three zodiac boat landings a day and each stop introduces a different volcanic landscape and endemic species.

From a sunset walk along Mosquera Islet, an idyllic white sandbar littered with sea lionsns and sally Lightfoot crabs, to north seymour, an eerie landscape of white-bark incense

trees where frigate birds nest and marine iguanas pile themselves high to keep warm, every island is a soulstirri­ng discovery.

MS Santa Cruz II's guests - mainly retired over-60s from the and UK, Germany, Netherland­s, U.S. and Canada — bond easily, looking out for each ach other on tricky terrain and sharing the joy of mockingbir­ds hopping around und our feet, sea lions swimming around und the ship and tropicbird­s gliding above ove our heads.

Sadly, we humans do not always ays deserve the animals’ trust, as I find out on my first snorkellin­g tour whenn a cheeky young sea lion, blowing bubbles bles in my face and looping the loop, winss my attention as I swim with a school of yellowtail surgeonfis­h.

Everyone must keep two metres from wildlife but this pup has not readd the memo. I presume the black collar aroundd my playful pal’s neck is a tracker fitted by scientists but after climbing back on the zodiac, I learn that the pup has caught itself in a plastic band and if it is not removed, it could choke.

That’s the thing about the Galapagos Islands. It’st an emotional mixi off animal magic and witnessing how humans threaten our planet.

However, the tide is slowly turning. The UN’s COP26 summit in Glasgow saw Ecuador’s president Guillermo Lasso further safeguard the Galapagos Marine Reserve by creating a 76,44876 sq mile corridor where species endangered by climate change and industrial fishing can migrate — and the United Nations High Seas Treaty, agreed last Saturday, will place 30 percent of the world’s seas into protected areas by 2030.

On my hike across the windswept island of Espanola, I almost stumble over a lone waved albatross chick waiting for food on its roughly made nest.

My guide, Carla (every visitor must be accompanie­d by a ranger), tells me it could be a long wait, because even if the adults escape tempting bait hooks they canca be gone for days to forage for squid andan fish to feed their offspring. Brighter news is that the Espanola giant tortoise has been re-introduced to the island after being rescued from the brink of extinction in the 1960s, thanks to the Charles Darwini Foundation moving the last dozen males and two females to Santa Cruz Island, where Hurtigrute­n guests visit the Fausto Llerena breeding centre.

It’s a calming scene, with hundreds of baby giant tortoises in incubation areas and large adults crunching grass in fields alongside cows.

When Spanish sailors discovered the islands in the 16th century there were hundreds of thousands of giant tortoises, before whalers and pirates slaughtere­d them for meat and oil while rice rats attacked the rest.

THE breeding success of eight little vermilion flycatcher fledglings cheers me up. Isabel Grijalva, of the Charles Darwin Foundation, tells me: ‘Eight doesn’t sound a lot but this is a big win. There are 30 breeding pairs left on Santa Cruz, all threatened by the avian vampire fly which lays eggs in their nests and the larvae feed on developing chicks.

‘We don’t want a repeat of thehe least vermilion flycatcher’s fate. It t has not been recorded since e the 1980s and is the first loss of f a Galapagos endemic bird in n modern history.’

There’s a lot to take in. I am m on the go from dawn till dusk k and find little time to laze on n the ship’s sky deck or enjoy the e well-stocked library.

Most socialisin­g takes place e in the Beagle restaurant, where re passengers and crew eat at together. With no set seating, g, there’s a relaxed vibe as we share the day’s highlights while le devouring Ecuadorian and nd internatio­nal dishes.

For every passenger, the Galapagos aey fulfils an ambition. Bridey Morrison Morgan, formerly of Newbury, Berkshire, and now ow living in Victoria, Canada, says ays she has travelled the world ld during her retirement but this his cruise is special. ‘I love the concept of lifelong learning and

being be with an Ecuadorian expedition dit team who are so passionate ate and knowledgea­ble about the flora and fauna,’ she says. For F me, it’s life- changing. Nowhere Now else does the need to protect pro our planet hit so hard.


11-DDAY Galapagos expedition cruise cru on MS Santa Cruz II from £7,37,397 pp including flights, hotel stay in Quito and all tours. Price based bas on two people sharing a double dou cabin on selected dates in 22023. Visit hurtigrute­n.co.uk

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 ?? ?? CreatCreat­urere comforts:comforts Giant tortoise on Galapagos and, above, Santa Cruz II
CreatCreat­urere comforts:comforts Giant tortoise on Galapagos and, above, Santa Cruz II
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 ?? ?? Rare Ra breeds: Galapagos’s wildlife includes iguanas and, far left, le sea lions. Left, a ship’s cabin and, top left, a frigate bird
Rare Ra breeds: Galapagos’s wildlife includes iguanas and, far left, le sea lions. Left, a ship’s cabin and, top left, a frigate bird

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