Mar 09, 2017
It’s one of the most pristine places on Earth – and one of the most unusual, its volcanic landscape hosting creatures strange and exquisite in equal measure. On a cruise in the Galápagos Islands, Kirsten Galliott finds that the archipelago lives up to its extraordinary promise.
The reason I’ve come to the Galápagos Islands is swimming right in front of me. A brazen sea lion, its coat jet-black and glossy, dives beneath me and contorts its frame into the most graceful of somersaults. Then it shoots up and swims straight for me. I leap back, startled. I want to be close but maybe not this close.
Galápagos. The name itself promises mystery. A prehistoric land with prehistoric creatures. An archipelago created by volcanic activity and inhabited by animals that have had to completely transform to survive. It feels like we’re on the edge of the world – and, in a way, we are. The Galápagos Islands, famously visited by English naturalist Charles Darwin in 1835, are almost 1000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador, South America, and straddle the equator. There are more than 100 islands, islets and rocky outcrops but only 13 are regularly visited. Incredibly, each island is unique, featuring different terrain and different wildlife, some of which can’t be seen anywhere else in the world.
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The best way to experience this unlikely paradise is on a cruise. You could base yourself in one of the ports but getting out to the other islands requires hours of travel each day. On a cruise, you journey overnight or during lunch, leaving you with plenty of time to immerse yourself in the islands and all they offer.
Less than 90 vessels have a licence to navigate the Galápagos and I’m on one of the most luxurious. Silversea has been plying these waters since 2013, offering two different itineraries but the same seamless experience. On Silver Galapagos, I have a suite with a “view window” (about half have a private verandah and, if you can afford the upgrade, I’d recommend it), a sitting area and a comfortable ensuite with unlimited hot water. I also have Robert, my private butler, who has the sweetest smile I’ve ever seen, to cater to my whims. Shoe need gluing? No problem. A cup of tea any time of the day? Certainly. Another bottle of wine? Oh, go on then.
This is my first cruise and it takes some adjusting to. During dinner at The Grill – the alfresco eatery on Deck 5 – I only realise we’re on the move when I see the moon, a sliver of brilliance, dipping and swinging as the ship rises and falls. It’s both disconcerting and thrilling to see it dance across the sky like a puppet on strings.
Seasoned seafarers need to reset their expectations, too. It’s quite unlike being on the ships that cruise the Mediterranean. “This is like a summer camp,” says our effervescent expedition leader, Xavier Garcia, who grew up in the Galápagos. “You think this is a holiday. You’re wrong! This is an expedition.”
He’s not kidding. There’s no time for reading novels or chilling out in the hot tub. Instead, we’re up at six to disembark by seven or 7.30am to behold unique birds and marvel at ancient, crusty, colourful reptiles.
After a two-hour morning activity, such as an exploration walk, there’s deep-water snorkelling, followed by lunch. Then there’s an “enrichment session” (a lecture by one of the naturalists or a documentary screening) and the afternoon activity, which might be a nature hike or a tour in a Zodiac (an oversized rubber dinghy that shuttles us from ship to shore). We clamber back on board at 6pm, just in time for a briefing about the next day’s itinerary and dinner at The Grill or The Restaurant.
Some guests forgo the activities (or opt for a truncated version) but I don’t want to miss a minute. So here I am, kayaking at 7am, past the four-million-year-old cliffs of Gardner Bay, on Española, one of the oldest islands in the group. So many turtles’ heads bob up that I lose count. I watch black frigatebirds – the “pirates” of the Galápagos that steal food whenever they can – soar overhead, seemingly hanging in the sky. I hear the mesmerising sound of sea lions on the rocks around the bay. Try as I might, I can’t categorise their sound. A cross between a honk and a bark, with a bit of a moo thrown in? Perhaps. All I know is their tuneless melody brings a lump to my throat every time I hear it. I’m here, in the Galápagos, experiencing its majesty firsthand.
I well up at unexpected moments. Crossing a lava field, which glows gunmetal grey in the sunlight, is surprisingly moving. The lava’s ropy ridges push against my hiking shoes and swirl like sinuous finger paintings. It’s an alien landscape but this is young lava, from 1897. “It may not sound it but, in geological terms, this is very fresh,” says Gilda Gonzalez, our guide for the two-hour hike on Santiago Island. “It’s like walking on Mars,” marvels George Rowan, a British guest.
There are too many bucket-list moments to recount. Snorkelling over a school of hammerhead sharks – there must be at least 20 – is less frightening and, oddly, more soothing than you’d imagine. “Don’t worry,” quips guide Franklin Ramirez Uribe, who spots the sharks within 30 seconds of entering the water, “they’re vegetarians.”
The real vegetarians are the giant tortoises that seem to contentedly munch on leaves all day long. These land giants (galápago is an old Spanish word for tortoise) look like something from a prehistoric time with their dull, scalloped shells and heavily wrinkled skin. According to our guides, they can weigh up to 200 kilograms, live for up to 180 years in captivity and go for a year without food or water.
“The experiences you have here with animals, you will never have anywhere else in the world,” Garcia tells us on the first night, “but you need to stay two metres away from them and never, for any reason, try to touch them. They are wild animals – we never know how they are going to react.”
Photo credit: Craig Fordham
But they are so accommodating. On Genovesa Island, red-footed boobies – stunning birds with bright-red feet and blue beaks – preen on branches, either oblivious to our presence or completely nonplussed. “It’s amazing,” says Brenda Teague, a guest from Auckland. “We can stand right in front of them and they’re not scared.”
If anyone had suggested before this trip that I would obsess over a Galápagos hawk or gasp with delight at a blue-footed booby torpedoing into the water to catch a fish, I wouldn’t have believed them. A twitcher? Me? Yet here I am in a Zodiac, in the middle of the Pacific, craning to see the frigatebirds and tropicbirds that catch the breeze and hover like kites. Here I am on Española, crouching to avoid disturbing two waved albatrosses farewelling each other as the male prepares to fly to the outer ocean. They clack their beaks then open them to show each other how healthy they are. “Yes,” says guide Karina Lopez, “this is the dance of love.”
It’s a poignant observation but Lopez is just as comfortable with a witty instruction: “I don’t think you’ll hear this sentence again but please don’t step on the iguanas.”
Ah, the marine iguanas. They’re found nowhere else on Earth. These fascinating reptiles came here millions of years ago and, over time, have evolved from land animals into those that dive into the water to feed on algae. They typically stay underwater for up to 10 minutes and spend much of their time sneezing to expel salt through special glands. We’ve come at a good time: their scaly skin has turned bright red and green. “The colours intensify during the mating season, as they don’t shed their skin,” explains Lopez.
Life. Sex. Death. We see plenty of the latter, too. A frigatebird hangs in a tree, its exposed bones as fragile as drinking straws. There’s a sea turtle with its skull smashed in. On Española, we see a newborn Nazca booby on the path in front of us. A frigatebird has plucked it from its nest and, finding it too heavy, dropped it. The chick is still breathing but, alone and abandoned, it will not survive for long. Heartbreaking? Yes. But this is life in the Galápagos. Every day is a struggle to survive. Food can be hard to find; the volcanic landscape unforgiving.
But there’s more joy than sadness. The male magnificent frigatebird inflates its red throat pouch to attract females. The tiny lava lizard does push-ups to protect its territory. And the humble cactus – many with gnarled trunks as big as a man – grows for 100 years where most other plants cannot.
On our final day, we visit South Plaza, a small island off the east coast of Santa Cruz, once part of the ocean floor but pushed upwards by volcanic pressure. The late afternoon light is perfect and there’s a soft breeze as we pass coral-red pigface, the native plant that carpets the island. Just ahead is a sea lion with her pup, only a day or two old. (The placenta lies next to them – the mother would have had to cut the umbilical cord with her teeth.) The pair nuzzle, bonding, and the pup mews as she pushes her face up to her mother’s. It’s the perfect denouement. They will face challenges, this little family: food will be scarce; sharks will lie in wait. But right now, life in the Galápagos Islands couldn’t be more idyllic. ￼
For more information and bookings, please go to Qantas Cruises.