The Galapagos Islands

For this amazing trip, I got the opportunity to travel to the Galapagos Islands, one of a handful of places I have spent practically my whole life dreaming about visiting. It’s truly one of the world’s special places, a lost Eden where the animals still have no fear of people, and nature still holds sway.

Like many such previous places, it’s being threatened by all kinds of challenges, from climate change to environmental degradation. We should all be doing what we can to ensure it’s preserved for future generations, and careful managed tourism is perhaps one of the ways of providing the resources necessary to ensure its survival.

The feature was originally published by Waitrose Magazine.

The Enchanted Isles: A Journey of a Lifetime to the Galapagos Islands

“WATCH WHERE YOU STEP, PLEASE,” says naturalist Kike Aguirré, as he picks his way along the shore-line of a wild, empty beach somewhere in the middle of the Galápagos archipelago. “The whole of North Seymour Island is a nesting site for boobies and frigate birds, so we must be careful not to disturb them.”

He points up the beach, where flocks of rethroated frigate birds are swooping above the sand, cackling and hooting as they wheel to roost amongst the tangled bracken. Along the shoreline, a family of sea-lions are splashing and lolling in the surf, and gaggles of blue-footed boobies waddle along the beach, hopping from foot to foot, as though the sand was molten hot.

“That’s a courtship display,” explains Kike. “The males attract the females by showing off their feet. The brighter the blue, the healthier they are. The colour is caused by carotene from the fish in their diet. But I have no idea who taught them how to dance!” He laughs and raises his binoculars, watching a pelican swooping in low and fast across the island, then sets off across the beach in search of more of the island’s wildlife.

Blue-footed boobies are just one of the many peculiar species that call the islands of the Galápagos home. Marooned in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles west of Ecuador’s coast, this chain of volcanic islands has been cut off from the nearest land-mass for the last million years, allowing its animals to develop in undisturbed isolation. The islands are home to around 1300 endemic species, from iguanas that swim in the sea and cormorants that have forgotten to fly to tortoises that grow to gigantic sizes. They’re a genuine lost world for wildlife, and since 1959, 7795 km2 of the archipelago has been protected as a national park – around 97% of its total land mass. Since 1978, the islands have also been a Unesco World Heritage Site.

“In Galápagos, it’s like stepping back in time, to an era before humans existed,” yells Kiké, shouting to be heard over the buzz of the boat’s outboard motor as it pulls away from North Seymour’s rocky coastline. “It’s unique. I’ve been a naturalist here for fifteen years, and the islands still surprise me every day.” He looks back towards the receding beach, where the setting sun is painting the sky in tones of pink, orange and gold. “Besides, it’s not a bad place for an office,” he adds.

The Galápagos have been known for their weird and wondrous wildlife ever since the first explorer, Tomas de Berlanga, happened upon them by chance in 1535, while attempting to sail from Panama to Peru. To early sailors, the islands were known as The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles – a reference to their strange landscapes and even stranger animals. But it was the arrival of a young naturalist called Charles Darwin which brought the islands to the attention of the wider world. In 1835, while employed as ship’s naturalist aboard HMS Beagle, Darwin began to notice the subtle differences between the islands’ animals – particularly its finches and giant tortoises – which seemed to have adapted to suit their particular environment. It was the first inkling of the theory which, thirty years later, would both make his name and transform the scientific world – evolution by means of natural selection.

A century-and-a-half after Darwin’s arrival, the Galápagos are no longer the Edenic wilderness he described as “a little world within itself”. Before the 1970s, just a few thousand people visited the islands every year, but recent estimates suggest the figure has climbed to 150,000, posing a threat to the islands’ fragile ecosystems, exacerbated by concurrent issues like climate change, invasive species and population growth. To limit tourism’s impact, the national park enforces strict rules: only a few sites are open to visitors, all itineraries are coordinated by the national park authority, and tour groups are limited to sixteen people, and must be accompanied by a naturalist at all times.

Kiké is one of three naturalists employed by La Pinta, one of the largest of the Galápagos vessels. 63m long and with space for 48 passengers, it’s a cross between an expedition boat and a boutique cruise ship, complete with cocktail bar, lecture room, library, gym and restaurant – a far cry from conditions aboard the Beagle, when scurvy and typhus were routine hazards, and the evening menu largely consisted of salted meat, ship’s biscuit, and occasional side-order of sea-bird and giant tortoise. It’s an undeniably luxurious way to explore the Galápagos, but it’s actually an eco-friendly one, too. By living on board a ‘floating hotel’ and exploring the islands in small Zodiac boats, the impact of each visitor is greatly reduced – and more importantly, guests can be supervised by the boat’s naturalists.

For this expedition, La Pinta was bound for an eight-day cruise around the Western Isles, a similar route to the one followed by the Beagle in 1835. From Santa Cruz and North Seymour, the boat heads west to Isabela – at sixty miles long, the largest island of the archipelago, and also its highest and youngest. Here, the islands’ volcanic origins are obvious; over the last million years of its life, the island’s five active volcanoes have scarred and scorched the land, a process that’s still very much in action – as the recent eruption of Wolf, the most northern of the island’s volcanoes, proved.

On the island’s west side at Tagus Cove – an old hideout for pirates and whalers still daubed with 19th-century graffiti – a trail winds up to a lofty viewpoint, where it’s possible to look right across the island’s stark, blasted landscape, spotted with spindly trees and cloaked with black lava fields. It’s a place that looks too harsh to support life, but it’s actually one of the most diverse islands in the archipelago. Finches dart and flitter through the tree-tops. Giant land iguanas lurk in the undergrowth, their scaly skins varying in colour from sulphur yellow to fuschsia pink. Tropical penguins and Nazca boobies roost in their hundreds along the rocks, and in summer, whales and dolphins glide along the narrow Bolivar channel. Isabela is also home to the largest wild populations of giant tortoises in the Galápagos; each of the five volcanic craters has its own species, estranged from each other millennia ago by shifting magma flows and the rocky, shattered terrain.

Just across the blue waters of the Bolivar Channel from Isabela lies Fernandina, a lower, flatter island, fringed by mangroves and shrubs. It’s one of the best places to experience the other astonishing feature about the Galápagos’ wildlife – its tameness. With limited human contact and few predators, most of the Galápagos’ animals will happily tolerate people just a few feet away. Piles of marine iguanas lie in heaps along the shore, benefiting from each other’s warmth as ghost crabs and lizards scuttle busily over the rocks, and cormorants dry their wings in the sunshine. Schools of sea-lions bask on the sand, apparently oblivious to the chatter of the guides and the constant shutter click of cameras. It’s like stepping into your own nature documentary – only here, there’s no need for a telephoto lens or a David Attenborough commentary.

While the view above ground is remarkable enough, it’s every bit as impressive beneath the waves. Like most boats, La Pinta supplies wetsuits and snorkelling gear and encourages its guests to use them at every opportunity – either swimming wild off the back of the Zodiac boats, or wading in straight from the beach. The Galápagos location at the meeting point of several trans-ocean currents attracts both tropical and cold-water species, meaning that the underwater life is abundant. On Rabida’s beach, where the sands are stained rust-red by the iron-rich soil, we swam through clouds of tropical fish lurking in the channels, and watched cormorants and penguins slicing through the water in search of fish. Once, we even glimpsed a manta ray shimmering in the deep, gliding like a ghost through its silent submarine world.

Sadly, two other islands provide a reminder that not all animals in the Galápagos have fared so well. By the time of Darwin’s arrival in 1835, all the giant tortoises of Floreana had been wiped out, either eaten to extinction by sailors, or devastated by introduced species like black rats, goats and feral dogs. Similarly, nearby Santa Fe became famous as the home of Lonesome George, the last tortoise of his kind. Despite several attempts to breed, George died heirless in 2011, and his species died out with him. He’s since become a figurehead for the challenges facing many of the Galápagos’ endemic animals.

Thankfully, on the big island of Santa Cruz, there are signs of hope. At the Charles Darwin Research Foundation, near the main town of Puerto Ayora, conservationists are fighting hard to preserve the islands’ wildlife. The centre runs a captive breeding centre for giant tortoises, where babies are reared before being reintroduced to their native islands. It’s been highly successful: on Española, the tortoise population was down to just fourteen in the early 1970s, but has rebounded to around 1500 individuals thanks to the centre’s hard work.

While the growth in tourism is certainly part of the problem in the Galápagos, for many conservationists, it’s part of the solution, too. “Tourism is the main thing that helps fund conservation here,” Kiké says, as he helps us back into the Zodiac after an early evening snorkel off Floreana Island. “As long as it’s managed properly, it’s a positive force. My hope is that when people come here and see what a special place this is, they will feel inspired to protect it.”

He looks out to sea, where Floreana’s craggy silhouette is cut out against an orange evening sky. Suddenly, the beak of a sea turtle bobs to the surface right beside the boat, gulping in deep breaths of air, its barnacle-crusted shell glinting in the sunlight. It floats on the surface for a minute or two, and then, with a flick of its flipper, disappears back into the ocean depths, leaving only a trail of bubbles in its wake.

“Gracias, amigo. Hasta luego,” Kiké says, breaking into a smile as he fires up the motor and heads for home.

Country facts 

Currency US dollar

Time Zone GMT -5 hours

Flight time from the UK 11 hours

Language Spanish

Useful websites

ecuador.travel

galapagosislands.com

darwinfoundation.org

Curious facts

Roughly ½ of the land species and 1/5 of the marine species in the Galápagos are endemic, meaning they occur nowhere else on earth.

The island’s volcanoes are caused by their location at the junction of three tectonic plates – the Pacific, Cocos and Nazca plates. When Wolf Volcano erupted in May 2015, it was the first eruption there for 33 years.

The sex of giant tortoises is determined by the temperature at which the eggs are incubated. Above 27˚C, the hatchlings will be male; below 26˚C, they will be female.

There’s an easy way to tell the sex of a blue-footed booby – the size of its pupils. Females have large pupils, males small ones.

The Galapagos is home to the only penguin in the northern hemisphere. It’s also the only place where penguins and lizards can be found on the same island.

Giant tortoises are thought to live up to 150 years.