Cast adrift in the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles west of Equador, there’s a small group of innocuous volcanic islands shrouded by equatorial fog. Welcome to the legendary Galapagos Islands, home to the most extraordinary creatures on earth. Bay’s Nick Smith visits the far side of the world.
They call it ‘evolution’s laboratory’, the place Charles Darwin studied his famous finches and developed his theories about natural selection. But unless you’re of a particular scientific mind, the truth is that no matter how much you kid yourself you’re following in the footsteps of Britain’s greatest naturalist, you’re heading for that small collection of Pacific islands called Galápagos to gawp at the iguanas, stare at the azure feet of the improbably named blue-footed boobies, or take selfies with seals. And a fine time you’ll have of it too, island-hopping in one of the smaller cruise ships, making frequent excursions ashore in zodiac inflatable rafts to see all that weird and wonderful wildlife for yourself.
The entire archipelago has national park status, which means that there are all sorts of restrictions in place, from where and when you can set foot on land to the overall environmental footprint of your visit. Protected by the Ecuadorian authorities, Galápagos is a high-profile example of how we’ve managed to defend part of our natural heritage from the onslaught of the modern world. These volcanic islands teem with birds, reptiles and even the occasional mammal. Non-indigenous predators have been eradicated and exotic flora has been removed. The result is that you’ll be able to see some of the rarest birds in the world, including the lava gull, of which only about 400 remain. You’ll also get to know the less rare but stunning great frigatebirds (they’re the ones with the inflatable red throat), albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, cormorants, boobies and even a not very Antarctican subspecies of penguin – the Galápagos penguin is the only member of that family to be found in the wild north of the equator (even then only by a few miles.) The whole place is packed with quirks of evolution, from the marine iguana (the only lizard that lives in the sea) to the world’s biggest tortoise subspecies, the prize specimens of which weigh as much as a small horse. In fact, this lonely Pacific ecosystem, 1000km adrift off the west of Ecuador is a symbol for everything that’s right with the planet or at least it should be.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Even the stuff about Charles Darwin is some-thing of an exaggeration. For the man that gives his name to the important scientific research station on the island of Santa Cruz barely even set foot on Galápagos. Despite being under protection, endemic reptile populations have been unstable ever since the islands were accidentally discovered in the early 16th century by Fray Tomás de Berlanga, bishop of Panama, who was actually on his way to Peru. Over time explorers introduced predatory mammals such as rats and cats, as well as the most dangerous of all Homo sapiens. If you wanted to be cynical about the near talismanic status of the islands today, you could argue that the only reason they have become such a byword for conservation is that there is such a need for it. Of one thing you can be certain: if they weren’t so conspicuously monitored by dozens of non-profit organisations such as the Galápagos Conservation Trust, the islands would be covered with golf courses in a heart-beat. If you’re tempted to ask what’s so wrong with that, the answer is that you can put a golf course anywhere, but this is the only place you’ll find the Española lava lizard, leaf-toed gecko, dark-rumped petrel, stripe-tail aholehole, yellowtail damselfish, Galápagos grunt, vegetarian finch and so on. Even their names are worth preserving.
The fate of the islands has been a matter of fierce debate ever since they came under the annexation of Ecuador in 1832. In a nutshell, the problem is that there are too many interested parties with conflict-ing ambitions, arguing over what is the best use of the region. The main players are the science and conservation lobby, the tourism industry, settled Ecuadorian nationals, and the fishing and farming industries. Each has its own agenda and each applies pressure on a cash-strapped national government that wants to monetise its natural assets but is under heavy scrutiny from the worldwide conservation community. Whatever lies ahead, there will almost certainly be some sort of compromise brought into play. The fact that you have to cough up a hundred US dollars to enter the national park is all the proof you need. You might well feel that you’re doing your bit to support wildlife conservation, but what’s really happening is you’re part of feeding an endless supply of hard currency to the Ecuadorian govern-ment who, while they can continue to milk that cow, won’t send it to the slaughterhouse.
You can get so bogged down in the politics of conservation that you can forget that the reason for hacking your way to the far side of the world is to see the wildlife. We’ve all been enthralled by Galápagos and its mysterious creatures on the television and, because we’re of an adventurous outlook, we want to take our appreciation to the next level. The time for soaking up all the nuances of the conservation de-bate is over and you’re ready for your once-in-a-lifetime expedition to visit the creatures you’ve been dreaming of. At least that’s the way I saw it for the first hour or two of my never-ending trek to those mythical islands. Flight to Houston Intercontinental in Texas, change planes and take a bearing for Quito. Then, Quito to Seymour on Baltra in the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador. As the crow flies that’s about 12,887km (or 8,008 miles in old money), a journey that left me exhausted and saddle sore. I can’t even remember boarding the cruise ship Celebrity Xpedition that was to be my home for the following fortnight.
As pleasant as the ridiculously named Celebrity Xpedition was, I soon came to loathe it. And this was because of the sheer amount of time I was forced to spend aboard. National park regulations are such that there are only a handful of places in the entire archipelago where passengers can be set down, the numbers of which are strictly limited. You are allocated a slot for making landfall, and while you’re waiting for it, you’re held literally at bay in a queue, much in the way aeroplanes coming into Heathrow are slotted into ‘holding stacks’, the only difference being that you’re not going around in circles thousands of feet above Biggin Hill. Once on terra firma you’re ushered along paths by national park rangers who have the authority to arrest you for breach of park rules, and once your time is up you’ve got to return to your vessel. Put like this it sounds gruesome, but the organisers go out of their way to make the experiences ashore as rewarding as possible and you can take your time watching the wildlife and capturing it with your camera. It was by this method that I spent a few hours watching nesting waved albatrosses feeding their young and teaching their fledglings how to take to the air. For the largest bird in the Galápagos Islands this presents something of a challenge. The only way the juvenile albatross can get aloft is to run into the wind and throw itself off a cliff. It’s amusing to see them queueing up to do so much in the same way aeroplanes heading out of Heathrow taxi to the runway. No wonder adult albatrosses have a reputation for never landing – if it’s this much trouble to take off, you might as well stay airborne. You tick the waved albatross off your list, head back to the zodiac, put on your life jacket and return to the mothership where, despite there being plenty to do – the free bar helped – you can’t but feel that all you’re really doing is waiting until you can go ashore again.
The Celebrity Xpedition made its dutiful and stately circuit of the Galápagos archipelago, crisscrossing the equator, dropping anchor at islands with such names as Española, Floreana, Santa Cruz, Bartolomé, Fernandina and Santiago. My pre-printed wildlife watchlist started to fill with ticks and my notebook became more and more full of descriptions of animals. At Kicker Rock I saw my first Sally Lightfoot crab, described in my rather dull natural history guide as ‘a scarlet and orange crab growing 20cm across, often seen in large numbers. The underside is white, often bluish; juveniles much darker, starting almost black with small orange spots, becoming redder with each successive change of shell.’ The description droned on in its flat, passive and non-committal manner, completely missing the point that Sally Lightfoot is one of the most beautiful, graceful and splendid things on God’s green earth, scuttling, dancing and darting if so much as your shadow falls across her path. During my time in the islands I managed to spend several mornings photographing their lightning-fast antics.
Whatever success I may (or may not) have had in this enterprise is as nothing compared with the words of the great American novelist John Steinbeck, who wrote of them: ‘Many people have spoken at length of the Sally Lightfoots. In fact, everyone who has seen them has been delighted with them. The very name they are called by reflects the delight of the name. These little crabs, with brilliant cloisonné carapaces, walk on their tiptoes. They have remarkable eyes and an extremely fast reaction time.’ What we mortals might call a shiny shell is to Steinbeck a ‘cloisonné carapace’. I must have fallen under the writer’s spell because by the end of my diary I’m writing about marine iguanas lying on the strand like ‘ropes of discarded liquorice.’
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter that the experience of living in a floating hotel was as dull as ditch water. After all, the wildlife was spectacular and I made my peace with the monotony of cruising as being simply the cost of doing business. After a few weeks it started to dawn on me that apart from a few seals here and there I’d barely seen a non-human mammal. And so it came as something of a shock when at our last port of call – the island of San Cristobal – I saw men unloading cattle from a small boat in the shallows. I had been lying face down on the sand trying to photograph a small colony of fur seals with a telephoto lens when suddenly all hell broke out. One of the cows, unwilling to make its way voluntarily up the beach to the awaiting truck, had been roped up by a gang of local wranglers who were no match for the colossal strength of the bovine quadruped. The cow wrenched free and careered straight for the seals and directly towards me. My life flashing before my eyes and expecting to feel the hoof of death at any second, I fairly ran for all I was worth, only to find several small children were laughing and pointing at me. The kids were jeering in Spanish: ‘He ran away, he ran away.’ I looked at the beast halfway distant up the beach and then ruefully at the long lens on my camera. You can sort of see how that happened. But the kids just kept laughing until I gave them money and cigarettes to make them go away. Apart from a few giant tortoises peacefully grazing in a pasture on San Cristobal, that incident on the beach was to be my last memory of the Galápagos Islands, so weirdly wonderful, so fragile and, as I reflected on the first of my three seemingly endless flights bringing me back to Britain, so 8,008 miles away.