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Galapgaos: Darwin's Enchanted Isles

Frigtebirds – a male and female – photographed in the Galapagos Isles ©William Gray

It was almost as if a giant pepper pot was being shaken over the island. I refocused my binoculars and the blizzard of swirling specks was still there – an agitated swarm of black particles, like angry bees fussing around a disturbed hive.

“Storm petrels. Thousands of them.” Cathy Hurralde, one of the naturalist-guides on our weeklong Galápagos cruise, stood beside me at the railings of the Isabela II. “And there, see the frigatebirds too,” she said, as the 40-berth expedition ship slipped into a sheltered bay on the south coast of Genovesa Island. A trio of rapier-winged silhouettes drifted into my field of vision: much larger birds than the storm petrels, they quartered the sea cliffs with the prehistoric menace of pterodactyls.

The most far-flung and mysterious of the eight islands on our itinerary, Genovesa had Jurassic Park stamped all over it. A flooded caldera gnawed by Pacific breakers, the island is home to over a million nesting seabirds – impressive even by Galápagos’ standards. But it is one particular species that steals the show here. Not a storm petrel or frigatebird, but an owl.

Three days into our cruise, we were well drilled in the art of shore excursions. They come wet or dry in the Galápagos Islands depending on whether you wade ashore from one of the ship’s zodiacs (known locally as pangas) or step straight from one of the inflatable dinghies onto dry land – usually an outcrop of basalt daubed red and gold with sally lightfoot crabs.

At Genovesa it was the latter, and soon we were climbing rough-hewn steps onto the island’s clifftops where Nazca and red-footed boobies nested amongst the skeletal limbs of parched woodland. A few had chicks: great balls of white fluff snagged in the trees like sheep’s wool. Following a scant path and taking care not to trip over the unfazed birds, we emerged onto a lava field, black, cracked and pockmarked like some monstrous swathe of burnt apple crumble. It was here that the storm petrels nested, laying their eggs in the nooks and crannies of the basalt and flying back and forth to feed at sea. And it was here, too, that the short-eared owls launched their attacks. To see any owl in daylight is a treat. To see half a dozen is exceptional. But to watch that number actively hunting in the space of a few hundred metres, swatting storm petrels from the air and devouring them a stone’s throw from where we crouched – that was the kind of astonishing natural spectacle we were growing to expect from Darwin’s Enchanted Isles.

Darwin’s footsteps

In the few days since flying 1200km from Guayaquil on the Ecuador mainland and transferring to the Isabela II, we had already seen several of the islands’ trademark wildlife highlights: the high-stepping, head-bowing courtship dance of blue-footed boobies on North Seymour, hundreds of sea lions dozing on the beach at Gardner Bay, waved albatrosses soaring above the surf at Punta Suárez on Española Island and a Galápagos hawk feeding on one of Darwin’s finches – the theory of natural selection dissected before our very eyes.

When the great naturalist visited the Galápagos Islands in 1835, he was not exactly bowled over by its wildlife. Darwin described the islands’ unique marine iguana, for example, as ‘a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid, and sluggish in its movements’. Admittedly, Darwin’s cruise wasn’t as pampered as ours – he was cramped with 70 other crew members aboard the 27m-long Beagle, and suffered badly from seasickness. He would no doubt have appreciated the stable bearing of the Isabela II, her comfortable library and lounge, spacious cabins, fine dining and little extras like the jacuzzi and sun deck. Twice the length of the Beagle, our expedition ship also benefitted from sea kayaks, zodiacs, snorkelling gear, a glass-bottom-boat and a large open deck for spotting whales and seabirds – everything you needed for the ultimate wildlife voyage.

We put the sea kayaks to good use at Punta Cormorant on the north coast of Floreana Island. Quiet and unobtrusive, they allowed us to paddle to within a metre or two of several Galápagos penguins preening themselves on a rocky islet. Another of the islands’ endemic species, these dapper little birds in their business-suit-plumage are the only penguins to venture north of the equator, courtesy of the cool Humboldt Current that courses through the Galápagos Islands. Their presence in these equatorial waters seemed all the more remarkable when, an hour later, we followed a trail inland to emerge beside a brackish lagoon pretty in pink with Caribbean flamingos. Floreana is probably the only place in the wild where penguins and flamingos thrive side by side.

If, however, you had to pick just one extraordinary gem from the evolutionary treasure chest of the Galápagos Islands, it would have to be the giant tortoise. Sailing overnight from Floreana, we reached the island of Santa Cruz the following dawn, disembarking at Puerto Ayora where the Charles Darwin Research Station operates a breeding facility to safeguard the distinct subspecies of Galápagos giant tortoise. Boardwalks connect a series of enclosures, some containing hatchlings, others serving as retirement homes for old-timers like Lonesome George – the sole survivor of the Pinta Island tortoises. The research station also works with the Galápagos National Park (established in 1959) to help restore fragile island ecosystems that are threatened by goats and other alien species. Another priority addresses the impact on the archipelago from humans – both residents and tourists.

All visitors support conservation in the Galápagos Islands by paying a US$100 national park fee on arrival. Choosing an operator with a robust responsible travel policy also helps alleviate pressure on the islands. The Isabela II, for example, is operated by Metropolitan Touring, which has established a foundation to support coastal clean-ups, recycling schemes and local livelihood projects.

Taking a bus into the highlands of Santa Cruz, we saw first-hand how local people supplement their income through conservation-based tourism. Weaving through a forest of Scalesia, or giant daisy trees, their branches dripping with mosses and liverworts, we reached a farm where agriculture and tortoise safaris go hand in hand. Guides led us along muddy tracks, pointing out the droppings of the 400kg reptiles (not that they were hard to miss) and getting us to within a few metres of a mating pair – the smaller female pinned down in a swamp by the groaning male.

What lies beneath

A couple of days later, having sailed north then west, via Genovesa Island, we had turtles, not tortoises, in our sights. Like many Galápagos vessels, the Isabela II is well equipped for showing passengers the islands’ underwater life. Hop in the ship’s glass-bottom boat and you can peek beneath the surface and not even get wet.

During an hour’s snorkel along the rocky coast of Targus Cove on Isabela Island, we counted no less than 26 green turtles, sometimes in twos and threes, grazing on algae or drifting in watery space. They were so common that they almost became part of the background. Sea lions tried to steal the limelight with their surging swim-pasts, whiskered snouts streaming bubbles inches from my face, while penguins zipped along at the surface like overwound bath toys. Occasionally, a flightless cormorant dived alongside me, its plumage wrapped in a silver cocoon of trapped air. And as if all this wasn’t enough, the sea was squirming with fish – vast shoals of yellowtail surgeonfish, wrasse, damselfish and parrotfish punctuated by stately, blue and yellow king angelfish parading from cover. At one point we even had a brief encounter with an octopus.

Climbing into the zodiac and heading back to ship, I felt that familiar ‘Galápagos glow’ of euphoria. It had been another exceptional day of wildlife viewing. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the cruise might end in anticlimax, but early the next morning, the ship anchored in another pristine bay, I glanced down and there, cruising off the stern, was an enormous manta ray. Nearby, blue-footed boobies were plunge diving for fish, dropping like fluted arrows into the sea. And through binoculars, I could see that the volcanic coastline of Fernandina Island was studded with marine iguanas – their spiny bodies encrusting the basalt in armour-clad hordes.

Many places in the world have amazing wildlife. Some of them boast extraordinary biodiversity or a superabundance of animals. Others are renowned for endemic species, or allow intimate close-up encounters. It’s a rare place, though, that combines all these attributes, and the Galápagos archipelago is one of them.

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