Call me childish, but I couldn’t help sniggering as our guide Pedro exclaimed with glee, ‘Look, Blue-footed Boobies!’ as we walked carefully around the paths of Isla Lobos on our first island stop. And the amusement didn’t fade despite us seeing boobies regularly over the next four days. ‘If you see any boobies in a tree, they are red-footed boobies,’ he was saying, but all I could do was nudge Margaret, one of the Irish ladies on our trip and whisper, ‘God I’d love to see some boobies in a tree!’ delighted with myself and my high-classed wit.
I suppose I should try and keep the boobie based humour to a minimum from here on in. I’ll do my best but I’m making no promises!
We were in the Galápagos of course – islands made famous by Charles Darwin as the location for his studies which led to his theory of natural selection as proposed in his famous, On The Origin of Species. I’d actually studied this work as part of my Masters in Victorian Literature so was very keen to see the lands that bore some of the most important scientific and philosophical ideas of recent history.
Our planning for this part of our trip had involved a few emails to our friend at STA travel back in March. We’d decided to go for a G Adventures package trip which involved daily activities led by a naturalist guide – ours was Pedro – and four nights aboard a boat, cruising to various locations in the Southern and Central Galápagos Islands. A tour is arguably not the absolute cheapest way to visit the archipelago, but now that we have done the trip, I can happily say it was money well spent. The sheer prevalence and diversity of wildlife we got to see, the variety of locations, the quality of the information Pedro was giving us, the food, the company, the transfers, the complete lack of hassle – everything added up to make it a fantastic experience.
And we got to stay two nights in the Hilton Hotel in Quito – what an absolute luxury! Hot showers, fluffy towels and not a bunkbed in sight!
So there we were: we’d been picked up from the airport on San Cristobal, transferred to our boat, the Estrella Del Mar, shown to our cabins, been run through an emergency drill, had lunch fed to us, and then, after a short cruise, been transferred to Isla Lobos to be greeted by Galápagos Sealions, bright red Sally Lightfoot Crabs, Magnificent Frigate Birds and of course, the delightfully comical Boobies.
Pedro had had a bit of a job getting us on to the boat initially as we were all transfixed by the nonchalant sealions lying all over the place at the dock: sealions on the pavement, sealions under the ramp that led down to the floating pontoon, more sealions on that pontoon, sealions on the boats moored in the harbour … you get the idea! ‘Come on, please. You will see lots of sealions,’ Pedro was saying as we were taking it in turns to pose with the first one we saw. ‘Yes, yes, I know,’ I was thinking, ‘but right now I want a picture with this one!’ Poor guy; he’d picked up a rather excitable, rather contrary group it seemed.
The excitement mainly came in the form of the three fabulous Irish friends, Helen, Angela and Margaret who had come for a month long exploration of Peru and Ecuador. It was so much fun getting to know these guys as they joked around, bringing banter and laughter to every situation (particularly when improvising comical scripts to accompany the behaviour of the animals we were watching). The rest of the group was also excellent though: Mother and daughter Julie and Emma from England, Kristina and Becky who were both travelling solo, Canadian couple Nelson and Christina, Judy and Angelo, and finally the two Australian friends Sue and Sally.
Sally deserves a special mention, mainly because she essentially made Pedro’s life so comically difficult. There are pretty specific rules about what you can and can’t do on the Galapagos, which are there to protect the environment and the wildlife. One of the main ones is: ‘Stay on the path’. There are black and white sticks that mark the edges of the trails and you are not supposed to go beyond them. We lost count of the number of times the phrase, ‘Sally, you are off the path. Again…’ was uttered, in increasing tones of frustration. I felt for Pedro though; often he was explaining some features of a particular animal or species, and we’d all be standing, looking and listening intently, except for Sally… who you’d find half way up the beach somewhere, camera in hand feverishly photographing something entirely different. She was the same while snorkelling – despite Pedro’s best efforts to keep the group together, Sally’s fiercely independent streak saw her exploring whatever she could find wherever her legs would kick her. At least she was wearing her swimming costume though; it transpired she’d bought it especially for this trip as apparently it wouldn’t have been appropriate to do what she would usually do, and would have preferred, which was to go in the nude. I think that would have pushed Pedro completely over the edge!
The main thing I didn’t realise about the Galápagos was that they are volcanic islands. It’s obvious now I think about it, but I had this image in my head of an archipelago completely covered in luscious rainforest, teeming with life. It is not so; in fact, topographically, the islands themselves are quite bare, with only minimal elevation gains, very few plants of any real size and almost exclusively sandy rock underfoot. This is actually a huge bonus when it comes to wildlife watching, however, as there are no trees to get in the way of your view. I know that sounds rather counter intuitive, but actually spotting wildlife in the forests is always a mission in searching it out, often while craning your neck and employing massive zoom on your camera; our sloth spotting experience from Costa Rica would be a key example of this!
On the Galápagos, it is not so. There is a massive amount of wildlife and it just sits right in front of you, often paying you no attention whatsoever. In fact, one of Pedro’s other major rules is that you have to remain at least two metres away from the animals at all times. This actually involves the park re-routing paths on occasion as the Blue-Footed Boobies have a penchant for nesting on the ground which has been nicely smoothed over for them by all the visitors.
The two metre-rule is probably a good one when it comes to sealions, especially the mothers. They lie on the beaches looking peaceful while their cubs plod around them, nuzzling in search of a nipple, but if you get too close you’ll get barked at very loudly.
It’s harder to maintain a two metre gap in the water though, especially as far as the sealions are concerned. Swimming and diving around with the cubs was an incredible experience. Before leaving home, Hels and I had never swam with turtles, and when we got the opportunity in the Gili Islands, we instantly fell in love with their beauty and serenity. Now, however… the sealions may have trumped the turtles for the ‘favourite marine animal’ crown.
They are just so fast! Where a turtle will kind of meander around, nibbling the occasional bit of coral or sea grass, paying you little or no attention, the sealions come right up to you, look you in the eye and say, ‘Come on, come on, come on! Let’s play!’ Then off they go, whirling, spinning, spiralling at a phenomenal speed, coming right up close before zipping off again, diving, surfacing for air, twisting, turning, playing, playing, playing. They are sublime.
The contrast between the sealions on land and in the water couldn’t be more stark; on land, they lump themselves around, walking on their front flippers while half-walking, half-dragging their rear flippers around behind them. This is clearly a massive effort as they never go very far or very fast. The cubs, particularly, seem to have a very limited amount of energy when it comes to walking, taking one, two, three, four … five steps … and then just collapsing, face in the sand, unable to go on. Then, a minute later, another five steps before being laid out flat once more. It’s pretty much the cutest thing you’re ever likely to see.
It’s very easy to get completely caught up in the wildlife on the Galapagos, but there are also some stunning landscapes. The beaches especially are fantastic; huge long sweeping stretches of white sand, pierced occasionally by black volcanic rock, but with a very pleasing, and very significant lack of development. No bars, or huts, or houses; just the natural landscape, being preserved exactly as it is meant to be.
Underwater was where we had our most fun though. The tour included numerous opportunities to go snorkelling, occasionally off the beach but more regularly in deep water. There were two significant locations that we loved; the first was ‘Kicker Rock’, so called because it resembled a football boot.
We jumped in and braced ourselves as the water was a little chilly, but two minutes later we were happily snorkelling along as a flight of Spotted Eagle Rays glided directly below us, ‘flying’ under the water in perfect formation. Hels and I had hoped to spot these rays in Asia, and then again in Belize but to no avail. But now, here they were, looking absolutely majestic. Once we’d got over the excitement, we carried on and were treated to views of turtles, sharks and a huge variety of fish.
The second location, though, ‘Devil’s Crown’, was even more special. The rocky remains of this volcanic cone stand alone in relatively deep water, providing ample snorkelling around both sides and in the middle. The amount of marine life here was simply staggering, with massive shoals and schools of fish (there is a difference, believe it or not!) providing a backdrop to some of the larger animals, not least sealions, turtles, sharks and yet more Spotted Eagle Rays. Hels and I were in freediving heaven, with just enough depth to make things interesting but not too challenging, and a never ending catalogue of fabulous creatures to observe.
But then came the real treat. We had to jump back into the pangas (the small launches they use to transport you to and from the big boat) because there is a strong current at the Devil’s Crown, so the guys would pick us up and transport us back to the other side of the rocks so we could drift past again. The first time I got out, I was saying, ‘Oh wow, that’s just incredible. The fish are amazing, and there were sharks, and sealions…’ Then Becky, the American, said, ‘Did you see the penguins?’
‘I’m sorry, what? Penguins? Are you kidding me? You’re joking, right? Right?’
It was no joke, and luckily, a few minutes later, Hels and I were in the water as these small, dart-like Galápagos Penguins started flitting around us, putting even the sealions to shame for their speed and agility. Squawking away, they too seemed to be quite playful, taking the chance to show off their skills for the camera. I was so grateful I had the GoPro in hand. So now our only problem was what to look at: do we watch the mesmerising Galápagos Penguins dancing around us, or the Spotted Eagle Rays ten metres down, or the White Tipped Reef Sharks that were cruising menacingly below, or the sealion that has just turned up to join in the party? It was just mind-blowing.
That sense of being absolutely overwhelmed by the experience never dimmed for our entire trip, and I feel like I’ve only given you a glimpse of a snapshot here, a mere glimmer of the actual menagerie of sights, sounds and smells. There’s been no mention, for example, of the extravagant mating displays we saw by the male Frigate Birds, or the wonderful walk of the Albatrosses that waggle their heads from side to side, looking like they’re wading into a Friday night bar fight. Nothing about the Marine Iguanas, that swim around in the surf holding their heads out of the water, before coming back on land and huddling together for warmth. I haven’t even described Darwin’s finches … although, to be honest, despite being the source of his groundbreaking scientific theories, they’re not the most interesting creatures on the islands! I have skipped over the Flamingoes, the superb sunsets, the Humpback Whales, the Red-billed Tropic Birds, the ever-present Pelicans, the cliff-dwelling Nazca Boobies, and the fantastically comical Swallow-tailed Gulls who regularly and repeatedly stand and stare at their own feet for no apparent reason. And, AND, Hels and I didn’t even get to see a Giant Tortoise as that particular island wasn’t part of our cruise.
I suppose there’s only one thing for it, we’ll have to go back!
If you’re thinking of going to the Galápagos, stop thinking and go. It is simply one of the most special places we have ever seen.
Oh, one last thing – we have a video of the infamous Blue-footed Boobie mating dance to share with you when we get home. You can of course see an example online if you like but I’d advise exercising caution if you’re planning on googling ‘dancing boobies’!!