In my mind, the Galápagos Islands had always been one of those mystical, far-off places that only biologists and film crews go to to make documentaries.
A thousand kilometres off Ecuador’s Pacific coast, the archipelago – also known as the Colón Islands – is now visited by thousands of tourists each year in search of that unique feeling of being able to walk up to a species of bird or reptile and have it not run away but actually eyeball you right back.
Ever since I was about six or seven, I remember knowing about the islands – seeing something on the TV about giant tortoises, marine iguanas and birds with the name “booby” (the blue-footed boobies are the biggest joke on the island and the inspiration behind a lot of the souvenirs there).
But my determination to one day go there was cemented by David Attenborough’s 2008 nature documentary Life in Cold Blood, in which he comes face-to-face with “Lonesome George”, the last of one of the species of Galápagos giant tortoises endemic to just one island – Isla Pinta.
“Lonesome George” is, scientists think, around 100 years old – and still in good health. I saw him last week at the Charles Darwin Research Station – which is on Isla Santa Cruz just outside Puerto Ayora. There is still a $10,000 reward for anyone who finds a female – and there’s still some time left, as experts think this species can live to around 170.
(EDIT: Unfortunately, George has now passed away, and it is with great sadness that scientists record the death of his Pinta subspecies.)
Other species of giant tortoise have suffered, too. On Isla Isabela, the Sierra Negra volcano – which is still very much active, as we witnessed – nearly finished off the local species of giant tortoise when it erupted in 2005.
Seventy individuals were airlifted to safety and a breeding programme is in full swing on the island. Some of them have bright yellow patches on their shell – burn marks from the molten lava spewed from the 10km-wide volcano.
You don’t go to Galápagos for the species count. Ecuador’s 1600 species of bird puts it right up there with the mega biodiverse countries of the world. But that’s very much the mainland.
The geologically young islands – just 3.5 million years – have a small number of species, but many of them are endemic: they can be found nowhere else.
And due to their history and where they are located, they are generally speaking not afraid of humans one bit.
Take for example the Galápagos-endemic marina iguanas. Any lava outcrop around the islands will undoubtedly have a few of these crawling around. They’re found solely on the beaches, swimming between the crags, and don’t mind when the sea lashes them.
Their counterpart on dry land is the Galápagos land iguana – the true dragon of the islands, and also endemic – along with a Galápagos snake, a scorpion and a range of birds.
In fact, many people interested in birds come to the Galápagos as an extension to the mindbogglingly enormous number of species on the mainland.
The endemic species on the islands include the Galápagos penguin (the most northerly-dwelling in the world), Galápagos mockingbird, Galápagos dove and the rare mangrove finch.
Practically everywhere on the islands you will find a member of the endemic Darwin’s finch family.
They appear to come from a common ancestor – and have developed into fifteen species, identifiable by their body size and beak shape and size. Not true finches, but a Darwin-esque exhibition of evolution. Although he did collect some on his voyage on the Beagle, the attribution comes from the 20th century.
The best way to see the Galápagos is by take a boat with a naturalist guide on board – and you must by law take an authorised guide of some description with you.
Not only will they point out and identify (most of the time!) what you’re looking at, but they are all local and know the islands like the back of their hand. They are extremely enthusiastic, and one time in particular highlights this perfectly.
We were in the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz where there is a boggy area in a woods which is fantastic for looking for wild giant tortoises.
We were squelching around in the mud when suddenly, “PACHAY!”
I didn’t have a clue what a “pachay” was, but it turned out it was a rare endemic bird – the Galápagos’ answer to a water rail, the Galápagos crake or Galápagos rail.
The others weren’t overly interested, but I knew the worth of this little bird and wading into a bog which ran underneath a tall bush – only to spot a female, a juvenile and then a male (the best-looking as always).
Throughout the islands, you come across a variety of habitats.
Lava outcrops on white-sand beaches where you can find marine iguanas, brightly coloured Sally lightfoot crabs, and shorebirds like marbled godwit and semipalmated plover; rainy, humid highlands home to vermilion flycatchers, Galápagos martin; brackish lagoons where you can find Caribbean flamingo, white-cheeked pintail, black-necked stilt and least sandpiper; and arid, baking-hot drylands – home to the fiery-coloured land iguanas, cactus-finches, zigzag spiders, Queen butterflies and Galápagos mockingbird.
One of my favourite habitats is the mangrove areas – trees stood on stilts in the warm coastal waters. The trees are home to yellow warbler, mangrove finch, brown pelican, egrets and herons, including the beautiful yellow-crowned night-heron.
But a trip in a dinghy into the mangrove can provide unrivalled views of turtles and sharks – biding their time and reaching adulthood from the safety of the tangled networks of mangrove trees.
Most nature-lovers visiting the islands take a boat to go between the different islands. As you go, you see magnificent and great frigatebirds following in your wake – or even perching on the top wire of your ship.
A variety of tubenoses – like Elliot’s storm petrel – can be seen flying near the ship, with brown noddy and Galápagos shearwater sometimes coming in close.
However, if the air- and land-loving wildlife doesn’t really do it for you – then those just under the waves definitely will.
We snorkelled just twice – but there are plenty of tours that will include snorkelling or scuba diving (for those who know how) every day.
In the two hour-long snorkels, we managed to see green turtle, a 2.5-metre-wide manta ray, white-tipped reef shark and more clownfish, parrot fish, puffer fish and other amazing, vividly-coloured fish that I’ve ever seen in my life.
However, one aquatic experience you won’t be forgetting in a while is an encounter with an endemic Galápagos sea lion. Curiosity gets the better of them, and they come right up to you – in our case, circling us and then virtually pressing its nose up again your mask – attracted by the bubbles.
At the very least you should take a waterproof disposable camera (a 27-snap Kodak model will set you back about $20 on the island – mine’s still being developed!). But if you can – try to get yourself a waterproof digital camera, especially if you’re going to be doing a lot of snorkelling.
In contrast with the Galápagos, travelling around mainland Ecuador, once you’ve paid your airfare there, can be done on the cheap. Buses on the mainland will take you from one side of the country to the other for a little over US$10.
However, there’s no real way to do Galápagos on a shoestring – and for good reason.
Firstly, the airfare from Quito is around $500 for foreigners, and then there’s the fact that you have to be with a guide to visit most parts of the National Park – most likely as part of a tour, which also don’t come cheap – and you have to pay $110 to get into the National Park itself ($10 Ingala entry card, and $100 entrance free at the main airport on Baltra Island).
However, I haven’t found a person who’s come back from Galápagos and regretted a penny of what they had spent. Most, myself included, simply wished they had stretched a bit more and booked a longer trip.
Here are few more photos from my trip – which I organised with Tierra Verde on the Yacht Fregata.