The sense of astonishment Charles Darwin felt on arriving here in 1835, as the jigsaw pieces fell into place for his On the Origin of Species, Particularly as post-Darwinian travellers to this remote archipelago, 620 miles west of Ecuador, can embrace the esprit de corps of Darwin’s ship, the HMS Beagle, and explore all 24 islands by boat, with itineraries spanning four to 15 days.
Selecting the right boat is crucially important. The Beluga is not only as streamlined as her whale namesake, she also carries a supply of caviar. The eight-cabined vessel, built in 1967, possesses such retro grace and space that I picture a circa-1960s Sean Connery on board, bedding beautiful leading ladies and sipping dry martinis. “She’s got nice lines” is the correct nautical superlative, my fellow passenger and lifelong mariner Jocko, from Rhode Island, reminds me.
The pluses of a more compact, more exclusive vessel quickly become apparent during our week exploring the Eastern Galapagos Islands (the oldest in the archipelago). Not only are her 12 knots nifty enough to open up farther-flung, less-visited corners of the 52,000sq mile marine reserve, but her gracefulness seems somehow more in keeping with this extraordinary environment than the 50-berth cruise-ships I see disgorging flotillas of passengers to descend upon cute sea lion pups like paparazzi packs. With just seven passengers aboard, we are able to sit down with a G&T each evening and easily reach a consensus on how best to avoid both the islands’ heat and other boats: usually with twice-daily island visits — at sunrise and 4pm.
Beluga also meets an as-yet voluntary code of environmental good practice — Smart-Voyager certification, devised by Ecuadorian conservation organisation Conservación y Desarrollo. Not only does she boast everything from biodegradable soap to a fuel-efficient engine but between islands we disinfect our footwear to avoid transferring potential contaminants. Darwin would surely have approved; after all, it was he who wrote: ‘Natural scrutinising is rejecting those that are bad and preserving and adding up all that is good.’
A lifetime’s glut of nature documentaries had scarcely prepared me for the awaiting theatre on that first afternoon near Dragon Hill on Santa Cruz Island.
Riding the Beluga’s dinghy towards the beach, Darwin briefs us on island etiquette. We are to stick to the delineated footpaths and not ‘touch the animals’ — although, he concedes, they may end up touching us. When he illustrates his point by telling us of the brown pelican that landed on a guest’s shoulder during a recent excursion, little did I know that a few days later a juvenile swordfish would fly out of the sea into our dinghy, almost performing an appendectomy on me.
We dock at a small jetty, blocked by dozing sea lions, beyond which the glistening, black basalt shoreline writhes with tequila sunrise-coloured sally lightfoot crabs. Following the rocky path along the shore via hirsute prickly pears, I imagine Charles Darwin’s own footfall being similarly encumbered by gazillions of carefree reptiles, fearless mockingbirds and doves that, rather than flying away, make a beeline for you. Clearly, my binoculars would be staying in their case.
The first evolutionary wunderkind we encounter is the jet-black marine iguana. They cling to virtually every rock, just as they did when the Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, first glimpsed them. He branded them ‘hideous’ but Darwin was so taken aback by the world’s only ocean-going iguana that he repeatedly tossed them into the sea to watch them paddle back. Their crumpled faces resemble those of the carved stone Foo Dogs that guard Chinese temples. The only hint that life courses through their reptilian veins is the occasional sneeze to excrete salt. Darwin (our one) tells us they’d adapted to food shortages on these infertile islands by evolving the ability to dive to feed on marine algae.
Meanwhile, the considerably larger, dinosaurian, land iguanas resolutely refuse to abandon basking spots on the footpath and seem content to be stepped over. Their corn-on-the-cob heads and peeling gold-leaf chainmail hides remind me of a Star Trek extraterrestrial, although which one I can’t be sure.
When I ask Darwin why the iguanas don’t run away when we approach, he tells me they’ve adapted to life without predators and so haven’t learnt to feel fear. “Even smaller birds such as flycatchers may land on you as if you’re a branch,” he says.
To illustrate the point that evolution continues apace, Darwin tells me that a new species of pink iguana was recently discovered on a volcano on Isabela Island. “When a fisherman first brought one in,” he laughs, “the National Park officials thought he’d painted the iguana pink for a joke.”
Our island-hopping through the archipelago soon develops an easy rhythm: exploring sun-scorched islands before breakfast; snorkelling aquamarine seas until lunch; then being lulled to sleep by the Pacific swell under starry Southern Hemisphere skies.
Every day brings new and wondrous experiences. On San Cristóbal, we disembark where Darwin first stepped ashore on 17 September 1835, with FitzRoy in tow grumbling about the ‘dismal looking heaps of lava’. I couldn’t disagree more: the pockmarked, calamine-coloured volcanic crater at Punta Pitt has a stark beauty about it.
By now, our guide’s knowledgeable enthusiasm is becoming infectious and I’m getting into the whole Darwinian thing. To the point of admiring San Cristóbal’s so-called ‘Darwin’s finches’, which in twitchers’ vernacular might derisorily be dismissed as ‘LBJs’ (little brown jobs). However, these little chirruping birds helped to revolutionise scientific thought and ultimately challenge the hegemony of creationist orthodoxy.
Incredibly, Charles Darwin almost overlooked them, however. It was only on his return to London that it became clearer each of the Islands was home to a distinctly different species of finch — an observation he was able to confirm by examining specimens he’d brought back with him. Normally seed-eating birds, the Darwin finches evolved beaks to eat leafs, pick ticks, and even suck blood, in the case of the sinister-sounding vampire finch. We spy a woodpecker finch that our Darwin explains has adapted to use tools — breaking-off cactus spines to excavate grubs from rocks.
On Española Island, we splash-land in creamy surf on Gardner Bay, the most beautiful and photographed white-sand beach in the Galapagos. Its sea lions — beige, chocolate and black bands of sun-worshipping blubber — belch and bark while their pups slosh up anddown in the surf. If equatorial sea lions sound like an oxymoron, their svelte appearance seems equally anomalous — in these warm tropical waters they’re two-thirds less blubbery than their Californian cousins.
At Sullivan Bay, on Santiago Island, the sight of penguins adds to the sense of the surreal, although it’s the sublime lava plateau that catches my eye. Coal-black and desolate, a century-old pahoehoe, or ‘ropy’, lava flow has solidified after oozing towards the ocean in sludgy swirls, coils, corrugations and dollops. “It looks like folded chocolate brownie mix,” observes Maria, the sole Spanish passenger.
Aboard the Beluga, chef Omar’s unrelentingly delicious offerings, such as rich chocolate mousse with drizzled fig coulis, mean our waistlines are at constant risk of evolving into something more substantial. Fortunately, a daily diet of snorkelling is proving the calorie-burning counterpoise to survival of the fattest, thus ensuring the Beluga doesn’t dip too far below her Plimsoll line.
Undersea, guinea-fowl pufferfish and king angelfish attend vibrant reefs that may lack the sheer abundance and diversity of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, but instead offer larger marine encounters that come thick and, sometimes thrillingly, fast. After snorkelling with playful sea lions and trailing Pacific green turtles and elegant eagle rays, we cruise into Darwin Bay on Genovesa Island, frequented by hammerhead sharks and killer whales. When somebody mentions that I resemble a seal in my black wetsuit, I hastily change into a brightly coloured T-shirt, conscious of seals’ unfortunate status as orca delicacy. Fortunately I never encounter any ravenous killer whales but it isn’t long before the group I’m diving with clock two smaller shark species, including the Galapagos shark. I am completely alone, however, when the unmistakable T-bone of an 8ft-long hammerhead looms into view. As it shimmies towards me and glides past, my pulse races and I swallow a mouthful of seawater. I beckon the others over, knowing I have a story to dine out on for years.
Survival of the slowest
When we sail into Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz’s largest settlement, its inhabitants are clearing up the damage caused by a wave triggered by the Japanese tsunami in March. It’s a little end-of-the-Earth port with a mimosa and mangrove-lined waterfront, numerous tour operators and a fish market where gutsy pelicans squabble for fish ends.
Passengers are encouraged to visit the Islands’ most famous landlubbers, giant tortoises, at Puerto Ayora’s Charles Darwin Research Centre. No other Galapagueno species better demonstrates that not all has been rosy in this Garden of Eden.
After the Galapagos’ discovery in 1535, by a severely blown-off-course Bishop of Panama, fresh tortoise meat was on the menu for generations of sailors — not just because it was easy to catch but because it could be stored alive onboard for months. The Centre’s exhibition explains that the tortoise population, which once stood at 250,000, has declined by 90% today.
Furthermore, species introduced by man, such as rats and goats, have wrought havoc on delicately balanced island ecosystems, through either predation on hatchlings and eggs or habitat destruction. Add to this the more recent invasion by a burgeoning army of tourists and it’s not hard to see why UNESCO placed the Galapagos Islands on its ‘in danger’ list in 2007. It only took them off it in 2010 after the Ecuadorian government introduced restrictions on the quantity and size of vessels visiting the archipelago, and pest eradication programmes. Passenger ships cannot now revisit any island more than once a fortnight, thus ensuring honeypots such as Gardner Bay aren’t overrun.
Interestingly, Darwin himself wasn’t exactly saintly when it came to the island’s gentle giants. He was partial to a bit of tortoise meat and confessed to riding them — as does the Beluga’s genial owner, Martin Schreyer, who’s accompanying us on our voyage. “Back in the early 1950s, before all the conservation stuff, we’d ride them for fun,” he confesses, “dangling bananas in front of them to make them go faster.”
Certain specimens at the Research Centre possess near VW Beetle-sized chassis, not least the Centre’s most famous resident, Lonesome George, the last surviving Pinta Island subspecies. No mate has ever been found for this 90-year-old goliath, so his genetic line is sadly doomed.
More reassuringly, visitors can get up close to hundreds of pet-sized hatchlings at the Centre that are being captive-bred to repopulate islands like Española, where conservationists have successfully re-established a thriving population of around 1,500 tortoises. Many of these hatchlings have been sired by the 120-year-old Diegito, arguably the planet’s randiest reptile — a father to 1,400 offspring; around 90% of Española’s reintroductions. I couldn’t spot him in his enclosure, so could only speculate as to what he might be up to. But I later learn that his offspring (a close subspecies of Lonesome George’s) will soon repopulate Pinta; another reason for poor Lonesome George to hate this 0.2mph sex bomb.
Into the sunset
I feel a soupçon of disappointment as we sail over the Equator into the Northern Hemisphere to the remotest and final island of our voyage, Genovesa. Not just because the sun is setting on this wonderful voyage but because of a glaring omission on my must-see checklist. Despite many highlights, including blue-footed boobies performing their little Sumo-wrestler shuffle, the biggest Galapagos show-off, the male frigatebird and his iconic inflated torso, has thus far avoided me. Fortunately, our captain has saved the best until last.
As we ride the dinghy at dawn to arid Genovesa, from a distance I think I spy an incandescent crop of tomatoes amid cactii and Palo Santo trees. Drawing closer, I realise these bright red blobs are attached to the angular black frames of frigatebirds.
Like a trigger-happy commando, I can’t wait to storm the beach with my camera. But there’s no hurry, I’m told; even now, at the height of the mating season, the colony of frigatebirds — in inimitably uninhibited Galapagos fashion — will barely register our presence.
Hundreds of in-season males with expanded blood-red bubblegum chests perch upon flimsy nests, emitting a trilling ululation to attract females. “By circulating air for up to 20 minutes, they fill their pouches, but they can only keep them inflated for several hours at a time,” explains Darwin. Several hours seems impressive to me, as it clearly does to a number of females whom we observe in the early stages of moving in with their magnificent new flames. Others, though, seem less impressed, leaving jilted males looking a little deflated — quite literally.
The whole shoreline around them buzzes with exotic seabirds. Blue-footed boobies perform aerial dives as straight as a lead-weight on a plumb line; tropicbirds fight; swallow-tailed gulls mate, and nazca boobies nonchalantly nurse eggs, oblivious to our presence. Going home to crows and sparrows just won’t be the same. I bet Darwin — that’s Charles, of course — contemplated the same thought.
SPECIES THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
01 Giant tortoises
Darwin found that tortoise subspecies evolved shells to suit their locale — from domed to saddle-backed.
02 Flightless cormorant
Abundant food and no predators have seen this cormorant de-evolve the power of flight.
03 Darwin’s finches
Absent from On the Origin of Species, but Darwin found adaptations occurred within a generation.
04 Marine iguanas
No other species of lizard has adapted to diving undersea to feed.
Possessing varying characteristics between islands, wings are shrinking on Española.
Iberia flies daily from Heathrow to Quito and Guayaquil in Ecuador via Madrid. www.iberia.com
KLM flies five times weekly to Quito via Amsterdam. www.klm.com
Connections to the Galapagos are usually booked in conjunction with the boat of your choice, flying TAME or AeroGal. www.aerogal.com.ec www.tame.com.ec
Average flight time: Around 12h55m depending on connections.
Galapagos’ tourism is focused around boat travel. Most travellers pre-arrange cruises but those on lower budgets may find cheap last-minute deals in Quito or stay on Santa Cruz Island and take day trips. Such deals, however, are a gamble, with the size and quality of boats varying considerably.
When to go
The archipelago has an all-year-round warm climate, typically of between 20-30C, although December to May can be much hotter. Peak visitor months are around July to August and North American holidays.
Need to know
Visa: British citizens do not require a visa for travel to Ecuador. Six month passport validity is required with two free pages.
Currency: US dollar. £1 = $1.60.
Health: If you’re coming to the Galapagos via Quito, then malaria presents no problems. Consult your GP about the usual jabs before travelling.
International dial code: 00 593.
Time difference: GMT -6.
Fees: Visitors must pay $100 (£60) in National Park fees.
The Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin. RRP: £3.99.
On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. RRP: £5.
Bradt Travel Guides: Galapagos Wildlife. RRP: £15.99.
The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner — a look at the role Darwin’s finches played in his theory of evolution. RRP: £8.99.
How to do it
An 11-night itinerary with Tribes aboard the Beluga, including eight-night full-board cabin accommodation, all island activities, three nights B&B in Quito, domestic flights and transfers, starts from £2,690. Excludes international flights. www.tribes.co.uk
Last Frontiers offers a 10-day trip on the Eclipse yacht, including three-nights in Quito from £3,950 per person based on two sharing. Excludes international flights. www.lastfrontiers.com