“Mantas!” Marianna, our guide, calls out excitedly, and with a flick of her yellow fins, she’s gone, diving down through the cold, clear water towards the dark shapes on the white sand at the bottom. We are snorkeling in the Galapagos Island during our 8 day cruise aboard the MV Samba, a cosy, comfortable ship built for small groups.
Everything I’ve read about the Galapagos is proved true on the very first island we visit – Plaza Sur, just off the coast of Santa Cruz. At this time of year, the vegetation has turned a vibrant, bright red and covers most of the island with unexpected colour. We are greeted by raucous juvenile sea lions, frolicking in the water, and the neon orange of Sally Lightfoot crabs on dark lava rocks. Yellow land iguanas bask in the dying light and bachelor sea lions loll around, unconcerned by the visitors and their camera clicks.
The Galapagos are known as Las Encantadas, or the Enchanted Isles, not because they were enchanting, but because of the dangerous currents that swept around them, and the way the islands appeared and disappeared in the mists. Formed by volcanoes, each island has its own unique flora and fauna. More famously, the Galapagos is celebrated as the location where Charles Darwin first obtained his ideas about evolution from the specializations shown by the finches, tortoises and plants on different islands.
The islands are young in the span of the world’s age, born of lava and eroded by sea and wind. They sit on a receding tectonic plate, and so the youngest islands are higher than the oldest, to the west – San Cristobal, Espanola and Santa Maria are amongst the older islands, whereas Fernandina and Isabela are younger formations. On one shore excursion we climb down into a lava tube, an almost perfectly circular cave formed by the crust of slow flowing, cooling lava. At the pitch black bottom of the tube, our feet touch the clear, cold waters of the sea.
Over the course of the next eight days, our small crew of ten share delicious meals in the warm dining area, sit outside on the wooden deck soaking in the sea breeze and salt spray, embark on shore excursions, snorkel around the Galapagos and, on one of our last nights on the Samba, teach Marianna to play poker.
For me, the main draw of the Galapagos is the opportunity to observe the animals, not just at close quarters, but also in their natural habitat, doing what they do best. Amongst some of the moments we managed to catch: a female sea lion giving birth, iguanas fighting over territory, sea lion pups running up to their barking mothers, sea turtles feeding on algae, frigate birds stealing food from others, blue footed boobies in courtship dances, a sea turtle attempting to mate with a reluctant female, Galapagos hawks hunting iguanas and marine iguanas regulating their temperature on the dark rocks.
The richness of the wildlife here beggars the imagination. There are breeding colonies of boobies, albatrosses, hundreds of marine iguanas, frigate birds tailing our ship, mantas gliding gracefully in mangrove waters, penguins resting on rocks, ghost crabs scuttling over Sally Lightfoots, oystercatchers prowling the beach, the yellow flash of a warbler in the highlands, dark shells of giant tortoises dotting the verdant lushness of a reserve – even a Southern right whale blowing, far off in the cold waters of the Humboldt current, one fine morning.
First discovered in the 17th century by a Bishop, the Galapagos’ most famous resident is perhaps Lonesome George, the last of his kind. A giant tortoise from Pinta, George is a celebrity here in the Galapagos, a symbol of the national park’s logo and of the threat of extinction that faces many species in the natural world today. Today the islands welcome about 100,000 visitors yearly, and this number inevitably adversely affects exactly what the tourists come to see – the pristine, untouched landscape and the animals’ behaviour.
Some kind of compromise must be reached to balance the economic reality and ecological concerns of a place as special as the Galapagos – the question is how?