Despite boasting some of the planet’s youngest terrain, there is a sense of the ancient about the Galápagos Islands, a remote and fragile chain of barren volcanic peaks jutting from the ocean 1000 kilometres off the Ecuadorean coast, home to some of the world’s strangest, yet most endearing inhabitants.
I learned a long time ago that it’s important to connect with the locals when arriving in a new destination, but I’ve not faced this kind of welcome before. There are lizards — aged, grimacing lizards — literally everywhere I look, and I’m struggling to put my foot down without making one of those Galápagos locals extremely grumpy. In a scene reminiscent of low-budget 50s sci-fi movies, ash-hued iguanas with Godzilla-like profiles and long, slender claws are stacked three deep on the jagged lava coastline, making climbing from our inflatable a very delicate manoeuvre. I finally take the leap, landing in their ranks, to find myself not devoured by tiny mouths, but completely ignored.
It’s our second day exploring this frontier with Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, a unique collaboration between the world’s oldest expedition company and the acclaimed natural sciences magazine. We met the National Geographic Endeavour, a North Sea trawler turned hardy, 96-passenger adventure cruiser, the previous day, on arrival from the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil. Our PhD-wielding naturalist Carlos Romero, part of a team of guides aboard the stout expedition ship, greets our little band of camera-toting travellers and leads our hike along the coast of Fernandina, the youngest (in geological terms, just a baby) of the archipelago’s 18-odd islands.
In many ways Fernandina sums up the Galápagos Islands to a tee. At its centre is a towering shield volcano crowned by a cantankerous caldera that’s been in a foul mood since it last began erupting in April 2009. Yet, despite its barren and bleak flanks, the island’s coastline is thriving with life, from the somnolent iguanas — who take turns crawling into the sea in search of their favourite snack, red algae, before rushing back to the lava to warm up — to a myriad of birdlife: some residents, some just passing through. Flightless cormorants, far happier diving deep into the sea than soaring above it, watch us from a rocky outcrop with vivid blue eyes, the salt water beading off their waterproof feathers. Two sea lion pups play-fight in a rock pool before braving a tentative sniff at our hiking boots. In a lagoon wreathed by rock layered like cream cake, a green turtle bobs in the tide searching for lunch.
If towering volcanic peaks, birds that swim like fish, and moody but adorable lizards are the ancient face of Galápagos, then Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic is its modern persona. The company has been operating in the islands for half a century, long before any other operators saw the potential of this locale. With two ships permanently based in the islands and a crew of experienced guides — many of whom were born in Galápagos — the cruise line is also the largest single contributor to the efforts of the Charles Darwin Research Station at Santa Cruz, a bastion of conservation policy that has focused its effort on education and preservation since 1959.
Rather unforgiving landscapes that have changed little since Darwin arrived, the islands of the Galápagos are almost exactly as nature intended: in balance, ebbing and flowing with the movement of the sea currents which first delivered life to their shores. However, this isn’t by chance: conservation is at the core of the Galápagos experience. A total of 97 per cent of the island chain is protected, and inhabitation in the remaining space is carefully controlled by the Ecuadorean government. Tourist numbers have tripled in the past 20 years, making biosecurity and conservation efforts even more important. Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, like other Galápagos operators, must follow a strict expedition timeline designed to minimise the impact of tourism on wildlife while ensuring every guest gets a chance to enjoy this Eden without a flotilla of crowded vessels anchored nearby.
Each day we’re briefed on where the ship will sail, what we might see and how to best prepare for it. There is always something new to discover and, thanks to our guides, plenty to learn. At some islands, like seahorse-shaped Isabela — formed by the merger of no less than six shield volcanos — we ride the ship’s military-grade inflatables in for a wet landing, stepping into the shallows on a deserted beachhead. Snorkelling nearby with naturalist native Paul Vergara, we’re joined by an inquisitive sea lion, his eyes rarely leaving us as he dives, swoops and tumbles through the depths, a silver string of bubbles trailing towards the surface. He is quickly dubbed the ‘little showoff’, although he’s bigger than most guests. Beyond, solitary white tipped sharks and a pair of spotted eagle rays glide by unhindered by our clumsy splashing above.
On other islands, like North Seymour — home to the world’s largest populations of frigate birds and blue footed boobies — we enjoy a dry landing but usually finish off our explorations with a welcome dip in the warm equatorial waters. We trace the rugged coast line in search of male frigate birds puffing out their red gular pouches and stretching their ink-black wings in elaborate mating rituals. Further inland, we discover vibrantly-hued land iguanas in every shade of yellow, orange and red imaginable, and watch the blue footed boobies, fresh from deep sea fishing, feeding new hatchlings. During regular photographic expeditions with National Geographic-certified photographer Christian Saa, we brush up on our use of light and ISO to snap perfect images of vibrant pink flamingos, flightless cormorants, proud Galápagos hawks, and even the islands’ own tiny penguin species.
There’s also plenty on offer aboard the ship. Our cabin is spacious, clean and comfortable, with two single bunks, a well-appointed bathroom, and plenty of room to stow luggage. The ship boasts a small boutique, a spacious lounge where guests meet for daily lectures and evening cocktail debriefs, and an intimate dining room where chefs present South American-influenced comfort food. One afternoon, as the National Geographic Endeavour steams south, Galápagos’ first Fulbright scholar Jonathan Aguas leads us through the history of his homeland, from the arrival of the first explorers and the observations of Darwin, through to the land scuffles between eccentric German utopianists and a larger-than-life Baroness and her two flunkies. As we cross the equator for the sixth time, guests gather on the bow for a cheese and wine-laced sunset soiree.
We finish our exploration of Galápagos in the lush highlands of Santa Cruz, one of the few inhabited islands in the chain. There’s time to visit a primary school supported by Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, its classrooms decorated by brightly-coloured hand-painted giant tortoises, before we climb the island’s peaks in search of the real thing. We meet these imposing animals in a swampy paddock, one of their favourite spots during their seasonal migration. The iconic tortoises, certainly one of Galápagos’ biggest drawcards, have a lot in common with their island home. On the outside they seem hardy; built to last forever. But the reality is that, like the vibrant ecosystems we’ve explored over the week, they’re surprisingly fragile and will only survive our ever-changing world with a sustainable balance of awareness and conservation. Fortunately, organisations like Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic are paving the way for responsible tourism that will ensure these remarkable islands and their otherworldly inhabitants will be safeguarded for generations to enjoy.
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