As a boy, my top three career choices were as follows: 3) marine biologist, 2) natural history documentary maker, 1) Hollywood action hero. You may think it unsurprising that I am now none of these, but I can add that ‘journalist’ followed a close fourth so I’m not far off doing what I always wanted to do for a living. The more surprising aspect about these choices is that they’re rather specific for an eight-year-old; but perhaps not when one considers that I spent a childhood near the sea in exotic climes, where the only film I had seen by the age of eight was Raiders of the Lost Ark. What’s more surprising is that for all the interest I have in marine natural history (thank you Sir David Attenborough), it took me nearly 30 years to get to the place which, arguably, set the benchmark.
You left me at Quito airport in the security queue. I had said my farewells to Isabella, my enthusiastic and indefatigable tour guide of the city, whose parting gesture was to arrange me one of the best seats on the plane. “You’re up the front, by the window, so you will have a great view of the volcanoes as you fly into the Galapagos.” Standing in that queue, I was trembling with excitement at the prospect. Around me I was pleasantly surprised at the standard of the facilities and cleanliness of Quito airport and this was to continue as I boarded the plane.
Arranging this trip I did the natural thing and avoided any airline I hadn’t heard of. This, it transpired, was a fool’s errand. My roundabout route to Guayaquil, the staging post for the flight to the islands, could have been cut out had I simply chanced Aerogal as the specific airline to the Galapagos. The clue was in the name, I suppose, but in my head it may as well have been called Aeroflot, hence my caution. More fool me, for as I boarded I was on a plane better appointed than any I’d ever experienced. A pleasant sojourn in Quito notwithstanding, I could have dispensed with the additional hours on the journey had I simply booked Aerogal direct to Guayaquil from New York. Still, I wasn’t to know.
A very pleasant two hour flight due west across the Pacific and suddenly I spotted land. Not just any land. This first glimpse of the Galapagos Islands was mystifying. As we approached, I consulted my copy of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle – de rigueur reading, surely – and the 19th century map on the cover. This must have been San Cristobal, the most easterly of the islands. Flat, barren, and a deep rusty colour didn’t make it particularly inviting but a layer of cloud that followed the shoreline hovered above it and gave it an alluring, ethereal quality.
As we began our descent, more came into view; a smaller islet in the distance, then a much larger one below us. Still no volcanoes though. Even as we came close to touch down, nothing at all had changed from the window I was looking through. I glanced across the aisle to check the view from the other side and what I glimpsed was the view Isabella had been talking about. In that momentary snapshot I saw the image of the Galapagos I’d had in my mind: shorelines rising to volcanic peaks that stretched off into the distance through a haze of heat and cloud. It looked incredible. And I was on the wrong side of the plane.
Once we’d touched down it seemed as though all semblance of civilisation had left us, and it was perfect. As we crossed the runway in blistering sunshine, with the familiar scent of jet fuel and hot tarmac searing our nostrils, indicating we were somewhere exotic, the airport – if you can call it that – resembled a temporary structure more suited to a WW2 airfield. National Park stamps were issued and Galapagos ‘customs’ required, and then all passengers were corralled into their respective tour operator groups. Being one to usually shun such things on holidays, this was an unfamiliar experience. It was, however, a necessity as unchartered, unregistered visits to the islands are disallowed. “Welcome to the Galapagos.
Are you with Eclipse?” a friendly khaki-clad official asked. I nodded and was ushered to a waiting area. As more of our group gathered I wondered who my co-adventurers might be and was a little disappointed not to see carbon copies of Ray Mears but families, couples young and old(er) among others – we were all, however, spectacularly inappropriately dressed for the climate. I hadn’t shed my jeans, shirt and jacket for a chilly 5am in Quito and now I was, quite literally, baking. There was no respite from this in the un-airconditioned bus that we then boarded for the short hop to the quayside. And by the time we got out at the other end I think I had lost about two pounds.
Forgive my labouring every aspect of the journey here but I must stress that like a kid before Christmas, every part of this was exciting. While there was nothing of note until we saw the shorelines and the boats dotted in the bay, even the rusty earth and anorexic gorse was fascinating. “I’m in the Galapagos, I’m in the Galapagos,” I kept thinking. As we trundled across this barren land in the mobile greenhouse we were in, my neighbour next to me piped up in conversation. Resembling a services retiree and ready-prepared in lightweight khakis, he politely introduced himself as Rob in clipped upper-class British tones – most uncharacteristic for a Brit, where we’d sooner exchange four hours of conversation before getting round to asking each other’s names – but it transpired Rob and his wife were ex-pats who had settled in Ottawa. Reminding me of the Major in Fawlty Towers, I was right, he was an ex-services man. RAF.
At the quayside, we experienced our first taste of the adventure to come. To get to the boat, we were required to don lifejackets and board an inflatable craft from a rickety jetty and the response was a sense of collective bewilderment as if us pampered, entrenched city folk had never seen water before. “We what? We need to get into this? Is it stable? Will it sink? Does it have facilities?” And so we fumbled, tottered and tripped into this vessel, obeying instructions as we were led across the water towards what would become our home for the next nine days.
There are very few boats in the Galapagos (meaning there are very few people too). It’s one of its endearing features. But of those there are, they make a surprisingly sophisticated contrast to the more elemental surroundings. Aside from a landing point, a pair of huge, unsightly fuel drums and a tarmac road to the airshack, there is nothing bar the presence of a handful of elegant, majestic-looking boats sat serenely in the undisturbed bay at Baltra.
Of these, at 64 metres long, the M.V. Eclipse, a former expedition vessel, is a substantial ship by Galapagos standards. We weren’t nearly a group to its 48 capacity but while many cruises are on smaller vessels (of up to 16 passengers) – and you may think that preferable – as we found to our benefit not only were our facilities, cabins and meals considerably better than those of other boats but, with three guides to our group it meant tour parties were smaller and, therefore, more involved and personal.
Served by a crew of 31, that was nearly a one-to-one service ratio for our trip, we were to be treated like royalty. Once up the gangway a warm welcome and a cool flannel were offered, and as I stepped into the air-conditioned central deck, wood-panelled and beautifully appointed, a sense of privilege suffused with relief from the heat gave me an instant feeling that nine days here simply wouldn’t be enough. Once advised of my cabin number, I was ushered downstairs and given time to settle in. Well, time may be over-stating it a bit. Not that I needed long to assess my digs – surprisingly spacious for a boat, with a double bed, writing desk (particularly handy), ample wardrobe and en suite – I was part way through my health questionnaire when a voice from on high made me leap out of my skin. That would be the tannoy – how else does one communicate with the whole boat, after all? We were being called into the lounge for an introduction from the captain. How exciting.
Ricardo, our Cruise Director, gave us our first briefing and mapped out the expedition we were about to embark upon over the next eight days, including details of our first excursion that afternoon. Crikey, we certainly weren’t wasting any time. As we got underway, we ran the obligatory emergency drill, rallying to the deck and something about women and children first and then, following a light buffet lunch, before we knew it we were at our first destination, Santa Cruz, and preparing to set off for a ‘wet landing’ on Las Bachas beach.
These landings, incidentally, are what set up each island excursion. To get anywhere from the Eclipse we would assemble on deck and descend the exterior steps to one of the dinghies, or ‘pangas’, and shuttle across to the islands. A ‘wet’ landing being a beach landing, a ‘dry’ landing being one onto either a jetty of sorts, or rocks or suchlike; you’ll keep your socks dry.
Las Bachas beach, named on account of a pair of barges, or ‘bachas’, that ran aground there in the 1912, sits in the north of Santa Cruz island, and whose soft, white sand is a favoured nesting site for turtles, giving the bay its name, Black Turtle Bay. We pulled up on the beach next to a lava outcrop and, as we disembarked, in the low afternoon light, it was as if we’d set foot in the Land That Time Forgot. Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttled across the basalt rocks, frigate birds glided overhead, and pelicans dived into the sea, their necks ballooning with water as they surfaced. Beyond the beach, in a brackish lagoon, a lone blue heron tip-toed through the silt seeking out titbits.
We made our way along the beach, guided by Gustavo, who pointed out – and advised us to avoid – turtle nests with the tell-tale tracks of flipper-shifted sand leading from the water’s edge, which I’d seen in many a documentary. Further along, we encountered more tracks in the sand; a single line weaving left and right with tiny claw marks either side and, looking up, a short way in the distance, we spotted an iguana ambling its way along the shoreline in the afternoon sun. Our collective excitement was barely containable as we caught him up and, like a pack of Japanese tourists, we bundled round this poor chap, snapping away with our cameras as if it were the only chance we’d ever get to see such an elusive creature. If only we knew what we were in for in the coming days, decorum and nonchalance would have got the better of us. It did me, anyway, but not out of intent; my camera battery had expired.
That evening, as we prepared to set sail for Santiago Island, we had our first drama. As would become customary each evening, over an aperitif we would gather in the lounge for a briefing on the next day’s excursions and a short discourse from one of our guides offering us some insightful context about the islands. This first night, however, we were in for rather a surprise. Ricardo had invited us for a pre-dinner drink to meet the crew but, as we arrived, we were met by a rather anxious, over-apologetic gentleman by the name of Javier. He first offered reassurance that he didn’t want to alarm us. This had the effect of alarming us. Then, in degrees of verbosity that would put most politicians to shame, he delivered waves of platitudes and obsequiousness through which we eventually managed to decipher what the prevailing issue was: there had been a change of staff. Ricardo, our original cruise director, had been called back to port for some official business and Javier was now in charge. He then introduced the key crew, who each stood to attention and offered us their name, we raised our glasses and with that he wished us a good trip and we were handed over to Gilda, our lead guide, who gave us a run of events for the following day and, ultimately, an idea of what to expect for the week. Suffice to say, I didn’t really get past the first item: “06.30: Wake-up”.
Small cruise ships always suggest to me a certain 1930s air, possibly even with a hint of Agatha Christie about them. Given the relative opulence with which this cruise was conducted, gentlemen were required to wear trousers and shirts for dinner and, with this manner in hand, there was a wonderfully dignified air to that first night’s proceedings. It was also the first proper occasion in which I was to meet some of my co-passengers. Having bumped into Rob (“Evening, Major”, “Evening, Fawlty”) in the bar earlier, I gravitated towards the same table where I saw he and his wife. Joining us were Raj, a diminutive and softly-spoken Indian computer engineer from Seattle and his bubbly wife, Sanjita, prone to giggling; Malcolm, a glum Englishman who’s cynicism about practically everything provided much amusement; Sal, an Italian New Yorker, and his partner, David; and a young, up-for-anything Australian couple on a last hurrah to South America before returning Down Under. For my part, as ever, I played the bumbling, stammering fool, as always, on hand with an inappropriate comment and an opportunity to put my foot in my mouth. So here we were, a disparate group indeed, in age, occupation and origination but united by a common interest and a common enthusiasm.
Priding itself on its food, dinner on the Eclipse was another fine buffet – they all would be – and it was here that I first wondered if the 1:1 passenger-to-staff ratio might not be a little extreme. Having been given a plate at one end of the buffet, it was then taken from me at the other. Not, as I feared, because I’d taken too much (these rations had to last us for months at sea, you know), nor because my selection was to be scrutinised, but rather to assist me with the arduous task of carrying it the seven paces back to my table. I later realised, however, that arguably they may have been understaffed when I noticed the amount of multi-tasking being undertaken. On one occasion, for example, a familiar face accompanied us as a ‘guard’ on a snorkelling expedition to a shark reef – only the next morning did I recognise him as the omelette chef at breakfast. It was, therefore, more a case of “all hands” stepping up to make our experience more comfortable.
As our conversations tapered towards the end of dinner, we began to peel off and retire to our cabins, the threat of a 6.30am call looming in our minds. I attempted a spot of star-gazing on deck, imagining an unpolluted Pacific sky to throw up a fine stellar display. Alas, it was cloudy, so I retired, too, the sufferance of a run of early mornings taking their toll. There would be (and were), after all, plenty of opportunities on other evenings.
If I was ever concerned about the morning alarm call, I needn’t have been. Jetlag must have thrown my own clock out of kilter because I would often wake before Javier’s apologetic wake-up over the tannoy had a chance to. As it happened, that morning, I had an even more startling alarm. And in the truest sense of the word. At about 5am, an almighty roar of grinding, crunching metal so loud and so ominous, propelled me from my bed. I thought we had run aground. As I peeled off the ceiling, I checked the porthole: everything, fortunately, remained horizontal. The air soon settled back to calm, I returned to bed still none the wiser, slept further fitfully and eventually, an hour later, decided to head on deck.
Rob and I evidently kept the same clock – or we were the only two have experienced the incident – because I met him at the cappuccino machine by the lounge as I made my way upstairs. “Morning, Major”, “Morning, Fawlty”. “D’you know what that frightful cacophony was this morning at about five?” I asked. “Didn’t hear it, old boy,” he replied. “Really?” I was flabbergasted, “but it was monumental!” I decried. “Sounds like they were dropping anchor,” he said. Aah, of course. I was really showing my landlubber legs.
Being up, I took my Darwin book and settled on the sundeck at the back – aft, sorry – of the boat. We had anchored off Puerto Egas, Santiago Island, the sun rising low on the horizon and just beginning to dissipate the dawn’s damp chill. Breakfast was being laid out and I wasn’t long into my coffee before I was joined by some of my co-passengers and we were tucking into a choice to rival any five star hotel’s, before it was time to beat to quarters, if you’ll forgive the naval analogy.
This really was it. This was our first full day and we had an itinerary that would have shamed most military operations. Deet’d, sun-blocked, and wearing my trusty Tevas (“the shoe that fits any adventure”), we boarded our pangas and bounced our way to shore, disembarking on grey basalt sand for a walk through the bush. Wildlife abounded; lava lizards scuttled across our path, occasionally showing their characteristic defensive ‘push-ups’, Darwin’s finches flitted between bushes, nest-building. We were led by Gilda and I really started to notice how insightful our guides were. Any question posed had an informed, enlightening response. As if from Darwin’s earlier account I also noticed how undeterred these creatures were. We were so frighteningly close we could have picked them up. At one point, we noticed a pair of finches courting around a bush. As we raised our cameras to get a shot, first one, then the other turned their attention to us and started dancing around the telephoto lenses among our group, attracted by the flare coming off the glass. It was extraordinary.
Once through the bush, passing the remains of a salt mine – the last human habitants left the island in 1968 – we emerged onto a substantial rock platform on the shoreline, riddled with tidal pools. As we made our way across them, avoiding the odd basking iguana, we were headed for a particular sinkhole we were told was a fur seal’s ‘grotto’. I can see why. Once there, it was as if we’d just walked into a seal speakeasy. We were among a multitude of them engaged in all manner of activities. Oafish males beached lazily in the sun, playful youngsters bounded in the water below, bobbing with the flow of the sea. As I wondered how one in particular could have ever made it onto a, especially precarious ledge, I heard a yawp behind me. I looked around and a rather burly, inarticulate fellow was shuffling my way. He paused and yawped again. I think it was something about spilling his pint. Gilda called out to me to say that he wanted to get by so I stood aside and he bundled his way past to pick a fight with another that had obviously claimed prime position in the morning sun.
A few more snaps later and we crossed the rocks, looping back to our starting point. While we waited for the other party to return, a few of us who’d brought our snorkelling kit took the opportunity for a dip. The water began murky at first but we made our way to trace the line of rocks along the shore, the visibility cleared and it was if we’d entered an aquarium; schools of yellow-tailed surgeon fish zig-zagged out of our way, and dozens of other varieties all bustled among each other to the Saint-Saens soundtrack in my head; a single hieroglyphic hawkfish – a large, paisley-decorated creature – sat nonchalantly above a fissure in the rock, accompanied by a puffer and a blue parrotfish. I know all this, by the way, because I quizzed Gustavo back on the boat, giving him a description, for him to then name the fish, like a round of marine Jeopardy.