As we continued along the rockline, I joined a retired stockbroker, John, armed with a waterproof camera, and we buddied up, pointing out fish and other fauna as we encountered them. As we later made our way back in, I sensed someone alongside me in the murk. I looked around and saw a turtle coasting through the water. I’d never been so close to one before. I swam alongside him, he occasionally glanced at me as if to say “What?” to my goggle-eyed staring. Then, about six feet below, an eagle ray glided by. I simply couldn’t believe where I was.
And all this just on Day One. The first morning, even, for we were back on the boat before 11am, met with a refreshing glass of iced tea, relaying our sightings to one another with giddy excitement, and prepping for the ‘proper’ snorkelling tour that afternoon. Over lunch we were under sail to Bartolome Island and, as we approached, we went to gather our kit. As part of our introduction to the boat the previous day we were issued wetsuits, masks and snorkelling paraphernalia and advised to remember where they were racked. As I made my way to the rack, I couldn’t find mine. At least it wasn’t where I’d left it. We were minutes away from disembarking and our excursion party were already lining the deck to board the panga. I was about to ask a steward when I suddenly noticed another guest in a familiar-looking wetsuit. An easy mistake to make, you might think, when you consider they all look the same – bar the number – but not when you consider that he’s 6’4” and I’m 5’7. He looked baffled when I queried this, in spite of it looking liking a sleeveless body suit on him. “You don’t think it’s too small?” I asked. “It’s not supposed to be like this?” he replied, nonplussed. And we were about to disembark. So, with nothing to be done, I went to get his and got into it, having to pull each limb up so that I eventually resembled a Michelin man as I boarded the panga.
‘Deep water snorkelling’ is exactly that, rather than swim out from the beach, we made our way round the island and slipped over the sides of the panga and into the…well, I want to say crystal azure waters but, in some instances, the sea was often cloudy. The Galapagos, being at the confluence of three oceanic currents, is a rich source of plankton and other such marine effluvia creating limited visibility in the water and this afternoon was just such a day. The sea was a murky ochre. That’s not to say there was nothing to see; again, a vast tapestry of fish and some elaborate and colourful starfish, but it would seem our troupe drew the short straw this time, the other snorkelling party encountered sharks.
Later that afternoon, we…hang on, you thought I was going to leave it there, didn’t you? “Sharks?!” Yes, sharks. I quizzed Abi, a vivacious American banker, about them. It transpired that half a dozen Galapagos reef sharks were casually gliding by, minding their own business, unfazed by the potential lunch bobbing about in the water above them. Truth be told, these small sofa-sized creatures aren’t that into humans and, once again, seem to demonstrate the carefree ‘come-on-in’ mentality of all the wildlife in the islands. I had my own encounter with a pair a couple of days later and it is inexplicably exciting swimming in open water, with sharks. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t do it with Hammerheads or White Tips but here…well, it’s an experience.
Really, now, later that afternoon and there was more to come. If there’s one image of the Galapagos that does it for me, it’s from Master and Commander. Stephen Maturin and his young novice naturalist have made their way across the dusty burnt-red landscape, gathering specimens, when they summit a rise and spot suddenly the nefarious French privateer, Acheron, anchored in the bay below. A pointed pillar of rock marks a distinct geographical feature. This is Sullivan Bay and Pinnacle Rock. And we saw it at the culmination of a hike across the extraordinary lunar-like lava formations of Bartolome.
Over the next few days our excursions took us through the dense vegetation of land iguanas on Santa Cruz, and an encounter with a hyperactive mocking bird that squawked about us in defence of its nest; we saw scores of sharks circling the boat at night, feasting on the flying fish drawn in from the lights emanating from the Eclipse’s deck; we undertook a ‘power hike’ round a volcano crater and Darwin’s Lake and up to a point to witness the most breathtaking views across the island of Isabela; we ventured across huge lava fields at the base of the Cumbre volcano on Fernandina island where we walked through iguana nesting sites, among so many of these creatures they were indistinguishable from the rocks; we made a panga ride into mangroves of Elizabeth Bay where we passed flightless Cormorants and tailed schools of golden rays banking through the water like a flock of birds; we kayaked along the cliffs of Rabida island, where penguins dipped in and out of the water and blue-footed boobies, perhaps the most iconic bird of the Galapagos, eyed us suspiciously with their characteristic sneer; and, perhaps most spectacularly of all, we trailed to the top of Punta Suarez on Espanola island, one of the islands’ most popular and attractive sites, noted for its ‘blowhole’ fissure in the lava that catches the sea and spurts water into the air like a geyser. And, here, where low-lying trees and shrubs adorn the cliffs over-looking the sea, were the nests of waved albatrosses. This, too, was mating season and would soon see 10-12,000 pairs of the birds, the world’s entire population, descend on this one spot. We’d come early, alas, but there were still several gliding by, eyeing potential mates, while a lone, rare Galapagos hawk circled among them, testing Nazca boobies who squawked irritably back at him.
Evenings on the boat were just as eventful as the daytrips. After recuperative naps and refreshing showers, it was pleasantly dignifying to wander up to the bar for a pre-dinner G&T where, among others, I’d bump into Rob (“Evening Major”, “Evening Fawlty”) and Malcolm, always with an unfortunate anecdote to tell while we waited for the evening’s presentation and a preview of the next day’s schedule. Those presentations, I’ve mentioned, were a delight. Often amusing – if only for the comical pismronunciations and malapropisms of the language barrier – and always informative. Gilda delivered a two-night discourse on Darwin, which supported everything I was reading from the Beagle and added a touch of colour to my pre-trip visit to Down House the week before my departure. David gave us a machine gun lecture on geology and how the islands were formed, and continue to form, develop and age. But perhaps my favourite was Gustavo’s colourful talk on The Human History of the Galapagos Islands, casually referring to stoic-looking historical figures as “these guys”, the influx of ‘whaler sailors’ and even a mention of Daniel Defoe; the director of the movie, Robinson Crusoe.
In fact, if anything were to make this trip, creating the icing on the rich, deep, flavoursome fruitcake that is the Galapagos, it’s the guides we had. Although, rather unnervingly, they had a tendency to refer to themselves as ‘naturists’. Perhaps there was a sense of collective amusement among the guests but no-one thought to correct them that the service they should really be providing was that of ‘naturalists’. Still, their knowledge and insight notwithstanding, they imbued the trip with a wonderful sense of humour; at one point, as we crossed the equator, a group of us gathered on the bridge, the crew ribbing the children of our group that it was marked by a distinct line that ran around the world. As the GPS hit 0, the captain triggered the klaxon and David and Gustavo leapt up in front of us, raising a long broad ribbon in the colours of the Ecuadorian flag. I shall remember them fondly. And so our week went on.
On day six, I woke up with a start at 4am to the sound of my mobile phone bleeping into action as it received messages. We had sailed 13 hours through the night and arrived on the south side of Santa Cruz at Puerto Ayora, and civilisation. I went out on deck. Having barely seen another boat, let alone further humans, in nigh on a week, to see a plethora of bobbing boats in this harbour in the dawn light was an oddly unfamiliar, even discomforting sight. I’d got used to having the run of the islands. As we panga’d our way in, however, there was evidence that we were unmistakeably still in the Galapagos: many of the boats had netting about them – to prevent being boarded by sea lions – and there was evidence that man and beast were certainly living harmoniously here. As fishermen gathered at a weighing station by the shore, pelicans and seals hung about them like expectant pets hoping for cast-offs.
The town, understandably, was small, with one main thoroughfare on the seafront dedicated almost exclusively to tourism. Interestingly, though, there were boutiques and bars (that wouldn’t have looked out of place in London or New York) sat alongside small emporia and places pertaining to be restaurants (that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Baghdad). Today’s was a more academically-oriented excursion; the Darwin Research Centre’s principal activity is a rebreeding programme of Galapagos tortoises. I envisaged a sort of sterile, scientific, lab-like environment but it had the feel more of a sanctuary and hatchery – far more suitable to breeding and introducing them to their natural habitat. It’s an approach probably best summed up by the sign outside the gift shop at the entrance: “the evolution revolution” and an image of Charles Darwin in a Che Guevara beret. Certainly, it seems to be working, my first sighting of Galapagos tortoises was of two mating in a bush. So that’s encouraging.