From the controlled environment of the research centre we then boarded a bus – thankfully air-conditioned for it was a blisteringly hot day – for a thirty-minute drive to the highlands to see tortoises in the wild. From the coast the landscape changes rather dramatically, becoming semi-tropical and as we parked and made our way through the forest, with David’s commentary on plant ecosystems and biodiversity for company, we soon came to a clearing where we spotted two of these chaps. I’m not entirely sure how they’re purported to be in the ‘wild’, however, for it looked more like they were on a farmer’s land. Unless they’re trespassing, of course. I can’t imagine tortoises being a particularly threatening pest, however. Still, my suspicions were confirmed when our walk concluded at said farmer’s house and the café and gift shop he’d set up, albeit rather more homely than one designed with rabid commerce in mind.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the day was an encounter with the infamous Lonesome George, the Galapagos’ 140-year-old living icon. We saw him from a distant viewing platform, motionless in the midday sun. A ranger explained that they’ve been trying to encourage him to mate for about the last fifty years and, in a bid to excite him, they’ve introduced him to several females in that time, alas, to no avail and even to such an extent that they’d almost concluded he might, ahem, prefer male tortoises. An assertion he must have overheard, as he suddenly sprung into life and shot across his pen (for a 140-year-old giant tortoise at any rate) making a beeline for an unprepared female. We braced ourselves to witness history. But it was not to be. George careered off course and settled for a patch of shade under a tree. He was hot certainly, but not in the way we’d hoped.
A week may not seem like a long time in the Galapagos, particularly when you think there’s so much to see, but with the itinerary that’s laid on, it’s amazing how much can be covered and how every waking minute is taken advantage of. It’s also extraordinary that one doesn’t miss mobile phones, televisions nor any of the mod cons of contemporary life, save a way of drying out lenses that would perpetually steam up from the air-conditioned cool of the boat and the often stupefying humidity outside.
I’m sure everyone has their unforgettable moments on a trip like this. For me, the single most memorable moment took place during one of our deep water snorkelling ventures. We’d anchored off Punta Vicente (it’s the bit at the mouth of the seahorse that is Isabela island), the whole bay of which is a giant sunken volcanic caldera. Being westerly, it was exposed to some choppy water coming directly off the Pacific. Still, Gustavo was guiding us and, being principally a scuba instructor, we were in pretty safe hands. John and I were on a mission to get some great photos with his underwater camera – a mission we soon abandoned when I was nearly picked up by a wave and dumped onto a rock next to a pair of unsuspecting penguins. Needless to say, we weren’t seeing much comfortably, having to pay quite close attention to where the sea was taking us. It became more manageable as we made our way round the cliffside, however, and as we rounded a cave, we were met by an inquisitive sea lion. Tentative at first, he skirted around us before disappearing to a safe distance. The next time I saw him I attempted to dive towards him. This he took as a cue that I wanted to play. And so did I. On his next approach, he bounded towards me, and I to him. Far nimbler than I in the water, he bowled past and circled back, taunting me to keep up. For the next ten minutes I ducked, floundered and flapped about him, while he ran rings round me. At one point, two of his mates joined in and like a group of over-excited puppies they gleefully showed me up to be the lumbering human that I was. Eventually – I, exhausted; they, bored – we parted company and as we boarded the panga I asked if anyone got a shot. Alas, the only evidence there is of me dancing with sea lions is a couple of blurry images in which I look like I’m doing the jitterbug in a wetsuit and flippers. But, if I’m honest, I’m happier for it to remain a fond memory. And what of that boyhood wish to be a marine biologist or a natural history filmmaker? After such an adventure as this, I feel as if I’ve already ticked that box. Although Hollywood still hasn’t called.
Larry cruised around the Galapagos Islands with Ocean Adventures on their flagship expedition vessel, M.V. Eclipse. His tour was arranged through Sanctuary Retreats, purveyors of high-end tourism. For more information and prices, visit their website. The latest addition to the Sanctuary portfolio, a 16-berth catamaran, the M.C. Athala II will re-launch on 15th October after an extensive refurbishment.
As a further footnote, Larry would like to pay particular attention to his shoes. These were Teva Forge Pros, lightweight adventure shoes and ideal for hiking over volcanic rock. For more information about Teva, visit their website.