Galapagos Cruise: The Laboratory Of Evolution
My white robe slipped to the floor and our eyes locked at short distance, his pupils wide and brown, his hide dark and leathery. A steamy equatorial breeze tickled our skin and his whiskers twitched as he belched.
Hey, what was he snorting about? I wasn't the one with the flies round my face and sea lion blubber tipping the scales at 250 kilograms.
Theatre in the wild
About 1,000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador in South America, the Galapagos islands are a theatre in the wild. Surrounding my personal floating-massage pontoon were blue-footed boobies and red-throated frigate birds, while beneath the glass peephole were diving penguins and rainbows of fish.
There are creatures here that are found nowhere else on Earth – flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, Darwin's beloved finches, and great tortoises that grow to more than 300 kilograms and live for more than 100 years. All arrived long ago – by air, on ocean currents, and atop rafts of vegetation that bumped ashore against all odds.
My massage was a rare hour of inactivity on a seven-day voyage with Lindblad Expeditions, where the ship is a tool for research and we were 'explorers'. National Geographic Endeavour is a 96-passenger expedition vessel, staffed by expert naturalists and photography instructors, there to teach everyone from aspiring pros dangling femur-length lenses to point-and-shoot grandmothers.
The Galapagos were made a national park in 1959 to mark the centenary of the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, and today 97 per cent of it is protected parkland. Lars-Eric Lindblad was the first to bring tourist explorers here in 1967 and he takes the islands' environmental stewardship seriously: the company and its guests have raised more than $A7.5 million for conservation; a trail system built in the 1970s, which visitors must follow to limit damage to the fragile ecosystem, is credited with keeping the impact to a minimum while still allowing interaction.
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But much has changed since the first tourists sailed here. Our Darwinian curiosities now receive hi-tech support: snorkel gear, kayaks, wetsuits, video chroniclers, splash cams, and a glass-bottom boat.
One moment we were snorkelling amid shoals of rainbow-striped king angelfish, while brown pelicans and blue-footed boobies dived like Stukas at dawn; next, we were hiking with a naturalist on San Cristobal's gigantic furled ashtray of hardened lava; then it was a rush to pull on our wetsuits for an underwater photography session. My first marine encounter in warm Pacific water, off Isabela Island, was with a two-metre white-tipped shark about three metres away, followed by a real-life, HD docudrama of parrotfish and Cortez rainbow wrasse, frolicking sea lions and Zeppelin-like sea turtles.
“Watch where you step, they're everywhere,” one of my shipmates warned as we clambered off the inflatable that ferried us from the ship to Fernandina, one of seven of the Galapagos's 13 main islands on our itinerary. At our feet lay a motionless carpet of horrifying beauty: hundreds of sluggish, scaly marine iguanas. As I tiptoed across hardened lava, it was a challenge to avoid 20-centimetre tails and those beady eyes looking in all directions at once.
“There is nothing introduced on Fernandina,” said Sofia Darquea, a naturalist guide with the Charles Darwin Research Station. “This is one of the largest pristine islands in the world.”
As Darwin discovered in this "laboratory of evolution", the Galapagos put a particular kind of wild into wildlife. With few predators, birds, mammals and reptiles exist in relative harmony.
“Let's keep moving – the Galapagos are too spectacular to see only through a tiny lens,” naturalist and photo instructor Jeff Litton advised. On cue, a razor-straight formation of greater flamingos strafed the beach – a brush of pink on teal forever caught in memory if not on camera.
Naturally, Jeff bagged the money shot (he is a National Geographic photographer, after all). This and many other images were displayed over drinks later in the ship's lounge. Each night there was a lecture or photography clinic that covered everything from F-stops to shooting moving birds, and tips on how to frame a shot.
“Think about this: it takes 15 days to float from mainland Ecuador to Galapagos,” explained naturalist Ruly Menoscal, as we admired a metre-wide giant tortoise, one of 11 remaining species on the islands, down from 15 when Darwin stepped ashore. This brought home how far the first creatures must have travelled to reach the islands, all those millennia ago.
They floated, heads high, to win the evolutionary race. Even for humans with access to planes and ships, reaching the Galapagos is an effort. But whether you're toting a camera, a sketchbook or a notepad, its rewards are great.
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This article was written by Leslie Woit from The Independent and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.