They stand like solemn sentries with wizened faces, menacing-looking claws and statuesque bodies of green, black and red, leading to long spiny tails. Hundreds of marine iguanas constitute our welcoming committee to Española Island in the Galapagos archipelago, and layered one on top of the other, they block our path on a well-worn island trail.
My group hangs back nervously, anxious about how these prehistoric reptiles will react to us. “Beware of your jugular veins!” jokes our guide, Jose Benavides, as he strides past them, stepping gingerly between heads and tails and encouraging us to do the same. “They’re completely harmless.”
It’s Day three in the Galapagos, where I’m spending a week visiting five islands, along with 19 co-travellers, on a small passenger ship, The Eric. The ship is small enough to venture close to the bays and coves of islands with names as colourful as the species they shelter: Floreana, San Cristobal, Española and Santa Cruz.
By day we kayak and snorkel, taking short hikes into the islands’ interiors to explore the bird life, mammals, reptiles and amphibians that inhabit them. With no other ships nearby, we have the beaches and coves to ourselves, giving our journey an Eden-like quality. We are Darwinesque travellers stepping back in time to an untouched paradise, a place where we’re never once perceived as a threat or danger by the iguanas, sea lions, turtles, sting rays or many species of birds we encounter.
‘This is the gift of the Galapagos: the ability to experience nature close up without ever being perceived as a threatening presence’
We’d like to believe the islands are truly untouched, but several have been tainted by human encounters over the years, spoiled by human depredation and the introduction of black rats, goats and feral cats that have endangered the endemic species.
As we approach Floreana Island, we notice a small cat swiftly navigating the rocky cliffs. Benavides swears quietly under his breath and turns to our group with a solemn face. “The goats we managed to get rid of here,” he says. “There are programs to eradicate the cats too, but clearly we’ve not gotten all of them yet.”
The cats, released over the years by the 100 or so full-time residents of Floreana, are a problem because they threaten the wildlife, feeding on lava lizards, mockingbirds, finches and turtle eggs. Still, the island is flourishing.
Disembarking at an olive-coloured beach we’re welcomed by sea lions with gleaming bodies and faces turned toward the sun. A few steps down a sandy path, we arrive at a shallow lagoon where the smell of sulphur hangs heavy in the air. The lagoon is filled with crustaceans, the favourite food of flamingos, and a flock stand like pink avian ballerinas in the distance, daintily feeding in the shallows.
It takes minutes to cross the island, and on the other side, we’re in the nesting grounds of the green sea turtle. In daylight the only signs of their presence are the many indentations in the sand where they’ve laid their eggs on previous nights. Once those eggs hatch, only two per cent will make it to the water, the remainder succumbing to hungry predators like the giant frigate birds that circle above us.
Later in the day, we kayak and snorkel around the turtles that survived – great, lumbering creatures, with shells four-feet-long and powerful flippers that move effortlessly through the water. Clad in wetsuits, we follow curiously, stunned at our proximity and their nonchalance. The turtles are utterly oblivious to our presence – focused on feeding, they disregard us entirely.
This is the gift of the Galapagos: the ability to experience nature close up without ever being perceived as a threatening presence. Española Island, the oldest in the archipelago at six million years, is home to 17 species found nowhere else in the world. September is breeding season, and Española’s white sand is littered with sea lion placenta, testifying to the newness of the pups cuddled close to their mothers as we walk by.
Farther down the path, at a rocky lookout where waves smash and foam over the black volcanic rocks, the sky is filled with swallow-tailed gulls, giant frigate birds with blood-red pouches, the rare waved albatross with its massive wingspan and red-billed tropicbirds trailing spectacular long tails.
Santa Cruz Island is our first contact with civilization after five days at sea, and we board a bus to the lush highlands to see giant tortoises, long-necked behemoths with gentle, intelligent faces. They wallow in mud pools and munch on grass, their immense shells suggesting that many are over a century old. These tortoises are the handful that survived after their populations were decimated from the 1500s onwards, their ancestors harvested for their meat and oil by pirates, whalers and buccaneers.
At the Charles Darwin Research Station in Santa Cruz, successful breeding programs are returning increasing numbers of tortoises to the wild, where these 700-pound creatures have a crucial role to play. By dispersing seeds in their dung, they revitalize important ecological sites, helping to restore and preserve the flora of the Galapagos.
As we cruise from one island to another, we’re stunned by the variety of wildlife and the closeness of our encounters. Sea lions swim playfully alongside us as we snorkel near the basalt cliffs, pelicans and giant frigate birds hover near our ship, and on land, our walks take us inches from nesting blue-footed boobies and the unblinking faces of prehistoric-looking iguanas.
Like the naturalists that lead and educate us on this journey of natural discovery, we leave with unforgettable memories and a sense of responsibility to protect the integrity of the Galapagos. A week in the embrace of this exquisite archipelago we learn that this smattering of islands and the uniquely adapted birds and animals that inhabit it are Ecuador’s most priceless jewel.
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