How’ s the snorkelling?” I ask Christina as she emerges from the turquoise waters of Playa Cabo del Horno in San Cristobal. “Quite good,” she replies with a shrug. “I saw a sea turtle and a sea lion”. Christina, a rather po-faced Dane who’s been on the Galapagos a few weeks, is clearly not easily impressed. But I’ve just arrived, so I take the bit between my teeth and dive in. Sure enough, a four-foot sea turtle swims right past me followed by a baby. Spellbound, I follow them for a few minutes, receiving a nonchalant glance from the adult before it shakes me off by diving down to the murky depths and out of sight. If turtles could blow raspberries, I’m sure she was blowing one. The sea lion, however, is nowhere to be seen, but I find her lounging on the beach drying off. As I click away with the camera, she opens her eyes lazily and lifts her head up to strike a pose, emitting a loud snort before returning to her snooze.
In the next few days, I discovered that Christina was right. By Galapagos standards, this was only a “quite good” wildlife experience. The islands that captivated Charles Darwin in the 1830s, inspiring him to develop his famous theory of evolution, have been captivating visitors ever since. It’s easy to see why; there was so much on offer that I didn’t know which way to turn – sea lions, sea turtles, sharks and penguins underwater; iguanas, giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies on land. The miracles of evolution were everywhere.
What really makes these islands special is the attitude of the wildlife, from nonchalant turtles to curious boobies and downright naughty sea lion pups. The lack of natural predators on the islands means that the wildlife has no fear of humans whatsoever. I discovered this the next day when I went snorkelling with dozens of sea lions at La Loberia. An enormous eight-foot male streaked past me and started getting amorous with his mate. I tried to keep my distance because he was more than a little scary. Keeping my distance from the pups, however, proved impossible because they were so interested in me. They kept rushing towards me, clearly delighting in an impromptu game of peekaboo. After my initial nervousness I relaxed into it and started to play, following them around. This was their playground, after all.
I thought that this was as good as it could get but there was more to come. Our next stop was a rock formation off the coast of San Cristobal called Leon Dormido (sleeping lion). This is famous as one of the best snorkelling spots in the archipelago and a prime location to see reef sharks and hammerheads. The snorkelling route was through a channel between two 500-foot rock faces. It was an imposing setting and I had to remind myself that the sharks were harmless as I stepped into the dark waters. On our first swim through the channel, I didn’t see much, but on the return journey, our guide pulled out a neat trick, banging his fists together underwater. The vibrations served their purpose and dark shapes began slowly rising. Being surrounded by reef sharks was rather different to being surrounded by sea lions, I discovered. The sharks were more interested in plankton than me and there was no peekaboo, but I was definitely okay with that.
Predictably, the biggest threat the wildlife faces here is humanity. Any visitor cannot help but feel a pang of guilt that these islands have been so affected by tourism in recent years that UNESCO decided to place them on the Danger List in April 2007. The biggest problems have been unchecked immigra-tion, high levels of traffic, and the arrival of invasive species – everything from the pigs, dogs and rats that eat eggs, baby lizards and birds, to fruit trees which displace the endemic cacti that are the staple of giant tortoises. In the main ports, the problems were clear to see. Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz has far too many vehicles for such a small town. There is no adequate sewage treatment so most of it is emptied into the sea or underground, affecting the health of wildlife and the local population. Much of the waste ends up in the same reservoirs from which the town’s water supply is drawn. The rising population is far from under control; Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal is teeming with children, which is the last thing you would expect on the Galapagos, and friday night on the waterfront was like an open-air teen party. Tough residency laws may have excluded illegal immigrants but the legal residents are reproducing at a rapid rate that rivals the feral goats that have recently been exterminated; nearly 50 per cent of the 25,000 Galapagos resi-dents are under 18.
The tourist population has been growing just as fast with visitor numbers trebling in 15 years to 160,000 in 2007. However, the danger list seemed to focus minds and the Ecuadorian government has taken action. Thousands of illegal immigrants have been deported, the islands are switching to renewable energy and, most importantly, illegal fishing is being tackled with satellite tracking. In July 2010, the government action and lobbying succeeded in taking the Galapagos off the UNESCO Danger List. It’s hard to say if this is good news. Clearly, progress has been made, but scientists think there is a long way to go, particularly tackling invasive species such as rats, ants and fruit trees.
One comforting fact is that only 3 per cent of the islands’ land is populated and the 70 registered visitor sites in the unpopu-lated national park comprise up just 0.01 per cent of the land mass. Half of this land is formed by the island of Isabela and on the largest island in the archipelago I took a boat trip to see one of the smallest attractions – Galapagos penguins. At only 35cm tall, these endearing birds are one of the smallest penguins in the world and the only species in the northern hemisphere. Numbers have fallen sharply recently though, driven away by the effects of global warming.
The next day, I visited the Tortoise Breeding Centre, a prime example of the important work scientists are doing. Giant tortoises have been a high-profile victim of humans with num-bers falling from 250,000 to just 25,000. This centre has 850 tortoises separated into eight enclosures and releases them back into the wild. On my way back, I encountered a family of marine iguanas lounging in the sun on the walkway. Some scurried away while others eyed me disdainfully. These amaz-ing creatures are the only sea-faring lizards in the world, and living proof of evolution because they were all originally land iguanas before they adapted in search of food.
Isabela has six active volcanoes and some of the most dramatic landscape in the archipelago. The most popular hike is to Sierra Negra, the second largest crater in the world. The views were spectacular, as was the descent through yellow hills into the pungent Sulphur mines. On our way back down to the port, the guide pointed out some of Isabela’s introduced species – cows and donkeys grazing in the distance. They seemed harmless enough but they often destroy giant tortoise eggs by stepping on them. On the path, we came across a much smaller illegal immigrant in the shape of a field mouse. He sat there without a care in the world and even had the audacity to start climbing over my boots; he’d obviously adopted the friendly local attitude to humans. Rather like us, he meant no harm even though he had no business being there.
A visit to the Galapagos is both inspiring and chasten-ing. Although the natural harmony has been disturbed, the ar-chipelago is still a wonder to experience. It will take a lot longer than three years on UNESCO’s danger list to undo decades of mismanagement, but things are moving in the right direction. Evolution is, after all, a slow process.
Ben Westwood is author of Moon Ecuador and Galapagos.
South America specialist Sunvil Traveller (020 8758 4774, www.sunvil.co.uk/traveller) offers a nine-night trip for £3,400 pp (two sharing), includ-ing flights from Heathrow, internal flights to Gala-pagos, a four-night, full-board Galapagos cruise on the Monserrat, three nights’ B&B at the Finch Bay Hotel, and two nights’ B&B in Quito.
Six of the best Galapagos experiences
1. Snorkeling with sea lions on San Cristobal: these creatures are endlessly curious and the pups are particularly playful underwater. Enjoy an im-promptu game of peekaboo.
2. Blue-footed boobies on Seymour Norte: these fear-less birds peer at you without a care in the world as you pass within touching distance. They kick their feet high to attract the attention of females.
3. Red-chested frigatebirds on Genovesa: these scavengers inflate their chests to the size of a bas-ketball in the hope of finding a life-long mate.
4. Albatross airport on Española: the biggest breed-ing site in the world for these giant birds. It’s a great place to see them take off, land and perform their dancing mating ritual
5. Pinnacle Rock on Bartolome: this 40-meter-high jagged lava formation backed by the blackened lava fields of Santiago is the most photographed spot in the archipelago.
6. Sierra Negra on Isabela: experience the Galapa-gos’ volcanic heritage close-up by hiking past the second largest crater in the world to the pungent Sulphur Mines.
TIPS ON TREADING CAREFULLY
If you go to the Galapagos, do your utmost to minimise your ecological footprint. Here are some tips:
1. Book a cruise on a yacht. It’s less damaging to the en-vironment than a larger boat or land-based tour. The Finch Bay Eco-Hotel is the most environmentally friendly hotel on the islands
2. If you go snorkelling, steer clear of the coral. Touching it can kill it.
3. Don’t take taxis in the main ports, but walk to your hotel. The Galapagos are very safe and distances are short.
4. Don’t take any packaged products (eg food and drink) onto the islands. If you must, pack the trash in a sealed bag and take it with you when you leave.
5. Avoid purchasing souvenirs made of flora and fauna of the islands such as black coral, marine tortoise shells, sea lion teeth or shells.