Evolving with the species

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Galapagos: Sarah Marshall discovers today’s appeal of the archipelago Darwin’s scientific works made famous.

Whoosh! A sea lion glides past me, performing graceful somersaults in the water. On the shore, these large, blubbery creatures laze in the sand, snorting, sneezing and barking. But in the liberating waters of the Pacific they outshine even the most athletic of synchronised swimmers. As we snorkel close to the rocks, clumsily flapping our flippers against the strong waves, they twist and turn beneath us, gloating over our ineptitude.

Admitting defeat, I head back to the beach, but feel a weight dragging on one foot. I turn around to see two shimmering blue eyes: a cheeky sea lion is pulling on my leg.

It’s this fearless interaction between humans and animals that makes the Galapagos Islands so enchanting. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie couldn’t have chosen a more special place to celebrate their engagement than this archipelago of 20 named islands (and many smaller islets) straddling the Equator, 604 miles from the coast of Ecuador.

The variety of sub-species found here was pivotal to Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and his theory of evolution. But the terrain described by Darwin as “wretched” and “infernal” is now one of the greatest attractions on the globe, visited by 150,000 tourists each year.

New restrictions limit the number of visitors to each island at a time, so it’s still possible to experience something of the remoteness Darwin found in 1835. That’s certainly the case when we arrive by panga (dinghy) at the island of North Seymour, home to some of Galapagos’s most interesting species of bird. Our April visit is in the rainy season, when downpours and blistering temperatures provide ideal conditions for mating.

On the rocks, small but sexually aggressive lava lizards do energetic push-ups to demonstrate their intentions. A much more romantic display is the courtship dance performed by blue-footed boobies. These monogamous marine birds circle each other for hours, padding from side to side with their comical blue-webbed feet. Even more amusingly, the winged Romeo presents his coy Juliet with a bouquet of twigs. Displays such as this cannot be observed anywhere else in the world, certainly not at such close quarters.

According to restrictions set by the Galapagos National Park, island visits last about one-and-a-half hours. Cruising is the most popular way to explore the archipelago, with most ships operating two landings per day. Our ship, the 42-person La Pinta, offers luxury accommodation and first-rate guides.

Almost half of wildlife in Galapagos can be found underwater and snorkelling (or exploring in a glass-bottomed boat) forms a big part of La Pinta’s itineraries. As we sail into the warm, clear waters surrounding the red sand island of Rabida, 100-strong schools of jellyfish are cause for concern, but are not nearly as worrying as the sharks.

“Galapagos sharks are relatively safe,” reassures our naturalist, Carlos. “In fact, the most dangerous predator in these waters is man,” he says, referring to the illegal fishing of sharks for fin soup, a Chinese delicacy.

Wildlife may be the main attraction of the Galapagos, but it’s not the only one. Bleak and mysterious landscapes ignite imagination, while fantastical lava formations are a geologist’s dream. The Galapagos archipelago was formed by volcanic activity and the most volatile – and visually dramatic – islands are the younger formations in the west, Fernandina and the seahorse-shaped Isabela. The latter is also home to one of the archipelago’s most famous residents, the giant tortoise. Once killed for their meat and driven almost to extinction, numbers have now increased with the help of a breeding programme run by the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz.

One of five inhabited islands in the archipelago, Santa Cruz is also the main hub for visitors who – like Brad and Angelina – want to stay in a hotel and visit surrounding islands on daily boat trips. A land stay also provides an opportunity to integrate with the local community.

Our base is eco-hotel Finch Bay, a short boat ride from the main tourist town, Puerto Ayora. One of the best places to observe the interaction between humans and animals is at the fish market, Pelican Bay, where sea lions and pelicans line up alongside customers. Chaos erupts when a pelican snatches a fish that’s far too big to swallow. An angry sea lion chases the bird into the road, causing the only traffic jam the 15,000-strong population is likely to experience in some time.

Although animals can be a nuisance, locals generally respect wildlife. “They understand their income depends on tourism – tourists come because of the animals,” says our guide Sato. “Children are taught about wildlife at school.” But even this paradise faces its difficulties, from illegal shipping fleets to rising number of visitors placing a strain on the fragile eco-system.

Getting there

Sarah Marshall was a guest of Metropolitan Touring who offer a four-day/three-night cruise of Galapagos on La Pinta (www.lapintagalapagoscruise.com) from £1,508 per person (based on two sharing). An ocean room view at the Finch Bay Hotel (www.finchbayhotel.com) on a full board basis starts from £151 per person. Transfers and flights from Quito or Guayaquil are available at an additional cost. www.metropolitan-touring.com

KLM flies from Heathrow to Guayaquil in Ecuador, via Amsterdam Schiphol, from £619 return. Flights to Quito start from £624 return. This new, faster route avoids a stopover in Bonaire. www.klm.com or call 0871 222 7474. Departures are also available from regional UK airports.