Wild life: Why the Galápagos Islands were our travel highlight of 2017
"Don't panic amigos, there will plenty more to see!"
Our guide, Luis, laughed as our cameras snapped at the sea lions swimming playfully near the port of San Cristóbal.
We had landed barely thirty minutes earlier and alongside the lively sea lions, brown pelicans were diving into the water and iguanas basked in the sunshine.
Our group of sixteen – which included among its number a brain surgeon, a Californian National Parks Ranger and a retired foster carer – chatted animatedly as we waited to board the boat that was to become our home for the next seven nights.
I found myself experiencing a giddy, childlike excitement that reminded me of when, as a young girl, I used to explore the nature in our back garden.
I would peel back rocks and watch woodlice burrow hastily into the soil. I'd chart the slow journeys of snails along the patio. I'd spot tadpole in the pond, eager for them to grow into their legs. Feeding the elephants in Colchester Zoo was, of course, a unique and memorable experience, but also a difficult one, for I knew that elephants weren't meant to be behind bars just outside a historic town in Essex.
Perhaps this is why I have always had a fondness for not just the animal kingdom, but the wild.
I was living in Australia with Matt when we decided that the Galápagos should feature in our six-month cross-continental journey home to England.
During our nine months travelling this vast country, we had snorkelled alongside wild whale sharks with a responsible tour company in Western Australia, and found koalas sleeping in the trees just off Victoria's Great Ocean Road (instead of visiting a zoo in Queensland for a koala 'cuddle').
Seeing animals in their natural habitat is, for us, the only way to see them, and so the decision to visit the Galápagos was an easy one.
The Galápagos 'ground rules'
Four months after leaving Australia, we were settling into our cabins aboard Eden, a 16-passenger motor yacht. Luis and the crew gathered us together to introduce themselves and map out our eight-day itinerary.
The Galápagos 'ground rules' were laid: take nothing onto the islands with you, wear marine-safe sunscreen or a wetsuit in the water, stay at least three metres away from the animals, and pick up any rubbish you find.
When comparing this approach with the numerous tourist attractions that openly exploit wildlife, the contrast is stark.
Take Yanqing Badaling Bear Park near the Great Wall of China or Langkawi's Crocodile 'Adventureland'. Consider the organisations that try to convince you (and even themselves) that they are 'saving' their animals from darker fates, the justification for many elephant-riding camps across the world.
There are also companies that run activities that can be sustainable, but aren't quite right. When Matt went night diving in Egypt's Red Sea, his guide grabbed a puffer fish to make it swell, and then bounced it away on his torch.
Any human presence can have a negative impact on local wildlife.
Our experience of the Galápagos was deeply refreshing in that nearly every person we met, local and tourist alike, seemed to have the same mindset and feel equally responsible for looking after the Islands. During one landing at Elizabeth Bay (a remote, uninhabited part of Isabela Island), Luis cursed under his breath as he picked a weathered plastic bottle from between the rocks and stuffed it into his backpack.
THE CIRCLE OF LIFE
The full life cycle can be witnessed on the Galápagos Islands, and this (naively) surprised me. We saw blue-footed boobies protecting their chicks, an elderly sea lion at the end of her life, and marine iguanas in varying stages of decomposition. Both life - and death - were on show here.
Seeing these stages of animal life up close was fascinating, and intensely moving. A particularly poignant moment was when we stopped at a group of rock pools on Fernandina Island. A young sea lion pup was playing with a leaf, dipping her head in and out of the water and pushing it about with her nose. She was alone.
"Her mother has probably gone out to hunt," Luis informed us. But of course, there was a chance that this was not the case.
Volcanic vistas and RUGGED LANDSCAPES
Despite watching (and re-watching) David Attenborough's series, the beauty and isolation of the Galápagos was astounding. Landscapes ranged from the red sands of Rábida , a salt water crater lagoon on Isabela and the black lava flow, solid underfoot, on Fernandina.
Prehistoric marine iguanas climbed over each other and snorted salt from their nostrils, on an island that appeared uninhabitable from the shore. Squawking gulls and quarrelsome pelicans made their home on rocky outcrops, along with quick-footed brightly-coloured crabs.
Other islands were more peaceful: a flamboyance of flamingos relaxing in a lake on Isabela, a bale of turtles rising to the surface for a breath of air and oystercatchers resting on the shore.
During one dry landing at Tagus Cove, we walked quietly up to the viewpoint, waiting for signs of animal life to appear. There was no wind, the waters were still, and all we could hear were our footsteps... a high-pitched chirp broke the peace, as a Darwin's finch fluttered past, landing in a perfectly round nest.
Is that what I think it is?
You are almost guaranteed to see ancient tortoises, sea lions and blue footed boobies in the Galápagos. Other species are confined to a single island, such as the waved albatross on Española. This means that unless you're exploring the Galápagos' eastern islands, you're unlikely to come across one.
Under the water, though, you never quite know what you'll see. On one of our panga explorations, an unfamiliar shadow loomed under the water. "Is that what I think it is?", someone said. We turned to look.
A large, grey outline with a distinctively shaped head swam into the blue. "It's a hammerhead!"
Our final day came around far too quickly and the sixteen of us reminisced on our week together as we sailed towards the airport.
A government adviser from London showed us the video she had taken of a male penguin calling for his mate in the mangroves. Our friend from Chicago teased that she was the only one who had spotted a white-tipped reef shark on our final snorkel. I told of how bubbles clouded my snorkel mask when a flightless cormorant dived into the water barely a metre away (and about how Matt had accidentally bought a women's size 'medium' souvenir T-shirt by mistake...)
For some of our fellow passengers, their trip coincided with a special occasion: one couple were on their honeymoon, another were celebrating a landmark wedding anniversary.
What bound us all, however, was the feeling that our encounters were part of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. One that would generate excited conversation around the dinner table, and be immortalised into photographs dotted around a home. One that would, for many of us, remain one of our most cherished travel experiences for years to come.
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This post was created as an entry into the Trips 100 Audley Blogger Challenge. All photography and text is my own.
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