Monday 23 February 2015

San Cristobal, Galapagos

Straddling the equator, 500 miles from mainland Ecuador, lies a remote archipelago. Located on the intersection of three tectonic plates, it sits on a hotspot of volcanic activity at a point where the earths crust is thin, allowing the magma to burst through, creating 18 islands of volcanic lava.  We approach at dawn, rounding the cardinal mark. A sea lion basks on the yellow buoy, looking slightly ridiculous, its head hanging over the side, watching us with bored indifference. We are in the Galapagos Islands, and it is quite extraordinary.

In Geological terms, the Galapagos Islands are newly formed; the oldest is 4 million years old, the youngest a mere 400,000 years. Located on the Nazca tectonic plate, the whole archipelago is on the move, travelling west at around two and half inches per year. The youngest islands are still being formed, while the oldest are dying, sinking back into the ocean, creating this dynamic environment.

These islands have the most vibrant natural life. Many of the species are endemic, that is, they are unique to the Galapagos; but all originated from the mainland, carried here by chance by ocean currents. The warm Panamanian current from the East, the cold Humboldt current from Antarctica and the deep Cromwell current that brings nutrients and marine life from the waters of the Pacific.  The earliest creatures are indigenous, in that they were naturally introduced here by floating vegetation and have since evolved in an extraordinary way to adapt to the harsh surroundings.   It is this dramatic evolution that inspired Darwin who visited the islands in 1836, informing his theories for natural selection, captured in The Origin of Species.

The most dramatic of these genetic transformations can be seen in the Marine Iguana. The Iguana exists in many parts of the world, varying in shape and size; however it is a reptile, living on the land.  When the first Iguanas drifted ashore on Galapagos, the only food they could find on the barren rocks was algae, along the shore-line. However, every few years the Nino weather phenomenon would raise the water temperature and the green algae on the shore would disappear, starving the Iguanas and wiping out many. Yet with waters rich in nutrients, the algae grew profusely under the sea – so the Galapagos Marine Iguana learnt to swim, now able to hold its breath for several hours, it grazes on underwater algae, using its long tail to propel itself rapidly through the shallows.

These evolutionary developments are fascinating, but what makes the Galapagos Islands so captivating is the attitude to man of the creatures that live here.  The early settlers of the nineteenth century were not as eco-friendly as we are today. Visiting ships would capture giant tortoises and keep them for months on board without food or water, knowing that they would provide fresh meat whenever needed, butchering up to half a million tortoises and nearly wiping out the entire species. However due to its remote and harsh environment, the Galapagos remained largely the habitat of animals and fish that were able to thrive without fear of the world’s most voracious predator - man. Furthermore, Ecuador is a poor nation and has been unable to develop the islands for tourism, yet they have recognised the unique biodiversity of the islands and have turned it into a huge marine park, second in size only to the Barrier Reef in Australia and now fiercely protected by stifling bureaucracy.  The result is a Garden of Eden, where the creatures on land and sea have no fear of man, only their natural predators. As I write, a small sea lion is rolling around in the water behind the boat puffing as it comes to the surface, attempting to wriggle up onto our bathing platform, watching me though the corner of its eye but not intimidated in the slightest by my presence.

The first island that we visit is San Cristobal and we pick up a mooring buoy in Puerto Baquerizo, the capital of the Galapagos.  Rally Control inform us that we will be visited mob handed by the authorities and sure enough a team of no less than eleven inspectors arrive by water taxi. Three are divers who disappear under our hull to check its cleanliness and the rest climb into the cockpit in assorted uniforms and gather around the cockpit table. Our agent, Ricardo, hands them each copies of our ships papers and passports and we fill in countless forms.   Fatty shows them around the boat and they look in fridges and lockers to ensure that we aren’t introducing unwanted species.  I ask the divers in Spanish if the hull is clean enough. One of them looks up at me and says the universal word ‘Problema’ and points to the hull. Fearing the worst I ask him why. His face breaks into a grin ‘Muy limpio – very clean, welcome to Galapagos’.  They seem most impressed by our boat stamp that I then use with a flourish, stamping and signing in the best bureaucratic fashion.

Finally they leave with smiles all round and I bite my tongue as they tramp over our teak decks in boots and trainers.  Once cleared, we head ashore by water taxi, and immediately the wildlife is everywhere. Sea lions are draped over the small ferry dock; like Labradors they raise their heads mournfully and then fall back, apparently exhausted by the exertion. Iguanas stand motionless on the black rocks, perfectly camouflaged, their aggressive stance and armour-coated skin gives them a fearsome appearance. Pelicans dive-bomb the fish in the harbour and once sated they too perch on the rocks, bill tucked into their wing, oblivious to the world as brightly coloured crabs scuttle warily past.

The reunion with the fleet is more fun with every encounter; on this occasion, encouraged by frosted bottles of cold beer and lethal mojitos, the conversation is less guarded, the banter more risqué, the volume louder.  The men exchange tales of 55-knot gusts, big seas and record boat speeds, while the girls enquire of each other about relations on board. Life afloat is no different to life on land and the rally provides rich material for our moving soap opera.

It is de rigeur to see the iconic tortoises of the Galapagos so we take a guided tour to a sanctuary where there is a breeding program underway.  It is fascinating to see the big adults, over 150 years old, weighing up to a quarter of a ton, heaving their huge bulk over the rocks, their shells creaking like coats of armour. At the other end of the spectrum, tiny tortoises the size of my fist, that have been incubated and hatched in captivity, graze in enclosed pens, numbers painted on their shells identify them.   Everything about a tortoise seems to be a long, slow game. Even the breeding programme, which has been running for 12 years, has only produced 40 tortoises back into the wild.  It’s instructive to think that these little beasts will outlive me by over 100 years.

The following day we leave early for our day trip to Kicker Rock.  We are collected from the dock by a somewhat faded but comfortable motorboat, and our guide Fernando, all teeth and smiles, tells us that we have a great day in store. Kicker Rock, known locally as Leon Durmiente, the sleeping lion, is all that remains of a volcanic crater, a huge molar rearing 150 metres out of the inky blue water, split clean down the centre where a channel runs deep between soaring vertical cliffs. It is a service station for sharks that come here to feed on sardines and to be cleaned by parasites. We slip into the sea that is decidedly fresh after the warm waters of the Caribbean, and immediately we are in a huge aquarium. 

Through the mask of my snorkel I can make out the unmistakable shape of sharks, maybe 5 metres beneath us, uninterested in this school of noisy and ungainly mammals floating on the surface.  A huge turtle swims past in slow motion, its flippers hardly moving as it elegantly glides by, only feet from the lens of my camera. We line up for our entry through the channel and follow our guide.  Suddenly he shouts and points, his clenched fists held up against his ears, the sign for a hammerhead shark.  This large torpedo of muscle thunders past, much bigger than the white tipped reef sharks, aggressive by nature but here in the Galapagos with its bountiful supply of food, no danger to us, just an awesome sight as it flashes and disappears into the depths. We seem to be on an escalator through this giant aquarium.   Eagle rays swim a metre below us, matching our speed as they escort us through this magical kingdom. Beneath them I lose count at twenty sharks, swimming in harmony among the fish, presenting no threat until dusk when they will become aggressive as they start to feed. We are now out of the channel and snorkelling around the rock when we see a dark mass of what appears to be sea-weed, covering the ocean floor. Fernando suggests that we dive to check it out and as I kick down with my fins, I realise that it is in fact a massive shoal of thousands of sardines, tightly packed, seeking protection in numbers from the sharks that will return later to feed, ripping into the shoal in a feeding frenzy.

We have lunch on the motorboat, anchored in a small lagoon protected form the swell by a reef, then we wade through the shallow water onto a sandy beach. Blue-footed boobies stand to attention on the rocks, their powder blue feet divulging their identity, derived from bobo, Spanish for the word clown. Frigate birds fly overhead, the male with its scarlet chest puffed up prompts Andrew to make the observation that in nature the males are the more colourful sex, necessary to attract multiple mates, whereas in the human world the female is likely to be brightly dressed, decorated with make-up.  We muse that humans normally intend to mate for life and once paired, the men revert to shorts and t shirts while the women continue to impress – just in case. 

The beach is bleached white sand, soft curves between outcrops of black volcanic rock. The sea lions are everywhere, basking indolently in the surf, allowing waves to wash them up the beach where they lie stranded until the next wave, raising their muzzles only to shake the sand from their eyes.  It is one of the nicest beaches we have seen; brilliant white surf bursting over the sand, the powerful sun of the equator focussing the light, sharp and intense. No sign of human footprint other than those that we leave on the sand, washed quickly away by the sea, just as it was when the Beagle first landed on this very shore in 1835.


  1. che meraviglia!!!!!! io aspetto sempre di vedervi all'isola dei pini in Nuova Caledonia!!!!!
    un abbraccio

  2. Wow!!! All the photos are amazing!
    Glad you guys are all having such a fab time!
    Kit and Stevy

  3. Brilliant & evocative blog! Stunning photos to enhance your experiences....much love Naylors all xoxox