From the giant tortoises in the highlands, to the sea lions on the beach, to the baby sharks under our boat, the Galápagos Islands are everything the wildlife programmes promise. Rich and stunning, positively teeming with life.
Although nobody mentioned the bird-sized moths that try to fly down ones trunks upon applying coconut-scented shower gel to the particulars. Such is the risk of the foredeck shower in this part of the world, and presented with the curious dilemma of a giant moth infestation where you don’t want it, or a potential baby shark bite, I swiftly chose the latter and jumped in the sea.
There we were then, in Santa Cruz of the famous archipelago, feeling blessed to even be breathing its air. The reputation of these islands as a naturalist’s paradise precedes itself, but they are also of significant handiness to the circumnavigator, who can use them as a stepping-stone to the South Pacific. A potential 4000 nautical-mile passage from Panama is cut down to a slightly more encouraging 3000, and with that comes a valid excuse to talk in the voice of David Attenborough for a bit. “And here, we have… a warm beer”, Will offered, in the husky and dulcet tones of everyone’s favourite wildlife presenter, as he handed me a celebratory, and tepid, beverage upon our arrival.
We had long fretted over whether the authorities would admit Blue Eye to stay in Galapagos waters, where the regulations are strict and a 1970s-built yacht ticks few of their boxes. Nonetheless, knowing we’d need to replenish our fuel, water and food reserves, and acknowledging this as a once in a lifetime opportunity, we decided to take the risk of rejection and coughed up every cent of the extortionate government fees. Hence why I am now settling for a homemade sandwich made of mostly mouldy bread.
It was with nervous smiles that we invited the team of officials aboard for the inspection. Four of them filed down into the cramped cabin below for form filling and a thorough sweep of all the nooks and crannies, whilst the fifth hopped in the water to check the hull for foreign life. We held our breath as long as he did, knowing the gravity afforded to this part of the process. Whilst still offshore the previous day, we had jumped overboard ourselves to discover with dismay that during our 12-day passage from Las Perlas – where we had painstakingly scrubbed off every barnacle – a colony of unwelcome purplish mushrooms had taken residence on Blue Eye’s once red hull. Reluctantly we got the scrapers out again, and did what we could as the swell rocked the boat and jellyfish drifted by.
Maybe because we’d done the job well enough, maybe because the scare-stories aren’t true, or maybe because it was a national holiday and the officials weren’t overly zealous about their work that day, somehow we passed. With thumbs up from the diver and the paperwork complete, the officials took a cursory glance around before declaring we were welcome in Santa Cruz for three weeks. The word relief doesn’t do it justice.
Naturally, we went to the nearest bar and got completely Galapagosed. This was half in celebration that we didn’t have to worry about the Pacific Ocean for a good few days, and half that we could sit in a bar at all. Nobody had mentioned there was civilisation here. Red iguanas, pelicans, penguins… certainly we knew to expect these sights. But a bar selling cold, delicious beer? This was a turn up for the books, especially after the warm cans of Panamanian beer sitting in the non-existent fridge on board.
Our surprise waned as our inebriation grew. Come midnight the previously quiet town had sprung to life, just in time for us – in typically-English fashion – to have had more than our fill and be stumbling home to our beds.
It so happens one more drink was on the cards though, as I fell into it.
Misjudging my clumsy clamberings into the dinghy, one moment I was on the dock, and the next almost entirely submerged in the salty, shark-infested, phone-destroying, black waters. I very hastily scrambled back up and stood surveying my new moistness, whilst James and Will waited to see at what point it was ok to laugh. Which was quite immediately apparently.
That there is indeed civilisation here shouldn’t have been a shock. Whilst I’d half-expected (and hoped) a welcoming party of hammerhead sharks would rear their funny heads and say “Right this way gentlemen”, as we drew closer to land, and for an administration of albatrosses to deliver the paperwork to us once we’d set the anchor, in reality the booming eco-tourism can support the 30,000 inhabitants of the Galápagos Islands.
The animals, amazingly, seem not in the least perturbed by the relatively recent development on their islands. The first thing laid before me as I stepped onto Galapagos soil was a great fat sea lion snoozing on a park bench, completely oblivious to the hustle and bustle around him. And a little further on down the road some of his kin scrounged at the fish market, as pelicans looked on disapprovingly, with black iguanas sunbathing between their legs.
Sea lion, by the way, is a wholly inappropriate name. It suggests the presence of a feline nature, when they look, sound, sleep, play and smell utterly canine. This was no better demonstrated than in the mass gathering we witnessed on San Cristobal’s town beach, where some 500 blubbery beasts had come to sleep. Though, for all the sneezing, farting and perpetual trampling over one another, no more than half of them could have been asleep at any one time, and never for very long. (Rather like sleeping on Blue Eye, actually.) Tightly packed in, their constant twitching was forever waking up a neighbouring sea lion, as cubs waddled about adorably looking for their parents, and lonely adolescents searched for the comfiest spooning spots between three or four others. (Less like sleeping on Blue Eye, thankfully.) Such was the hilarity of the scene we bought beers and sat in for the show.
But don’t be thinking we spent our entire time here either drinking, drunk or doing our best sea lion impressions, that is, passed out on town benches and beaches. We actually shocked ourselves a little with our activity levels. There was the 50km round bicycle ride into the hills to visit the giant tortoises, who aren’t quite as large as the small cars they are generally compared to, but are nonetheless enormous and are fondly referred to as the giant gardeners, as they eat and bulldoze their way through the landscape. Then there was the days spent surfing, on one occasion with sea lions riding the waves too, and on the other a terrific manta ray could be seen lazing in the sun not far away, becoming fully displayed as the face of the wave lifted it up and presented it in all its beauty. And in San Cristobal there was an extremely pleasant stroll along the coastline to a clifftop called La Loberia. The path was treacherous, consisting of lava rocks and iguanas of such similarity in both colour and mobility that we nearly trod on their tails on several occasions. But like every other animal here it seems, they’re extremely docile, and we could carry along with ease until we reached the end of the land, where we found the most quintessentially Galapagos scene you could hope for.
Blue-footed boobies soared to and fro, coming to nest in the cliff face where they chattered away; great big crabs of either red or black scuttled up and down the perilous drop, doing whatever it is crabs do; and sea turtles lolled on the waters surface 30 metres below, only a few feet away from the waves crashing against the rocks. We hung out with the iguanas who stood motionless atop the warm cliff, surveying the sensational panoramic views of the ocean.
It is to that ocean that we now turn. With our allowed time here drawing to a close, and with the feet starting to itch for the next port once again, we’ll finalise our preparations and set sail for the South Pacific on Wednesday 17th May, almost nine months to the day that we left England. First stop: the Marquesas Isles, just the 30 days away!
It has been nothing short of a privilege to be in the Galápagos Islands, where the idea that preserving the environment and the animals within it still packs genuine weight. Here people are not top of the pecking order, and it’s immensely refreshing. As Darwin himself once observed of the place that inspired in him the theory of evolution, “the archipelago is a world within itself”.