Traversing the volcanic landscape Santiago Island. Photo: Getty Images
Trusty volume of Darwin's most famous work in hand, Kerry van der Jagt takes a cruise to the Galapagos.
I'm inside the flooded caldera of an extinct volcano, swimming through a sea of silver. As I duck dive, the shoal of shimmering fish parts like a curtain, granting me temporary access to their mercurial world. Rivers of fish, including blue-chinned parrot fish and delicate Moorish idols, stream past. Below, a sea turtle flies like an eagle through the blue, while sea lions twist around me like fur-lined slinkies. Above, the sun is a disco ball, sending shards of light dancing across the ocean floor.
I breach the surface, blowing a fountain of water out of my snorkel, before plunging back under, eagerly anticipating the second act. This is, after all, Darwin's workshop, a menagerie of fearless birds and beasts found no place else. A place where cormorants have forgotten how to fly and iguanas swim like fish. Where penguins, normally found in the icy waters of Antarctica, strut about like petulant teenagers and shy flamingos hide their heads in muddy lakes. It is the place of my dreams.
Sea lions pay little mind to visitors. Photo: Getty Images
I'm in Darwin Bay on Genovesa Island, one of the dozen or so volcanic islands that make up the Galapagos Archipelago, about 1000 kilometres west of Ecuador. These "Enchanted Islands" shaped my life years before I arrived. From a tomboy collecting bugs and slugs, to an earnest university student studying biology, this trip is a nod to my younger self and also to my hero, Charles Darwin.
Since dreams are as fragile as the oceans themselves, I studied my travel options with a researcher's eye. I discounted a land-based stay - only four of the islands are inhabited and with large distances to cover, it would mean missing some of the remote islands. Multiday cruises are the better option, but with more than 70 operators plying the waters (and most flying some shade of green eco-flag), it is difficult to know which ones are fully committed to the environment.
Lindblad Expeditions qualifies for two reasons. First, the founder, Lars-Eric Lindblad, was an early Antarctic expeditioner and has been defined by many as the father of ecotourism, and second, Lindblad Expeditions are partners with National Geographic, and there's no denying the security of that little yellow rectangle. I signed up for the 10-day expedition (eight at sea) and dug out my copy of Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle.
Waved albatross mating ritual. Photo: Getty Images
After a 1½-hour flight from Guayaquil in Ecuador to San Cristobal Island, we are soon onboard the 96-passenger expedition ship National Geographic Endeavour. We unpack, check out the facilities including the library, lounge and spa, which are surprisingly luxurious, and attend the first of many nature talks. Our speaker is Alexandra Cousteau, a National Geographic explorer and granddaughter of legendary filmmaker Jacques Cousteau. Along with naturalists and photographers, Lindblad also invites guest speakers onboard to share their passion and insider's perspective with guests.
It is late afternoon when we board Zodiacs (pangas) for our first wet landing at Cerro Brujo Beach on San Cristobal. The sun is low and lovely as I sit cross-legged on the sand, talking with Cousteau while dozens of sea lions gather at our feet, their little ears wiggling as if they are listening, too. In the distance Kicker Rock, an ancient volcanic tuff, rears from the ocean like a sleeping lion. "I was seven when my grandfather taught me how to dive," Cousteau says. "We'd pretend that I was a mermaid princess and he'd explain how the eels, sharks, rays and sea horses all have a role to play in this amazing concert of life." Talk soon turns to the roles visitors play in the Galapagos. With 150,000 visitors each year, tourism is a mixed blessing - economic rewards versus screwing up the environment.
But with careful management, tourism provides a sustainable income to local residents, which in turn discourages those tempted to make money through poaching, overfishing or trading in wildlife.
Cousteau is a social-environmental advocate and founder of Blue Legacy, a non-profit organisation designed to connect mainstream audiences with their water planet. "The Galapagos Islands show what can be done when enough people care," she says. "My grandfather used to say we only protect what we love and we love what we know."
The next morning we board the pangas for Punta Suarez on Espanola Island, one of the oldest in the archipelago. By island-hopping from east to west we travel from the oldest islands, created more than 3.5 million years ago, to the newest, freshly minted ones still forming today. In effect we are time travellers, bearing witness to the creation of our world.
Even Darwin was compelled to write, "Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact - that mystery of mysteries - the first appearance of new beings on this earth."
And what beings they are. With our eyes on cartoon-like stalks, we scramble across the rocky shore, step over fluoro-orange Sally Lightfoot crabs, tiptoe around mounds of marine iguanas (Darwin referred to these as "imps of darkness") and give a wide berth to a pair of blue-footed boobies. Before coming here I'd hoped to see just one of these little guys, the comical character that inspired an entire range of "I Love Boobies" T-shirts. Instead, I see hundreds; standing on rocks, sitting on eggs and dive-bombing into the ocean. I see them flirting and dancing, lifting one bright blue foot after the other, performing a tender ritual as old as life itself. It's almost too much. Almost.
We've come ashore in small groups, one naturalist guide per panga, splitting up according to interests and abilities. I've joined the "more-walk, less-talk" group and have set off at a good clip through the fresh-smelling saltbush in search of the "albatross airport", the only place in the Galapagos where the waved albatross nests. It is a mind-boggling statistic that 50 per cent of the animals in the Galapagos are found no place else.
The sun is hot overhead and the metallic crunch of volcanic rocks underfoot is alien to my ears. We hear the runway before we see it. The clack-clack-clack sound of birds whacking their beaks together like Olympic fencers gives away their location. "Waved albatross mate for life," explains our naturalist, Celso Montalvo, a born and bred Galapagonian. "Bill-fencing is part of their courtship ritual ensuring they always reconnect with the right mate."
As the cycle of life unfurls around us we are grateful to have the place to ourselves - this is not luck, but rather design. In February 2012 the Ecuadorian government introduced stricter controls to regulate the movement of cruise passengers. Historically, a week-long Galapagos cruise was the norm and each boat would repeat the same itinerary weekly, but under the new regulations no ship can visit the same site more than once in a 14-day period. These changes should result in better-designed itineraries, while reducing numbers at the most-visited sites and opening up under-used sites. The Galapagos National Park monitors the movement of cruise ships like generals strategically moving toy boats on a game board.
On Floreana Island, I sign up for a kayaking adventure. As we nudge our way through the turquoise water a pair of mating sea turtles bob up beside us, their tongues lolling in their heads, paying scant attention to our presence. "No wonder they call this place the Enchanted Islands," says my male co-kayaker with a grin. "All the animals do here is eat, sleep and shag."
One creature that wasn't so lucky in love was Lonesome George, the rarest critter in the world and the last known remaining giant tortoise of his subspecies (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii). Even a reward of $10,000 failed to produce a suitable match. At the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island we visit his empty pen, where he died last June, aged 100, without having found a soul mate. His simple R.I.P. plaque makes him even more of a poster boy for Galapagos conservation than ever.
From the research station, we drive to the highlands where washing-machine-size giant tortoises rumble through the grasslands on their annual migration. I take up pole position for an action shot and almost get bowled over by one. After lunch we have the option of biking through the highlands or visiting a school that Lindblad Expeditions supports. As well as raising funds for projects such as the eradication of feral pigs on Santiago Island, Lindblad provides scholarships for students and operates a teachers-on-board program where local teachers are invited to join an expedition to experience the more remote parts of the archipelago.
After Santa Cruz we anchor among the Bainbridge Islets, a cluster of parasitic cones off Santiago Island, another lunar landscape born of fire. Here, too, the animals are comfortable with intruders. At Sombrero Chino we swim with Galapagos penguins - the only penguin to live north of the equator - while on Genovesa, red-footed booby chicks block our paths, forcing us to walk around them. It's comforting to know that humans don't rule the roost everywhere. People occupy 3 per cent of the archipelago; the other 97 per cent is protected as a national park.
After ceremoniously crossing the equator, we spend our final afternoon snorkelling inside the walls of Darwin Bay before flopping on the beach like exhausted sea lions. Back on board the sky bleeds crimson, turning the water inside the collapsed volcano a fiery-red as the captain manoeuvres our ship out of the caldera and back to civilisation.
I came here to learn for myself, and not from books, what the Galapagos is all about. I learnt more about nature than any other week in my life. But more importantly, I saw nature cast its spell over my fellow travellers, turning them all into ambassadors for the protection of earth's last wild places.
The Beagle has landed
He came Charles Darwin took the first official Galapagos cruise in 1835, visiting just four islands — San Cristobal, Floreana, Santiago and Isabela — in five weeks, during his five-year voyage aboard the Beagle.
He saw Mockingbirds, not finches, gave Charles Darwin his first ideas about evolution. He noticed differences in them on the islands he visited, but the penny didn't drop until he was back in England. Even the tortoises didn't interest him much at the time — he was more interested in eating them.
He wrote Darwin's observations led to his revolutionary theory of evolution, but it took him another 24 years (1859) to publish On the Origin of Species.
CHECKING THE MAIL
At Post Office Bay on Floreana Island stands an old wooden barrel that has been used as a post office since the 18th century. Whalers used it to drop off and pick up mail to deliver to other destinations on their travels. Today visitors can carry on this centuries-old tradition and leave a postcard (no stamp required) or take one away with the promise to hand-deliver it. I'm still waiting for mine to arrive.
RUB ON A TUB
As part of its Wellness program, National Geographic Endeavour's LEXspa offers floating massages on its glass-bottom spa boat. The platform is towed to a private cove where guests can enjoy a massage as turtles or sea lions float below them. Sure beats staring at a bowl of floating flowers.
Getting there LAN Airlines has a fare to Guayaquil for about $2120 low-season return including tax. Fly to Santiago (about 17hr including transit time in Auckland) then to Guayaquil (5hr 15min); phone 1800 588 129, see lan.com. Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly Qantas to and from Auckland to connect. Australians do not require a visa for a stay of up to 180 days for tourism purposes.
LAN has nine flights a week from Sydney to Santiago — six one-stop services via Auckland and three non-stop flights in a code-share service operated by Qantas. From Guayaquil, Lindblad organises group return flights to the Galapagos for about $450.
Phone 1800 558 129, lan.com.
Cruising there Lindblad Expeditions operates 10-day voyages aboard the National Geographic Endeavour and the National Geographic Islander year-round and provide weekly departures. Fares start from US$4990 ($4840) a person, based on double occupancy in a category 1 cabin, and include all meals, excursions, Zodiac and kayak explorations, snorkelling gear and special access permits, park fees and port taxes. Excludes all airfares. Phone +1 212 261 9000, see expeditions.com.
Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Lindblad Expeditions and LAN Airlines