The vertical wall of Kicker Rock feels close enough to reach out and touch. Ecuadoreans call this eroded volcano towering 140m out of the Pacific Ocean, Leon Dormido or Lion Sleeping. But unlike four of the island group’s 12 volcanoes which have erupted during the past decade, Kicker Rock is dormant. Fast asleep.
From the top deck of Silversea’s Silver Galapagos, it’s possible to see the rock’s grey walls are home to numerous birds including the bright blue-footed boobies. During mating the male of this clumsy bird species shows off his feet to attract the opposite sex. Overhead fork-tailed frigatebirds circle before coming to rest on the flag pole at our ship’s aft. To make himself more attractive to females, the male frigatebird inflates a ridiculously large red sack on his neck.
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Couple of blue footed boobies performing mating dance.Source:Supplied
Barely an hour from port on the first evening in the Galápagos Islands and my excitement at being here is turning to awe. It is both amazing and enchanting and already sex is everywhere.
The feeling is enhanced by a mimosa cocktail as the sun goes down and Kicker Rock disappears into the night. The alarm in my cabin goes off at 5.30 the next morning. I haven’t set it but what the heck. There’s lots to do.
The three or four activities on the schedule each day aren’t compulsory but whether it’s exploring an iguana populated coast line on inflatable Zodiac craft, hiking to the top of the nearest volcano for amazing views, kayaking across a lagoon filled with sealions, penguins and turtles, or snorkelling through a school of stingray, I don’t want to miss a thing.
An underwater photo of curious sea lions.Source:istock
During the night our ship has sailed to the island of Bartolome, a barren craggy landmass formed by spattering molten lava about two million years ago. The walk to Bartolome’s summit is described in daily dispatches as strenuous which seems a bit dramatic given it’s just 388 steps. What I haven’t taken into account is that we are very close to the equator and even at 7am, it’s already hot and humid.
As I pull my way towards the top, our guide Eduardo stops for short breathers and I learn the word endemic. I’ll hear it many times during the next days, but it never fails to impress. That a particular creature is unique to just one place on Earth is remarkable. The Galápagos Islands has many such creatures. There is little growing on Bartolome and almost no sign of life apart from the odd lava lizard with its pointed head and fine long toes.
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The wonderful Marine Iguanas on Galápagos Islands, Ecuador.Source:istock
This first day’s stop is a vast contrast to our last. As if planned to showcase more each day, the islands of the group’s western region are revealed one by one as we hop around and between San Cristobel, Bartolome, Isabela, Fernandina, Floreana and finally Santa Cruz island.
You can swim in Las Grietas on Santa Cruz Island in Galapagos, which is a popular tourist destination.Source:istock
From stark lava rock and a lizard to a lush green rainforest where we meet the giant tortoises. In between are graceful flamingoes and herons and the languid iguanas alongside great male sealions, fighting fiercely on the beaches for their right to impregnate a group of females
The Galapagos is 1400km from the mainland of South America and governed by Ecuador. The 13 main islands and seven smaller isles stretch across the Equator. Warm air temperatures are tempered by chilly waters from the Humboldt and Cromwell currents. It is this combination of hot and cold that has contributed to the evolution of life both on land and in the sea.
Giant tortoises live on the Galapagos. Picture: iStockSource:istock
Best known is the giant tortoise which outlives every vertebrate on Earth, but equally remarkable are the Darwin’s finches which have developed beaks to best harvest local food sources, flightless cormorants with stubs for wings which they hang out to dry; the brightly coloured sally lightfoot crabs so quick they are almost impossible to catch; the waved albatross, the only one of its family found in the tropics; and those endearing blue footed boobies.
While year round, a steady stream of visitors comes here in carefully monitored and timed order, there is little sign of human interference. Every effort is made by the local Ecuadorean guides to keep to carefully marked paths and to ensure people don’t touch or take a thing.
As if they get this, most creatures are unafraid of if not oblivious to people.
A few times while snorkelling in the chilly waters I have to resist the temptation to reach out and touch a playful sea lion or turtle, they come so close. It would be impossible to reach one of the cheeky penguins that spin and zigzag past.
Galapagos sea lion. Picture: iStockSource:istock
The views from the top of Bartolome are worth every difficult step. From here on a good day it is possible to see more than half of the 20 islands in the group.
It is also one of the only times during the week we see other visitor craft.
Whenever we visit a beach, walk through a forest or snorkel a cliff rimmed bay, it is as if our smallish expedition ship of less than 100 passengers has the place to itself.
Activities for me on day two start at 9am with a zodiac tour followed by an hour of snorkelling and after lunch a 2.5-hour nature walk.
The alarm goes off at 5.30am. I try to reset it.
The Galapagos penguin is the feature of the day but there is plenty more to see. Green sea turtles come in close to Isabela island for rest and recuperation which includes a lengthy mating ritual.
It happens in deep water with the male hanging on by digging spurs into the female. Several other hopeful males lurk close by in case the incumbent comes unstuck and needs replacing. On Fernandina island we visit a beach made entirely of sea urchin spines, shells and bones all breaking down to form the sand.
Sally Lightfoot Crabs.Source:istock
It’s not such a bad thing the alarm goes off again at 5.30am on day three. There is time for a good breakfast before the 6.30 start for a two-hour hike on Isabela island.
We pass rows of marine iguanas all facing the same direction to warm themselves in the sun. It’s like being on the set of a miniature dinosaur movie.
Later I mention the alarm to Omar, my cabin butler. He assures me it will be dealt with.
After waking to the alarm at 5.30am, the next day’s focus is on life in the mangroves, the black and red varieties growing to more than 20m and making a home for myriad birds and turtles and many enthusiastic mosquitoes and midges.
It’s a busy schedule exploring the Galapagos, and with early morning excursions to meet the big bright yellow land iguanas, the Galapagos mockingbirds and finally, the giant tortoises, it doesn’t matter that the alarm sounds uninhibited the next two mornings.
There is more sex at the Los Gemelos & Tortoise Ecological Reserve which doubles as a cattle farm. We hear primeval raspy groans from the male giant tortoise which it turns out are the only noises he ever makes.
The Galápagos Islands were named for the saddleback tortoise. In turn the Galapagos enabled biologist Charles Darwin to explain evolution through natural selection or survival of the fittest.
Silver Galapagos. Picture: Silversea/Daniela PlazaSource:Supplied
On the final night I put the alarm unit into the corridor outside the cabin. Omar is little amused but the last morning is a peaceful lie-in before reluctantly I pack to leave the ship for the last time. I have travelled back to somewhere near the beginning of time and I want to stay there among the brilliance of nature as it is nowhere else on Earth.
The writer travelled at her own expense.
Silversea has seven-day cruises of the Galapagos starting at $8400 a person. Costs are all-inclusive of on-board stays and guided excursions but do not include airfares.
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Originally published as The islands like nowhere else on Earth
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