The grown-up gapper: close encounters on the Galápagos

Ruth Holliday is enthralled by the fearless wildlife on the Galápagos Islands, and meets their most famous resident, who proves to be less lonesome than expected

By Ruth Holliday, 24 Oct 2008 (Go To Source)

Ruth sees and ‘ornamental’ pelican. It is several minutes before she realises that it is not in fact an ornament at all.

Ruth with one of the shy tortoises at Rancho Primisias

A sea lion and a gaggle of pelicans nuzzle the fisherman’s legs at the fish market


I was not sure what to expect as I stepped of the plane in Baltra, the airport that serves Galápagos. A sea lion at passport control perhaps. A giant tortoise wandering through customs.

As it happens, the tiny timber terminal is a fitting welcome. It has the air of a park ranger’s office, with a roof but no walls, little security and a baggage reclaim that involves dumping our backpacks in a pile on a flat piece of rocky ground.

We are charged US$100 entry to the National Park and issued with a US$10 identity card. All proceeds, we are told, go to protecting the islands’ wildlife.

I am travelling from Quito, Ecuador’s capital, with three conspicuously young but travel-savvy companions. For the next three-and-a-half weeks we will be living in the same volunteer accommodation on Isabella Island.

First, however, we have to get to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, the Galápagos’s main town. And this is a journey where English politeness will get you absolutely nowhere. Tourists have to scramble aboard free buses to the nearby ferry. There is far from enough room for everyone and when a third bus departs without us, we decide to ditch the Britishness and get mean.

We shove our way through a crowd of Americans, Ecuadorians and other Europeans with such gusto that we even manage to get a seat.

From the bus window, we scan the volcanic landscape for wildlife. All we see is miles of black rock furnished with untidy cactus and palm trees.

We haul our luggage off the bus and toward the little ferry that connects Baltra with Santa Cruz. Once more, lack of space on board creates an unseemly scuffle among the tourists. As they wrestle with their luggage and one another, my friends and I watch the skies. Above us hundreds of enormous sea birds circle, silhouetted by the sun. Some I recognised as pelicans. Others look for all the world like pterodactyls, black prehistoric outlines soaring in the vivid blue. We elbow our way on board the next ferry which takes us past two sunbathing sea lions, close enough to touch.

Forgetting the struggles of our journey, a childlike enthusiasm spreads through the boat. There is a lot of pointing, picture-taking and a few excited squeaking noises.

Recovered, settled and fed at Santa Cruz, I decide to go for a little wander by myself. I find a small, pristine jetty looking out over the lapiz blue of the sea. And as I watch the birds, the boats and the sea lions I become vaguely aware of a large ornamental pelican on the wall, hidden by shade, a few inches from my head.

It is several minutes before I realise that the pelican is not an ornament. I turn toward it and it looks back at me without flinching. It remains sitting there, motionless, when I walk away.

In the afternoon a guide takes us to Rancho Permiso, a few kilometres outside town. The project is home to 125 giant tortoises living in vast open meadows criss-crossed with narrow pathways.

As we walk up to our first giant we indulge in a fresh round of squeaking and pointing. The size of it is phenomenal but even more striking is the strange way it moves, head nodding and flopping as it eats, balancing unsteadily on scaly, flipper-like legs.

From a distance, they are rounded boulders scattered across the field. Close up they look alien and prehistoric. And they do not like humans. Any time we get less than six feet away from one, the tortoise stops its otherwise ceaseless munching and pull its head in, making soft hissing noises in the hope that we will go away.

After an hour of tortoise-gazing in the equatorial sun we head off to the island’s lava tunnels. These are a natural phenomenon, caused by the cooling of a lava flow from the outside in. While the exterior hardens to rock, the inside stays hot enough to ooze out. What is left is an empty tube of rock a kilometre long and large enough to walk through.

Inside it is stiflingly hot, intensely eerie and quite disorientating. At times we have to crawl through small gaps on our hands and knees. And when we climb back into the sunshine we find that we have completed a full loop, popping up just a few yards from where we started.

The night will be spent in Puerto Ayora – a smart, affluent town geared to the smart, affluent tourists who can afford Galápagos. There are art galleries, pricey jewellery shops and a few dozen hotels which are always fully booked and forbidden from expanding.

We explore the seafront before dinner and come across a tiny fish market. A catch of tuna is being filleted on an L-shaped counter. Nuzzling the fisherman’s legs are a sea lion and a gaggle of pelicans. Every few minutes he tosses them a few scraps, sending up a cloud of bickering, squawking bodies.

To the locals, living with this fearless wildlife is hum drum. They more or less ignore it. But as first-timers we are enthralled.

Next morning we have another animal encounter – a date with the Galápagos’s most famous resident. Lonesome George, the last giant tortoise of his species, lives at the Charles Darwin Research Station just outside town. We pay him a quick visit before our ferry leaves for Isabella.

The Research Station is a modest affair – a collection of well-spaced and poorly signposted buildings linked by rough paths. In the trees and bushes, hundreds of tiny finches hop and flutter.

It was their diversity that helped Darwin cotton on to his revolutionary evolutionary theory. I try without success to spot the subtle differences in their beaks. They are constantly on the move, a blur of little feet and feathers. How Darwin made his famous sketches I do not know, unless he killed or concussed them first.

After forty minutes’ scouring the site and asking directions we eventually find George. It turns out that he is not quite as lonesome these days, housed with two female tortoises of a similar species and the proud father of three eggs. It will be some years before the scientists know whether they are fully functioning little Georges or not.

Our time on Santa Cruz ends with a swim. The Research Station has a tiny beach and here we take a dip alongside a marine iguana, happily doing the doggie-paddle just yards away. Inquisitive fish dart between our legs and enormous black crabs scuttle lazily as we pick our way across the black lava rocks at the water’s edge.

We are yet to reach Isabella, the more remote and wildlife-rich island where we will live and work. But our first 24 four hours in Galápagos – getting close to colonies of weird, wild animals – has already proved incredible.


About Rene

About Ecuador, Galápagos, the Hospitality & Tourism industry, Conservation and personal Tidbits from a Swiss Hôtelier working in Ecuador & Galapagos and committed to supporting and encouraging local youngsters in Education, Sports and Environmental protection via my Foundation "Nova Galápagos."
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