The Galapagos Islands

Galapagos One of the few things I knew of Ecuador prior to this trip, was that The Galapagos Islands sits off its coastline. The archipelago made famous for contributing to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. From the outset, I thought to visit if it was on the way. Despite the cost I’m glad I went to this incredibly unique reserve. For it was almost a skipped treat.

It nearly didn’t happen as the all-in costs amounted to over Euro950 which included heavy discounts from various listed prices. The package included flight (three hours), entrance fee to the islands, a five day boat tour inclusive of food and guide (ex drinks). I really spent an entire afternoon deciding whether to do it or not. This represented the largest single item of discretionary spending on the trip and in this region my accommodation budget for a month and a half.

In the end, I decided to do it as it’s unlikely I’ll have the opportunity again and further the Ecuadorian Government are soon to severely restrict the number of visitors to the Islands. Anyone who’s been on an organised tour will know it’s not only about the place visited but also about the tour guide, people you meet and the accommodation. If one of these elements is poor it will overshadow an otherwise good trip. And more so when you’re going to spend five days with 11 random strangers (plus crew) in close quarters on a small cabin cruiser.

Carlos our guide collected us from the airport and brought us to the boat. Which was fairly comfortable with nice cabins, dining room and chill out areas both inside and outside. Unsurprisingly the group consisted of a hodgepodge of characters including: yours truly, Richard and Nikki (SA and English), Mike, Evan (both Canadians), a talkative Israeli (who we called Israel), an American couple John and Carol (GOP I suspected), two Danish mates (pack backers) whose names I cannot remember and a Marike. A nice Dutch lady and widow, who having just retired as a social worker had the gumption to reward herself with this trip. Brava.

Once we were all introduced, Carlos explained our agenda for the five days and assigned cabins. The itinerary was intensive commencing each morning at sun rise and ending at dusk with only minimal chill time. As for the cabin, I was relieved to share with only one other person, a far cry from having to share with 20 odd people on a yacht in the Whit Sunday Islands a few years back. Evan, 23 year old student, from Ottawa was a good guy to bunk up with as he was tidy and didn’t snore or fart while asleep. Not sure he would say the same about me.

True to promise, we started early with the ships bell rousing all at 6.30. And after a respectable breakfast we jettisoned at exactly 7.30 to kick off the tour. I’ll spare you the itemised day by day sightings and highlights but take my word for it, this finance guy’s passing interest in things botanical consisted of watching the occasional David Attenborough or National Geographical programme. For five days I felt part of a National Geographic special.

I saw birds of countless varieties. I swam with penguins, sea lions, turtles, sting rays and I even saw a small shark. Not only did I enjoy seeing the animals, the fauna was also impressive. What also struck me early on was Carlo’s knowledge and passion for the Islands. His knowledge was practically encyclopaedic and responses never limited to the question asked but developed to related topics. Our boat was lucky to get him as he is a freelance guide who chooses when and for whom he works.

Also, it was impressive to see Evan chip-in either pointing things out himself or adding to Carlos’s comments. A bus mans holiday for him and good to see a student’s enthusiasm for their chosen field. It reminded me of the kick I use to get when my Balance Sheet totalled up.

Of the multitude of botanical stories gleamed, the three which struck me as poignant examples of natures natural selection included: the pink flamingo, hybrid iguana, and that of Lonesome George.

The pink flamingo population was decimated by hurricane El Niño. This bird’s diet consists of worms that rest on the mud surface of mixed fresh/sea water lakes. After the hurricane, lake salinity was disturbed and over a six week period 28,000 flamingos died of starvation. Barely 200 survived. The population has since increased to over 1,300.

I felt a certain level of sympathy for the hybrid iguana. Where the word hybrid usually invokes the best of two kinds, in this case it’s the worst. Due to a shortage of female marine iguanas, the male of the kind swim ashore to literally rape the female land iguana. Sadly the resulting progeny cannot swim and their life expectancy is half that of either a pure land or marine iguana.

Then there was the story of a single turtle – Lonesome George. Found of the coast of Pinta in 1971, he was brought to the Galapagos for safety and breeding assistance. Countless attempts over the decades have failed to find another of his kind. Moreover attempts to impregnate near similar turtles with his seed have failed despite his own attempts and using turtle IVF. The resulting eggs didn’t hatch.

What surprised me was the outpour of empathy, of “uh, “ah”, “how tragic” when the assembled guides informed their audience that George will go through his remaining 30-50 years alone. For a number of reasons, I think his plight is greatly exaggerated.

To begin I couldn’t tell the difference between George and his nearby playmates. Then, the labs have his sperm and fully sequenced genome for posterity. But most important, his plight would be the male human equivalent of been told that you are the only white man left of the planet, being put up in the Four Seasons for the rest of your life with three meals a day and provided a harem of Black, Asian, Latino and Middle Eastern women to try to give babies.

Hard to empathise with such a scenario let alone consider it tragic. Natural selection or lucky selection? Not sure what Dickens would have made of it but either way some would consider it the ultimate happy ending. Talking of which, the other aspect of said theory was its timing.

The famous Naturalist’s (as they were referred to then, not to be confused with modern day Naturalists, who if you’ve notice have the least right to bare all) theory was first published in the mid 1800’s only. Something I found surprisingly recent considering other great theories were postulated decades and centuries before. One example been Galileo, the father of science, made revolutionary contributions to physics (Discourse to Two New Sicences) and astronomy two hundred years earlier. In fact, as Darwin travelled to present his theory to the Royal Geographical Society he would have done so under the light of London’s first electric street lamps.

I suppose what’s more surprising is that even today, many bible belt Creationists consider Darwin a border line heretic and are trying to rewrite school curriculums accordingly. Yeah, it’s much more believable that man came from a superfluos rib. To my American friends, come November 2012 please vote Democrat. Anyway.

Each day was fantastic and our guide and crew looked after us well. We couldn’t have asked for a better route as each day presented a new experience and highlight. One of the benefits of our early starts was being ahead of the other boats undertaking a similar tour. This lent to more time seeing things and in a more tranquil setting. The onboard entertainment was also fun.

This centred around meal time. Actually the food was surprisingly good with an international menu and five days without rice and beans was a welcome respite. So between our island hopping we enjoyed some banter over a couple of beers up on the sun deck or in the comfortable lounge.

I drew upon my stock of ice-breaker games which I use during the norming phase of group dynamics: memorable (good or bad) holiday stories, first piece of music bought and first kiss. Good clean fun and never fails to produce some interesting responses. John told of his first kiss and built the story up well. High school sweetheart, nervous trepidation (who wasn’t) and checking the coast with friends. Then he revealed that the first (and only) girl he kissed was sitting next to him. Wow!

First time I heard that and the good Irish Catholic boy that I am joined the applause. However by the end of which, the world traveller in me couldn’t help think – rather you than me mate. What missed experiences. Guess that says more about me than it does about John. Carol his wife side stepped the question, with the dexterity that would make a seasoned diplomat envious.

The card games and exchange of travel stories was equally enjoyable. As, for all of us, the Galapagos Islands was part of a bigger adventure. There was no late nights sessions. The effect of pre sunrise starts and interrupted sleep. A noisy generator and choppy seas didn’t make for a sound slumber. In fact, one night the swell was so rough that a few of our party had the appearance of a kid who went on the rollercoaster twice too often. Poor Mike wasn’t too far off a shade of Shrek.

The other ice breaker I brought along wasn’t necessary but the bottle of vodka did find good use a week later on a beach in Mancora.

The only regret, albeit a small one, was that I didn’t get to try out the very act that gave the Islands its name. For fun, the first Spanish soldiers use to piggyback on the larger turtles. Doubt if they managed a “gallop” or even a canter for that matter but the name stuck. It would have been a memorable Kodak moment.

Although expensive I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to the Galapagos Islands. A number of times each day I was taken in and aback by the stories of the animals, plants and of the Islands themselves. On the sail back towards the airport our boat was escorted by a large group of dolphins. What a finale. What a thrill.

And finally, as is often the case with any group dynamic you naturally get along better with certain people over others. Fortunately our group were a good bunch with no weirdos or oddballs. However, special platitudes to Richard and Nikki, Mike, Evan and Marike. In keeping with the animal theme – birds of a feather flock together. Call me when you’re in town.

Al Dempsey