There are 13 islands in the archipelago, spread over 45,000 square kilometres of ocean. Each island is home to a unique selection of wildlife and wonders.
Wonder #1: The dance of the albatross
If you’ve never seen an albatross before, Espanola island is the place to come. Each year, 20,000 waved albatross fly to Espanola to conduct their elaborate courtship ritual, one of the most entertaining in the animal kingdom.
Everywhere we look, pairs of albatross are nestled together in the tufty grass. Soon we hear a clacking sound, a sign that a mating ritual is in progress. We get within a few feet of the birds: as with all the Galapagos wildlife, the albatross have never been exposed to natural predators, so it takes more than a group of camera-clicking tourists to disturb them.
The mating dance is as choreographed as any ballet, involving elaborate sequences of head bobbing, weaving and, finally, the waving around of their long yellow beaks. The birds slap their beaksagainst each other repeatedly, as rapidly as a flamenco dancer drumming his heels. Occasionally one bird tilts its head up, opens its beak wide, then snaps it shut again, with a resounding clatter. Then the other bird does the same. We can’t help giggling – it’s like watching a pair of inbred Spanish aristocrats challenging each other to a duel.
Having watched several couples courting, we are distracted by another entertaining sight: an albatross making ready to head out to sea. This is not as simple as it sounds. The only way a waved albatross can get airborne is to launch itself off a cliff – which presents them with something of a dilemma.
We watch first one, then another, albatross, head to the cliff edge, looking ready to take flight. As they get closer, they hesitate. The cliff is high and, many of these albatross have been at sea for the last five years – the thought of jumping off a cliff makes them visibly nervous. They take a couple of run-ups, slow down, and then stop uncertainly. Finally, with an air of nonchalance, they turn around and walk off. Clearly, they’re not quite ready to launch.
Wonder #2: Gentle giants
Some animals, like the waved albatross, impress us with their flashy performances. Others impress us just by existing. In the latter camp is the Galapagos giant tortoise, an animal of amazing dimensions. The tortoises can grow up to a strapping 250 kilograms, and live over 100 years. When we first come across these animals on Isabela island, in the grey light of very early cruise Galapagos morning, it’s as unexpected as discovering a dinosaur. As you’d expect from an animal with an ultra-slow metabolism, the tortoises don’t do a lot – as the dew glistens on their massive shells, they graze leisurely on leafy vines – but the mere fact of being in their presence is enough to impress us.
Wonder #3: Lions of the sea
Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Yet the more often we see Galapagos sea lions – and we see them every day – the more adorable they are. We see them lolling on jetties, curled up on rocks, stretched out by the dozen on the sandy beaches. We see young pups nursing, teenagers frolicking in the surf, and large bulls guarding their territory. My favourite encounters, however, take place in the water.
Snorkelling is our favourite afternoon activity. Given that we’re on the equator, I’m surprised by how chilly the water is, but there are plenty of wetsuits on board. Every time we plunge into the water, we see something different. Sometimes a group of penguins will porpoise past, plump bodies moving surprisingly fast. In one cove, we are surrounded by dozens of large green turtles, moving dreamily through an eerie green underwater light. Once we are even inspected by a pair of large hammerhead sharks, which rise up from the depths to scrutinise the intruders before sinking down again.
None of these animals are as entertaining as the sea lions. It’s not just the ease with which they move through the water: spiralling, pirouetting, turning and twirling effortlessly. It’s the fact that they want to play. As we snorkel along the water’s surface, cheeky sea lions skim under us, flippers mere millimetres from our abdomens, plunging down spectacularly to the ocean depths, before heading back up and giving us an expectant look, as if to say, “So what can you do?” The answer, sadly, is “Nothing much”.
Wonder #4: Lunar landscapes
There are two types of island in the Galapagos. The first has sandy beaches, minimal vegetation, and plenty of wildlife. The second has rocky cliffs, minimal vegetation, and plenty of wildlife. Both types are actually the tips of underwater volcanoes – but it isn’t until we reach Bartolome island that we get a sense for what this actually means.
Unlike its neighbours, Bartolome is recognisably volcanic: not just because it slopes steeply up to a point, but also because it still bears the scars of its last eruption. Its bare slopes are reminiscent of a lunar landscape – a potent reminder of the powerful forces that formed these islands. Incidentally, its high peak gives Bartolome one of the best views in the archipelago, across the bay and over the beautiful Pinnacle Rock.
Wonder #5: Flaming flamingos
There’s nothing like the delight of the unexpected, which is what we encounter on Bartolome’s shoreline. In one of the saline lagoons that fringe the sandy beach, we see one elegant flamingo stalking through the water. Soon it’s joined by a couple of compatriots, all skinny legs and curving beaks. What are flamingos doing in the Galapagos? Like many of the animals and plants on the islands, the first flamingoes washed up here after being driven off course by storms at sea.
Wonder #6: The island of the birds
I do not twitch. Although I love flamingoes and penguins, I’ve never been a birdwatcher. So when our guide Rafael tells us that we’re going to visit Genovesa, his favourite island, home to millions of birds, my excitement level is fairly low.
That’s until I set foot on the island. There are birds everywhere you look – perched on branches in trees, soaring above our heads, even nesting in the middle of the paths.
I’m enchanted by the elegant black frigate birds, which are in the middle of their mating season. The males are doing their best to attract the females by inflating their red gullets to ridiculous proportions. The boobies, by contrast, are further along in their breeding cycle. Some have fluffy white chicks waddling along beside them; others are nesting on their eggs. Boobies don’t seem to take parenthood very seriously: as I stand next to one booby, it ignores me entirely, and rolls its egg around as if it were a plaything, not a potential offspring.
Wonder #7: The forest of giant flowers
Of all the islands on our itinerary, the one that interests me the least is Santa Cruz. It’s the big smoke, home to countless Internet cafes, shopfronts selling booby t-shirts, and the Charles Darwin Research Institute, home of the islands’ conservation program.
However, Santa Cruz has another side: its verdant highlands, where wooded peaks stretch up above 800 metres. Rafael takes us to the island’s leafy interior to walk through kilometre-long lava tubes, another volcanic relic. Even more startling, however, is a forest of tall trees with tiny flowers which, Rafael informs us, are scalesia – giant members of the sunflower family. A forest of giant sunflowers: now that really is a wonder.