As a boy, living on the flat prairie, far from waves and whales and cannonfire, I found novels of maritime derring-do an unattainable dream. The words of Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville and Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander came to me from another world. I was sure I’d never see a breadth of endless water or feel the fright as a ship below me pitched in a storm. Like so many boyhood fantasies, it was a dream to be kept, not had.
But life is anything but predictable. I thought of those authors, and that boy, as I stood on the bow of Hurtigruten’s MS Santa Cruz II, off the Galapagan island of Baltra. A week’s sailing the western isles of Galapagos was before me, and the Age of Discovery felt not historical, but personal. Already in the few hours since my arrival, there had been sea turtles, iguanas, sea lions and crimson Sally Lightfoot crabs. On the horizon, the islets of Genovesa, Marchena and Pinta broke the line of polished sea like brown moles.
And I wasn’t the only dreamer aboard: Fellow traveller Chris Jones from North Wales, had dreamed of the Galapagos since watching David Attenborough in Travellers’ Tales some 60 years before. “It’s the proximity I love,” he said, breathlessly. “You get so close to everything here. Close to the way the world used to be.”
Closeness is easy in the Galapagos. Even when being gawked at by tourists, the animals maintain their innocence. As our guide Daniel Moreano explained, we are to them “just another creature of life.”
We are, of course, kinder now than the original visitors. Whereas Moreano ensured we maintained our distance from all living creatures, these animals were once measured by their capacity to be bludgeoned: English buccaneer William Dampier, who visited Galapagos in 1684, wrote in A New Voyage Round the World that iguanas “are so tame that a man may knock down 20 in an hour’s time with a club.” Seven dozen doves, by comparison, he wrote, could be killed over a morning’s walk.
In Jones, I also had a fellow bird watcher, and in the mornings, we stood on the ship’s deck spotting frigatebirds, blue-footed boobies and brown pelicans. Looking down, it was sharks – hammerhead, whitetip reef and Galapagos – which by night swarmed the ship in the dozens chasing flying fish.
The Santa Cruz II offered plenty of food and wine, and creature comforts like hot showers and a library. Each night after supper, the anchor would clank up, and the deep-purple sound of the engine would rise through the hull. We moved through the night, rocking on the waves, and, in the morning, the sun burned through a haze of humidity to reveal a new island full of new critters.
The islands were austere, covered in places with dried lava-like molten rope, in others piled with holey pumice rock, and elsewhere dotted with brackish lagoons. There were cactuses as tall as trees, and trees as thorny as cactuses. And animals – inimitable birds peeling out from the yellow cliff face, the smooth back of a sea lion breaking the black skin of water, giant tortoises like steel combat helmets scattered across the green field. On Santa Cruz Island, a single flamingo waded in a patch of salty water. Against the grey, ochre and green of the island, the bright pink bird looked like a mistake, the slip of a painter’s brush.
Surprising to me, the Galapagos have a significant population – some 25,000 people live on the islands, with nearly half in the capital. Having so many people so close to a sensitive ecosystem requires a strong hand. Across the archipelago, visitations are strictly regulated. The Charles Darwin Research Station advises on ecological matters, while the Parque Nacional Galapagos enacts conservation programs and rigorously monitors tourism. The guides are nearly all Galapageno, and stand by their commitment to protect the fine balance of their home.
“Privileged” was a word our guide used often, referring not only to us travellers but to himself, too. So was “lucky,” and “rare.” And “sexy” – a polished reference to the archipelago-wide mating season we were dropping in on. Land birds and iguanas were nesting ashore, and the sea turtles made for the beaches, to bury their eggs in sand as soft as muscovado sugar.
Midway through the cruise, February 12th, was Darwin’s birthday, and the anniversary of Ecuador’s annexation of the Galapagos archipelago. Darwin spent five weeks in the archipelago aboard the Beagle in 1835.
We spent that day walking on Floreana Island, on paths cut between low, twisting trees that covered the ground like a net. In the 19th century, whaling ships used Floreana as a post office: letters stored in a wood barrel were collected by passing ships and taken home for delivery. The practice continues, and still no stamps are used. We sorted through a sizable stack of cards and letters with addresses as varied as Kenya, Taiwan, Spain and South Carolina.
Those stampless postcards were proof of the global reach of these small islands, and the belief in goodness they engender. Unsurprisingly, most were scrawled with the same four words: “Wish you were here.”
- Hurtigruten’s Galapagos Expedition cruises start from $8,300. For more information, visit hurtigruten.com.
The writer travelled as a guest of Hurtigruten Expeditions. It did not review or approve the story before publication.
Keep up to date with the weekly Sightseer newsletter. Sign up today.