Charles Darwin must have been a regular at whatever passed for a bar on the HMS Beagle. During the ship’s five-week stop at the Galapagos, the scientific superstar-to-be got his kicks from riding the trunk-size tortoises that give the islands their name — galapago is Spanish for “saddle.” Despite the creatures’ saddle shape, Darwin complained of often falling off. Maybe they mixed gin-tonics stronger back then.
Darwin also used to enjoy slinging lizards (or, more precisely, marine iguanas) during those high-spirited weeks of September 1835. “I threw one several times as far as I could, into a deep pool left by the retiring tide,” the eminent Victorian noted. “And as often as I threw it, it returned.” He wasn’t impressed by this “singular piece of apparent stupidity.”
In between such hilarity, Darwin put in enough fieldwork to substantiate his developing evolutionary theories. His conclusions, published in 1859’s “The Origin of Species,” made the Galapagos famous.
More than 70,000 visitors annually flock to the Galapagos, which belong to Ecuador. Strict controls govern access to the 97 percent of the land area designated as a national park (small settlements and facilities such as Baltra Airport comprise the remaining 3 percent), and tourist numbers are at their responsible limit.
So why has the municipality of Quito, Ecuador’s capital, invited journalists from all corners of the globe to extol the already oversubscribed joys of the islands?
“Because we don’t want more tourists, just better ones,” says the debonair director of Quito Turismo, Pablo Burbano de Lara, as we sip fine Chilean wine in his elegant office in the city’s Old Town. “Ones who spend more.”
To get a taste of the experience awaiting those “who spend more” we are being dispatched to a luxury cruise ship for five days. I pack some sensible shoes, flip-flops and a cocktail dress.
I leave behind, though, my journalist’s skepticism. This may be a press junket, but I’ve dreamed of the Galapagos since I was a child.
Childhood memories stir in another of our party, Herr. S., as we board our ship, the M/V Galapagos Legend. “I’ve been here before,” he says, looking hawkishly round. “Forty years ago. She was a ferry.”
Incredibly, Herr. S. is right. (He always is. When I challenge his interpretation of evolution over breakfast one day, he sulks, and at lunch I am punished by being given a string of logic puzzles, all of which I fail to solve.)
The Legend, built in Hamburg in 1963, was once the M/S Baltic Star, the flagship of a fleet of ferries plying the North Sea. During the Vietnam War, the German government sent her to Da Nang, where she served as a hospital ship from 1966 to 1971. Two years ago she was acquired by Klein Tours, who fitted her out as the floating five-star experience she is today.
The poolside bar is where the journos gather for drinks before lunch, after lunch, and before and after dinner. Sometimes we dance under the stars to Frank Sinatra; sometimes our naturalist guide, Jose, gets us up to salsa. This we do badly, for we are mostly European and all make our living sitting on our backsides before computer screens.
One evening our group is invited to join the captain at his table, where we are plied with wine and regaled with tales of his two decades sailing banana boats around the world.
After dinner it’s up to the ship’s bridge, which is in darkness, illuminated only by the orange, clockwise whir of the sonar. (“You can’t see the horizon otherwise,” the captain points out.) I twirl a dial and instantly pinpricks of light spring up around our location marker. I’ve just tuned in to every bird, dolphin and giant manta in the vicinity. The sea looks empty, the sky is blacker than I’ve ever seen it, and we’re 1,000 km from the nearest landmass — but we are not alone.
The creatures of the Galapagos are abundant and they remain as approachable as they were in Darwin’s day.
Settlers on the islands were captivated by the tameness of the iguanas. Margret Wittmer, a German hausfrau who emigrated to Floreana Island in 1932 and died there in 2000, wrote in her memoirs of an iguana that “grew up as part of the family.” Settlers on a neighboring island “had a whole house-trained colony of iguanas who would swarm into the dining room at a whistle.”
We’ve been warned, though, that feeding iguanas is every bit as inconsiderate as chucking them about for fun. The etiquette briefing comes before the first day’s landing, on the slippery lava of Punta Espinoza on Fernandina Island. Just as well, because there’s a reception committee waiting for us — dozens of the reptiles, basking under the hot equatorial sun.
Instantly, a barrage of cameras go off (no flash, thank you). We are all secretly convinced that the minute the iguanas get wind of us, they’ll take off. They don’t. Three hours later, when we loop back to the landing stage, they’re still there.
Two male iguanas begin fighting in front of us. They adopt a constipated posture, mouths lolling open and heads weakly bobbing — it’s like watching a spat between the senile. The combatants, though, are mercifully oblivious to the circle of human onlookers splitting their sides at the sight.
Such fearlessness characterizes all Galapagos fauna. On subsequent shore trips we’ll stand just centimeters from a Galapagos hawk and stumble over giant tortoises. Blue-footed boobies ignore our puttering dinghies; dolphins leap and frolic alongside the Legend’s prow.
Snorkeling that first day, I float for what seems like an eternity above a colossal green turtle as it browses marine algae a meter down. It’s just myself, the turtle and the handsome Spanish correspondent, Snr. P., when a brown torpedo rockets up from the depths. Then another.
The two sea lions jump and splash, I turn somersaults. They dive, I dive. And when I come back up for air they come with me. I’ve half lost my mind and doubtless look ridiculous to the rest of our party in the dinghy, but who cares? I twist and dive again, flippers brush against me and as I surface I hear a honking noise that could be the sea lions or could be the sound of my own helpless laughter.
When exhausted I clutch the ladder on the side of the dinghy. I am hauled aboard and lie weakly on the seat, giggling, while Snr. P. clambers in. A poetic soul, he is enraptured, talking rapidly in his absurdly attractive accent.
In some lucid corner of my brain I recall British writer Sara Wheeler’s account of her visit to a penguin colony in Antarctica. “I knelt on the ice next to the tall penguin, close enough to watch the nictitating membranes close across his eyelids like camera shutters,” Wheeler wrote, “and I saw how it could have been, between human beings and animals.”
Now I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it, too.
And this is the irony of sending journalists to paradise. Even the best-planned press trip couldn’t lay on such moments of magic as a hesitant tortoise courtship glimpsed in the highlands of Santa Cruz; an immensity of stars in a sky splashed with the Milky Way; and the permanent smiles of the land iguanas. (Iguanas have two penises, which may account for the grin. When I tell Herr. S. this fact, he, too, beams for hours.)
Everything I write is true.
On our final morning we are put ashore on Bachas Beach, Santa Cruz, a hem of golden sand that peeps from the black skirts of lava swathing the island. Our companions slap on suncream and inspect the turtle tracks that lead up to a nesting site, but Snr. P. and I head off along the beach.
“These people! Such prudes!” he cries, throwing off his clothes and then — dios mio! — his swimming trunks. Naked save for a snorkel, he plunges into the sea. I am vastly impressed and quickly follow, tossing my swimsuit onto a rock. Snr P. swims over. “You look,” he says approvingly, “like a siren.”
This is not strictly accurate, but . . . I feel like a siren! I whoop. We dive and search for turtles. The greenish water is warm against our skin and the current tugs my hair.
“In Galapagos, a strange thing happens to me,” author Johanna Angermeyer records her father, who settled on Santa Cruz in the 1930s, saying to her mother. “I feel like — like I could never grow old.”
The minute I get back to Quito, I go to the hotel business center and dash off an e-mail to Paulina Romero, the administrator of the volunteer program at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz. “I am a writer and journalist and I speak four languages,” I write. “I am keen to volunteer my services for a year in any capacity you might find useful.”
A reply is waiting in my inbox upon my return home. It seems the finer points of English prose are not much in demand upon the Galapagos.
“At the moment we are searching for a writer,” reads the message, “but having Spanish as your mother tongue is a requirement. Send in your application and it will be entered in our database.”
The very next day I buy myself a “Teach Yourself Spanish” book. “Buenos dias,” I repeat carefully. “Habla usted Ingles?“
“Por donde se ve a los Galapagos?”