The Galapagos Islands: Beauty and the beasts

Sunday Times
Published: 20th April 2003

A huge land iguana, rusty skin like chain mail, stands under a prickly pear cactus with what looks like a broad smile as he waits all day on the off chance that a fruit will drop; he peers at me across the gulf between the species. A little way away is another iguana, under another prickly pear cactus, and another, and another. Some of the cacti are 200 to 300 years old. There is no sense of rush here in the Galapagos Islands. The giant tortoises on Santa Cruz are up to 150 years old.

The landscape of James Island is a mass of black lava, and the hundreds of black iguanas seem almost carved out of it. A few feet away, a grey lava heron gazes solemnly out to sea. Scarlet crabs, flashes of fire, scuttle sideways over the blackness, en pointe, like ballerinas. Just nearby, a glossy young sea lion twirls and twirls in the water, playing in the current, as if nothing in the world could be better than being him, here, at this moment.

We watch from a couple of feet away as a swallow-tailed gull gently feeds its fluffy grey chick, who is about three weeks old, and witness her regurgitate a silvery fish. The greedy infant swallows it whole, then looks distinctly ill, staggering around and looking up pleadingly at the mother. Everywhere there are intimate scenes: a sea lion with his young sister, ignoring her, then giving her a kiss; frigate birds mating; turtles mating; solicitous mothers. A baby blue-footed booby comes up to me, fluffy and curious on its floppy, foot-like flippers. The feet of the boobies are so blue it looks as though they’ve walked through paint, and are faintly embarrassed about it.

Again and again we witness these scenes as if we’re invisible, and all the time the air is full of noises, the oooo bark of the sea lion, the cry of the blue-footed boobies, the sucking sound of a baby sea lion feeding.

A young frigate bird sits patiently on a branch, as it has done for a whole year, waiting until it grows up a little more and the hot season subsides, when it will try to fly for the first time.

In this gentler world, a few bodies of birds lie around untouched by decay or predators, with their glorious wings spread out as if they’ve only just lain down to rest, as if even death doesn’t exist here. Apparently they could have been like that for months because there are so few insects. It is perhaps the strangest feature of this strange place, the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve made their fatal mistake.

There were 10 guests on our seven-day cruise round the Galapagos Islands, led by our excellent naturalist guide, Fausto Arellano, who was hailed by other guides with the greeting maestro. Our boat was called The Beagle, a schooner with six double cabins and one single, run by a Brit, Georgina Cruz, and her husband, Augusto.

Their previous boat, again named The Beagle, was a little tired, so they upgraded to this steel-hulled and teak-fitted 105ft schooner. The guests on our trip, who were all British, were wary of each other at first, but within a couple of days we had become like animals on the Galapagos, rather tame and unfearful and amiable as sea lions, affected by the almost spiritual calm of the islands.

Some of the other cruising boats were much larger — with 80 passengers or more — with more spacious cabins and larger public areas, better for those who get seasick. However, our group became very dismissive of the “ghastly gin palaces” (the male guests were all ex services) and fond of our pretty vessel, especially when her sails were up as she sped through the night, over the equator; or as we sat up late in the warm, still air, watching the full moon, seeing the occasional head of a sea lion bob above the surface.

It was easy to be caught up in the hedonism of these innocent islands, spending hours snorkelling with sea lions and penguins and sea turtles, and leaping off the side to splash into the clear warm water. But a visit here can be not only a pause for relaxation but a voyage of discovery, an opportunity to try to understand Darwin’s thinking in the early years of his life.

Darwin famously visited the Galapagos in 1835 during his five-year voyage on HMS Beagle. His position as naturalist on this trip had a deep and lasting influence on the way he envisioned nature and on his explanation of evolution 20 years later in The Origin of Species. Again and again there are references to the Galapagos and his experiences there. For him, as for anyone who visits these islands, the experience was unforgettable and cut deep into the imagination.

Reading Darwin’s account of the archipelago in Voyage of the Beagle unwittingly displays the ruthlessness of mankind. He gives a matter-of-fact account of slitting open iguanas: “I opened the stomach of several, and in each case found it largely distended with minced sea-weed.” He continues: “It is easy to drive these lizards down to any point overhanging the sea, where they will sooner allow a person to catch hold of their tail than jump into the water.

They do not have any notion of biting, but when much frightened, they squirt a drop of fluid from each nostril.” That’s about as fierce as you get with the animals of the Galapagos.

Humanity continues to damage the land and sea, as more people come to live on the islands — though the Ecuadorian government wisely limits the numbers of tourists, and restricts them to certain areas. The British, curiously, are a small percentage, though these delicate islands with their sheltered coves, deserted beaches and clear water make the Caribbean and the Bahamas look crass and vulgar.

March, the time of my visit, was a good month because it was spring. Boy, was it spring. There was a frenzy of sexual activity in the air. It was memorable to watch two giant tortoises have sex in Santa Cruz, with the male’s head rearing right up outside its vast shell while the female kept her head hunched down as if uncertain about the experience.

There was nothing uncertain about the female frigate birds, as the males puffed up their red pouches like balloons and spread out their vast wings to prove just how magnificent they were. If the birds weren’t mating, they were eagerly carrying twigs and leaves to their nests, and as we walked through one of the colonies, low-flying boobies kept nearly crashing into us as they transported their nesting material. This wasn’t the calm we had become used to, but an alert busyness that was just as startling.

Each day, breakfast would be at about 6.30am, with mango, orange and pineapple, then a cooked breakfast and fresh, hot bread prepared by Tricky, one of the five crew. The food was good, but not for gourmets. At 7.30am there was a trip by dinghy onto one of the islands.

It is important to be reasonably fit to make the most of the Galapagos. Indeed, on top of a cliff we came across an extremely large American recently recovered from surgery, unable to continue. Better to visit the islands before the quadruple bypass is needed, otherwise, as the major among us briskly observed: “It’s a waste of money. And a waste of a quadruple bypass.” Often the Galapagos is a trip for those who have been everywhere else. But it’s a good idea not to make it the last place you go.

The voyage was carefully orchestrated so that we saw different animals and birds each day in different breathtaking landscapes, from the ghostly to the apocalyptic to the benign. The visits lasted about two hours, and each was accompanied by a naturalist guide. They were intelligent and informative, with descriptions of the hollow bones of birds, the differing shells of the tortoises on various islands, the air sacs in the breasts of diving birds that cushion them when they dart down into the sea, and of the iguanas who lay their eggs in the volcano.

Afterwards, as the day heated up, guests lolled about, swam or snorkelled in the turquoise waters, or took the boat to a deserted beach. Lunch was at about 12.30pm, and later in the day there was another visit and more swimming and a relaxed dinner before being told the programme for the next day.

I will never forget the first sight of the rippling black lava covered with the iguanas, stately dragons from another time, their grand gauntlets with fine talons touching the lava, while nearby the sea lion rolled over and over, a black boulder, slick and glistening from the water. On another memorable afternoon there was swimming in some cooler currents, with penguins and mating turtles, and then, at four o’clock, a snack of hot chocolate and ginger nuts.

On the last morning we took a dinghy out to the mangroves. Paddle dipping, we glided through the still water in the grey light. The mirror-like surface was broken every now and again by the head of a turtle. It was this tranquillity that ended an extraordinary trip to these islands without fear.

Need to Know

Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of Worldwide Journeys and Expeditions.

Tour operators: Worldwide Journeys and Expeditions (0207 386 4646, has nine-night packages from £2,575pp including a seven-night, full-board cruise on The Beagle, two nights in Quito, all flights and transfers.

Tribes Travel (01728 685971,, the 2002 overall winner of the British Airways’ Tourism for Tomorrow responsible tourism award, has 17-day tours for £2,520pp including a seven-night, full-board cruise and five days’ hiking in the Amazon rainforest, but excluding international flights, which cost about £650.

Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315, has a good range of cruises. Its budget option is a motor cruiser, but it warns that these vessels are the seaborne equivalent of hostelling. They cost £1,050pp, full-board, for seven nights including flights from Quito but not international flights. Other operators include Exodus 020 8675 5550, and Last Frontiers (01296 653000,

When to go: January to June for warm weather (and water), and to witness the birds in their breeding season; or from May to December for the chance to spot albatross.

Further information: the Galapagos Conservation Trust (020 7629 5049, is the UK fundraising charity for the islands.