Monday 14 September 2015

Galapagos Expectations

Land was a welcome sight after 11 days at sea, beating into the wind for the majority of the passage from the Panamanian Las Perlas Islands, turning the 700 mile rhumb line into a distance covered of over 1,000 miles. We passed some small uninhabited islands, little more than stacks, before arriving at the alarmingly named Wreck Bay on San Cristobal Island, the second most populated in the archipelago. And so began the unravelling of most of the preconceived ideas I had about the Galapagos.

I suspect my exposure to information (or lack of) surrounding the islands prior to arrival is fairly typical, hearing about them as a young lad from some elderly relative who hadn’t actually been there, but described as a magical far away land of unique flora and fauna shrouded in mystery. The next dollop of information came via biology class aged around 11. This was when the names Darwin and Beagle were thrown in, as well as the terms ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘origin of the species’. Still no one I knew had been there, which was a major factor in ramping up the mysticism in my mind.

Generally when you arrive somewhere by boat it is a passport for greater access, and thus understanding of a place. You can reach locations that planes and cars can’t, and in my experience the local people tend to be more hospitable to those having arrived by sea, perhaps as a result of an appreciation for the more historic method of travel and the greater effort involved in getting there (unless you arrive in a superyacht with a helicopter on the aft deck, as recently witnessed on the small island of Hiva Oa, in which case most locals tend to scoff ‘wanker’, or some such colloquialism).

I recently read a book by the legendary French yachtsman Bernard Moitessier, who arrived in the near deserted Galapagos in the late 1960s, going from island to island as he pleased, harpooning turtles as he went. All I can say is those days are long gone. The islands have become increasingly protected, as they should be, but the bureaucracy surrounding the tourist industry has become bloated.

Shortly after arrival our boat ‘inspection’ was scheduled. This involved being boarded by no fewer than 8 people, though it was impossible to guess exactly what each of their roles were. A few questions were asked, a few forms were filled in, smiles and handshakes and then they all left as quickly as they had arrived. What a farcical arrangement. Our permit, which was the most extensive available to visiting yachts, allowed us to visit only three islands, and on those three islands we were only allowed to anchor in the principal harbour/bay. So, unusually our movements were far more restricted than the commercial tour boats plying the coast.

That said the few day tours I signed up for were spectacular. A dive boat out to Kicker Rock, a magnificent isolated island, was the highlight. Above the water line there were hundreds of breeding sea birds, including the poster bird of the Galapagos, the blue footed booby. Below the water line was a stunning cliff wall descending into the abyss below. All sorts of sea life had taken up residence in the pock-marked lava, including pencil spined sea urchins and chocolate chip star fish. Prehistoric looking green turtles went dreamily by, sea lions were darting back and forth and in between was a huge variety of tropical fish. Continuing deeper I saw black-tipped sharks which were of a modest 1.5 metres in length, but the highlight was seeing the much bigger hammerhead sharks (5 metres) patrolling the shadowy depths.   

The other thing that surprised me was just how large the two main towns we visited were. There has been a significant population increase in the more populated islands in recent years, predominantly from the Ecuadorian mainland. Very few people you speak to were actually born in the Galapagos, and this unsurprisingly appears to have led to a slightly incoherent sense of community and common culture. The streets were shabby and seemed unloved. What the community does have in common though, along with the Ecuadorian Government, is the desire to earn the tourist dollar (it cost US$3 to send a postcard to the UK).   
There is no doubt there is some spectacularly unique wildlife – notably penguins on the equator and the prehistoric looking marine iguana. The landscape is extremely volcanic and largely arid. The history of the islands is littered with attempts of na├»ve early European settlers trying to tame the harsh environment, with the result generally being them returning to their homeland within a few years or dying wretchedly. There was good reason for the islands being used as a penal colony.

In reality I only saw a small fraction of the islands as so much is off limits without the relevant permit/tour operator. I suspect with a decent 10 day tour package on the right boat the experience would be more rewarding in many ways. But one can’t help feeling that were it not for Darwin (who only spent a matter of weeks among the archipelago) the Galapagos would not be the tourist sensation that they have evolved into today. 

Classic Galapagos vista: lava, clear water and birds in flight

Lava tunnels on Isabella, make for great snorkeling
The iconic blue footy booby

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