I am up close and personal with one of the world’s rarest birds. So close that I can see its short brown feathers, packed as tight as fur, as it swims around my head, and peer directly into its absurdly turquoise eyes as it grunts in my ear.
A second flightless cormorant almost takes my snorkel as it plunges into the sea beside me, emerging with a clump of seaweed to drop at a nearby female’s feet. She acts as if he’s presented her with wilting petrol-station flowers and returns to drying out her stumpy wings in the morning sunshine.
To have a ringside seat during a courtship ritual of one of the “Galapagos Big 15” is a huge privilege, but they are not the only animals making it difficult for me to maintain the “stay two metres away from the wildlife” rule.
A pair of Galapagos sea lions tumble around my legs and rainbow-coloured parrotfish rasp at coral on the wall. A green sea turtle ambles past, followed by an otherworldly sunfish, peculiarly flat and the size of a bicycle wheel.
And above the surface, every ledge and crevice of the guano-streaked cliff-face is stuffed with Nazca boobies, their eyes set so comically close that they earned the name “bobo” – Spanish for “clown”.
I am not the first visitor drawn to the “Enchanted Islands” by their unparalleled wildlife. But by using the Big 15 chart, created by Metropolitan Touring, I can be sure of choosing the right itinerary and having the most rewarding experience.
Having evolved 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador, some Galapagos species are endemic not only to the archipelago but to only one or two of its 20 islands. And restrictions on visitor numbers to a landing site in any one day mean other itineraries can skimp on how many of the area’s most impressive species you can see.
My quest started well yesterday, when we made our very first landing, on North Seymour. The profusion of animals on this flat, red, rock-strewn island was overwhelming and I almost tripped over a Galapagos sea lion (tick) as I clambered up the rocks from the panga.
Blue-footed boobies nest here in their hundreds (tick) – so numerous and tame that I had to step around them as they rested in the middle of the path. I watched a male dancing to impress a female, hopping from one blue foot to the other and throwing his stretched-out wings up above his head like sails.
Love was in the air for the great and magnificent frigatebirds too (tick). A male magnificent puffed up his red throat pouch to attract a female, while land iguanas (tick) lay snoozing on rocks, bathed in the light of the “golden hour” before dusk.
North Seymour and Isabela are just two of the five islands I will visit during my five-night Galapagos cruise. I’m onboard Santa Cruz II, which, with 50 cabins, is the largest in Metropolitan’s fleet. Its size means greater stability, an onboard doctor and extensive facilities, including outdoor hot tubs, where it is glorious to warm up after snorkelling.
There is also a separate bar, restaurant, library and TV-room, and a modest gym. So despite her 90-passenger capacity, it is easy to find a quiet sun-lounger or sofa where I can curl up with a book. Not that there is much time to read: our schedule is packed with excursions, briefings and lectures. It’s a tiring day, but we aren’t short of fuel. Breakfast and lunch are an expansive, daily-changing buffet with dishes from ceviche and fried plantain to pasta and stir-fry.
Evenings begin with a briefing session over a pisco sour cocktail and sushi, when we choose activities for the next day (glass-bottomed boat tours are a more sedate alternative to snorkelling or kayaking), and conclude with a four-course, waiter-served dinner.
My fellow guests are from more than a dozen countries, and while many are in their 70s and 80s, plenty are younger couples and groups of friends, or even solo travellers.
The ship is comfortable, but no one has come for the “cruise” experience, and seasoned cruisers who like to spend the day in the spa or lazing by the pool might not enjoy the early starts and pace of activity. Some of Santa Cruz II’s guests have only a casual interest in ecology and biology, while others are fanatics. But we are united in having come here for one thing: the wildlife.
I am surprised by the variety of landscapes we visit. There is beauty here, but not the palm tree-fringed tropical paradise that visitors might expect. Fernandina is the youngest of the islands, with regular volcanic eruptions pouring out lava that cools either into chunks of brittle “a’a” (“hurt-hurt” in Hawaiian) or smooth “pahoehoe” (meaning ropey”).
This desolate, blackened island is one of the best on which to see marine iguanas (tick): hundreds of them piled on top of one another, their black and grey-green bodies angled to absorb maximum warmth from the sun. It’s the only lizard in the world that can swim, having evolved to eat underwater algae, but it must expel the salt it consumes. An adult iguana sprawled across the path aims a salt-sneeze perfectly at my shoe as I pass, which I am sure must be worth an extra point.
Fernandina appeared in the first episode of the new series Planet Earth II, which had the nation on the edge of their sofas as a newly hatched marine iguana sprinted to escape from a band of hungry racer snakes. I see a snake, but no fight sequence. The BBC has all the luck.
I visit Tagus Cove and Darwin Lake on Isabela almost 181 years to the day since naturalist Charles Darwin stepped foot on the island. He spent just 19 days of his five-year voyage on land in the Galapagos, yet saw and collected enough of its creatures that his time here would lead him to devise his evolutionary theory.
The islands had been “discovered” in 1535 by the Bishop of Panama, who drifted here accidentally. Despite their inhospitality, the islands became a vital outpost for pirates and then whalers, both of whom decimated its populations of giant tortoises and introduced invasive species with catastrophic effect.
By day four, I have ticked off a further four of the Big 15: the Galapagos fur seal, Galapagos hawk, and Galapagos penguin, and a passing Galapagos albatross – unexpected on this itinerary.
Day four is spent on Santa Cruz, the most densely populated of the islands, where I discover giant tortoises (tick) in the lush highlands. We also visit the Darwin Research Centre, where, since the death of Lonesome George, Super Diego has become the centre’s new hero in a half-shell: this 125-year old tortoise has fathered 1,700 children.
Our final day is on Floreana, where our guide rifles through postcards left in the mailbox at Post Office Bay to see if we can hand-deliver any other visitors’ mail when we get home – a tradition dating back to 1793. An afternoon hike brings us to a lagoon, where a flock of American flamingoes are feeding in the mud: the 13th and final tick for my list.
Of course, I see far more than 13 species of animal during my trip: there are dolphins, turtles, rays, sharks, several of Darwin’s finches – so crucial to his Origin of Species – as well as lava herons, swallow-tailed gulls, pelicans and more.
But the Big 15 list has given a shape and purpose to my visit and helped me understand the oddity and rarity of some of those I have seen.
I spend a well-earned two-night break at Finch Bay Hotel on Santa Cruz before flying home, where I contemplate the islands and species I have yet to explore: Sante Fe iguanas and red-footed boobies (the 14th and 15th on the list), woodpecker finches and Galapagos owls, to name a few.
Visiting the Galapagos Islands is a once-in-a-lifetime bucket-list trip for most of those who come here. But the proximity, profusion and sheer peculiarity of the wildlife – along with the intriguing stories of their human residents – mean there’s every chance you’ll leave with
a long list of what you must see when you come back.
Book it: Kuoni can combine the five-night Western itinerary on Santa Cruz II on full board with three nights B&B at Casa Gangotena in Quito, two nights full-board at Mashpi Lodge in the cloud forest, two nights B&B at Finch Bay Eco Hotel and one night B&B at the Hilton, Colon Guayaquil. Priced from £7472,50 per person in March 2017 based on two sharing, with KLM flights from Heathrow via Amsterdam to Quito, all domestic flights and transfers.
Tom Waite, Kuoni’s senior product executive for Latin America
What are the benefits of cruising on a larger ship in Galapagos?
Space and flexibility: with more groups, it’s easier to cater for different needs and mobility levels. Larger ships tend to have landing sites to themselves and can manage when and in which direction groups set off. On smaller boats, you are likely to be with groups from other boats and it is not so well managed.
How can customers choose between different itineraries?
Metropolitan’s Big 15 tool is a cool way to work out which species you’re most interested in. People always ask how long they should spend in Galapagos: avid ecologists should spend as long as they can, but for those who just want the experience of visiting, a shorter cruise would be fine. There is no bad time to go to Galapagos. The sea is warmer December to May, but there are wetsuits for snorkelling.
What do your recommend combining Galapagos with?
Galapagos and Peru was always our most popular combination, but increasingly people are visiting only Ecuador, perhaps spending longer in Quito and visiting Mashpi in the cloud forest, where it’s more about immersion than seeing lots of animals. I implore clients to visit Mashpi first and Galapagos last, otherwise they might be disappointed. Land-based holidays at Finch Bay, with boat trips each day, is a newer way to enjoy Galapagos.
Are people worried about Zika?
We’ve seen a decline in enquiries for Ecuador this year and we suspect it is because of Zika. Most of the people we send to South America are in their 50s and 60s, so Zika is not really a consideration. Plus, Quito, Mashpi and the Galapagos are mosquito-free – it’s only Guayaquil that might have mosquitoes. But we always suggest seeking medical advice from a professional.