The Sea Star is one of the most magnificent boats on the Galápagos seas, the metal counterpart of a blue whale, glistening in the equatorial sunshine. We’re greeted on the deck by our captain in a gleaming white uniform. Our ship has eight cabins for 16 people, a fully stocked bar in the lounge, and the two jacuzzis bracketing the spacious sun deck offer panoramic views of fluffy, pastel clouds over the horizon. My favourite corner is a mini library by the dining area on the main deck, filled with books about a young naturalist’s discoveries on these islands, including Voyage of the Beagle.
Charles Darwin was 22 years old when, in 1831, he embarked on the HMS Beagle for a two-year expedition that snowballed into an expansive five-year voyage around the globe. He sailed from England to South America and the Galápagos, before heading back home via Australia and South Africa. Darwin filled notebooks with sketches and observations about the unique wildlife he encountered through the course of his journey. Although in five weeks he visited four islands, his interest in the archipelago’s endemic wildlife is what gave birth to his theory of natural selection—that animals adapt to their surroundings in order to survive. The local giant tortoises after which the islands are named caught his attention in particular, and Darwin was fascinated by the way their shells differed slightly, islet to islet. He later also noted how the Galápagos finches’ beaks differed depending on which island they were on, and what food was available to the birds.
Perhaps I had imagined the Galápagos differently, but sailing on the cerulean waters of the Pacific Ocean, hopping on and off the boat, I realised their beauty is more subtle, more quiet. They have a unique position in our world, isolated and with an abundance of endemic fauna, including Darwin’s finches, flightless cormorants, and blue-footed boobies; the marketing advantages of the name not lost on tourist stores in San Cristóbal where “I love boobies” shirts sell like hotcakes. When we disembark on Española Island on our second day on the cruise, I see what Darwin saw. His first impressions were made by these barren black rocks. He wasn’t impressed, saying, “A broken field of black basaltic lava is everywhere covered by a stunted brushwood, which shows little signs of life.” But as we draw nearer, a tail slithers over one of the smoother rocks, and I see the colony of black marine iguanas that was previously camouflaged. They look like miniature statues of Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla. Of them, Darwin had this to say: “The rocks on the coast abounded with great black lizards, between three and four feet long; and on the hills, an ugly yellowish-brown species was equally common.” This peaceful morning, on Española’s secluded white sand beach, they laze blocking our path and show no signs of moving, so we hopscotch around them until we come face-to-face with a handful of bright orange crabs scuttering over a rock where two sea lions are lounging.
Tourists must tread carefully here. “They’ll only bite if you step on them,” warns Carlos, a young naturalist who grew up on these islands and is our affable guide. Indeed the animals here are the most fearless I’ve ever seen. The turtles hurtle into humans snorkelling in their waters, a bird may land on your head, and the sea lions comically chase people around on beaches where tourists have been warned not to let them touch you. It’s a warped world where the animals are even more fascinated by us than we are by them. Only the giant tortoises I saw on land have any semblance of how we assume animals usually act around humans. They pull their heads back into their shells if you get too close, but tourists still manage to click photos to show how massive they are—some, with their necks extended, are human-sized themselves.
Our week-long cruise allows for plenty of time in the water, much of which we spend snorkelling and kayaking. We take Zodiacs out to Devil’s Crown, the remains of an extinct volcano, and fall backwards into the choppy waters that surround the crown-shaped rock structure, named so because only a devil would wear a crown so crude, so craggy. I immediately see the shadow of reef sharks on the surface below, fish of all sizes, like splatters of paint across the murky canvas, and later on there is the rectangular shadow of a hammerhead on the ocean bed. Swimming peacefully with no nowhere to be next, I relish this rare opportunity of getting up close and personal with the island’s iridescent inhabitants.
Our journey covers the oldest islands on the eastern side of the archipelago, including Santa Fe, Floreana, San Cristóbal, Española and North Seymour. A few days into the trip, on Santa Fe, I see a yellow-hued marine iguana perched on a boulder next to a sea lion who is sleeping in the shade of a cactus. The animals are set against the backdrop of red shrubs, a clutch of green, prickly pear cacti, and an azure sky. It’s the most colour I’ve seen in these lands so far, and the lack of which even Darwin realised, so much so that he wrote how “the plants here have a wretched, weedy appearance.” I did not see one beautiful flower, he had said. Not anymore it seems. Carlos says there are now private gardens outside a few homes in San Cristóbal where residents craving some pop of colour have potted new species, including roses.
The day before, we had disembarked on Floreana island, where I had seen the first traces of the humans who once lived here. There is a “post office” on Floreana which is essentially a sturdy, old wooden barrel once used by 18th-century whalers. Sailors would leave their mail in the barrel, to be carried home by other sailors passing by. Tourists still use this stamp-less system, a system that allegedly still works. We retrieve a pack of recently written postcards; there are letters to loved ones from countries around the world. Our group of travellers is from India, Australia, England and North America and the Australians gamely pocket postcards to take back, addressed to residents in Sydney.
Although these lands are far flung, they have a long history of human inhabitation and it’s as strange and mysterious as you’d expect from isolated places. The islands were first discovered by accident in 1535 when a Panamanian bishop named Fray Tomás de Berlanga was blown off course on his way to Peru. The three centuries that followed this discovery saw the archipelago being used as a base by whalers and pirates who ate a large majority of the island’s indigenous tortoises. Almost one lakh tortoises were removed from the islands during this period and the smaller tortoises on Floreana Island were hunted in such large numbers they were thought to be extinct until recently. The larger 200 pound tortoises on the Western Islands were mostly spared because they were harder to sling over the pirate’s shoulders. Later, in the 19th century, after Ecuador had already claimed the Galápagos Islands, they were occupied by a succession of Germans.
First to arrive was Dr. Friedrich Ritter and his female companion Dore Strauch, who roamed around in the nude. Ritter had had his teeth preemptively removed because it wasn’t like he was going to find any dentist on the secluded island, and Strauch had to have hers yanked out with kitchen tools they had brought along once they started rotting. They wrote letters about their lives on Floreana, and the trusty barrel mailing system saw these letters make their way back to Berlin where a local newspaper published Ritter’s exploits, making him famous. Tales of their island life led others to follow in their footsteps, and Ritter and Strauch were soon joined by Heinz Wittmer, his pregnant wife, Margret, and Harry, Heinz’s son from his first marriage. They were later joined by a self-proclaimed baroness from Austria who arrived on the islands with two lovers. She was flashy and annoyed Ritter greatly, so when she and Lorenzo, one of her lovers, disappeared from the island, it was assumed that Ritter had something to do with it. Though the baroness’ belongings were afterwards discovered in the area the Wittmers’ lived in, so no one knows what really went down.
Although they are now heavily protected, the Galápagos are still not fully exempt from human strangeness. I hear stories of infringement, of plundering, most recent being that of a tourist who tried to smuggle out four iguanas, wrapped in clothing, in his hand baggage. Most visitors these days, though, come primarily to see these native creatures in their natural habitat and leave their home untouched, a home whose raw, grey beauty Darwin’s thoughtful eye eventually came to appreciate. “The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable,” he conceded in his later writings, “it seems to be a little world within itself; the greater number of its inhabitants, both vegetable and animal, being found nowhere else.” The islands are indeed incredible, unlike any other. While I was there I didn’t register anything amazing happening. It isn’t as dramatic as seeing a lion make a kill in the African bush, or as watching the mist part at the top of Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains. The beauty of these lands creeps up on you slowly: the tranquillity of things, the tiny, grey birds, the barren rocks, all make a lasting impression. I think they’re one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but as Darwin said, “after so very short a visit, one’s opinion is worth scarcely anything.”
Indians travelling to the Galápagos Islands will need to get a visa upon arrival in Ecuador and then pay the Galápagos National Park entrance fee of $100/`6,900 per person upon arrival at the archipelago. Flights from Delhi or Mumbai to Quito, Ecuador’s capital, usually have a layover in North America (Miami, Atlanta), and in a European hub like Amsterdam. From Quito, there are short flights to San Cristóbal and Baltra in the Galápagos. The writer travelled with Latin Trails, a South American boutique cruise company. The Sea Star cruises start at $4,649/`3.2 lakhs per person for a five-day/four-night stay.
Madhuri Chowdhury is an adventurous traveller who prefers long horseback rides across the desert, or hiking snowy peaks, to lying on the beach. She’s a freelance writer and travel editor based in London.