Following in Darwin’s footsteps in the Galapágos

"Sea lions literally everywhere, you’ve to be careful not to step on them, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, sea turtles.”

Following in Darwin’s footsteps in the Galapágos

Damien Enright

"Sea lions literally everywhere, you’ve to be careful not to step on them, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, sea turtles.”

This is the first sentence of an email from the Galapágos Islands sent by my son Fintan, who had landed there just an hour before. Last week, he and Stephanie, his wife, flew in from Quito in Ecuador to San Cristobal, one of the 18 Pacific islands that span the equator 900km off South America.

A giant tortoise, one of the emblematic creatures of the Galapágos Islands, on San t Cristobal. Darwin found that they had evolved differently by natural selection from island to island.

A giant tortoise, one of the emblematic creatures of the Galapágos Islands, on San t Cristobal. Darwin found that they had evolved differently by natural selection from island to island.

I’ve asked him to send me first-hand state-of-the-islands info during their week’s stay. They won’t be doing what most visitors do:

90% of those coming to islands are here to get straight onto a live-aboard cruise boat. Costs range from $2,500 to $10,000 [€2,200 to €8,750] for five-10 days: I reckon the average spend is about $5,000 per head

"Boats take 10 to 20 people on a cruise around the islands that can’t normally be reached and there are naturalists and guides on each boat. These Galapágos visitors include lots of middle-aged, serious nature watchers, but also backpackers and location-collectors"

I guess the backpackers must be gold-plated and the location-collectors (the “I’ve-been-there, done-that” travellers) must have more money than sense. For me, and I imagine for most of the readers of the Examiner Outdoor Page, the flora and fauna would be the main item, not just the emblematic location. However, just to be so remote from everywhere and to be in such a legendary place must also have a singular reward.

In their seven-day sojourn they will be able to island-hop beyond Cristobal via ferries at about for $35 per hop.

So, they’ll get around. It was already expensive to reach the islands.

“The cheapest return flight we could find from Quito was $240, and that was after much searching. To leave Quito airport you had to pay an extra $20 [everything in Ecuador is dollars] ‘Immigration to Galapágos Fee’.

“Your bags are checked for any seed, food and even for plastic bags and containers, as they are aiming for a plastic free environment [in practice, there are plastic bottles in all the shops here]. On arrival you pay another fee of $100 [cash only] to get out of the airport. This was quite a shock to us and our budget. We had to head off to an ATM, leaving our passports as deposit at immigration. At least the fee goes to the National Park and to local development.

Already, inside the actual airport, there were brightly coloured finches hopping about. As you walk onto the main seafront, the first thing you notice are sealions everywhere lounging on benches, under trees, in the shade of waterfront restaurants

“There are small pups, maybe 20in long, huge fat mothers of 5ft or 6ft, and then, further out in the rockpools and along the water’s edge, the big males, 8ft or 9ft in length. We walked along to a local beach where we saw the aftermath of a birth, the mother helping the tiny cub, no more than 12in long, to suckle, while the placenta attracted a flock of maybe two dozen frigate birds which eventually built up the gall to swoop down and grab it.

“Next most common are the marine iguanas, also seen everywhere draped over rocks, or bellied-out along the sand. Haven’t seen them swimming yet. Salt-water giant lizards riding the surf would be a sight. Some wear moustaches of dried salt, bright on their scaly black skin.

We walked along a headland where we saw a green heron: What would our Ron have thought of him? Pelicans were fishing 20ft away and blue-footed boobies rested on a pile of guano-stained rocks.

We watched as a huge sea turtle surface several time only 10ft off the rocks. That’s all the wildlife so far, except for one hermit crab. But all of it was within the town itself and nearby outskirts!

“The town is pretty typically Ecuadorian, a bit run-down, a bit half finished. Parts remind us of La Gomera, castor oil plants in yet-to-be-developed lots, banana and mango trees overhead. We’ve found self-catering accomm. for 35 bucks a night.”

Next week, I’ll file another first-hand report on the present-day world of the remote islands on which variations in the same species of fauna on separate islands directed Charles Darwin to conceive the theory of ‘natural’ rather than ‘artificial’ selection (i.e. selection reliant on human intervention) and to write his masterwork On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection which changed our understanding of how life evolved on earth.

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