The monster turned around, its claws scraping on the black rock. It raised its head. I raised my camera. I stared through the viewfinder at its impassive face; lips like thin black inner tubes; head a crown of thorn-like spikes; scaly skin like rusty armour. I was face to lens with a creature midway between a dragon and one of those rubber monsters out of a B-grade sci-fi movie. Then, very slowly and deliberately, the monster sneezed at me, a perfectly aimed trajectory of salty water that splattered on the lens and left a crusty residue. "If you didn't like having your picture taken, really, you only had to say."
The lumbering marine iguana (which can grow up to five feet/1.5 metres long) is one of the many weird inhabitants of the even weirder Galapagos Islands. You don't go to Galapagos to laze on a beach. You go to see animals and birds you can't see anywhere else on earth.
These islands are an anachronism, a land that time forgot. Cut off from the coast of Ecuador by over 600 miles (1,000 kilometres) of deep, dark water - a current which comes straight from Antarctica - they hug the hot waist of the Ecuador and are home to cold loving creatures like sea lions and penguins. Far off the traditional maritime routes the islands have been the stuff of sailors' folklore for centuries. Except that in this case, the tall tales of strange, flightless birds, fire-spitting volcanos, bubbling black rocks, seaweed-eating dragons and tortoises big enough to carry men on their backs, all turn out to be true.
When Charles Darwin and the crew of The Beagle first saw the Galapagos Islands in 1835 the captain described them as 'the infernal regions'. Certainly the twisted black volcanic rocks and highlands hidden in mist come as a shock to anyone who expects your typical tropical island.
And this tiny archipelago of volcanic islands inspired the theory of evolution which changed the world.
At the end of a one-week trip Darwin had catalogue so many new species his notebooks were almost full. What caught his attention was the fact that each island was home to its own custom-made creatures, adapted specifically to life in that one spot. The evidence he found on Galapagos was the foundation of his arguments for a theory of evolution in his book,
Origins of Species. Going on for 200 years after his visit the islands are still a wildlife paradise. Protected by their isolation they are home to unique species; the seaweed-eating marine iguanas, the flightless cormorant, several different breeds of giant tortoise. The list goes on - and on.
The one newly invading species,
Homo Touristicas, is strictly controlled. Cruise boats, all of which have to have permits, are only allowed on certain islands and then, only at certain times. No one is allowed ashore without a qualified naturalist guide. And once ashore you have to stick to set paths so that the eco-structure is not spoilt too much. On board the ship I was handed a pouch to wear around my neck, my own personal trash bag, so I didn't drop litter on the islands. And a daunting list of rules; NO feeding, NO shouting, NO touching, NO getting too close to the animals. Admirable regulations.
However, somebody forgot to tell the seal lions.
...the frigate birds with their BIZARRE inflatable chests, puffed out like PARTY BALLOONS
As we dived into the water to look at the fish, they dive-bombed us. Like sleek-furred, jet-propelled missiles they raced between our legs. If that failed to attract attention they tugged at our flippers with their teeth or shoved their whiskery noses up against our snorkel masks as we goggled out at them - as inept in the water as they were elegant.
It would be a mistake, however, to think of these as 'tame' animals. These aren't performing sea lions. If they are playful it is because they want to be, not because it is the only way to get fish thrown at them. Anyone rash enough to get within fish-throwing distance of a bull sea lion protecting its territory would soon learn that these animals are wild.
On Fernandina Island the trombone-bellow of an attacking male stopped us in our tracks. The fight was serious stuff. Two huge males - heavyweight champions both - slapped all their bulk against each other and sunk their teeth deep into each others neck until blood smeared their coats. Afterwards, the victor lay in the shallow water like a stranded submarine attended by adoring cows that licked his wounds. The loser slunk off to pick a fight with a flyweight further down the beach, which he obviously thought he had more chance of beating.
Fernandina was one of my favourite stops. Not only because of the sea lions but because it was home to those strange marine iguanas, Darwin's 'Black imps'. The only iguana's in the world which swim. As the rubber pangas (dinghies) sped away towards the island the cruise ship behind us was a white ghost lost in a layer of mist which hung low over the water. Only its radio mast was still visible. The island in front of us was a black shadow.
As soon as we stepped ashore the iguanas came slithering towards us. Strange creatures from another age. Motionless, they were almost invisible, as if they were carved out of the rock. They lay on top of each other on the lava. It was almost impossible not to tread on their tails. When I found myself alone with a pack of them, their movements were somehow unsettling, macabre, like the folding of bat's wings.
My other favourite stop was the bird-infested Tower Island. At every step there were masked boobie birds with black stripes across their eyes, red-footed boobies looking like painted clowns and gripping the trees with their ungainly crimson feet. And best of all, the frigate birds with their bizarre inflatable chests, puffed out like red party balloons to attract the females in breeding season. So many of them nestled in the green bushes that from a distance they looked like berries.
Each island holds its own special secrets. On Isabela, you'll find the giant tortoises, on Hood, the massive waved albatrosses nest and dance towards each other in bobbing, flapping courtship rituals. Behind the rocky red sand beach of Jervis Island are pink flamingos. Beneath the waves that skirt Bartholemne Island are giant rays some 13 feet (four metres) across.
Unfortunately, I was headed to Baltra Island, where strange metal birds land and disgorge passengers at the tiny airport. My visit had come to an end.
Luxury Cruise ships
'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin (J.M. Dent), 'The Voyage of The Beagle' by Charles Darwin (J.M. Dent) and 'Darwin and the Beagle'
by Alan Moorehouse (Hamish Hamilton) will all give you an insight into Darwin's contact with the Galapagos.
Words & photos: Hilary Doling 5/3/10