by Catherine Marshall
Here’s the birth of the Galapagos, caught on time-lapse: submerged mountains arise from the depths, their tips piercing the ocean’s surface and soaring skywards. Lava erupts from volcanic peaks and cascades across the newly-terrestrial archipelago, expanding its landmass. Insects and spores, seeds and birds fly in on the wind, marine creatures wash in on the current, mammals arrive from the mainland – 600km away – upon vegetative rafts. Their bodies transmogrify as they adapt to the dry and salty conditions of their new home. So isolated is this place, so utterly different from anywhere else on earth, they might as well be living on another planet.
It was the miracle of this kingdom that captivated Charles Darwin when the HMS Beagle anchored at San Cristobal in September 1835. Allured at the possibility of seeing an active volcano – and relieved to be inching closer to England after years at sea – Darwin couldn’t have imagined the treasures the Galapagos would deliver. So uniquely evolved were the species he encountered here during his five-week sojourn, they underpinned his ground-breaking theory of evolution.
The modern visitor has an easier time of it: a short flight from the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil transports you to the islands where a small cruise ship awaits. Though tourism has grown significantly here, the archipelago encompasses one of the world’s most strictly policed national parks; itineraries ensure that passengers are dispersed across the archipelago and close encounters with other ships are so rare (unless visiting the inhabited islands of San Cristobal and Santa Cruz) you might believe your vessel to be the only one here.
The timeline of the islands’ own evolution unfolds from west to east. Fernandina, the archipelago’s most westerly island, bubbled up from the volcanic Galapagos hotspot just 700,000 years ago. One island to the east, Isabela, the largest of the group, is another volcanic outcrop dating back to around the same time. Santa Cruz, in the centre of the Galapagos Archipelago, is around a million years old. On the western edge, San Cristobal is closer to three million years old, its lava hardened into rock. The species found on each island mimics their geographic development, each one a step further along the evolutionary ladder.
Fernandina is so secluded it feels as though it’s about to untether itself from the archipelago and slip away into the boundless ocean. Darwin, unluckily, didn’t visit this island. It’s sculpted with rivers of black lava – some of it freshly deposited; when Le Cumbre volcano erupted in 2017 and 2018, it offered fortunate visitors the spectacle Darwin had so longed for.
But the topaz waters swirling around Fernandina are more beguiling still; marine iguanas proliferate here. Paddling bizarrely with clawed feet, they glide past bemused snorkelers, dive to the rocks below and scrape algae off them with their specially adapted, squared teeth. Tummies full, they swim back to shore and, in great masses, drape their primordial bodies over the scorched rocks.
Further south, at Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela Island, the sheer cliffs are inhabited by fabled blue-footed boobies; their improbably coloured feet lend them a comical air: they appear to have stepped in a dish of blue paint. Flightless cormorants perch on lower ledges, waiting for the tide to rise so they can hop in and go for a swim.
The waters here are enriched by the upwelling of the chilly Humboldt and Cromwell currents, and marine creatures gather to feast on the bounty: turtles gliding languidly through crystalline waters; sea lions rolling and twisting in a playful jig; tiny penguins – the only ones that live on and above the equator – cooling off in the bay’s bracing waters.
Onshore Isabela lives the Galapagos’ best-known inhabitant, giant tortoises. They’re making a comeback after near-decimation during earlier centuries; capable of surviving without food and water for long periods, they were taken in their hundreds by passing sailors and stacked below deck, a ready source of fresh meat.
The story of their survival is told at the Charles Darwin Research Foundation on Santa Cruz, where a breeding program was initiated in 1965. Today, eggs are still being warmed and hatchlings gently nurtured here – a modern birth story which ignites hope for the future of this extraordinary realm.