The Galápagos Islands, a land untouched
A Zodiac returns from the coast of Santa Cruz Island. (Dan Belmont)
“Orca, orca, orca”, our guide Celso Montalvo shouted into the radio attached to his life vest, rapidly giving directions to the five other Zodiac rafts in our group. The tranquillity of dusk became charged with excitement as we surrounded the three killer whales – a mother and father who were teaching their baby how to hunt sea turtles off the coast of Isabela, the largest island in the Galápagos, an archipelago some 1,000km off the coast of Ecuador.
At the northern tip of Isabela, the frigid waters of the deep Equatorial Counter Current rise up along the western edge of the underwater Galápagos Platform, resulting in cool sea temperatures that occasionally attract whales and dolphins to the otherwise warm, arid region.
A awe-induced hush fell over the group as the whales gracefully surfaced and dove again, sometimes less than 3m from our 12-person raft, with only the click of a camera shutter interrupting the silence. In a whisper, our guide taught us to track the orcas’ path by following the pack of birds flying just above the surface as they feasted on the debris from each orca attack. Just minutes earlier, our group had been marvelling at the wealth of juvenile offspring living along Isabela’s Punta Vicente Roca cove -- young fur seals played in the waves and sea turtles surfaced like tiny floating rocks -- but as the sight of the orca hunt sunk in, a worry for the fate of those baby animals tainted the amazement of seeing killer whales in the wild. It was sights like these, presumably, that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection when he visited the islands for five weeks in 1835.
It was day two of our voyage aboard the National Geographic Endeavor, a 96-passenger expedition ship that sails 10-day itineraries around the 13 major, and many smaller, islands that span the Equator.
The Endeavor, which is run as part of a partnership between two adventure tour companies, Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Expeditions, is one of the many vessels that house and ferry the nearly 180,000 visitors that come to the Galapagos Islands each year. Though tourism is good for the islands – it is the largest economic driver for the 23,000 people that live there – it also presents the ongoing dilemma of how to best protest a natural wonder that is threatened by the very source that funds its preservation – tourists.
In February 2012, less than two years after Unesco removed the Galápagos Islands from its list of endangered World Heritage sites, the Ecuadorian government passed new regulations that prevent any vessel from visiting the same site more than once within a 15-day period. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, by dispersing ship traffic throughout the region and decreasing tourist traffic at sites that are becoming too popular, the new regulations aim to ensure that the Galápagos’ fragile ecosystems – 97% of which are contained in strictly protected national park area – never become endangered again. It also means that visitors can never be sure which islands they will visit.
To remain compliant with the new laws, the Endeavour operates two seven-day sails around the region, alternating itineraries each week. Despite having some of the same markings as a cruise boat – there was a one-room spa, a two-treadmill gym and a small plunge pool at the back of the ship – the Endeavor is not a cruise. Maps lined the walls, charting our course and noting the wildlife we had seen; a library with wall-to-wall reference books covering topics from world history to oceanography commands a prime location on the bridge deck; and evenings were spent listening to scientific lectures on plate tectonics and the mating habits of land iguanas, given by the on-board naturalists certified by the Galápagos National Park.
The ship is also appropriately eco-conscious. Each state room is given two reusable water bottles in lieu of plastic ones; guests’ sandals are rinsed off each time they board so the sand can be returned to the beach to prevent erosion; and the boat is equipped with orange exterior lights, which are less attractive to bugs that standard fluorescent bulbs and help prevent the inter-island transportation of invasive species, meaning insects that follow the boat’s lights from one island to the other. Guests are even asked to keep their windows closed at night to help the same cause.