The Galapagos Islands

Patricia Dean travelled on our 'Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands' holiday and submitted this entry to our writing competition.


Galapagos Sealion, Galapagos

'If a sea lion charges you, whatever you do don’t run, he’s bluffing!'

These words of wisdom were imparted to us by Darwin our guide, and his assistant Darwin Jr. (no relation), at the start of two weeks travelling around the Galapagos Islands in our pretty sailing ship, the Cachalote. They flew away with the breeze on the second day as the sea parted beside me, revealing a roaring glistening beachmaster: red throated, teeth bared, arriving at great speed. I turned to run, tripped over my foot and dropped my camera, my telephoto lens lying smashed beside me on a rock. As promised, the sea lion retreated and my dreams of achieving a stunning portfolio of pictures evaporated. Disaster!

But I was wrong. These are the Enchanted Isles, where visitors must step over or circumnavigate the locals as they bask on the warm rocks and beaches, go about their business and conduct noisy conversations (and occasional bloody battles) with their own kind. Meanwhile I, like Harry Potter in his invisibility cloak, moved among them totally ignored, long lens redundant, getting my close-ups.

Each day the Cachalote took us from one stunning island to another, frigatebirds (or could they be pterodactyls?) squabbling on the rigging, the sails tugging us along when the wind was fair. We stopped on the equator for a few minutes, the Sat Nav reading 00.00 degrees north and 90 degrees west, one of the four corners of the Earth. Was I alone in wanting to see a line stretching across the sea? We saw extraordinary marine-life, weird sunfish, leaping Manta Rays and Spinner Dolphins. When we anchored at sunset, in a nightly drama, thousands of little fish surrounded the boat. Larger fish arrived to gorge on them, silver showers erupting from the sea as they leapt to escape. Sharks then took centre stage, circling menacingly, occasionally bumping the boat in the night as they, in turn, chased their supper.

We had anticipated seeing spitting Marine Iguanas, sea lions, finches, Giant Tortoises and Blue-footed Boobies; they were all captivating, but there were surprises too. In a shed behind a small house perched high on the side of a misty volcano, we peered through the gloom and saw a Barn Owl sitting on a beam – only the week before I had been photographing its distant cousins in a foggy field in Nottinghamshire. Another day we waded through a lagoon from our dinghy, enjoyed a lazy afternoon watching turtles that had decorated the beach with their tank tracks, then made our way back to the ship. There was a change of venue for embarkation; two enormous sharks were sunbathing side by side in the shallows exactly where we had emerged two hours before.

Our superb guide, Darwin, is a man of many talents. His university degree had given him the facts he needed for his job, but his great love and infectious enthusiasm for the islands and its denizens comes from within. He is an accomplished free diver, and as we snorkelled in a popping, gurgling world of wavy weeds, gaudy fish, sea lions and iguanas, a tiny Darwin swam far below us, turning over rocks, slowly making his way across the sea bed. He could stay down for ages, one time surfacing covered in angry red welts having fallen foul of a jellyfish. And you should have seen him performing back flips across the beach – he’s not young!

In our dinghy, we followed a Leopard Ray into a cave. Looking out from the gloom to the brilliant turquoise sea we could see a commotion, the surface was being roughened by something and birds were arriving. Fishball! Darwin Jr. slowly negotiated us precisely over the turmoil. The sea was fizzing with small fish breaking the surface under attack by heaven knows what from below, while a maelstrom of Blue-footed Boobies and pelicans swirled above. As if at a signal they, to a bird, turned themselves into arrows slamming into the sea all around us, some of them lucky, spearing a fish. A quick shake, back up into the air, then down again. Looking up from our inflatable rubber boat, thrilled, slightly anxious, we all hoped their aim was good and I felt a flash of sympathy for King Harold at Hastings looking up as arrows rained from the air. Too soon all was calm again, the sea twinkling with silver scales.

It was the true highlight of my trip, among many. The camaraderie with our fellow travellers was hugely enhanced by the thrilling experiences we shared. If my camera had been destroyed it wouldn’t have mattered so much because even at my age, with a dodgy memory, every detail of that holiday is burned into my brain. It was unforgettable.

Read more about our 'Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands' holiday.