You don’t have to be a wildlife expert to appreciate one of the few places on earth with barely a human footprint, says Chris Moss
Kneeling close to a male tortoise on Isabela Island, I could hear him breathing. And when I sat down in front of a friendly female, she came forward and pecked my lens. Her prehistoric legs moved heavily, her neck jutting out and spiky mouth munching a leaf as she walked away. No wonder sailors used to pick up these docile creatures and store them, upside down, on their galleons. Tortoises can survive months without water and served as a reliable stock of protein. Seeing them safe and content in their natural habitat was a joy and a privilege.
From the moment I arrived in the Galapagos, it was Natural Selection 101, but with the huge advantage of living examples wherever I looked. With the archipelago of 14 islands and small islets, a national park in which everything is protected, many species are in abundance and a few are very tame. The park’s regulations, which limit visitor numbers and keep tourists on controlled footpaths, mean its iconic species — marine and land iguanas, giant tortoises, sea turtles, Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, waved albatrosses, sea cucumbers, whales and sharks — can go about their business as if it was still 1683, the year before the first settlers arrived.
The sea is still by far the best way to explore the Galapagos. I was on the Eclipse, a cruise ship of just 48 passengers, ideally suited to landing in small, shallow bays and speeding between highlights using on-board Zodiacs.
At Black Turtle Cove, a labyrinth of mangrove-walled salt water inlets, I saw huge manta rays and smaller, but extraordinarily beautiful, spotted eagle rays. I watched a lava heron hop from branch to branch, seeming to follow our zigzagging through the channels, while a tailing mangrove finch behaved like its companion. A giant green sea turtle rose to the surface to peer at us with one eye and take in air before gently slipping back under the water.
Remote Genovesa Island was a birdwatchers’ paradise, with Nazca boobies tending their fluffy juveniles and Galapagos doves grubbing in the dust for mites. Clouds of petrels formed, fell apart and reformed, while frigatebirds wheeled overhead.
But the most magical moment came while snorkeling into a cave, trying to keep up with little Galapagos penguins. When I came up for breath, there were dozens of scuttling Sally Lightfoot crabs watching me from the rocks.
Leaving Galapagos was like exiting Eden. I knew I’d never experience anything like that again — only Africa comes close. But ultimately, it wasn’t about checking off iconic species from a list, but about the details and the incredible diversity. This is what our planet can do, and what we could so easily lose.