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By Andrew Westbrook

TNT heads off on an eye-popping trip to the Galapagos Islands where giant tortoises, crusty iguanas and playful sea lions roam

My head has barely dipped below the surface when a torpedo flashes past, causing aneruption of colour that puts Sydney’s New Year’s Eve celebrations to shame. Concerned I’ve stumbled across some sub-aqua warzone, I take a closer look, and discover I wasn’t far wrong. Sea lions whiz left and right while parrotfish, boxfish and a dozen other tropical species scarper for their lives, desperate to avoid the fate known simply as ‘lunch’. 

It’s been just a few short minutes since I first plunged into the waters of the Galápagos Islands to do some snorkelling, and already some of the words of Charles Darwin, their most famous visitor, are echoing through my head – this chain of volcanoes, straddling the equator, is without doubt “a little world within itself”. 

In spite of the fact it’s painfully pricey to take a trip here (you won’t find tours for under £1000), Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands continue to draw over 170,000 travellers to the World Heritage-listed archipelago each year. Most agree it’s worth every penny to see the place that inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution, thanks to the various species that can only be found here, having evolved to specifically suit the volcanic islands’ conditions. It means you’ll come face to face with some of the planet’s most weird and wonderful creatures,from giant tortoises to blue-footed birds.

Bobbing above the water, I see a pocket-sized penguin perched on shore, sunning itself like a calendar model living from camera click to click. To my other side, meanwhile, amarine iguana rests. Craggy and well-camouflaged among the black volcanic rocks, the lizard lays there dismissively, clearly unimpressed by his neighbour. Perhaps concerned his nonchalant sneer doesn’t suffice, the iguana then sneezes out a spray of salt, like a tobacco-chewing cowboy awaiting a high noon showdown.

My five-day cruise around the Galápagos began the day before when I arrived at Puerto Ayora, the islands’ main human hub on Santa Cruz Island. Home to more than 12,000 people, guesthouses, dive shops and restaurants wrestle for space along the smart main street.Strolling to the edge of town I pass the waterside fish market, where hungry pelicans and eagle rays outnumber customers; then wooden benches, where sea lions kick back, like street corner hoodies daring you to take a breather on their seat. Opposite arethe endless souvenir shops, each boasting the obligatory “I love boobies” T-shirts (inreference to the islands’ blue-footed booby birds, in case you were wondering).

Credit: Scuba04

A few minutes after the buildings have thinned out, I reach the Charles Darwin Research Station. The station is named, unsurprisingly, in honour of the famed English naturalist, who toured the islands aboard the HMS Beagle back in 1835. The On The Origin Of The Species author spent just five weeks in the archipelago, but that was all it took for Galápagos to inspire his theory of evolution.

The station’s headline act is the breeding programme for the region’s most famous creature – the giant tortoise, from which the islands gain their name, ‘galapago’ being Spanishfor tortoise. They’ve played a central role in the link between the region and theories of evolution, thanks to multiple subspecies existing on different islands. It’s thought just one type of normal-sized tortoise washed up at first, with its offspring then developing to suit the varying conditions of the islands, all the while growing huge due to a lack of predators. However, despite the tortoises being able to live for over 100 years and once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, centuries of peckish sailors (including Darwin himself), plus egg-eating rats introduced by those same sailors, meant the giant reptiles had dwindled to just 3000 by the Seventies. 

Luckily the current breeding programme has meant the giants have bounced back. They now number around 20,000. It’s time to get into the wilds of Galápagos and explore the living laboratory and so, on board our boat my small group of 16 leaves the bright lights of Puerto Ayora behind us, to discover the so-called Enchanted Isles for ourselves. We anchor by an islet called Chinese Hat, just off Santiago Island and realise there’s not another boat in sight. Score! Interrupting the high-fives, however, is our guide, Galápagos local Christian Saa, who explains with a chuckle that we should “get used to being away from the crowds”. 

Visitor regulations are so tight on the islands, he continues, that all boats’ itineraries are closely controlled. As a result, there’s rarely more than one tour at a single landing site. With no delay it’s into our pangas, the small inflatable boats that take us to shore. And no sooner are we chugging towards the beach than the “oohs” and “aahs” begin, as a trio of Galápagos penguins have been spotted on the rocks. Standing under half a metre tall, the black and white beauties are the only penguins found above the Equator,thanks to the archipelago’s cold currents. However, like penguins found anywhere in the world, they’re impossible not to immediately love. Hopping awkwardly between rocks andenjoying a post-brekkie bask in the sun, they stop, bemused, to watch our boatful of ecstatic grins drift past.

Within moments we’re at the golden sandy beach, where another treat awaits us – sea lions. We edge forward, eager to avoid disturbing our sun-drenched welcome committee. We needn’t have worried, however, as the blubbery pups soon seem fascinated by their visitors, running up to nibble our shoes, before chasing each other around in circles. It’s likebeing surrounded by a pack of soaking wet Labrador puppies. Tearing ourselves away we set out across the cactusstrewn islet. Everywhere we look, fluorescent red and blue Sally Lightfoot crabs lead the way. And, in among the neon claws, we realise another Galápagos poster boy has joined the party – the marine iguana. Darwin, you could say, was not aniguana fan, referring to them as “disgusting, clumsy lizards”, even “imps of darkness”, which I really hope is the name of a band somewhere in the world. I, however, love the iguanas.

For starters, they’re the world’s only iguanas that can swim, meaning that sometime after arriving from the mainland, they taught themselves to paddle, creating a new species inthe process. Plus, measuring two to three feet in length, and with black scaly bodies crested with crusty mohicans, they genuinely look like dinosaurs, transported from another age. Over the next few days we journey around Santa Cruz and over to San Cristobal where we hike alongside the iguanas, snorkel with the sea lions and scour the skies for blue-footed boobies and Magnifi cent Frigatebirds. At Black Turtle Cove, we paddle soundlessly in the pangasas great schools of baby golden rays and spotted eagle rays glide past, fl uttering like underwater butterfl ies. Herons and pelicans fl y above, while now and then a green turtle breaks the water’s surface, gasping for air.

Everywhere we go, the fearless nature of the animals, over which scientists still argue, is consistently captivating and engaging – from birds chirping on nearby branches to iguanas resolutely holding their ground, none seem bothered by our presence.
The land iguanas become a regular fi xture of our walks. To me they’re majestic, their fi ery red and yellow skins more visually impressive than their marine cousins. The  verhungry iguana fan Darwin was of course less keen. “They are hideous animals,” he wrote, before adding, “but are considered good food.” 

Undeniably, however, they remain a symbol of what makes Galápagos so unique and special. Like almost a third of the creatures found in the archipelago, they exist nowhere else, having evolved after arriving on these volcanoes raised from the seabed. As Darwin explained, it’s an “eminently curious” place to witness “that mystery of mysteries – thefi rst appearance of new beings on this earth”. Anti-iguana comments aside, I can’t help but agree. %u275A

Andrew travelled courtesy of G Adventures on their seven-day Explore Galápagos tour, £1460pp with two nights at Quito’s Hilton Colon, four nights on board a yacht cruising through the Galapagos National Park, plus flights between the capital and island

When to go: High seasons are June to September, and December to January. December toMay is rainy and June to November is dry season, which is best for snorkelling and diving.
Currency: £1 = USD1.51
Accommodation: The quirky, mazelike Hostal Colonial House ( onthe outskirts of Quito’s old town has beds from £6.60pppn. Friendly, family-run Casa Hospedaje Germania in Puerto Ayora, Galápagos (, has double rooms, with ensuite, for £35pn.