My camera is poised but all I can do is stare. Kaleidoscopic chameleons bask in the equatorial sun, groaning sea lions vie for my attention with an acrobatic display of masterful agility and prehistoric-looking iguanas saunter menacingly closer. I am sat just a few feet away but these beguiling creatures remain completely uninhibited by the intrusion of my presence. It’s easy to see why Darwin was so captivated by the Galápagos Islands.
I’m with a motley crew of young and old, bird-watchers and backpackers, photography enthusiasts and camera phone wielding honeymooners, but the one thing that unites us is that even the most well travelled amongst us have nothing to compare this mythical place to.
On the first day, we disembark the ship and pile into a dinghy, which glides over a patchwork sea of blues and greens. Our guide is talking animatedly about the day’s itinerary but my focus is distracted by the dark shadows lingering menacingly below the water’s surface. ‘Sea turtles making love!’ he exclaims, unable to suppress an infectiously boyish laugh. Right on cue, two bewildered heads pop up to the surface. They seem to momentarily acknowledge our presence before swiftly resuming their mesmerising courtship. We watch in awe as they swim in serene synchronicity, the male latched firmly on to his partner who is frantically paddling for the two of them. But we aren’t the only spectators at the show. Out of the depths of the azure Pacific, another potential suitor materialises and a ferocious battle for the female turtle’s affections ensues.
As we approach the shore, leaving the feuding threesome in peace, it appears that the entire animal kingdom is busy showcasing their powers of seduction. We immediately stumble across a pair of giant tortoises casually copulating in the bushes and in the trees above, a flock of male frigate birds puff out their crimson chests in an elaborate courtship. It may feel voyeuristic but nature’s peepshow continues despite my telescopic zoom and the rest of my gawking, giggling group.
Returning to our dinghy, we descend the charcoal shoreline, careful not to step on one of the black iguanas, which are camouflaged almost too perfectly against the volcanic rocks. They eye us nonchalantly, refusing to stir from their sunbathing spots. Thankfully, the islands remain fiercely protected and the limited visitor quota each year ensures the vivid array of feathered, scaled and leathery-skinned inhabitants are sparred too many trespassers. Presumably this accounts for their complete disregard of us during our visit, which only adds to the uniqueness of these astonishing up-close encounters.
This is a place you quickly run out of superlatives for, where photographs fail to do justice and where the only way to get a true understanding of why these islands are so utterly enchanting is to visit them for yourself.