Of all the heritable traits that I possess which will endow my offspring with fitness to survive their environment, an admirable pair of boobies is not one of them. Fortunately I’ve other assets to make up for this: I can cook a roast with my eyes shut, I can fold my tongue in three (I’ll be at the bar later if you want to witness this) and I know all the words to the Vincent Price bit in Thriller. The kids will be fine.
You need something else to survive in the Galapagos Islands, though, something without which you’d be naturally deselected in a very short time indeed: humongously deep pockets. This place is Monaco-steep; it’s heart-stoppingly pricey; it’s caviar-on-toast expensive. And it’s not even luxurious: Puerto Ayora is a cheerful little fishing village but it’s weatherbeaten and shabby and the whole place smells of fishy shit dropped by pelicans and left to hum in the sun, because to remove it would somehow upset the natural equilibrium of the environment.
This attitude pervades ‘The Enchanted Isles’, a preciousness and protectiveness which it would be churlish to argue with. It’s a bit asymmetrical though. Eddie was told off for giving a little bird a piece of bread from his packed lunch because ‘These are Darwin’s finches’ and because every finch from here on in would carry the genetic marker of that square of ham sarnie (hey, I’m no scientist, it might). But then we’re liberally plied with drinking water in plastic bottles – hundreds of them – instead of there being an island-wide insistence on refillables, which is madness considering a plastic island the size of France floats menacingly in the Pacific not far from here.
Having said this, if I had such magnificent boobies, I’d want to protect them too. These blue-footed guys are arguably the mascots of the Galapagos. They’re all over the place, on t-shirts, mugs, key-rings. And they’re all over North Seymour Island, an outcrop of lava covered with scrub and shit and a fair few iguanas, dead and alive. These islands are largely barren of vegetation but there are obviously some pretty powerful pheromones flying around because just about every type of animal on North Seymour was at it, or at least trying to be. In the case of the boobies, they do a special mating dance which involves flapping their feet around and cooing (nah fanks mate). Apparently the lady-boobies make their sexual selection based on whether Sir‘s exact and particular shade of blue gives them the horn. They’re also quite chatty and totally un-phased by humans sticking iPhones in their face:
The blue-footed boobies have got stiff competition for the title of Top Flying Flirter from the Galapagos great green frigate bird: the males of this species inflate their throats into heart-shaped red balloons to woo the ladies. They’re the avian equivalent of those top-shelf satin padded Hallmark cards we used to sell in my Dad’s shop, mainly to the kind of blokes who needed a picture of a mahoosive shiny puppy to express what they couldn’t in actual words (so that’s ‘all of them‘ then).
The giant tortoise doesn’t have a special sexy dance, nor a throbbing love-bag, but they’re a big hit with the kids anyway. Because they can survive months without water, they were an even bigger hit with pirates back in the day: the buccaneers would stagger back to the Jolly Roger with one of these big guys and live off the meat when supplies ran low. Today’s giant tortoises don’t show any signs of having developed pirate-avoidance techniques, unless being massively ugly when eating guava counts. But it’s not an issue, thankfully, because – these days – the only daylight robbery in the Galapagos islands is aimed squarely at the tourists.
Famous giant tortoise ‘Lonesome George’ was the last of his species when he died in 2012 (the majority of his ancestors probably wound up as Long John Silver’s sandwich filling) and is immortalised in a special refrigerated glass display case at the Charles Darwin Research Station. They also have living tortoises as part of an ongoing breeding programme and yet another Galapagosian celebrity shagger in the form of Super Diego, the father of over one thousands babies so far. He was coitally preoccupied when we visited his harem: apparently the females have to be routinely swapped out because he’s so enthusiastic. He’s topping a hundo years-old, the absolute ledge.
We walked to the Darwin Research Station because it was just up the street, but most people visit these isles by boat and it’s pretty clear why, after a few days of shuttling between our rental house and the main port. Bartolomé, for example, was an hour’s minibus-ride and another 2.5 hours by boat to reach, then a steep climb in blistering midday heat. The view was great and we saw a Galapagos hawk, but – sheesh – you’d expect Godzilla wrestling Nessie on the edge of the Trevi Fountain for that journey.
Slightly less onerous and definitely more worthwhile was the trip to Tortuga Beach. This is the stuff of legends, this place. You alight on a cactus-topped strip of lava and either turn left, for a dead calm bay fringed with mangroves, or right, for a kilometre of the softest, whitest sand my feet have ever had the enormous good fortune to experience. The waves are proper here and it’s mostly red-flagged for bathers. But right at the end is a section for surfing that’s just perfect for people like me, i.e. people who have no business pretending they can surf.
As the sun begins to descend for it’s eternal equatorial setting time of 6pm, the beach starts to empty and the animals emerge. I was standing in a deserted section of the smaller bay, ankle-deep in the gently rippling shallows filming baby sharks swimming round my feet when there was a loud splash and the water bulged in front of me. Reader, I nearly kacked meself:
I’ve obviously been spending far too much time with kids because my initial thought was ‘Awwww, he’s giving the little one a piggy back ride!’ Should’ve known: this is one big Love Island; nothing is ever on something else’s back for any other reason.
There is one animal that spends a lot of time on its own back, pretty much wherever it finds a comfy spot AND THAT’S ME! No, it’s the Galapagos sea-lion, who can be found flopping around town like a fat drunk hobo (so like me again then). They’re on jetties, they’re on benches: you half expect to find one slumped on your sofa when you get home, breaking a Kit-Kat in front of the football.
They can also be found on an island called Plazas not far from here (so it took us 2.5 hours to get there 😬) where they’re generally very busy… lying around on rocks.
All in all, you don’t come to the Galapagos for the culture; nor do you come for lush vegetation; nor if you’re not dead keen to take out a second mortgage on your return. But it’s fair to say that you come for the boobies, but stay for the legs, the beaks, the big soppy eyes, the claws. It’s Johnny Morris’ wet dream; any naturalist’s in fact. Surely when David Attenborough dies, they’ll float his body out between these isles and slip him into the briny blue with the hammerheads and the sea lions and the dolphins and the swimming iguanas, so he can take his rightful place in this animal paradise.
As for us? I’m writing this in Guayaquil airport on the coast of Ecuador, the third-to-last airport of our great adventure. It’s Day 179: we’ve said goodbye to Nanny Em, the Courageous Kiwi who’s accompanied us round the world (the lucky cow flew straight to LA for Coachella). She’s made so many things easier; everything, in fact, except the leaving of her. The girls are still a bit raw.
When we get back home to Highgate at 6.30pm tomorrow we’ll have gone round the world in 180 days and it’s been a hell of a ride. If I knew then what I know now about travelling through 13 countries with 4 kids for 6 months… I’d do it anyway, just with a bigger stash of sleeping pills, ear plugs and about half as many clothes.
I honestly think I’ve seen enough of the planet to die happy now, but given that I’m about to get on a plane, I’d like to state FOR THE RECORD that there’s a particular ice shelf in Patagonia that I’m gutted I missed and that I’m definitely lining it up for next time. Adios Amigos. Planet Potter Will Return*!
*No, I really will return, probably next week for a round-up of the Wandering Knights Greatest Hits.