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Great Galapagos

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It was this remote, volcanic archipelago that inspired Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking theory of natural selection and, 185 years since his visit, you can still see much of the enchanting wildlife that captivated him. Dorothy Veitch reports

Sea lions cavorting on the sand

Enchanted Isles
Lying 1,000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are probably the most famous wildlife-watching destination on the planet. The isolated terrain, now fiercely protected, shelters an incredible diversity of plant and animal species, many found nowhere else on Earth. It’s a terrific place to visit any time of year. Temperatures range from 21°-30°C.

View from the top of Bartolomé Island

Heavenly wildlife
The Galapagos is made up of 13 volcanic islands, six smaller ones and more than 100 islets, and each has its own unique landscape and wildlife. One island is best known for its birdlife, another for prehistoric-looking marine iguanas and yet another for giant tortoises. However, you find many species, such as sea lions, lava lizards, turnstones and whimbrels, at most visitor sites.

Tourism is strictly controlled

Protected national park
An impressive 97% of the Galapagos is designated as national park and you can only visit specific visitor sites accompanied by certified naturalist guides. At each visitor site, you’re shown a marked trail that you must stick to – you can’t go wondering off on your own disturbing the wildlife. Some sites have wet landings (you wade to shore from skiffs) and others have dry landings (you step foot directly on dry land). The Galapagos National Park limits the number of visitors to each island and coordinates each tour ship’s itinerary.

A red-bellied frigate bird

Birds of paradise
Be sure to make it to Genovessa Island, known as Bird Island because of the many and varied bird species that nest there. You spot blue-footed boobies tapping out their bizarre mating rituals, frigate birds flaunting their red bellies and gigantic gulls snuggling up in the crook of a lava rock.

Diving with whale shark

Befriending sharks
Diving and snorkelling are a must in the Galapagos, bringing you nose to nose with fabulous tropical fish and rays. On land, visitors are asked to keep a 2-metre distance from the wildlife but this is not the case underwater. Even the sharks are friendly – they have no interest in eating people thanks to the great abundance of tasty fish.

Marine iguanos are found only on the Galapagos Islands

Relaxing with iguanas
One of the most surprising things about the Galapagos is just how fearless the wildlife is. The birds and animals give you no more than a cursory glance. And the absence
of natural predators on many of the islands means that those that have made it all the way to this remote spot can live and breed in safety and without restriction.

Tour ships accommodate some 170,000 tourists a year

Getting around
The best way to see as much as possible is to book a cabin on a liveaboard boat. The tour ships vary in size and each has accommodation to fit most budgets. Visitors enjoy packed itineraries, with activities ranging from snorkelling to hiking. In the evening, the ships up anchor and sail to another location, so that each day brings a new island to explore.

Wherever you stay, you’re bang in the heart of paradise

Hunkering down
If you want a day or two to get back your land legs, you can opt to stay ashore on the islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Floreana or Isabela. A short kayak away you might find a sheltered cove where oversized plovers nest in the cliffs. And wading into the sea, you might experience the thrill of seeing a penguin dive off a rock and dart past you, before circling back for another look.

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