On few travels have I not witnessed the consequences of mass tourism, where not even uninhabited or protected areas were spared of overcrowding, noise, or garbage pollution. My impression was that the most pristine and beautiful places on the planet only survived because distance or access restrictions kept them away from human invasion.
Tossed in the middle of the Pacific and zealously protected by the authorities, the Galapagos Islands were among the few remaining wildlife sanctuaries.
Of the twenty-one volcanic islands that made up Columbus’ archipelago, only three – Isabela, San Cristobal, and Santa Cruz – were inhabited. The latter was also the main entry point for the travelers to the archipelago.
The passengers were not allowed to leave the aircraft until one of the flight attendants opened all the hand luggage compartments and disinfected them with a special spray. From the very beginning, it was made clear to us that the ecosystem of the islands was extremely fragile. The rules seemed to imply that even the most insignificant intruder could trigger a fatal chain reaction.
The influx of tourists was strictly controlled. In addition to heavy limitations on the number of flights and a total ban on cruise ships, no visitor was allowed to stay in the Galapagos for more than 60 days a year, and each had to pay an entry fee of $100. I had to fill in a very detailed entry form in order to get an entry card.
My plan for the next day was to reach South Plaza, a small, wild island east of Santa Cruz. Of the pair of islands called Plazas, only the southern one could be visited; the northern one was being used for research purposes.
I was going there in a solid, well-maintained, and spacious boat. It was an entirely different league compared to any boat I had ever taken on such trips, especially in Asia, but that was the standard in the area. Of course, the price was commensurate. There were no cheap trips with cheap boats. “Few but good” seemed to be the basic principle.
Access to wildlife was severely restricted. Each day, the uninhabited islands could only be visited by a limited number of people in small groups brought by authorized operators. The latter were assigned a specific time interval, generally of about two or three hours, to disembark their customers and show them around. Then, they had to raise the anchor and make way for the following group.
On my boat, we were not more than ten people. Among us was an American couple from San Francisco who were traveling with their own yacht. They had come from the North American coast all the way to Ecuador. However, in the Galapagos, they said, they were not allowed anywhere on their own. In order to see the wildlife, they had no choice but to sign up to the authorized trips. They were in possession of a drone that they would sometimes use to take pictures or shoot movies, but the use of drones was also prohibited outside inhabited areas.
On the island, we were only allowed to walk on a dedicated path, under the supervision of our local companions, without disturbing the animals in any way. The Ecuadorian guides imposed an iron discipline. I was pleasantly impressed by their efforts, as well as by their training. They were all specialized in natural sciences, experts in the fauna and flora of the islands.
Right where we set foot on the shore, I spotted a sea lion cub lazing on the rocks. The little one was drying his beige-golden fur in the sun, watching us out of the corner of his black eyes. He showed no indication that he cared about our presence when we passed by. The obligation to keep at least two meters away from any wild animal seemed to have a different meaning than I had imagined. As I was about to find out, in the Galapagos, no animal was scared of humans, not even the birds. The two-meter limit was primarily for their protection, not for ours.
The path literally carried me through bird nests built directly on the ground. Some of the birds were feeding their chicks, and others performed dances to attract a pair or to intimidate rivals. At one point, I saw a seagull that had legs as blue as the sky. The color was unbelievable, as if taken out of a tube of acrylics for painters.
“The more intense the blue of the legs, the more attractive they are to the opposite sex,” I was told.
The next day, I was scheduled to arrive at North Seymour, a place recommended especially to those who were passionate about bird watching. I thought I was going to see a lot of birds, but what I found there exceeded all my expectations.
It was a bird island, literally. There was no piece of land that was not taken over by them. There were, first of all, many blue-legged gulls, which nested directly on the ground. At that time, their chicks were quite big, but not big enough to fly. They could be seen in almost every nest – a white fluffy creature like a large ball of cotton candy, moving awkwardly on its feet, as if it were ashamed of them because they hadn’t yet acquired their famous azure color, the pride of their species. One of the parents was always watching nearby, and the other was bringing food from the sea.
Frigate birds were another notable presence, for which the mating season was in full swing. They were large birds with black feathers, split tails, and long beaks, which had a unique feature: an enormous red goiter. To charm the females, the males folded their feathers, spread their two-meter wings wide, and fluttered their wings, keeping their heads and beaks up while inflating their goiter. Given this was their main chance to attract a partner, they spared no effort. I saw birds with goiters so large and swollen that they looked like balloons ready to burst at any moment, or rise in the air together with the bird, reduced to a mere annex. As if the visual spectacle weren’t enough, they slammed their throats into sounds like drums.
In addition to birds, there were massive iguanas on the island, with golden-yellow or dark scales, nesting and hiding under the bushes. They were like little fairy tale dragons, some more than three feet long.
Apart from the sound of the birds and the roar of the ocean, a solemn peace reigned on that rocky piece of land. It was like a sanctuary in which the main object of worship was the multitude of bird nests. It unwittingly imposed a feeling of reverence.
The next stop of the day was a very small island, or rather a sandbank between a few rocks. A family of sea lions was living there. The place was very picturesque, so I rushed to the shore, planning to warm up in the sun that had just come out of the clouds.
Shortly after disembarking, I saw some of the younger sea lions approaching. The way they did it immediately caught my eye. The sand on the beach formed dunes towards the central part of the island, and the sea lions were going up and then coming down, slipping and sliding on the slopes. They looked like they were having a good time.
Some people from the group I had come with went into the water, and several sea lions went after them. I put on my snorkeling mask and followed them, eager to see what was going on. As I dipped my head into the water, I began to see the animals circling us. Not long after, one of the sea lions came so close that he almost made me scream. But when he was only a few inches away from me, he made an impossible turn and avoided me at the last minute, with the same incredible speed. Other family members also began to behave in a similar way. They would come very close and spin around us before backing away. It was clear they were curious. They didn’t touch us, but otherwise, they weren’t shy at all. Obviously, we were not the first people to visit the island, but given the strict control exercised by the authorities, there was no doubt that the initiative belonged to the hosts, not to the guests.
The youngest of the sea lions did not waste time and quickly moved on to the next stage. From one point on, it became clear that all their tricks were not just curiosity, because they were getting closer and closer, and the whole family had surrounded us. As I continued to watch, I began to recognize them, from the little one who was like quicksilver and never ceased to challenge us, to the older female, who was content to watch everything from a distance.
One of the young females had an unmistakable style; she first positioned herself a few feet in my direction and then came straight at me at an insane speed. At first glance, I could have sworn she wanted to get right into me with maximum impact. But her posture betrayed her. Instead of swimming normally, she came towards me in a strange, unnatural position: on her back and with her head down, slightly turned to one side. It was as if she wanted to show me, beyond any doubt, that she was only playing. One second before reaching me, she twisted her body and changed direction completely. She often surprised me, causing me to scream unintentionally, and then I would burst out laughing. I could have sworn she was amused by me at least as much as I was by her.
Looking around, it didn’t take me long to realize that all of us, the few visitors to the island, had become the main attraction of the sea lion family. At one point, I don’t know from where, they brought a piece of a yellow fruit, which they were holding in the mouth and passing from one to another, like in a sort of a polo game. From time to time, they would let the “ball” float freely close to us, as if inviting us to join them. In other words, they studied us, tested us a bit, and after seeing that we were cool, they decided we could be their playmates. But who would have coped with their speed in the water!
With all the agitation, the water was so troubled that it felt like a game of hide and seek. The young sea lions appeared unexpectedly, jumped out, passed between us or right next to us, and made us laugh like children, every time.
Other games were being played, as well. For example, one with fins, for those who had brought such a thing for diving or snorkeling. I hadn’t, so I just watched. Our feet seemed to make our hosts very curious, but the fins had an almost irresistible effect on them. It didn’t take long, and they started grabbing them with their teeth, first hesitantly, and then with all their strength as they saw they were being encouraged. They bit those fins just like some puppies would.
Someone next to me had found another amusement: he was playing dead. He let himself float on the surface of the water, face down, without making the slightest movement. He had a mask and a snorkeling tube, so he could stay like that for as long as he wanted. The sea lions, intrigued by the fact that he was not moving, would come very close to him, examining him eye to eye. But he was lost every time. Seeing those funny faces so close, and those big, round eyes staring at him, he couldn’t refrain too long from laughing. And his playmates immediately resumed their tricks.
At a certain point, the male who was the head of the family appeared and started to call, signaling that the fun was over. Animals and people, we all went ashore together. But in the hosts’ camp, the little ones had no intention of calming down, so they came up with another game. Wet as they were, they climbed the sand dunes and then slid down them hard, rolling over, until they were so covered in sand that they looked almost white. Some of the younger visitors from our group began to do the same, sliding on the sand dunes together with the sea lions, to the full satisfaction of the latter. I think that in that moment, the sea lions must have presumed that we were some kind of distant relatives of them.
Saying goodbye was difficult. Upon departure, as we sailed away from their island, the little ones wanted to thank us for the playtime together and swam behind us for a while. And the youngest, the acrobat of the family, as a sign of goodbye, outdid himself with somersaults over the water that left us all speechless. I had never witnessed such deep, friendly, and most of all, spontaneous communication between humans and wild animals.