Aug 19, 2016

South America - Where the Wild Things Really Are

Where the wild things really are – Kerry van der Jagt explores the Galápagos Islands and Amazon River by small ship.

South America is home to more plant and animal species than anywhere on Earth. From the Amazon rainforest, with its Sam Toucan birds and marauding monkeys, to the Galápagos Islands, home to marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies and enough weird and wacky creatures to guarantee a lifetime of bragging rights.

But a wildlife journey is more than that; it’s a chance, not just to see animals, but also to interact with them in their natural environments. No one forgets the first time they come nose-to-whisker with a Galápagos sea lion as it looks at its own reflection in your goggles. These memories become a part of you, rolled out and laughed about, time and time again. 

A wildlife trip to South America also provides opportunities to learn about the people. In the Galápagos it’s the residents of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal islands, plus Ecuadorians from the mainland, many of whom have trained to become nature guides. 

“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.” Charles Darwin.

Darwin visited the Galápagos in 1835 aboard HMS Beagle as the ship’s naturalist, his observations published years later in On the Origin of Species (1859) a book that changed the way we look at and understand the world. Stepping ashore on San Cristobel Island, as a 26-year-old Darwin did 180 years ago, hearing the same crunch of volcanic gravel, seeing the same species of finch, perhaps smiling at the same Sally Lightfoot crabs and sea lions, is the stuff  of day dreams. Pinch yourself, rub your eyes, it’s still here, Darwin’s laboratory, a menagerie of creatures found nowhere else.

Santa Cruz Island is the place to see the iconic giant Galápagos tortoises, particularly in the highlands, where they rumble across the open pastures like mini VW Beetles, mowing down anything in their path. The Charles Darwin Research Station is also here, home to more than one hundred scientists, educators, volunteers and students, all working in conjunction with the Galápagos National Park Service to better understand the terrestrial and marine environments. Visitors are welcome; to view the facilities, to see tortoise hatchlings and to learn about the many breeding programs.

To see a natural breeding cycle in action the Blue-footed boobies rarely disappoint, the males spending the better part of their days dancing from one foot to the other in an effort to attract a suitable partner. Other birds with dramatic courtship rituals include the Waved albatross, magnificent birds that go through a ritualistic clacking of beaks or ‘bill fencing’ to ensure they always reconnect with their life partner.

The prize for the weirdest animal must go to the marine iguana, the only extant (or still living) marine lizard on earth. Due to a lack of nutritious vegetation on the evolving land, the iguanas took to swimming in the ocean and feeding on seaweed. Today, between swims, it basks on land sneezing and snorting like a firebreathing dragon to expel the excess salt it has consumed. Even Darwin referred to them as “imps of darkness”.

If the creatures aren’t enough, there’s also the landscape, a dozen different islands ranging in age from 3.5 million years to freshly minted ones still forming today. Cruising from east to west there’s flat old Espanola Island with its many bays and beaches, lush Santa Cruz Island with its  hills and highlands, Floreana Island with its green olivine crystal beaches and pink flamingos and finally, volcanic Fernandina Island, which is still erupting.

Days pass easily in the Galápagos, island hopping by night, stepping ashore by day, tiptoeing around booby chicks, snorkelling inside extinct calderas, swimming with sea lions, hiking up headlands. It’s all real and raw and magnificent, governed by the geothermic forces that shaped the islands and the creatures that evolved to suit. People occupy just 3 per cent of the archipelago, the other 97 per cent given to the animals and protected as a national park. In this day and age it’s reassuring to find a place where animals still rule the world.

Discover these spectacular locations on a journey with Scenic in 2017.