Category Archives: animal welfare

Galapagos galore: Cruising the magical archipelago

[This feature first appeared in TTG magazine]

Cruising is the best way to see the archipelago but products vary greatly. Pippa Jacks tries Metropolitan Touring’s largest ship, Santa Cruz II, for size…

I am up close and personal with one of the world’s rarest birds. So close that I can see its short brown feathers, packed as tight as fur, as it swims around my head, and peer directly into its absurdly turquoise eyes as it grunts in my ear.

A second flightless cormorant almost takes my snorkel as it plunges into the sea beside me, emerging with a clump of seaweed to drop at a nearby female’s feet. She acts as if he’s presented her with wilting petrol-station flowers and returns to drying out her stumpy wings in the morning sunshine.

To have a ringside seat during a courtship ritual of one of the “Galapagos Big 15” is a huge privilege, but they are not the only animals making it difficult for me to maintain the “stay two metres away from the wildlife” rule.

A pair of Galapagos sea lions tumble around my legs and rainbow-coloured parrotfish rasp at coral on the wall. A green sea turtle ambles past, followed by an otherworldly sunfish, peculiarly flat and the size of a bicycle wheel.

And above the surface, every ledge and crevice of the guano-streaked cliff-face is stuffed with Nazca boobies, their eyes set so comically close that they earned the name “bobo” – Spanish for “clown”.

Credit: Pippa Jacks

I am not the first visitor drawn to the “Enchanted Islands” by their unparalleled wildlife. But by using the Big 15 chart, created by Metropolitan Touring, I can be sure of choosing the right itinerary and having the most rewarding experience.

Having evolved 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador, some Galapagos species are endemic not only to the archipelago but to only one or two of its 20 islands. And restrictions on visitor numbers to a landing site in any one day mean other itineraries can skimp on how many of the area’s most impressive species you can see.

My quest started well yesterday, when we made our very first landing, on North Seymour. The profusion of animals on this flat, red, rock-strewn island was overwhelming and I almost tripped over a Galapagos sea lion (tick) as I clambered up the rocks from the panga.

Blue-footed boobies nest here in their hundreds (tick) – so numerous and tame that I had to step around them as they rested in the middle of the path. I watched a male dancing to impress a female, hopping from one blue foot to the other and throwing his stretched-out wings up above his head like sails.

Nesting boobie and frigatebirds on North Seymour island. Credit: Pippa Jacks

Love was in the air for the great and magnificent frigatebirds too (tick). A male magnificent puffed up his red throat pouch to attract a female, while land iguanas (tick) lay snoozing on rocks, bathed in the light of the “golden hour” before dusk.

North Seymour and Isabela are just two of the five islands I will visit during my five-night Galapagos cruise. I’m onboard Santa Cruz II, which, with 50 cabins, is the largest in Metropolitan’s fleet. Its size means greater stability, an onboard doctor and extensive facilities, including outdoor hot tubs, where it is glorious to warm up after snorkelling.

There is also a separate bar, restaurant, library and TV-room, and a modest gym. So despite her 90-passenger capacity, it is easy to find a quiet sun-lounger or sofa where I can curl up with a book. Not that there is much time to read: our schedule is packed with excursions, briefings and lectures. It’s a tiring day, but we aren’t short of fuel. Breakfast and lunch are an expansive, daily-changing buffet with dishes from ceviche and fried plantain to pasta and stir-fry.

Evenings begin with a briefing session over a pisco sour cocktail and sushi, when we choose activities for the next day (glass-bottomed boat tours are a more sedate alternative to snorkelling or kayaking), and conclude with a four-course, waiter-served dinner.

My fellow guests are from more than a dozen countries, and while many are in their 70s and 80s, plenty are younger couples and groups of friends, or even solo travellers.

The ship is comfortable, but no one has come for the “cruise” experience, and seasoned cruisers who like to spend the day in the spa or lazing by the pool might not enjoy the early starts and pace of activity. Some of Santa Cruz II’s guests have only a casual interest in ecology and biology, while others are fanatics. But we are united in having come here for one thing: the wildlife.

I am surprised by the variety of landscapes we visit. There is beauty here, but not the palm tree-fringed tropical paradise that visitors might expect. Fernandina is the youngest of the islands, with regular volcanic eruptions pouring out lava that cools either into chunks of brittle “a’a” (“hurt-hurt” in Hawaiian) or smooth “pahoehoe” (meaning ropey”).

This desolate, blackened island is one of the best on which to see marine iguanas (tick): hundreds of them piled on top of one another, their black and grey-green bodies angled to absorb maximum warmth from the sun. It’s the only lizard in the world that can swim, having evolved to eat underwater algae, but it must expel the salt it consumes. An adult iguana sprawled across the path aims a salt-sneeze perfectly at my shoe as I pass, which I am sure must be worth an extra point.

Fernandina appeared in the first episode of the new series Planet Earth II, which had the nation on the edge of their sofas as a newly hatched marine iguana sprinted to escape from a band of hungry racer snakes. I see a snake, but no fight sequence. The BBC has all the luck.

Me with Klaus at Darwins Lake

I visit Tagus Cove and Darwin Lake on Isabela almost 181 years to the day since naturalist Charles Darwin stepped foot on the island. He spent just 19 days of his five-year voyage on land in the Galapagos, yet saw and collected enough of its creatures that his time here would lead him to devise his evolutionary theory.

The islands had been “discovered” in 1535 by the Bishop of Panama, who drifted here accidentally. Despite their inhospitality, the islands became a vital outpost for pirates and then whalers, both of whom decimated its populations of giant tortoises and introduced invasive species with catastrophic effect.

By day four, I have ticked off a further four of the Big 15: the Galapagos fur seal, Galapagos hawk, and Galapagos penguin, and a passing Galapagos albatross – unexpected on this itinerary.

Day four is spent on Santa Cruz, the most densely populated of the islands, where I discover giant tortoises (tick) in the lush highlands. We also visit the Darwin Research Centre, where, since the death of Lonesome George, Super Diego has become the centre’s new hero in a half-shell: this 125-year old tortoise has fathered 1,700 children.

Our final day is on Floreana, where our guide rifles through postcards left in the mailbox at Post Office Bay to see if we can hand-deliver any other visitors’ mail when we get home – a tradition dating back to 1793. An afternoon hike brings us to a lagoon, where a flock of American flamingoes are feeding in the mud: the 13th and final tick for my list.

Of course, I see far more than 13 species of animal during my trip: there are dolphins, turtles, rays, sharks, several of Darwin’s finches – so crucial to his Origin of Species – as well as lava herons, swallow-tailed gulls, pelicans and more.

But the Big 15 list has given a shape and purpose to my visit and helped me understand the oddity and rarity of some of those I have seen.

I spend a well-earned two-night break at Finch Bay Hotel on Santa Cruz before flying home, where I?contemplate the islands and species?I have yet to explore: Sante Fe iguanas and red-footed boobies (the 14th and 15th on the list), woodpecker finches and Galapagos owls, to name a few.

Visiting the Galapagos Islands is a once-in-a-lifetime bucket-list trip for most of those who come here. But the proximity, profusion and sheer peculiarity of the wildlife – along with the intriguing stories of their human residents – mean there’s every chance you’ll leave with a long list of what you must see when you come back.

metropolitan-touring.com

33 birds I photographed in Sri Lanka (and another 22 I didn’t)

Yala Crested hawk eagle 440 wide

On my recent trip to Sri Lanka, birdwatching was slotted in around interviews, hotel inspections, and hours and hours on the road. I did get chance to go on a proper birding walk at Rainforest Eco Lodge in Sinharaja and Hotel Sigiriya though, and saw lots of birds on safari in Yala and hiking in the Knuckles. All in all, I clocked up at least 55 species (that’s just the ones I noted down) and managed… Continue reading

Paying the price: why Sri Lanka’s parks and landmarks need urgent investment

The week after my own visit to Yala National Park, something particularly worrying happened. On August 17, one of the park’s best-known tuskers, Gemunu, came close to a safari vehicle looking for food. This isn’t unusual: he’s been doing it with increasing regularity since irresponsible drivers and guides started letting him take food from the vehicles, to deliver a “thrill” for their passengers. In this alarming Youtube clip from July, he almost topples a jeep over – the driver should never have let him get this close to the vehicle:

Then… Continue reading

Elephants on parade: cool or cruel?

 

Maligawa Tusker at Esala Perahera
Maligawa Tusker at Esala Perahera

By chance, my few days in Kandy in Sri Lanka happened to coincide with the annual Esala Perahera: a spectacular 20-day period of nightly parades which get progressively grander each night, culminating in the Pattini Perahera.

On this final night, I watched almost a hundred elephants and more than 2,000 dancers and acrobats parade past the temple, with the ‘caparisoned’ elephants cloaked in richly embroidered fabrics. The highlight is the mammoth Maligawa Tusker, who carries the… Continue reading

Adventures in Sri Lanka Part 1: Yala National Park

IMG_9525 sharper narrow 430 final

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It’s taken me four weeks to get around to it but – finally – some blogs from my month in Sri Lanka! I’ve been here since the start of August, researching green hotels and responsible tourism projects. Wildlife tourism plays a pretty big part in responsible tourism here in Sri Lanka, so of course I had to go looking for leopards and elephants for myself…

First up, some photos from a safari trip into Yala National Park:

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Herons in Battersea Park: an RSPB Date With Nature

Battersea herons
Last weekend I braved the freezing cold to help out at the RSPB’s Date With Nature in Battersea Park. I used to run through the park frequently when training for a marathon last year but, like many of the joggers and strollers in the park, I rarely used to look up and see what was in the trees. Which is a real shame, since there is a thriving heronry of 20-30 herons nests sitting 30 metres off the… Continue reading

The Poseidon adventure: behind the scenes at Atlantis’s aquaria

Manta ray Poseidon

The gigantic Atlantis mega-resort in the Bahamas is not somewhere I’d normally choose to stay, but when I found myself there for a recent tourism conference, I was pleasantly surprised to learn how much conservation work is done by its team of marine experts.

Giant aquariums filled with fish, coral and sea mammals form an integral part of the resort, which is themed on the legend of the sunken city of Atlantis. I’m not sure I… Continue reading

A giant problem: whale sharks, shark fin soup and WildAid’s work to “stop the buying”

Branson swimming with a whale shark. Photo: Shawn Heinrichs, WildAid
Branson & whale shark. Photo: Shawn Heinrichs, WildAid

On a Virgin Atlantic trip to Cancun last week, I had the chance to fulfil a childhood dream of swimming with whale sharks – the largest fish in the ocean, growing up to 10-14 metres in length. I was concerned the tour might feel intrusive, but the Mexican guides on my boat were thoroughly responsible and considerate, following… Continue reading

Making a comeback: Bluefields Bay marine project six months on

A Green Travel Guides crew has just been out to Jamaica to film the latest developments from the marine sanctuary project I reported on in January. Assisted by The Travel Foundation and Virgin Holidays, local fishermen have created Jamaica’s largest marine reserve, to allow depleted fish stocks to recover.

The Bluefields Bay reserve is now a year old, and it seems that fish stocks have gone from strength to strength since my visit at the start of the year. The wardens… Continue reading

Man vs beast: reconciling community and conservation in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Elders of the Makuleke communityI’ve just got back from an incredible trip to South Africa, where I spent a week at a safari guide-training facility in the northern-most tip of the Kruger National Park. Eco Training is South Africa’s leading training provider for safari guides, and has trained more than 3,000 guides in southern Africa and beyond.

It has three camps in South Africa, but what makes the camp I visited at Makuleke special is that it’s within a unique part… Continue reading