The Galapagos 2016

The Beagle.

It is a privilege to visit the Galapagos islands. The environment is fragile, and precious, and unlike almost anywhere else in the world.

Tourists are tightly organised. We cannot walk hither and thither, nor dive into the sea just because it looks inviting. Which means that, if I were to see anything, I had no choice but to join a tour.

There are biggish boats (up to 100 passengers - but no huge liners), and a few smaller, ex-fishing boats. I chose a smaller boat - this boat - The Beagle. I know the name has its own history, but this is the story of my journey.

Nothing quite prepared me for how beautiful the Galapagos are. But the sea really is this colour.

The blue seas of the Galapagos.

Who wouldn't want to throw themselves into this water?

I did swim here - and the water is clear and salty, and warm. But first, before leaping in, I glanced at the guide - who was staring at the water with great intent.

For there are sharks here. Those lumps on the beach are not rocks, but sea lions. And from time to time the pups will waddle into the sea to cool off, or to play. Idea supper for sharks.

Seal pup.

Life can be tough for these sea lion pups.

Their mothers must go to sea to feed. But there are predators out there, waiting for sea lions who take feeding risks in their hurry to get back to their pups.

Meanwhile the pups must wait on the beach. Some do as their told, stay in the nooks and crannies where they will be safe. Some creep out, and (like this pup) spend hours staring at the sea. Others cannot wait, and try to follow their mothers.

Galapagos penguins.

There are some very thin sea lion pups on the Galapagos. Their mothers have been away for too long and they will die. It's hard to see them. But, as we were reminded, this is how nature works. The fit survive and the weak fade away.

Some islands have wonderful beaches. Others are rocky. All the legacy of volcanic activity.

These Galapagos penguins are no more than half a metre tall - so much smaller their than their cousins in the Antarctic.

Pink flamingo.

These penguins are not the only unusual birds to live in the Galapagos. Some are easier to photograph than others.

We stood beneath trees full of chattering finches, flitting from branch to branch with no interest in us. But they are tiny, and safe among the leaves. You'll just have to imagine them.

In contrast, the flamingoes investigate the shallow lagoons, strutting so slowly that they seem to be posing.

The lagoons are quietly beautiful. Water laps against small trees on the shoreline. Everything is hot, and still, and reflections shimmer in the blue water.

Mangrove reflections.

These mangroves also provide magical reflections in the water. This is in a small creek, extending inland from a wide bay.

We were in a small dinghy, and nudged along the creek. You can't see, from this picture, just how clear the water is.

Nor can you see the shark. It was small - a baby shark, we were told. It circled the dinghy, a metre or so beneath us. One man regretted leaving his underwater camera on the Beagle. But I'd not have put my fingers in this water if you'd paid me!

Frigate bird, and his magnificent inflation

Away from the mangroves, the islands are bird-heaven. And the frigate birds are everywhere: in the skies, on the cliffs, strutting along the beaches.

It was the mating season when I was there. I know it is common for male birds to flash exciting colours, or trill a special song, in their efforts to attract a mate.

But the frigatebirds have a different strategy: the male inflates a huge red pouch beneath his chin, opens his wings and points his beak to the sky - where the females are flying to and fro, looking for the male with the most impressive inflation!

Dancing boobies

The blue-footed boobies, in contrast, pair up on the ground, and then dance together for hours. It is a complicated ritual, involving a lot of strutting and head nodding.

These two had taken over a tree stump (well painted in guano - bird colonies can be a bit whiffy, but they don't seem bothered).

They'd reached the dancing-in-tandem ritual when another pair began strutting nearby. The female broke off her dancing and hopped across to the other pair, reminding the other female - with much head-bobbong - to leave her boyfriend alone!

Frigate chick, feeding

The result of all this flirting, of course, is chicks.

This is a frigatebird chick feeding from its mother. (The 'stop' sign is the edge of the path - so you can see how close we were to them.) The chick - not much smaller than its mother - plunges its head right down the adult's gullet; the beak must reach right down to the stomach.

That's worth remembering, next time you're trying to feed a toddler. At least they don't shove their heads down our throats!

Heron, hunting crabs

I hope you are beginning to get the feel of the variety of bird life on the Galapagos.

I have pictures of mockingbirds, perched high on a twig, as if master of all she surveyed. I have pictures of tiny warblers. I have countless pictures of boobies, with blue feet, with red feet, with hidden feet as they are sitting on eggs. I have pictures of pelicans.

But I'll share just one more with you: this blue heron, her beady eyes on a tasty crab.

Iguana.

But it's not all birds. The Galapagos is a reptile haven. From tiny snakes to giant iguanas.

I had no idea that there were so many species of iguana. There are small, mottled-brown iguanas; there are big orange iguanas; there are green and red iguanas - like this chap.

Nor had I realised they have such expressive faces. This one looks, to me, a little sinister. But others can be smiling, or smug, or just plain bored!

Tortoise.

Finally, no collection of pictures from the Galapagos would be complete without a picture of a giant tortoise. They are - for many - a symbol of these extraordinary islands.

I knew they were big, and I knew they are so accustomed to people that we could walk among them. But I wasn't prepared for the feeling that they were looking at us.

This photograph was taken on a blisteringly hot day. We strolled, unprotected, in fierce sunshine, while the tortoises sheltered in the shade of small bushes and trees.

I can't help thinking that this tortoise thought we were all pretty stupid!