Imagine an alien planet.
A rough barrage of waves seemed to defend the calm oasis of glassy water you are now cruising through. The small fishing boat you peek out of, was artfully steered here, by a missionary experienced in navigating the hostile ocean. Drinking in your first sights of the strange paradise, you juggle your existing preconceptions of what is possible on Earth, attempting to match up the odd juxtaposition of features that surround you. How can it be, that flowing cascades of black lava rock, partially submerged by clear, azure water, can be topped by pointy cacti turrets? And beneath them, lounging in the beautiful sunshine, tiny penguins preen themselves and observe your passage? As the boat weaves through the maze of porous rock, you contrast the stubby looking birds with their more sophisticated neighbours; blue footed boobies, gulls with bright blue, enamel-clad feet. The familiar sea lions, which have followed you from the mainland, continue to splash and play in the water, and jewel-bright, scarlet zapata crabs scuttle from their movements warily. The air is still and quiet, carving only ripples across the water’s surface. Leathery, salt-encrusted iguanas do not bother to peel themselves away as you approach, but remain immobile, stoically unimpressed.
Almost unbelievably, Los Tuneles are not an experience only to be had on Mars, but is a safe haven in a remote region of the world, 1000km off the coast of Ecuador. An hour’s boat ride from Isla Isabela, the site forms just one puzzle piece of the incredible natural phenomena that is the Galapagos Islands. The isolated terrain shelters a diversity of endemic animal and plant species, famously known as the inspiration behind Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. With no natural predators other than man, in the most highly protected area I have ever had the privilege of visiting, wildlife in the Galapagos province seems removed from the pressures and noise ever-present to the rest of the planet.
I noted from the accounts of several guides, that pretty much any organism can be reliably labelled as a Galapagos/Lava/Darwin something-or-other here. The three species of booby are so-called because of their presumed stupidity, as when people first visited the island, the birds had no prior experience of being hunted, and so would stand dumbly as hungry sailors snatched them up. Darwin himself commented on the inexplicable behaviour of iguanas, which he “threw several times as far as I [he] was able”, and “would invariably return in a direct line to the spot where I [he]stood”. I am full of rogue facts about Ecuadorian fauna, but as my supervisors never seem to get bored of pointing out, my essay structure can be a bit hit and miss. I’ll try to reign in the random comments a bit.
Hopping out of the boat to cross the lava bridges at Los Tuneles is an even more surreal experience to just observing them from a distance. At the top of an arch, we waited only minutes to spot several enormous Green turtles glide underneath, escaping into the shallow sanctuary from the rough sea to sleep. The one thing my dad wanted from the trip was to see a turtle. I am sure a ‘herd’ is the wrong way to describe a group of them, but having lost count of the number we saw just days into the holiday, the experience reminds me of being in safari. On day one, everyone is over the moon to see a zebra, or an elephant. By the end of the week, it is more like ‘hey, another zebra. What’s new?’. Little did we know, we were about to get closer than we could ever have dreamed, to more turtles than we even realised could fit into barely 2m depth of water.
Armed with masks and snorkels, we dropped into the water and prepared to follow our ever-cheerful guide ‘Seabass’ into an ethereal world. The site is too shallow for diving, but it is not difficult to appreciate why it ranks as one of the top spots for snorkelling in the world. I saw more diversity of life in one session here, than I have in countless excursions since combined. Fleets of sting rays, spotted eagle rays, and velvety golden rays soared past us, alongside a pick and mix suspension of colourful fish, eels, seahorses, flatfish, and a myriad of minuscule shrimp-like forms. After exploring the incredible array of life in the open, it was time to venture into the shade of a tunnel. Arms flat against my sides, I was guided into the blackness of a hole by my flipper, and told to tap when I wanted to come out. After a moment to adjust from the bright sun outside, wondering what could possibly be worth looking at that could match the kaleidoscope behind me, I began to pick out shadowy forms on the ocean floor.
I’ve encountered small reef sharks before, and been smothered by gentle nurse sharks. But to date, I have not since been hypnotised by looking into the eyes of big white-tipped sharks like in Los Tuneles. Informed by our guide that the ones we came face to face with were 2m long, the memory still has a special place in my mind, as the first time I felt in awe, at the mercy of a truly wild predator. Knowing full-well that the sharks are peaceful is not enough to quieten the ingrained instinct, that insists you remain perfectly still in their presence. Eventually I tapped to come out, to let someone else have a look, and discovered that several sharks had passed underneath and right next to me without me even knowing, whilst I was transfixed by their friends resting in the shadows.Evidently, as a pretend biology student, I am a wildlife lover- but I have been fascinated by sharks in particular from a young age. I hope I get the chance to dive with big sharks in the future. Although imagining it still scares me slightly, I hope I never become totally used to their presence, and lose that incredible form of adrenaline rush.
Stunned by the realisation that without a guide, we would never have known the sharks were even here with us, we moved back into the warm, sheltered water in the sun. After a bit more nosying around, this time in the tangled mangrove roots that adorned part of the site, we prepared to leave. But I soon forgot about my fingers, puckered from being in the water so long, when we had our next turtle encounter.
The locals are very strict about respecting the wildlife in the Galapagos, to the extent that nobody is allowed to move islands without every bag being thoroughly searched, to check nobody tries to make off with a penguin or an iguana. One of the major rules is that you must not touch to wildlife, on land or in the water, ever. But the turtles we came across next didn’t really give us a choice. Four enormous, fully grown individuals had literally crammed themselves into a small enclosure, grazing on tufts of weed with their beak-like mouths. Unphased by our being there, they barely even glanced at us, oblivious to our amazement as they attacked their meal with enthusiasm. Without moving at all, we had somehow become stuck in a kind of turtle traffic jam, with flippers and shells brushing past us as they splashed around in the shallows. The water was barely deep enough to cover my knees when I stood up, and the ridges of their shells glistened above the surface. I do not think we even got any good photos from the experience, as they were too close to even get in the shot. We may have some snaps of my brother smushed up against a shell at close range, but I think that’s about it.
So, a bizarre environment, in a remote and challenging location to access, with all manner of species inhabiting it and living alongside each other. Los Tuneles may as well have been an extraterrestrial experience, for the distinctly separate and special place it has in my mind. Ecuador is the first place I have visited where I have been truly overwhelmed, by the extent that people genuinely care about preserving the wildlife and the pristine environment. In what often feels like a hopeless and depressing time to be alive, where its all too easy to sit by and watch the most fantastic natural phenomena being disrespected, and suffering, this strange and beautiful string of islands in the Pacific gives me hope.The people in the Galapagos are doing all they can to balance sharing their beautiful surroundings with the outside world, whilst protecting it from the harm that has inevitably followed in other areas. The danger here is not so much from within, as from the large scale effects of global warming and pollution. It seems brutally unfair that after all their efforts, at this rate, the locals will likely be let down by the excessive consumption and disregard for nature of the rest of the world, invading even the most precious of sanctuaries from afar. I can only hope that it is not too late for humanity to get its act together, and that the beauty of the Galapagos will be allowed to remain pristine for a long time to come.