Gay Tortoises, Sneezing Iguanas and a View of Paradise in the Galapagos Islands

When environmental apocalypse confronts the planet, many wonder if these remote islands can cope.

It is very hot and very silent, and my head is being forced into the salty water. As my eyes adjust, an underwater cave comes into focus. Sunlight bounces off the walls, and the cave is lit up, ethereally, with a pale blue light. Suddenly, I see a group of sharks asleep on the bottom of the cave and as I watch, heart beating very fast, one swims towards me.

I am quite far away, in Los Tuneles in the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the west coast of South America. They are high up on most lists of ‘Places to See Before You Die’. Remote and primeval, their name is guaranteed to send a shiver down the spine of most self-respecting scientists.

Two hundred years ago, these volcanic islands were visited by an apathetic and under-achieving Charles Darwin, who had come over (unpaid) on the now legendary voyage of the HMS Beagle. He carefully observed the differences in the bird species of these isolated islands and back home in England, he mulled over what he had seen.

Species changed over time, scientists knew that. But no one really knew how that happened. Darwin gave us an explanation that was blinding in its simplicity. It goes like this – individuals that possess genetic differences which are favourable for their environments, pass those on to their offspring. Eventually, only those that have the desirable adaptations will survive. That’s how species slowly evolve over time. It is popularly and inaccurately summed up as ‘survival of the fittest’.

The dangerous by-product of this new idea was that it left no room for the hand of a ‘divine creator’ who made all the plants and animals. There were howls of outrage in England and a complex and painful loss of Darwin’s own Christian faith. He became ‘the man who killed God’, but science also changed forever.

Getting to Galapagos 

Darwin groupie and scientist, I had watched many Galapagos documentaries and had a major case of Attenborough envy. I had to see the place for myself, once my bank balance could weather it. Travel is via Ecuador and the atmospheric capital city of Quito in the misty foothills of the Andes. Here, colonial architecture and cobbled streets intermingle with the poor and run down favelas or slums.

A small plane flies us over the Pacific to Baltra island airport. It used to be a US Air Force base in the Second World War. People fall a bit silent as we land. As far as the eye can see it is a wasteland – blisteringly hot and arid with little evidence of life, aside from the giant cacti whose leaves have evolved to prevent water loss. It has the unsettling feel of an alien landing.

Giant cacti on the islands.

Getting anywhere on these islands is usually a complex business, involving travel by bus, ferry, motorboat and van. We are always accompanied by a trained naturalist guide – a strict Galapagos rule. We travel by motorboat between islands, rather than the popular cruise ship option.

Journeys can take three or four hours. Be warned that this is a very poor option for those prone to sea-sickness. The Galapagos waters are rough and choppy and an unlucky few are violently sick. Grey-faced, they clutch the side of the boat, as the crew scramble to pass out plastic bags smiling broadly, saying “this is nothing, this is calm water”. It isn’t. These high-speed motorboat journeys are not for the faint-hearted. The occasional sideways skid and the impact of the water is so loud, you fear the boat may crack in two.

Sea kayaking and snorkeling close to sea lions.

Sea kayaking and snorkeling close to sea lions.

Lonesome George

The Santa Cruz Island houses the Charles Darwin Research Station. It is very pleasant to be in a place where ‘The Scientist’ is revered. The islands must be protected against invasive species like the Norway and black rats which were introduced by whalers. They do untold damage by eating the eggs and hatchlings of native species. There are also large-scale captive tortoise breeding programmes. Large and graphic signs leave one with little doubt as to what they are required to do here.

Up close to a giant tortoise.

Up close to a giant tortoise.

The station once had a world-renowned celebrity. Or in this case, a ‘shell-ebrity’. This was Lonesome George – the last tortoise of his kind. Goats brought in by humans devoured the vegetation at his home on Pinta island, wiping out George’s relatives. An icon of the conservation movement, his wrinkled visage has featured on Ecuadorian stamps and currency. Elderly and anti-social, George resisted all encouragement to breed, including by one luckless Swiss research student tasked with ‘manually stimulating’ him, while smeared in female tortoise sex hormones.

Unambiguous sign at the tortoise breeding centre.

A bizarre rumour circulated, unsubstantiated, that George had remained resolutely infatuated with the shiny wartime helmet of one Lord Devon, possibly mistaking it for the rounded shell of a young tortoise.

Many have now concluded that George was gay. Indeed, we see later two large tortoises in a savage battle for the attention of a smaller one. Narrow-mindedly, we assume it is two males fighting over a female. Our naturalist guide assures us that it is, in fact, a young male they are competing over. This was a first-hand observation of homosexuality in the animal kingdom. Same-sex partnering may occur in up to 1,500 species it is now believed, all the way up from worms to monkeys, questioning conservative notions about ‘unnatural acts’. It may not be of reproductive benefit, but it forces us to ask – what could be more natural than mating for pleasure?

The guide also informs us that scientists can control the gender of the tortoises, by simply changing the temperature at which the eggs are incubated. I give him a heavily sceptical look, but my knowledge of reptile breeding is limited, and it turns out to be true. It is a feature of reptile biology called thermosensitive sex determination. The hotter it is, the greater the likelihood of female births. It has something to do with the temperature control of reptile sex hormones that are poorly understood at the moment. A zoologist colleague sums it up for me – “reptiles are weird”. It becomes more than a science fact when we consider that global warming is overheating the homes of these species. This has frightening implications for their male-female ratios and the extinction of species.

Underwater with a giant turtle.

Underwater with a giant turtle.

Traveller accounts of the fearless wildlife here also turn to be true. Sea kayaks and snorkeling allow us to get very close to it. Someone actually shouts “shark in the water” as we swim by, reminiscent of that classic film, Jaws. Sharks and giant turtles glide silently under our kayaks in the transparent waters.

On the sands of Tortuga (Turtle) Bay, shimmering and dreamlike under the baking Equatorial sun, black land iguanas crawl slowly under the scrub. The marine version of the iguanas often sneeze, startling me more than once, to get rid of a salt overload through their nostrils.

I am a naturally mediocre swimmer but even partnering with a good one can offer little protection in the choppy Galapagos seas. I discover this one afternoon, when there is a close shave off Floreana Island, as the large, rough waves drag us onto rocks where the territorial sea lions are basking. I have long known their reputation for unpredictable and dangerous behaviour, and feel the panic rising in me, as we are pushed closer and closer. The guide has warned us explicitly not to get near them. We manage to scramble out in time in a brief calm spell, shaken by the encounter.

Land iguanas on Tortuga Bay.

Land iguanas on Tortuga Bay.

Penguin contemplating the waves.

Penguin contemplating the waves.

The food

After long days in the open, the evenings are unexpectedly social on the more cosmopolitan islands. Tourist shops selling Galapagos souvenirs and dive centres line the main street in Santa Cruz. It is like any cheap and generic beach resort. There is happy hour with three for $10 cocktails in the many street bars.

It is a good prelude to eating in the many open-air fish restaurants, where the smell of the sea and grilled fish permeates the air. Someone teaches me to extract cod cheeks, a delicacy among foodies in the know. I meet like-minded travel junkies over dinner, from across the world. Next destinations are planned as the rival merits of Patagonia, Iran and Malaysia are discussed.

Sharks and blue-footed booby birds

The last and most spectacular of our natural encounters is a two-hour motorboat journey from Isabela Island. In the remote inlet of Los Tuneles, the sea floods a network of lava tunnels.

It is primordial and silent aside from the harsh cries of the blue-footed booby birds. The males perform a peculiar rolling dance, to show off their bright blue feet. The blue comes from pigments – ‘carotenoids’ – in their fish diet. It is a sign of vigour and good health; the brighter the feet the higher the chance of finding a mate.

Cacti and a sea lion in Los Tuneles.

Here we swim among the sharp rocks looking for sharks and find them sleeping in an underwater cave. The guide beckons me forward and forces my head down under the water. One swims out as I watch nervously, trapped, but they are reef sharks and are generally harmless. Scientific studies suggest that it is fish guts and blood that will most likely result in shark interest. We are of little gastronomic interest from an evolutionary perspective.

Blue-footed boobies in Los Tuneles.


For a grand finale, before I get back on the boat, there is an epic sighting of a giant shoal of barracudas. These are major dagger toothed predators of the sea. Thin and sharp-faced, thousands race by in a dark blur below me. Alone in that moment, in the silent lapping waters with the sun on my back, it is hard to imagine a place closer to paradise.

Later that night, in the Pink Iguana bar back on Isabela Island, there is a heady combination of sand, sea, sunset and alcohol. There is a mob around the bar, the music is loud and the bikinis are small. T-shirts saying ‘I Love Boobies’ are a popular joke. It doesn’t seem to get old. An artist paints the body of a near-naked young woman, as other men crowd around to watch and take photos. Couples are pairing off in their own complex mating rituals as the sun goes down. I realise I am far too old for this scene and head off.

Pink Iguana bar

Seeing this slow human and commercial encroachment leaves me with a complex dilemma. Should I have visited the Galapagos Islands? I am certainly thankful that 95% of the islands is protected territory. I should be delighted at the sight of a sea lion on the pier or a stingray near the marina, but I fail to be charmed. We are invading their space with our bars and music and electronic devices.

I hear that cruise ships are discarding their food overboard, attracting the sharks who come to feed. When environmental apocalypse confronts the planet, many wonder if these remote islands can cope. The island species are being decimated at a furious rate. New houses and hotels are being constructed on the islands. The research programmes struggle for funding. The efforts of science seem increasingly pitiful when pitted against the ravages of human activity.

Perhaps that day will come when this precious and fragile ecosystem will cease to exist, and we will see what is left in a zoo or theme park tour. I am privileged to have visited the Galapagos Islands. But if pushed to it, I think I would have given up the opportunity if only to leave these islands alone, happy in the knowledge that Galapagos life exists somewhere out there, pristine and unharmed.

Images by Matthew Angus and Kelly Patchell

Divya M. Chari is a neuroscientist and professor of neural tissue engineering at the Keele University School of Medicine, in the UK. She has published articles, on a jungle survival course in British Guyana (Conde Nast Traveller) and travels along the Bhutan-Tibet border (Staffordshire Life, UK and Horizon Magazine, Hong Kong).