Where the seahorses are

Galapagos: We take a public speedboat 2-hours west to Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos chain. Bottle-nose dolphins leap in our wake, frigates glide on our air currents above and we search the waters for orcas. We see none, but spot large turtles and waved albatrosses.

Sleeping sea lions

Isabela is almost the youngest island in the archipelago, at less than 1 million years old, and its landscape is dramatically different from the others. It’s a conglomerate of 6 volcanoes, 5 of them active, making this one of the most volcanically active places on earth. The last big eruption was in 2005, but the lava flowed into the vast crater, so there was no new damage.

Part of the crater. An incredibly colourful volcano on Isabela

The volcanoes are natural barriers that have created niche ecosystems on the big seahorse-shaped island, and Isabela is home to several different species of giant tortoise. It’s also home to Galapagos penguins, the only penguins to live north of the equator, which cuts through Isabela directly slicing two volcanoes.

Pelican balancing on a small branch

As we enter the main port, a small bay whose reef makes it only navigable at high tide, we see several penguins diving like aquatic mammals in the water, while others stand stiffly to attention on the rocky lava.

Galapagos penguins north of the equator

The island is a beautiful and tranquil place with few inhabitants, unpaved roads and a small main town whose buildings stop within a hundred metres of the main square. We find rooms in a house outside the centre, overlooking a long empty beach. At night, the waves lap rhythmically, sending us to sleep.

Flamingo in a brine lake

Ridiculously pink flamingoes filter-feed in a nearby brine lagoon and countless iguanas make their way to the beach and back every day for their algal snacks.

Flamingoes are filter feeders. Can't help thinking of croquet...
Other birds also feed in the salty water

We decide to visit the nearest volcano – of the 2005 eruption – and walk for 10 kilometres along its enormous crater rim. The crater is huge: 12km by 8 km. The path is thick with dust. It covers our legs and clothes, seeps into every crease and fills our noses. In time, the desert scrub peters out, leaving just the hardy cactuses, until that too ends. Finally, there is nothing. The crater is as the island must have been soon after its emergence – after the earth vomited up this multi-coloured rock from beneath the Pacific Ocean. Metals in the black lava reveal themselves in gold or red flashes. There is the brightness of sulphur, accompanied by its smell, and the white powder of ash.

Jolyon and Nick in the barren 'chico' crater

From our high vantage point, we can see that the barren lava stretches to the sea. In time, microorganisms will colonise this rock, holding the powdery lifeless crystals together long enough for lichens and cacti to get purchase. Eventually, there will be some sort of soil here and vegetation, like on the older islands we have seen.

Me and Nick in the crater

The next day, we take to the water. A local man, Juan, tells me he knows where to find seahorses. We board a boat around the island to a place where tunnels of lava have spewed into the cold sea. Some are collapsed, but many arches remain, and the interconnected tubes and pools are a wonderland for every type of Galapagos fish, ray, turtle and shark. Blue-footed boobies nest on rocks above the water. It’s an incredible place, and we spend a couple of hours happily staring into the waters.

Arches remain from collapsed lava tunnels

Then, a little further along, we jump into the water with mask and snorkel. White-tip sharks lie in rows on the bottom, slipping off with a single flick of their long bodies, turtles browse the coral gardens and a group of beautiful spotted eagle rays fly gracefully past us.

The whole area is rich with marine life
Green turtles flipper past like giant bath toys

We enter a shady mangrove area and Juan motions for me to quietly approach. On a branch, with its tail wrapped firmly around, is a large male seahorse. He is perfect: his belly pouch fat with babies and his fins pressed neatly back. We watch him for a while, before Juan points out a female wrapped on a nearby stem. She is a darker, smaller and more slender version of the male, and just as beautiful.

We find a male seahorse (my hand behind for scale)
He has a pouch in front holding the babies
He's wrapped around a mangrove stem

A national census in Ecuador means we have to return from Isabela earlier than we had planned – there are no boats leaving during the census. We spend our last couple of days on the islands visiting the beaches on Santa Cruz and celebrating Nick’s birthday.

Marine iguana on Santa Cruz
He nods his head in judders to signal

During the census, Puerto Ayora, the capital of Santa Cruz, becomes a ghost town – everything is closed and all the locals forced to remain indoors all day. Tourists wander forlornly through the empty streets and pelicans wonder where the fish market has gone.

Quite a large mouthful
Oops, not sure how to cope with this...
Definitely not going to spit it out, though

Far too soon, we leave the Galapagos. It’s one of the most incredible places I’ve been, and it’s a fitting end to our South American journey. Tomorrow we enter the North American continent, crossing into Panama.

Sea lion pup visits two boys rowing on a log

And don’t miss Nick’s photos.

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