As Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie celebrate their engagement in the Galapagos Islands, Sarah Marshall discovers why this wildlife haven in the Pacific Ocean still has superstar appeal.
Whoosh! A sea lion glides past me, performing graceful somersaults in the water.
On the shore, these large, blubbery creatures laze in the sand, snorting, sneezing and barking. But in the liberating waters of the Pacific Ocean they outshine even the most athletic of synchronised swimmers.
As we snorkel close to the rocks, clumsily flapping our flippers against the strong waves, they twist and turn beneath us, gloating over our ineptitude.
Admitting defeat, I head back to the beach, but feel a heavy weight dragging on one foot. My flipper must be caught in a rock.
When I turn around, however, all I see are two shimmering blue eyes: a cheeky sea lion pulling on my leg.
It’s this fearless interaction between humans and animals that makes the Galapagos Islands such a unique and enchanting destination.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie couldn’t have chosen a more special place to celebrate their recent engagement, eschewing the Maldives and Caribbean for a different sort of paradise.
One of the most intriguing wildlife havens in the world, this archipelago of 20 named islands (and many smaller islets) straddles the Equator 972 kilometres from the coast of Ecuador.
The variety of sub-species found here was pivotal to Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking book Origin Of Species and his theory of evolution by natural selection.
But the terrain described by Darwin as “wretched” and “infernal” is now one of the greatest beauty attractions on the globe, visited by 150,000 tourists each year.
However, thanks to new restrictions limiting the number of visitors to each island at a time, it’s still possible to experience this remote wilderness just as Darwin must have found it in 1835.
That’s certainly the case when we arrive by panga (dinghy) at the island of North Seymour, home to some of Galapagos’s most interesting species of bird.
Our April visit coincides with the rainy season, when torrential downpours and blistering temperatures provide ideal conditions for mating.
On the rocks, small but sexually aggressive lava lizards do energetic push-ups to demonstrate their intentions.
A much more romantic display is the courtship dance performed by blue-footed boobies. These monogamous marine birds circle each other for hours at a time, padding from side to side with their comical blue-webbed feet.
Even more amusingly, the winged Romeo presents his coy Juliet with a ‘bouquet’ of twigs.
Displays such as this cannot be observed anywhere else in the world, certainly not at such close proximity.
According to restrictions set by the Galapagos National Park, island visits last approximately one-and-a-half hours. Cruising is the most popular way to explore the archipelago, with most ships operating two landings per day.
Our ship, the excellent 42-person La Pinta (operated by Metropolitan Touring), offers luxury accommodation and first-rate guides.
In between landings we spend our time listening to wildlife lectures, watching documentaries and doing what people do best on cruises: eating.
Chefs on board rise admirably to the challenge of using only ingredients sourced from the islands, in line with government restrictions set to help the local community benefit from tourism.
Almost 50% of wildlife in Galapagos can be found underwater, and snorkelling (or exploring in a glass-bottomed boat) forms a big part of La Pinta’s itineraries.
As we sail into the warm, clear waters surrounding the red sand island of Rabida, 100-strong schools of jellyfish are cause for concern, but are not nearly as worrying as the distorted - but distinctive - silhouettes of sharks rippling below the surface.
“Galapagos sharks are relatively safe,” reassures our naturalist, Carlos. “In fact, the most dangerous predator in these waters is man,” he says, referring to the illegal fishing of sharks for fin soup, a Chinese delicacy.
My boyfriend isn’t convinced. Within three minutes of snorkelling he’s had close encounters with both a shark and a sea lion, and retreats to the beach to sunbathe with the more sedate black marine iguanas.
But the ocean is actually incredibly peaceful. Relax and it’s very easy to become just another piece of traffic floating along the deep blue highway.
While I manage to make fleeting eye contact with a feline-faced golden ray, marine turtles glide nonchalantly past, appearing to stare right through me.
Wildlife may be the main attraction of the Galapagos, but it’s not the only one. Bleak and mysterious landscapes ignite imagination, while fantastical lava formations are a geologist’s dream.
The Galapagos archipelago was formed by volcanic activity, and the most volatile - and visually dramatic - islands are the younger formations in the west, Fernandina and the seahorse-shaped Isabela.
The latter is also home to one of the archipelago’s most famous residents, the giant tortoise, and the best place to see them in the wild.
Once killed for their meat and driven almost to extinction, numbers have now increased with the help of a breeding programme run by the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz.
One of five inhabited islands in the archipelago, Santa Cruz is also the main hub for visitors who - like Brad and Angelina - want to stay in a hotel, travel at a more relaxed pace and visit surrounding islands on daily boat trips.
A land stay also provides an opportunity to integrate with the local community and understand more about Galapagos’s most recent species: man.
Our base is eco-hotel Finch Bay, where David Attenborough is reportedly planning to stay on a forthcoming visit, situated a short boat ride from the main tourist town, Puerto Ayora.
Here, nature is on your doorstep: marine iguanas nest next to the hotel while nocturnal gulls can often be found wondering around the swimming pool and bar at night.
But one of the best places to observe the interaction between humans and animals is at the local fish market, Pelican Bay, where hungry sea lions and marauding pelicans line up alongside paying customers, attracted by the smell of fresh fish.
During our visit, chaos erupts when an opportunist pelican reaches over the counter and snatches a fish that’s far too big to swallow. An angry sea lion chases the greedy bird into the road, causing the only traffic jam the 15,000-strong population is likely to experience in some time.
Although animals can sometimes be a nuisance, locals generally respect wildlife. “They understand their income depends on tourism - tourists come because of the animals,” says our guide Sato, who was born and lives in Puerto Ayora.
“Children are taught about wildlife at school, and they now have an opportunity to visit the islands on school trips.”
In the past, the Ecuadorian government has tried to entice islanders back to the mainland with incentives such as interest-free loans. But despite the limited natural resources, dependency on exports and difficulties in sourcing fresh water, very few have chosen to leave. This is, after all, still a paradise.
Strict guidelines have been put in place to protect the islands, but Galapagos is by no means immune to threat. Illegal international shipping fleets still operate in the area, and a rising number of visitors has placed an inevitable strain on these fragile ecosystems.
Let’s hope responsible tourism will outweigh the potential dangers and allow visitors to swim with mischievous sea lions for generations to come.
Key facts - Galapagos
:: Best for: Close encounters with wildlife.
:: Time to go: There are wildlife highlights all year round, but May is a good compromise between rain and warmth.
:: Don’t miss: Swimming with sea lions and Galapagos penguins.
:: Need to know: You must keep a 2m distance from animals.
:: Don’t forget: A 50 SPF sun cream - it’s easy to burn on the Equator.
Sarah Marshall was a guest of Metropolitan Touring who offer a 4-day/3-night cruise of Galapagos on La Pinta (www.lapintagalapagoscruise.com) from $2,427 (£1,508) per person (based on two sharing). An ocean room view at the Finch Bay Hotel (www.finchbayhotel.com) on a full board basis starts from $243 (£151) per person. Transfers and flights from Quito or Guayaquil are available at an additional cost. To book, visit www.metropolitan-touring.com
KLM flies from London Heathrow Guayaquil in Ecuador, via Amsterdam Schiphol, from £619 return. Flights to Quito start from £624 return. This new, faster route avoids a stopover in Bonaire. For more information visit www.klm.com or call 0871 222 7474. Departures are also available from regional UK airports. Price variations apply.