From hell on Earth to paradise


Looking across the landscape in front of me – a black, hot, desolate plain of molten slag – it’s easy to understand why the first visitors to these islands considered them hell on earth.

It wasn’t just the landscape. The animals also looked like the spawn of hell. This was the view of Spain’s Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the fourth Bishop of Panama, who arrived in the Galapagos Islands in 1535 after drifting off course en route to Peru.

And compared to the bountiful paradises found elsewhere in the Pacific, surely these remote, uninhabited, harsh islands did seem hellish.

The Galapagos: A world within itself

Craig Platt gets up close with the unique and diverse wildlife of the Galapagos Islands on a catamaran cruise. The reporter travelled as a guest of the South America Travel Centre and LATAM

More than anything, it is the lack of rainfall here, combined with the burning equatorial sun, that made it such a hard place for humans. In the age of exploration, ships would anchor at islands with the expectation they could find fresh water and replenish their supplies. Not here.

And yet, the Galapagos Islands are a paradise in their own way – it just depends on your perspective. Here, dozens of unique species have evolved and flourished because of their isolation and ability to survive in the tough environment.

Charles Darwin is considered something of a father figure here, as the man who recognised the significance of the islands, even if his theory of evolution was still just a glimmer in his mind’s eye at the time he visited in 1835.

His identification and classification of the many unique animals – particularly the finches, which were different from one island to the next – put the Galapagos on the map as a place of biological importance.

Darwin’s legacy continues to this day: protection of the unique environment has become a serious business here. The Ecuadorian territory has placed limits on the number and size of the cruise ships that can operate here, so planning your trip well in advance is advised.

The tourist demand isn’t surprising because the islands remain a true bucket list-destination, particularly for Australians: a recent survey on Traveller.com.au found it was top of the list for many of our readers.

And as the extraordinary Planet Earth 2 series from the BBC hits our screens, the Galapagos is a place where you can have your own “Planet Earth” moments. The BBC’s viral footage of an iguana narrowly escaping a onslaught of snakes was filmed here on the island of Fernandina.

My own visit is on board the Ocean Spray, a luxurious catamaran that sleeps up to 16 passengers. The width of the catamaran means the common areas – the dining area, the lounge and the rooftop sun deck – are particularly spacious. And the cabins are also quite luxurious, and large with their own bathrooms (the shower is one of the largest I’ve seen at sea). All have private balconies, even my own single-berth room.

Day one: Blue feet and red throats

Wildlife is the number one reason to visit the Galapagos Islands and, unlike some other parts of the world where the animals can prove elusive, here visitors will discover it immediately and in abundance.

Killer whale’s spectacular attack caught on camera

Incredible footage captured by Traveller.com.au editor Craig Platt shows an orca throwing a green sea turtle metres in the air as it plays with its prey off the Galapagos Islands. The reporter travelled as a guest of the South America Travel Centre.

Before arriving at the aforementioned hellscape of southern Isabela island, we set out from Santa Cruz – one of the only islands to be inhabited by humans. Shortly after boarding the Ocean Spray we cruise across to our first island stop, North Seymour Island. From the deck we watch as blue-footed boobies circle and dive for fish, their bodies folding into perfect arrow shapes the instant before they hit the water.

Despite North Seymour’s tiny size, the number of animals that live here is staggering. As with all on-shore visits to the Galapagos, we’re accompanied by a naturalist to inform us about the island and its animals as well as ensuring we don’t stray from the defined path. This is just as well, as the wildlife is so abundant one could easily end up stepping on a poor creature by accident (the animals have no fear whatsoever of humans so won’t bother getting out of your way).

North Seymour is home to hundreds of the blue-footed boobies – the males will whistle and do a little dance, lifting each of their bright blue feet in turn before spreading their wings, in the hopes of attracting some female attention. The island is also a popular nesting spot for frigate birds. The males of this large black species have bright red sacks at their throats, which they inflate into enormous balloons. Again, it’s all about getting some female attention.

Day 2: Vast volcanoes

We arrive at Isabela, the largest of the islands by a long way: a vast, volcanic landscape of harsh cliffs and ancient lava flows. We tour by Zodiac in the morning and quickly discover that what appeared to be sheer barren rock from a distance is teeming with life. More boobies, Galapagos doves, and black aquatic iguanas all perch or cling to the rock face. In a sheltered bay a small group of another of the island’s’ unique species can be found – the world’s only flightless cormorants. Such is the abundance of food in the water, the birds have never needed to travel far. As a result, their wings have shrunk to become near useless. If anything they have begun to resemble penguins, without yet having the abilities in the water that the latter’s flippers provide.

Our second stop is Fernandina, essentially a huge single volcano that resembles Mt Fuji without the snow. Its volcanic landscape is harsh and unforgiving, covered in rocks of cooled lava that makes it impassable to most animals and unwelcoming to plant life. We walk along a designated track, being careful not to step on the island’s most abundant residents – marine iguanas, which are sunning themselves in large groups on the shore. We also spot several rarer Galapagos snakes, small constrictors that hunt for baby iguanas.

But we leave the island after our guide spots a killer whale cruising the shoreline. Getting in our boats, we follow it, watching it occasionally surface to spout and breathe before it disappears. Shortly after, it resurfaces right on the bow of our dinghy, a hapless sea turtle clenched in its jaws. A few minutes later, we gasp and shout in awe as the whale knocks the turtle 20 metres into the air with incredible force, seemingly in an attempt to crack its hard shell. Or perhaps it’s just playing with its food. It’s hard to tell. Even our guide has never seen a whale exhibit this type of behaviour.

Day 3: Penguins and turtles

We return to Isabela in the morning for a brief hike from Tagus Cove, a small volcanic crater lake that offers beautiful views of the harbour. Further up the hill we can see the tallest point of the islands, Volcan Wolf, a volcano on Isabela, along with the adjacent Volcan Darwin. We then tour the bay in dinghies and see our first Galapagos penguins – the most northerly based penguins in the world and the only ones you can find north of the equator. After that, we snorkel the shoreline and see a large number of sea turtles grazing on the seaweed. They are completely unperturbed by our presence. While the sea turtles are not interested, a young sea lion decides to pop in to have a look at our snorkelling group.

After lunch, we head to one of the Galapagos newest beaches, a place called Urvina Bay – which did not exist until 1954, where an earthquake forced the land to rise up, creating a new shoreline for this part of Isabela. Here there’s a lot more vegetation, but little life. There are a few land iguanas and birds, but the tortoises that are said to live here are likely in higher ground, where there is better eating and cooler air.

Day 4: From mangroves to hell on earth

Still circumnavigating Isabela, we find the landscape has completely changed from our last stop. Here it’s a mangrove forest, though the water in the channel remains beautifully clear. We see plenty of turtles and sea lions again (one, in a bizarre sight, lazing in the branches of a mangrove tree), but the real attraction this time are the eagle and golden rays. Though small compared to some other ray species, they are both colourful and move beautifully through the water.

After lunch we move further down the coast and the landscape changes again. Gone is the greenery of the mangroves, replaced by black volcanic rock as far as the eye can see. The dark surface reflects the sun’s blazing heat back at us as we walk along and the “hell on earth” descriptions come back to my mind. Depressions in the landscape have created small salt-water lakes and here we find one of the Galapagos’ rarest inhabitants – flamingoes. There is only a small population of the exotic birds to be found in this part of the world, yet they still survive here, dining on the small shrimp that can be found in these pools.

Day 5 and 6: Darwin’s legacy

Day five is a full day of sailing and chance to rest. We round the southern coast of Isabela and make our way back to Santa Cruz. While it’s a travel day of relaxation on board, I find myself constantly distracted – in regular intervals I see a spout out the window and find there’s a whale off the starboard side. Later, we even spot a whale shark from the upper deck, recognisable due to its vertical tail fin.

Back at Santa Cruz the next day, we visit the island’s town of Puerto Ayora, home to the Charles Darwin Research Station – a place where projects are developed to protect the wildlife of the region and also an opportunity to see some of the giant tortoises that are difficult to see in the wild. It was also the home of Lonesome George until 2012, when the 100-year-old tortoise – the last of his species – finally died.

In the gift shop, T-shirts are emblazoned with a quote attributed to Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Strangely enough. given his name is on the centre, the quote was never actually said by Darwin. Instead, it reportedly originated with an American business professor in the 1960s.

A more accurate quote from Darwin is this from one of his journals: “The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself.”

Indeed it feels like it’s own world. One that, despite its initial appearance as hell, turned out to be a paradise.

Trip notes

MORE

traveller.com.au/galapagos-islands

ecuador.travel/

FLY

LATAM flies from Sydney to Santiago, Chile with connections to the Galapagos via Quito, Ecuador. See latam.com/en_au

CRUISE

South America Travel Centre arranges high-end cruise trips in the Galapagos Islands. A four-day cruise on board the Ocean Spray luxury catamaran starts from $US3090. See southamericatravelcentre.com.au

See also: I went to the terrifying snake island from Planet Earth 2 – here’s what it was really like

See also: 20 things to love about the Galapagos Islands

Craig Platt travelled as a guest of LATAM and the South America Travel Centre.

Follow the writer on Twitter and Instagram.

Listen: Flight of Fancy – the Traveller.com.au podcast with Ben Groundwater

To subscribe to the Traveller.com.au podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.



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Jim Pevitt forgets his MS with morning ocean swims




At Port Fairy’s East Beach, it’s a normal sight to see a group of people submerging a man into the ocean in a wheelchair.

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Port Fairy volunteers help Jim Pevitt forget his MS with morning ocean swims


At Port Fairy’s East Beach, even in the bitterly cold months of winter, it’s a normal sight to see a group of people in nothing but bathing suits, submerging a man right into the ocean in a wheelchair. 

The scene is generally accompanied by peels of laughter and the unchecked roar that only the cold whack of the ocean can extract from a person. 

The man in the chair is Jim Pevitt and he is being helped into the ocean for his daily ritual. It’s a ritual known to all inhabitants of beach towns around Australia — the early morning ocean dip.

Jim is a surfer. He admits that, as a young man, he was consumed by it.

It’s in his heart, his blood, his head. Just not in his body anymore.

But years of popping up on his board means that these days, he still has enough strength in his shoulders to push up out of the Southern Ocean onto his walking frame, after his morning dip.

When in the water, Jim is flanked by mates on each side. His legs are no good, multiple sclerosis won that round.

Ask him what else MS has taken and Jim grimaces. He’s ever cautious not to fall into the depressive trap of dwelling on the negatives. 

“If you think about it too much, it’ll get ya,” he says.

“I used to be on a walking frame, I’m now in a wheelchair, so it’s taken …” he looks off into the distance and falls silent mid-sentence. 

The hard truth is that MS has taken a lot, and it keeps taking.  

Jim Pevitt has progressive multiple sclerosis. Scars on his brain interfere with his neurological function, resulting in accumulative disability. 

He doesn’t talk about those negatives much, only when asked, and even then he’s quick to turn the conversation around.

It’s a lesson learned from surfing huge sets — not to think too much.

“When the waves are big and you are outside of your comfort zone, [I learned] not to give in to the situation and think too much. Otherwise panic will set in,” he says.

James Pevitt is ‘Jim’ to most in Port Fairy, and he is well-known because you can’t keep the man inside.

He’s always escaping for coffees down the street, outings that bring him to old friends and free him temporarily from the nursing home he currently lives in, where he is decades younger than his neighbours.

“I don’t think it’s right that young people have to live in nursing homes,” Jim says.

“I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. It goes against my grain, big time.

“You say: ‘What happened to so-and-so?’… ‘Well, she died’.”

The other place that Jim escapes to is his old friend, the sea.

These days, It takes a lot of effort to help Jim into the ocean — volunteers, a special wheelchair, a special bus, and it takes hours out of each day.

But when he was initially diagnosed and for years afterwards, he was self-reliant. 

He lived in his own home around the corner from East Beach. He’d travel to the beach towing a walking stick and walking frame on his electric scooter, then he’d hobble into the water using a combination of the walker and cane, kneel on all fours and wait for the waves to dunk over his head.

Each year, his short trip to the water became progressively more difficult and the early risers in Port Fairy have been witness to that.

Surf Life Saving Club competitor Paul Buchanan is one observer who could no longer stand by and do nothing. 

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Volunteers help Jim seek refuge from MS in the Southern Ocean nearly every day.



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Ocean Grove and Grovedale remain undefeated


Grovedale and Ocean Grove remain the only undefeated teams in the Section 1 Mixed draw after round two, with both posting 4-2 wins last Saturday.

The side is just one point behind ladder leader Grovedale, which defeated Newcomb on Saturday.

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Chinese rocket debris lands in Indian Ocean



The Long March was the second deployment of the 5B variant since its maiden flight in May 2020. Last year, pieces from the first Long March 5B fell on Ivory Coast, damaging several buildings. No injuries were reported.

“Spacefaring nations must minimise the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former senator and astronaut who was picked for the role in March, said in a statement after the re-entry.

“It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”

With most of the Earth’s surface covered by water, the odds of populated area on land being hit had been low, and the likelihood of injuries even lower, according to experts.

But uncertainty over the rocket’s orbital decay and China’s failure to issue stronger reassurances in the run-up to the re-entry fuelled anxiety.

“It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities,” Nelson said.

Harvard-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Reuters that the potential debris zone could have been as far north as New York, Madrid or Beijing, and as far south as southern Chile and Wellington, New Zealand.

Since large chunks of the NASA space station Skylab fell from orbit in July 1979 and landed in Australia, most countries have sought to avoid such uncontrolled re-entries through their spacecraft design, McDowell said.

“It makes the Chinese rocket designers look lazy that they didn’t address this,” said McDowell.

The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid, dismissed as “Western hype” concerns the rocket was “out of control” and could cause damage.

“It is common practice across the world for upper stages of rockets to burn up while reentering the atmosphere,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman at China’s foreign ministry, said at a regular media briefing on May 7.

“To my knowledge, the upper stage of this rocket has been deactivated, which means most of its parts will burn up upon re-entry, making the likelihood of damage to aviation or ground facilities and activities extremely low,” Wang said at the time.

The rocket, which put into orbit an unmanned Tianhe module containing what will become living quarters for three crew on a permanent Chinese space station, will be followed by 10 more missions to complete the station by 2022. 

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Former Miss Universe Australia Renae Ayris moves in with parents while Ocean Reef home is being built


Mother’s Day is extra special this year for former Miss Universe Australia Renae Ayris and her mum, Jo, who haven’t celebrated it together in eight years.

In fact, the model, along with fitness superstar husband Andrew Papadopoulos and cat Missy, have been making up for lost time, and since relocating from Sydney to Perth in December last year, have “claimed a wing” in her parent’s home.

“I definitely wanted to move back to Perth to settle. I want to raise a family here,” Renae said told PerthNow.

Renae and Andrew purchased land in Ocean Reef back in 2019, but progress has been slow — the slab has only just been poured — and they’ll be living with mum and dad, Steve, for longer than they initially planned.

“They were going to rent, then the move was delayed and then COVID hit and the rentals weren’t even possible,” Jo said.

“We made the offer (to move in). I had to check with her dad first…and he was fine with it so we put it to them. And they took a bit of convincing, they thought of it as a big ask.”

But the risk has paid off, only bringing them closer.

“I’m fine with it. It’s my parents, but I was thinking about Andrew. He’s loving it though, great meals cooked every night,” Renae said.

“I love every minute of it,” Jo added.

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Antarctic ocean drone washed ashore in Victoria, to be retrieved by US owners


A scientific ocean drone and its “priceless” data has been hauled from a Victorian beach to await retrieval by its US owners.

Its name is saildrone (SD)1023 and it started its uncrewed journey around Antarctica with its sister SD1022 two years ago. Within days though, the former was lost.

Battling the Southern Ocean for two years on its own, facing icebergs, winter storms, and creatures great and small, SD1023 finally made its way to rest on a beach in Waratah Bay, Victoria.

Greg Mouldings from Waratah Bay Marine Rescue found the ocean drone earlier this week.

“We’ve actually finally got the drone off the beach which was pretty amazing,” he said.

“So we’ve dropped the sail-drone in a local farmer’s paddock because you’d never be able to use the shed again.

“We used pine poles as rollers and winched it up onto a trailer, five of us manhandling it.”

SD1023 had been collecting data about krill populations in the Southern Ocean before it washed ashore in South Gippsland.

It won’t stay in the farmer’s paddock for long as it will be sent back to Saildrone, its owner, in San Francisco.

The ocean drone is priceless to the company, which won’t put a price on what the research vessel is worth.

There are 100 ocean drones in the company’s fleet.

The research vessels are able to travel the world’s oceans for up to 12 months to help identify and stop illegal fishing and drug trafficking.

The data collected on missions can also map climatic change or help scientists understand how oceans store and release carbon.

Using wind and solar-powered technology, ocean drones are able to capture and send photographs in real-time of any sealife encountered.

It is not known how communications were lost with SD1023 or how it became lost.

Its hardware may have been knocked off by an iceberg, but all its data is still intact.

Its sister drone made it back safely. The data collected about krill density is still to be collated and analysed.

Mr Jenkins said he was thankful the drone was located after its arduous mission.

“It’s passed Cape Horn over winter and the data it’s collected is all still there.

“The Southern Ocean is remote and dangerous so it’s the ideal place to deploy robots.”

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Ocean Grove wins tight season opener


After being promoted to Section 1 this season, reigning Section 2 premiers Ocean Grove defeated St Albans in a thrilling three-sets-all season opener.

The first two sets of the day were split with Grovedale’s Biance Duff and Jai Bosnjak taking a 6-3 win over Barwon Heads’ Brett Armstrong and new inclusion Jordyn Aitken, while late inclusion Huon Bertino and Mimi Armstrong ran through Grovedale’s Zoe Duff and Jason Schoenmaekers 6-0.

The men’s and ladies’ sets were also split with the Duff sisters taking a comfortable 6-2 win for Grovedale, while Bertino continued his good form from the mixed teaming with Brett Armstrong to win, again without dropping a game.

With the score at two sets all, both sides were keen to take the advantage in the final two mixed sets and start the season with a win.

Barwon Heads took a 4-2 lead in the first reversed mixed match but Bianca Duff and Dave Meehan fought back to take the set 6-4.

Grovedale also claimed the last set 6-4 for the win.

Section 1 champions from last winter, Newcomb, scored a comfortable five sets to one win over Highton.

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Bull sharks are stealing fishers’ catch in the Herbert River — up to 80km from the ocean


Hinchinbrook Shire fishers are accustomed to losing the odd fish to hungry bull sharks, known to congregate around seafaring vessels as they seek barramundi, mangrove jack, coral trout and red emperor.

But a lesser known occurrence is that the the sharks also lurk in the region’s main freshwater body, the Herbert River, which flows through the town of Ingham, 100 kilometres north of Townsville.

Sharks are being caught by recreational anglers upstream of Abergowrie, more than 80km from the ocean, by local sugarcane farmer Mark Zatta and his mates and family.

“They’re getting up to a metre in size — it’s a bit hairy getting them into the boat.

“They do like the freshwater. [During] the last five years we’ve been spotting them more and more.”

On a recent trip in his 3m tinny, Mr Zatta said he hooked a good-sized barramundi when, to his shock, a bull shark charged onto the scene.

“I caught a barra there and a shark chased him in, grabbed the barra and the lure at the same time, it was great fun trying to get him in the little boat,” Mr Zatta said.

“Once you hook up, other things like to chase them.

Mr Zatta has lived and fished in the river most of his life and said, despite hearing the sharks could adapt to freshwater, he was surprised at how far they travelled upriver.

Griffith University shark researcher Johan Gustafson has spent time tagging and studying bull sharks and said 80km upriver was further than the fish was normally found inland.

“They’re generally found between 20 to 50km from the ocean, they can probably go further, it’s a natural occurrence for juvenile bull sharks,” he said.

“The bull shark has a unique life cycle.

Dr Gustafson said it was common for bull sharks worldwide to begin life in freshwater from Perth to Sydney, across the northern two-thirds of the continent.

Juveniles spend up to seven years growing from a size of 30 centimetres at birth, migrating down the river during that period as they mature.

“As it gets larger, it will spend less time in the upper reaches and more time in the lower reaches and it won’t go back further up,” Dr Gustafson said.

Targeting sharks more than 1.5m long is illegal in Queensland but Dr Gustafson says catching the juvenile fish is a popular sport across the state.

“They’re not endangered but are on a slightly declining population trend … I don’t think fishing is going to cause any issues for them,” he said.

Dr Gustafson is part of a team currently tagging along the Queensland coastline to better understand the bull shark’s movements.

Mr Zatta said he had concerns about the sharks eating too many of the popular local angling species, barramundi, but Dr Gustafson said it was unlikely the sharks were impacting fish stocks.

“Under that 1m size they don’t have fully-developed jaws so they’d be going for soft foods,” he said.

“They’ll be looking at shellfish, crustaceans and as they grow they’ll go for larger prey items like fish.

Both Mr Zatta and Dr Gustafson said the main safety concern for river users remained estuarine crocodiles, not juvenile bull sharks.

“It’s definitely not a place to go swimming: stay in the boat, stay in the boat,” Mr Zatta said.

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