Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands. They’re unlike any other destination. An apt description might be barren, sparse and, at first glance, perhaps uninviting. But while the islands are not lush and a hammock swinging between two palms is non-existent, a visit to this archipelago straddling the equator is reminiscent of no other experience. It is simply incomparable.

The reason is the Galapagos’ remoteness. Located in the Pacific, approximately 600 miles west of Ecuador, lies the cluster of islands – 13 large ones and several dozen small islets (adding up to a total land mass of about three thousand square miles) – all formed by volcanoes.

For centuries, the contorted, sterile black lava rock was inhospitable to any form of life – even plant life. Eventually, however, seeds blew there (probably from South America), lodged and germinated. Carried again by winds as well as ocean currents, animals and birds arrived too. Some survived but most did not. It was survival of the fittest at its greatest test. And in the process of adapting to this harsh environment, a different world called the Galapagos was created.

Because of the islands’ isolation from the mainland of South America and even from one another (by deep water and treacherous currents), creatures developed independently, with no two islands having identical flora or fauna and many of the animals differing according to the conditions of the island on which they acclimated.

Today, these islands are inhabited by such unique species of wildlife that a quarter of the fish, half of the plants and almost all of the reptiles have evolved so distinctly from their ancestors, they are endemic (found in no other part of the world).

It is this process that provided the basis for Charles Darwin’s theory about natural selection and the process of evolution. After the young Darwin’s five-week visit to the little-known islands in 1835, his resulting work thrust the area into the world spotlight.

A species of finches (now appropriately called Darwin’s finches) with its 13 varieties provided the naturalist with his initial theory – animals, plants and birds adapt to an environment for survival. While the finches were all clearly related to one another and to similar finches on the mainland, they developed independent characteristics. Some ate hard nuts, developing stocky, powerful beaks to crack open the shells. Others’ beaks were shaped longer, enabling them to eat the soft fruit available in their environs.

Additional species studied by Darwin included the land iguanas in comparison to the Galapagos-created marine iguana, which evolved from the necessity of going under water to reach the only food available. He also studied such birds as the cormorant, which swims in search of food but, after years of doing so, has lost the ability to fly.

The result of this basic evolutionary process?

Phenomenal wildlife – the main, if not sole, attraction for the typical Galapagos visitor. But one does not have to be a student of evolutionary theory or even a fervent bird-watcher to appreciate first-hand, Galapagos-style encounters with nature. The only prerequisites to partake of this adventure are curiosity and a sense of adventure.

Because the islands are situated on the equator and cooled by the Humboldt Current, which flows north from the Antarctic, there is an unprecedented mixture of polar and tropical creatures – from penguins and flamingos to sea lions and iguanas.

Add to the mix an absence of predators, with the exception of pirates and whalers who preyed on the giant tortoise in search of food over a century ago, and these unusual species become a matchless commodity. Today they are trusting and fearless, whereby creating a visitor-friendly, if not lackadaisical, environment in which to wander.

The islands, having Spanish as well as English names, were collectively named Galapagos for the giant (weighing in the 500-pound vicinity), lumbering tortoise residents. The best place for a close-range view of these tortoises is the Charles Darwin Research Station. Located on Santa Cruz Island, the islands’ number one taboo, touching the animals, is actually encouraged at the world-renowned tortoise enclosure. While the isles are home to their namesake tortoises, they are also home to countless other rarities as well.

Reptiles have flourished so abundantly that visiting the Galapagos today is, in many ways, like returning to prehistoric ages. Prior to landing, we are told Fernandina (Narborough), one of the most volcanically active islands in the archipelago (erupting several times within the last 20 years), is home to innumerable iguanas. It is disappointing at first glance, until we realize their dark-black color blends effectively with the dark lava rock and the shore is virtually covered with the lounging, motionless reptiles. An occasional, seemingly discourteous, spout of seawater from their nostrils is the only reminder that the marine iguanas are, in fact, alive.

Though typically Antarctic creatures, the opportunity also exists to snorkel amongst penguins in this extraordinary haven situated along the earth’s middle, the equator.

And there are blue-footed boobies, a kind of gannet, everywhere. Named for their webbed feet so bright blue they seem to have been hand painted, viewing their mating ritual – the booby dance – is a treat. Picking up their ultramarine blue feet in a slow, most dignified fashion while bowing, wing spreading and sky pointing (with the neck, head and bill stretched straight upwards), the booby orchestrates its courtship dance.

As with many Galapagos seabirds, the courtship display of the large, elegantly streamlined black frigate bird is quite spectacular. Males inflate bright-red pouches hanging from under their necks into football-sized balloons. They then sit in the trees and display these pouches skyward to entice the passing females that continually circle above, assessing the proud male birds as if selecting the appropriate partner for the next dance.

The mammal seen most often is the Galapagos sea lion. Females and young pups are extremely playful and are often enjoyed one-on-one by the human visitor while swimming or snorkeling. The only aggression we experienced was displayed by a female protecting a newborn pup – we walked too closely to the pair.

The Galapagos was named a national park by the Ecuadorean government in 1959. That same year, the Charles Darwin Research Station was established as an international scientific center devoted exclusively to the study and protection of the islands. Great care has been taken to preserve the Galapagos, but in addition, rules must be implemented to protect the fragile ecosystem and its engagingly trusting animals.

Many parts of these islands – as well as entire islands – are off-limits to tourists, and with most areas inaccessible by air, crisscrossing the equator by boat is the only way to explore the Galapagos. The experience varies slightly, depending on the boat. However, on both small motor yachts and larger cruise vessels, passengers eat and sleep on board and usually make two different shore visits each day. Government-trained and licensed naturalist guides must accompany all groups, and on the larger boats (our 90-passenger vessel being the largest allowed) they brief each evening about the next day’s island sights.

It was during the first briefing that we were given specifics, including the laws of the land. Pen and pad in hand, most made notes: no touching the animals, no feeding the animals, no food or drink may be taken onto the islands, nothing may be left on the island and the only thing which may be taken from an island is trash. In fact, we were each given our own conservation bag to fulfill trash duty.

One additional guideline was designed to prevent the accidental transfer of seeds or organisms from one island to another, whereby endangering the delicately balanced environment. Shoe bottoms must be washed before leaving one island and visiting another.

Our first landing resulted in giggles from our fun-loving Cormorant group as we watched the participant of another group (the Boobies) step ashore in high heels. For the remainder of the landings, we noticed she wore a more practical selection of footwear – tennis shoes.

We returned with priceless memories – catching the sunset silhouette of a lone pelican, spotting the Southern Cross from the ship’s deck, viewing a newborn blue-footed booby chick and petting a 150-year-old giant tortoise. Ah, the glories of the Galapagos.