South America
Tourists observing the
Blue Footed Booby

 

On the Galapagos Islands
The tameness of the birds and animals is magical
By Patrick Dineen

More than a century and a half ago, the H.M.S. Beagle sailed into a strange world where penguins frolicked on the equator, tortoises grew to the size of small horses, and boobies with big blue feet performed stylized courtship dances, unfazed by the curious human visitors.

On board the ship was the naturalist Charles Darwin. Little did he know then that his observations of life in these isolated Galapagos Islands would change forever the way we look at human history.

Until then, most people in the Western world accepted the Biblical version of creation. But what Darwin saw in the Galapagos convinced him that species evolve to adapt to their environment. His landmark book, "On The Origin of Species", was a bombshell when it was published in 1859. His theory of natural selection gradually undermined many religious doctrines.

What was it in the Galapagos that led Darwin to his remarkable conclusions? It wasn't those huge tortoises that gave the islands their name. It was the humble finch. Darwin discovered an amazing variety of finches, each uniquely adapted to its surroundings on the various islands of the Galapagos. He theorized that the birds had common ancestors but evolved differently depending on their local habitat. Now called "Darwin's Finches", they number 14 different species ranging from the Mangrove Finch to the Sharp-beaked Ground Finch.

The long-beaked Great Frigate
puffs out his red chest.

Located in the Pacific Ocean, 600 hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos is one of the few places on earth which was able to evolve in isolation without any aboriginal people.

Since the animals and birds have no fear of humans, Darwin was able to observe at close range. Modern visitors can do the same.

As one writer put it: "It is the extraordinary tameness of the birds and other animals which gives the Galapagos environment its magical, Arcadian atmosphere." This tameness remains despite several centuries of visits by pirates, whalers, a host of eccentrics and Robinson Crusoe types who lived off the tortoises, land iguanas, birds and fish.

The Galapagos consists of 13 major volcanic islands that vary dramatically in terrain and in the type of wildlife they harbor. When you've seen one, you definitely have not seen them all.

On the Galapagos Island the
tortoise has no fear of humans.

Exactly one century after Darwin published "On The Origin of Species", Ecuador, which had laid claim to the islands in 1832, declared them a National Park except for those areas on four islands which had been settled.

Park rules are strict and the number of visitors controlled. A few visitors may stay in hotels in the main settlements, such as Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz or on San Cristobal, and take day trips to the various islands. But the vast majority sail on cruises lasting from three to seven days.

Because the islands are so diverse, a seven-day cruise makes the most sense to maximize the experience. Close access to the Galapagos, denied to the mammoth ships of the big cruise lines, is allowed to some 50 or so specialty vessels ranging from small luxury yachts to the 90-passenger Santa Cruz. Your pleasure in the Galapagos will be enhanced immeasurably if you are in reasonable shape to endure walks over rough terrain, some climbs, as well as wet barefoot landings in shallow waters or dry landings by motorized pangas on the islands.

Most days include a morning landing. For instance, after a wet landing on James Island, you embark on a three-hour excursion where you see marine iguanas, colonies of sea lions and fur seals, and hawks, finches, doves, yellow-crowned night herons and Sally Lightfoot crabs. After returning to the ship for lunch, you head for the nearby island of Bartoleme, which has a barren, lunar-like landscape, for a climb to the top of a cinder volcano cone.

The Galapagos Penguin splashes in the water.

Visitors are always accompanied by a naturalist guide and must stay on pathways. Some 97 percent of the terrain is off limits to protect the wildlife: nothing can be left or removed - even smoking and flash photography are not allowed on shore.

You feel almost invisible as you walk by creatures that are totally indifferent to your presence. A footpath on Hood Island is lined with albatross nests. Nearby, you can relax on a beach with a colony of sea lions. Birds - the blue-footed boobies in particular - are everywhere. A path on Isabela could be blocked by a slow-moving giant tortoise.

The Charles Darwin Research Station is trying to restore the Galapagos' most famous native - the giant tortoise. In the 16th century, hundreds of thousands of these slow-moving creatures existed before explorers and whalers began culling them in large numbers for their fresh meat. Visitors can see tiny tortoise hatchlings as well as the famous 70-year-old Lonesome George at the station. George may be the last of his particular species of tortoise. So scientists have been trying for years to find him a mate, without much success.

There are those who fear that the unique appeal of the islands is under threat from the burgeoning population (any Ecuadorian citizen can move to the Galapagos) and the tourists. Today the human population of about 20,000 people serves mainly in the tourism industry, which attracts some 60,000 visitors annually. Overfishing is another threat, specifically to the marine life. Despite these threats, the Galapagos remains, for the moment, one place on earth where man has not been the dominant influence.

Getting there:
Tourism to the Galapagos - a recent phenomenon - was the brainchild of Eduardo Proano, founder of Metropolitan Touring, Ecuador's biggest tour operator. Proano began running tours in 1969. When he found that convincing people to visit wildlife in the middle of nowhere was no easy task, he almost gave up. But word of his tours spread, and today the Galapagos makes up the majority of Metropolitan's business. Visitors usually combine a Galapagos cruise with a stay in Ecuador's capital, Quito, a gem of colonial architecture, and a full-day excursion to the Otavalo Indian Market with a stop on the equator. The rates for seven-night cruises range from US$1,784 and $3,625 on the recently refurbished Santa Cruz or the 38-passenger Isabella II. The operator also offers tours to the Amazon rainforest.
Metropolitan Touring is represented by Travel Marketing Experts.
Phone: 1-888-423-3995 or 416-861-1022 Fax: 416-861-1108
e-mail: cryall@sympatico.ca.

Patrick Dineen is editor of Travelweek, Canada's most prominent travel trade publication.

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