Blue Footed Booby
the Galapagos Islands
The tameness of the birds and animals
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Patrick Dineen is editor of Travelweek, Canada's most prominent
travel trade publication.