Galapagos offer protection for the flora and fauna, sensational sights for the nature-loving visitor

WILD KINGDOM

October 15, 1995|By Laura E. Wexler

As a vacation spot, a nature lovers' paradise and a model for eco-tourism, Ecuador's Galapagos Islands are unbeatable. On this spatter of 6 million-year-old volcanic islands straddling the equator, blue-footed boobies dance their haughty high-step and dinosaur-looking iguanas catch rays on the rocks.

Lava lizards scurry across the sand and Darwin's finches flutter through the air. Sea lions romp in the turquoise water, welcoming visitors with a grunt and a splash, and maybe an invitation to swim. Anything, and everything, is possible in the Galapagos.

The islands, about 600 miles west of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, were accidentally discovered in 1535 by a Panamanian bishop who got blown off course trying to sail from Panama to Peru. Even after the bishop reported his discovery to Charles V of Spain (noting the giant galapagos tortoises roaming around), there was no mad rush to colonize the islands (13 main and numerous smaller ones). Their remote location, lack of fresh water and rocky volcanic soil made life there seem a less-than-appealing prospect.

Thus, with the exception of a few pirates and the like, the Galapagos were left to flourish or perish on their own. And flourish they did: Animal and plant life long gone from the rest of the world still thrives in the Galapagos. As Galapagos visitors, we had the opportunity to see it up close.

We chose to visit the Galapagos on an eight-day trip aboard the M/V Santa Cruz, a 90-passenger cruise ship operated by Ecuador's largest and oldest tour operator, Metropolitan Touring. Going by ship was ideal; we spent our days roaming the islands and our nights sleeping aboard the Santa Cruz, where we also took our meals.

Each day at 7 a.m. a voice crackled over the loudspeaker, calling us to a breakfast of fresh fruit and juices, granola and eggs and bacon. After breakfast, we'd scamper into pangas (dinghies) with our 15 fellow group members and Napo, a naturalist who was our Ecuadorian guide. Depending on the day's plans, we'd stow snorkeling gear, towels, hiking boots and, of course, camera and sun block into our backpacks.

If we were doing a "wet landing" onto the island, we'd slip out of the panga and wade ashore among the sea lions. For a "dry landing," we'd hop onto a rocky ledge, careful not to squash a Sally Lightfoot crab underfoot.

Cruises are divided into southern and northern portions (four- or five-day cruises visit either the northern or southern part of the islands; eight-day cruises visit both). After steaming out of port on Baltra Island, we first visited remote Hood Island, where we marveled at the dazzling performances of the famous blue-footed and masked booby birds. Walking along behind Napo -- turning my head left, right, up and down, not to miss a thing -- I suddenly heard a loud hiss. Looking down, I quickly realized a faux pas: I'd planted my hiking boot four inches from a mama booby and her two ruffle-headed chicks! I watched my step from then on.

Our next stop was Floreana Island, where Napo weaved stories of Floreana's strange happenings as we hiked through palo santo trees and giant cactuses. I got chills thinking about the German baroness who came to live on Floreana, never to be heard from again. (Perhaps only the marine turtles know what happened).

On Santa Cruz Island, we walked through a lush highland forest, where Napo spotted the fabled vermilion flycatcher, earning seven years of good luck for himself. Later, we met the most eligible guy in the Galapagos at the Charles Darwin Research Center, also on Santa Cruz Island. That's Lonesome George, a 500-pound, 150-year-old tortoise who's been looking for a mate, well, for 150 years.

Once, George was just one of a mass of giant tortoises that crawled about the islands. That mass, today, has dwindled to a fragile population sheltered at the Darwin Center. What happened? The tortoises disappeared into the bellies of 18th and 19th century sailors, who carried them off the island, stacked them four head high in their ships' holds and then killed them at sea for fresh meat. If George dies before the scientists at the Darwin Center can rustle him up a mate, his particular species will be extinct.

The highlight of the northern cruise was Tower Island, where the silhouettes and shrieks of birds filled the sky and the Galapagos' only colony of red-footed boobies hopped about on the ground. Because it was mating season, we were treated to a rare spectacle: the male magnificent frigate birds displaying their inflated red sacs in hopes of luring mates.

On Fernandina Island, where an active volcano still rumbles, we hiked along the lava flow, chuckling at penguins waddling over mounds of marine iguanas.

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