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Exploring the unique realities of the Galapagos

Islands off the coast of Ecuador are home to creatures great and small

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First of a two-part series.

SAN CRISTOBAL, Galapagos Islands — I had read books. I had seen pictures. But I still was unprepared for the incredible reality of the Galapagos — neither for the uninhibited wildness and the other-worldly beauty of these lands nor for how quickly and completely they pulled me under their spell.

As Klaus Fielsch, the head naturalist on our ship, said, "If you let it, the Galapagos will grab you by the soul and will never let go."

Not everyone comes to the Galapagos with Darwinesque curiosity. Some, he says, dislike the heat and the dryness and complain about the smelly sea lions.

Even those people, he hopes, will go away with more appreciation for what is there. "But if you are nature-oriented," says Klaus (everyone goes by first names here), "you will take away memories that will last a lifetime."

There is simply no other place on the planet like the Galapagos. "We have only one moon; we have only one Galapagos. Everything comes together here just right to create a place that is truly unique."

I was there in April with my niece, Elizabeth, her brother, Greg, and Greg's wife, Lisa. Greg and Lisa had been in Ecuador for three months practicing their Spanish and doing service projects, and Elizabeth and I came to join them for a final celebration: an eight-day cruise of the Galapagos Islands.

We arrived on the island of San Cristobal, one of two islands that have airports, a day before the ship sailed, so we had a chance to look around. It didn't take us long to realize we were in a different kind of place. We walked down to the beach from our hotel and discovered sea lions sunning themselves on rocks. We walked through the town and stopped to rest at a little park near the beach. More sea lions everywhere. As we sat on a cement riser, sea lions even came up to sit in the shade under us, paying us no more attention than if we were invisible.

That was one of the things that would strike us again and again over the next week — how totally uninterested in us all the Galapagos animals were. We could walk within inches without a whisker twitching. We could sit on the next rock without feathers ruffling. They invited us into their world and then simply went about their lives as if we weren't there.

That's not to say there aren't restrictions. You are not allowed to touch, to startle, to move or in any other way distract wildlife from its normal course of action. You must walk only on designated trails, with a naturalist guide.

"But," says Klaus, "that feeling of being ignored by a wild animal — that's so stimulating, so invigorating. And it only happens here."

The Galapagos Islands are now part of Ecuador, but they are one of the few places on Earth that were never inhabited by indigenous peoples. It was only after Ecuador claimed them in 1832 that humans tried, with limited success, to colonize them.

Luckily, in 1959, the Ecuadorean people realized the islands were more important as a wildlife refuge, and they were declared a national park. They became a World Heritage Site in 1979, and in 1985 were designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.

Tourism took off in the 1960s and increased steadily. But that, too, had an impact on the flora and fauna. Realizing that unrestricted visitation posed an environmental threat, the government has now limited visitor permits to 65,000 a year. And each visitor must pay a $100 (in U.S. dollars) entrance fee.

Our boat, the Santa Cruz, operated by an Ecuadorean company, Metropolitan Touring, was one of the larger crafts touring the islands, carrying on average between 60 and 90 passengers. Smaller boats, carrying 16-20 passengers are another option, as are custom charters.

After the requisite drills and instructions, we soon got into a daily routine. We would take excursions onto the islands twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon — times when wildlife tends to be more active. We would load into inflatable, easily maneuverable water craft called pangas, knowing ahead of time whether we would have a wet or a dry landing.

For each excursion, a panga-load would have its own naturalist guide, Kiki, Geoff, Rosie, Luis, Lobo; a different one each time, but all personable, intelligent, passionate about the islands. Sometimes there was a panga ride along a coastline first; sometimes we would walk first and then take a panga ride. The small groups and alternating schedule not only made it easier to learn about the area, but also spread out the impact of the visits.

After the morning excursion, we often had a chance to snorkel in clear, fish-loaded waters before returning to the ship for lunch. After a scrumptious buffet, there would be time for a lecture, some games or perhaps a nap before the afternoon's excursion. Before dinner, there was always a briefing about the next day's activities.

Visitors are allowed on only a tiny fraction of the islands; some 97 percent of the land is off-limits. But it was easily enough to enchant us.

The islands are all tips of shield volcanoes, created out of the fiery depths between one and five million years ago. Though most of these creationary volcanoes are extinct, a few still add to the land mass. The most recent eruption was in 1995.

There are 13 major islands in the archipelago, with six smaller islands and 42 islets spread over some 30,000 square miles of ocean. We visited 10 islands and were amazed at how totally different each one was, how each had not only its own personality but often its own wildlife.

We fall in love, over and over again, with an array of strange and delightful creatures: booby birds with bright blue feet and boobies with bright red feet and boobies with black masks; frigate birds with bright red gular sacs at their necks; miniature dinosaurlike iguanas, some that live on land and some that live in the sea.

We see whiskered sea lions resting in the sun and giant tortoise tracks leading up the beach to a nest.

In the water, we see white-tipped reef sharks and spotted eagle rays and fish in all shapes and sizes.

With everything there is an unusual aspect to the appearance, a bit of whimsy that almost makes us think we have fallen into a Dr. Seuss book instead of arrived at real islands.

We are not surprised to learn that the first sailors who came to these islands called them Las Encantadas — the Enchanted Isles. In those days, strong currents, unpredictable winds and thick fog made the sailors think nature was playing tricks. When fog banks lifted and they found themselves in a totally different place, they believed the islands had moved around in order to confuse them.

We know better now, but we still find these isolated islands to be enchanting for more reasons than we had thought possible, in ways we are still coming to appreciate.

Next week: Lessons from Charles Darwin.

E-mail: carma@desnews.com