a  magazine  of  travel  and  discovery

by George Oxford Miller

When the Spaniard Frey Tomás de Berlanga discovered islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador in 1535, he called them “Las Islas Encantadas,” the enchanted or bewitched islands, because they seemed to wander across the uncharted waters. In 1683, a Spanish sea captain said, “They are but shadows and noe reall islands.” As our plane approaches, I catch a glimpse of an island shrouded in clouds. The craggy coastline appears briefly then disappears behind a misty curtain. The Galapagos Islands still live up to their legend.

An even more enchanting reputation attracts 140,000 visitors a year who book a trip on one of the island-hopping tour boats. As seen on Discovery Channel, the animals of Galapagos, innocent of the evils of humankind, live in their own Garden of Eden.

Humans enter only with caution. Darwin confronted the proverbial Tree of Knowledge and forever changed the human concept of our place in the cosmos. Today, visitors discover, not a Disney theme park, but a natural wonder that is both paradise and its flip side, nature in the raw. 

Like Darwin on the HMS Beagle, we live aboard our expedition yacht, the M/Y Eric, operated by Ecoventura and take shore excursions twice daily to explore the wonders of the Enchanted Isles. Ecoventura received Conde Nast Travelers’ World Savers Cruise Line award in 2009, as well, as Travel + Leisure’s Global Vision Award for Green Cruising.

Within an hour of boarding the 20-passenger ship, we’re basking on a sugar-sand beach alongside a dozen contented sea lions. Several cavort in the shallows as though begging us to come play in the their watery paradise. So I do, and get my first glimpse of Galapagos magic.

I snorkel away for shore and suddenly a torpedo spewing bubbles shoots toward me. It swerves and stops a foot from my mask. For a heart-pounding second, I’m eye to eye with a whiskered sea lion. The cavorting animals swim with the agility of the rolling waves and the freedom of the ocean currents.

Animals that lack an instinctive fear of humans also dazzled Darwin, who landed in the archipelago in 1835. This year, 2009, is a propitious time to visit the islands. Darwin published the “Origin of Species” 150 years ago, and it’s the 200th anniversary of his birth. Also, Ecuador established the Galapagos National Park 50 years ago.

After our beach time, the Eric sails north to Genovesa Island and anchors in Darwin Bay, a collapsed caldera with cliffs framing three sides. Once again, we step across sea lions lazing on the beach. Nesting swallow-tailed gulls, with red eye rings accenting smoky gray heads, pay scant attention to our intrusion. One male picks up a tiny black stone and gives it to the female in their nest hollow in the sand. She meticulously places it on the rim of the nest while we photo the courtship ritual only a few yards away.

We pass within feet of dozens of fluffy white frigatebird chicks in waist-high salt bushes. They loll with oversized wings draped askew over too-small nests. Occasionally they flap furiously as though impatient to join their parents soaring with an eight-foot wingspans on the thermals overhead.

“Frigatebirds are the pirates of paradise,” Harry Lopez, our Ecoventura naturalist-guide, tells us. “They circle and wait for boobies returning with a belly full of fish to feed their chicks, then they attack. They chase the booby until it regurgitates its meal and then they grab it in midair.”

After the frigatebirds, no animal seems more out of place in paradise than the grotesque-looking marine iguanas. Darwin called the midnight-black lizards with scaly heads and spiny backs, “imps of darkness.” Like a scene from a Hitchcock movie, hundreds pile on lava boulders to soak up the sun’s heat. They lie motionless, and like kids in a spitting contest, occasionally snort to expel salt from their nostrils. When warm enough, they writhe across the sand to the surf.

Yet even the reptilian gargoyles earned their place in paradise. “Seagoing lizards occur nowhere else on the planet but the Galapagos,” Harry tells us. “Their ancestor probably arrived on a raft of vegetation a million years ago.”

As our week-long cruise progresses, we see more of the bizarre adaptations of the Galapagos icons. Land iguanas, offshoots of their marine cousins, evolved to eat prickly pear cactus, and prickly pears responded by growing into 20-foot trees with thick, pine-like bark. Male frigatebirds balloon their red throat patches to advertise to females their superiority as mates. The Galapagos cormorant, a bird that dives for fish, has no predators, so it lost its ability to fly. 

On Espanola, a pair of blue-footed boobies stops us in our tracks. They dance their syncopated two-step courtship in the middle of the path. Each bird slowly raises one brilliant, turquoise foot then steps sideways and raises the other. The bizarre ritual looks more like a Cartoon Channel parody that nature’s grand design to perpetuate the species.

Continuing in Darwin’s footsteps, we first encounter giant tortoises on Santa Cruz Island, where we see a dozen of the goliaths in the wild. After three centuries of wanton slaughter, the population in the islands has decreased from 200,000 to 30,000. The breeding program at the Darwin Research Station slowly replenishes the populations. In three decades, biologists have restocked more than 2,000 tortoises on four islands.

Of the 14 subspecies of tortoise, two are extinct and only one remains from Pinta Island. “Lonesome George is over 100 years old, but he’s never mated,” Harry tells us. “He lives in the Research Station with two closely-related females, but he’s not interested. They even gave him a heart-shaped Jacuzzi, but it didn’t help.”

We see George, but his pond is dry and the girls nowhere in sight.

The giant tortoises live on the dark side of paradise. After two million years of thriving in isolation, they’re struggling to survive in a  modern world. The five species of reptiles, 140 species of birds, and thousands of marine fishes and invertebrates don’t ask for much, just that the strange new creatures with little boxes that click let them live their lives as nature intended.

Our cruise gives us the rare and exhilarating opportunity to observe nature without altering or destroying the objects of our adoration. But just observing is not enough, Harry tells us on our last day. “We all have to responsibility to help solve our social problems. We have to save places like the Galapagos for the future generations.” 

In the Steps of Darwin

Darwin’s visit changed the human concept of the Cosmos.


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