I am aboard the Galapagos Legend, cruising amongst the bizarre and wondrous Galapagos Islands - 13 major, six minor and numerous islets - that straddle the equator 600 miles west of Ecuador.
It is not their fiery geology that has brought these isles fame, but rather isolation, which, as
Darwin famously noted, has led to rapid evolution, resulting in the most remarkable displays of wildlife on this planet.
I and 55 other passengers am aboard the ship because, to protect the fragile environment, authorities declared 97% of the islands a national park. Thus, most islands are in their natural state, with no hotels, resorts or amenities. The only way to visit is by boat and on foot.
The passengers are divided into four groups - I am with the Boobies, as in blue-footed boobies. After unpacking, we clamber into inflatable rubber dinghies with powerful motors and motor to
Santa Cruz Island. Soon we are near the island's center, among immense, lumbering tortoises with shells about three to four feet across. A
cowbird perches nonchalantly atop one. We approach a
tortoise with a creased, wizened face. Our guide, Indira, studies its shell and announces, "He's about 150 years old." She also warns us not to touch them. "These tortoises are amazing and can survive a year without food or water. They were almost hunted to extinction because sailors of yesteryear would cram them into the ship's hold so they could have fresh meat during their voyages."
These arid islands formed as the Pacific tectonic plate inched eastward over a deep volcanic hot spot. The western islands, which are still over the hot spot, are geologically very young with volcanic activity and barren volcanic rock. The older, eastern islands have had time for erosion to develop soil, which fosters life, at least as much as such a hot, arid place can.
Evidence of recent volcanic activity abounds. We enter the dark interior of a
lava tube, a long circular tunnel, about 20-feet across, which formed when a river of lava flowed down the slope. The outside cooled and hardened while the hotter inside kept flowing until the long tube was empty, forming this curious worm-like feature.
During the night, the Legend carries us to
Santiago Island. Next morning, our dinghy deposits us on a golden sand beach occupied by hundreds of glistening
sea lions. Males snort and preen, possessive of their harems, mothers nurse and care for young, others simply sun themselves. And all of them ignore us visitors, who walk amongst them in awe, cameras clicking.
Just off shore,
blue-footed boobies patrol the sky and every few moments one transforms into a svelte dagger and plunges into the water after a fish.
At the end of the beach, where layered lava rocks jutted into the ocean, we witness what appears to be a confrontation. A pelican stands atop a black rock, like the king of the castle. Its long beak points diagonally down directly at a black, 3-foot-long
marine iguana, which looks like it had come from the Paleozoic era and was slowly climbing upward to conquer the pinnacle. Dozens of bright red and black Sally Lightfoot crabs are scattered on the rock like spectators, a few small ones even riding on the iguana. A nearby boulder is dotted with hundreds of bright red crabs, as though an artist had splattered neon-red paint against the black lava.
We follow a trail along the coast, which is barren, dusty and dotted with large lava cacti. Indira is clear, "Please do not touch or feed any wildlife, and stay on the trail." Miraculously, where the desolate, inhospitable land meets the ocean, life thrives thanks to the rich plankton brought by ocean currents. We see thousands of black marine iguanas lounging lazily together, often flopped right on top of each other. Indira explains that they swim and seek food in the sea and then later, back on land, blow saltwater out their nostrils. Sea lions sprawl on sandy beaches. Crabs dot every rock, and flotillas of birds wheel overhead.
Each evening, after an adventure-filled day and a sumptuous buffet dinner, I am drawn outside onto the deck. In the water below is a spooky spectacle: dozens of sleek, shadowy forms - sharks! - attracted by the ship's lights. They cruise slowly around, ominous and powerful. Occasionally a sea lion passes by, frolicking and playful. Now and then a
dolphin flits past.
Over three days we visit several islands and go on numerous outings, with one incredible surprise following another. On one tour, we stroll through a colony of blue-foot boobies, passing nests of jumbled twigs, youngsters covered in fuzz and males conducting intricate courtship dances. In the
frigate-bird nesting area, males puff out large bright-red throat pouches, like balloons, striving to impress females. At a lake, elegant pink
flamingos wade, their long necks bent forward and their hooked beaks often poking under water, seeking food. We see yellow warblers and, of course, the ordinary-looking finches, whose beaks helped Charles Darwin decipher the processes of evolution. In one cove, several pairs of
penguins walk about upright like tuxedoed maestros.
Life under water, we discover when snorkeling, is just as incredible. Floating gently along, I encounter schools of colorful fish ranging from minnow size to almost two feet in length. Large turtles nibble at seaweed on rocks. Their movements underwater, unlike on land, are as graceful as ballet dancers. A young sea lion swims just below and rolls upside down to get a better look at me with its big, curious eyes. Occasionally, a
shark slides past looking lethal like a stealth bomber. I am not reassured at all by Indira's words, "Don't worry about sharks, they're harmless."
Every night we recount the astonishing sights we had seen - as Darwin and his companions must have - marveling at the incredible range of size, color and shapes life can take. As the blazing sun drops into the sea, we toast these bizarre volcanic islands and their unusual menagerie.
The Galapagos Islands Where Animals Have No Fear Of Humans