#28 - Galapagos
Jeff Willner - 15 February
(Galapagos, ECUADOR) . I'll admit, I was prepared to be unimpressed
by the Galapagos islands. Some birds, some seals, tramp around volcanic,
cactus studded islands and back to the boat for sustenance. After safari
tours to Masai Mara in Africa, could there be a wildlife tour to compete?
Still, it was supposed to be a highlight so I shelled out my thousand
dollars for airfare and five day tour. On the battered 727 flying out
I peered morosely at the white capped waves on the Pacific far below
picking at the rock-hard meatballs in the airline meal. I'd need diamond
cutting tools to penetrate the things. The meal went back untouched.
I hoped it wasn't a sign of things to come.
After two hot hours of lugging bags onto two busses, a ferry, and
a water taxi, it looked bleak. But later at the Charles Darwin research
station we were introduced to the Galapagos land turtles. Starting
from the hatchlings, babies and teens, they got bigger from pen to
pen. And then we met Caesar, a 500 lb monster, munching on some leaves.
He was seventy years old, middle aged, since the turtles live 120 or
even 150 years. "Wow", I said to Sally as we walked back
into Puerto Ayarta, "Ok, that was impressive."
And the highlights continued. It seemed like each day during our walks
on different islands the ante was upped, new animals, more exotic sights.
The most amazing thing was how fearless the sea lions and birds were.
They have no natural predators and gave us an "ok, get on with
it" look as we crouched a few feet away to gawk. Five days
whipped past far too quickly and too soon we were sitting in the Baltra
Island airport lounge waiting to fly back. I bought no t-shirts, turtle
carvings, or Galapagos mugs, I am a cynic after all, but inside the
memories settled like shiny crystal. I have written about places that
are highlights in South America but Galapagos is not in that list.
It is a highlight of the world.
two hours of sweaty luggage wrestling from the plane to the
boat, we were not in the mood for the charity pitch at the
Darwin Research Station. There was a glitzy video with several
dozen sunsets and lots of gooey violin music. By the time
we left for the turtle pens I was prepared for an anticlimax,
but my gosh those beasts are huge. Evidently when goats were
released on the islands they were far superior foragers
and multiplied rapidly eating the turtles out of house and
home. Nowadays turtles only thrive in the wild on the goat-purged
islands - thanks to the Darwin Research Station.
on the boat settled into a routine. Up at 7 for breakfast,
then pile into the two motor launches at 8 to wade ashore.
On the first island trip we landed on a beach littered with
snoozing sea lions. At first we kept our distance, afraid
that the whole group might stampede into the water if we
got too close. But it became clear pretty quickly that they
had no fear. Closer and closer we inched. Finally I was snapping
close-ups from two feet away. Stunning.
Naturalista guide led us inland to check out the wildlife.
Occasional cactus dotted the sandy track, the guide snapped
off a cactus bud and tossed to down. Lounging at the base
of the cactus, a tan colored iguana leisurely picked up the
bud and munched it thoughtfully. Up the path a bit there
was another cactus and another iguana. Then a third. Hmm,
these slow moving lizards are smarter than they look, they
camp out waiting for the tourists to brave the cactus needles
protecting the buds.
baby sea lions were so cute. They bleated mournfully when
their mommas went off to eat, struggling around the beach
on their little flippers sniffing other parents. Are you
my Mom? Every once in awhile they would struggle up to us
on the beach and give us a quick sniff, their big brown eyes
watering. In the motor boats on our way from the ship to
the shore, young juveniles would swim up and eye us curiously.
Galapagos sea lions are like southern cousins - when you
walk past they turn and give you that 'how you all doin'
is a picture of a crab.
marine iguanas are also known as Darwin's "Imps of Darkness" for
their black and red coloring. Since many of the animals on
the Galapagos are endemic only to the islands the park authorities
are anxious to avoid contamination or even worse, the introduction
of foreign species. Walking paths on the islands are well
marked narrow corridors between white tipped wooden stakes.
You are herded carefully through the corridor by the guide.
Still, it isn't onerous. Every day we saw a different set
of animals up close and personal.
the five days we visited five different islands. Most of
our landings were 'wet', jumping out of the motor launch
and wading ashore. On the fourth day though we were promised
a rare 'dry' landing. Many of the group put on shoes and
socks. Unfortunately it was high tide, waves broke in rolling
sets and the boatmen had to surf down the crests into the
protected break. We climbed gratefully onto the cement pier...
just in time to be swamped by a huge wave. Three-course meals
on board had coddled us. But Galapagos is only an eye-blink
from millennia of isolation. Friendly yes, but still wild.
Snorkeling at Devil's Crown was the highlight of the
trip. It is a semi-submerged volcanic cone, only a circular
tip projects above the water. We were dropped at the east
end and the current pushed gently to the west. Schools of
fish circled below, puffers, yellow tail, too many to list.
An octopus fluffed along the sea bed. Then the sea lions
popped in to share the fun. Twisting and corkscrewing, they
shot effortlessly past only feet away. Brown whiskered faces
puckered up in amusement. Probably pitying the sunburned
guy sucking seawater through his leaky snorkel. As though
that wasn't enough of a highlight, on our way back to the
ship we passed close to a hundred dolphins. They love swimming
underneath the tip of a boat so in no time we had dozens
of ecstatic lithe mammals firing into the air in front of
us. Right there.
the top deck of the yacht after dinner,
Sally and I were comparing our feeble grasp
of astronomy underneath a carpet of stars.
The ship swayed as we motored to the next
day's destination. We sipped our drinks
and traded insults. Man, these are the
best days of my life.