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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Though the Galapagos Islands were once unpopulated by humans, today more than 60,000 tourists visit yearly, and Santa Cruz Island has a year-round population of 12,000. To preserve ++ the islands' wildness, the Ecuadorian government strictly controls the number of tourists and requires that all visitors be accompanied by licensed naturalist guides from registered boats. No food can be taken to the islands. And nothing, not even a seashell, can be swiped for a memento.

We looked, listened, smelled and, of course, snapped pictures. (According to Napo, the average tourist takes two rolls of film each day!) Beyond that delight, we had the satisfaction of a knowing that much of what we saw is unique to the Galapagos. For example, 50 percent of the bird species in the Galapagos are endemic; that is, they are found nowhere else in the world. Why?

If Darwin were still around (he visited the islands in 1835 for five weeks, gathering material for "Origin of Species"), he'd probably give an explanation like this: Though the animal, bird and plant life on the Galapagos arrived by accident (floating with ocean currents, or the wind, or carried by marauding pirates), it survived not by accident, but by adaptation. In other words, the unique conditions of life in the Galapagos required the evolution of some pretty unique flora and fauna.

Perhaps a trip to the Galapagos is best described as infotainment. At one point, I was trying to get ecology and biology straight in my mind. At another, I was snorkeling through schools of angelfish and parrotfish to spy on two white-tipped sharks taking a siesta on the ocean floor. One day, while we were eating lunch aboard ship, a call rang out: "Dolphins off the starboard bow!" We raced out to watch four dolphins dive in and out of the ship's wake, their gray backs glistening. Another afternoon, we caught a fleeting glance of pilot whales.

Each evening the ship's five naturalist guides gave a short lecture and slide presentation about the islands to be seen the following day. Later at dinner, waiters hovered about, ready to pour coffee or water, or deliver their standard joke: "How do you like the soup?" they'd ask. "Oh, I love it," I'd reply. "It's made from iguanas," they'd cackle.

For most meals passengers were given a choice of several entrees. Knowing that each day the waiters fished off the side of the ship, we always opted for seafood. One night we had a traditional Ecuadorian feast: roast pig, choclo (huge corn kernels) and yapingachos (a sort of potato pancake served with peanut sauce).

Most nights after dinner we danced in the lounge or star-gazed on deck, glorying in the feeling of being the only homo sapiens for miles and miles. The Galapagos is one of the few places on Earth where bird, reptile and fish still rule, in spite of meddling from the human race.

Since 1959, the Galapagos Islands have been strictly protected under their national park status. Unfortunately, that doesn't always prevent commercial fishing boats from working the surrounding waters. Cringing at sea lions with plastic bands around their necks -- the result of entanglement in a net or garbage at a young age -- we realized how easily this fragile environment could be destroyed. Even the effects of the islands' 19th century use as a way station for ships are still felt today; the horses and goats brought by sailors 100 years ago threaten to endanger endemic species.

The challenges of preservation will only increase as more tourists choose the Galapagos as a vacation destiny. However, both the Ecuadorian government and the tour companies operating in the Galapagos share a commitment to controlling mass tourism -- perhaps the single greatest danger to the islands' sanctity. As long as things continue on the present course, future visitors will find the islands much as we do today, a natural paradise and ecological wonder.

If You Go . . .

Because of the strict controls on tourism, travel in the Galapagos is much more expensive than in the rest of Ecuador (however, it's comparable to prices for an all-inclusive Caribbean or Alaskan cruise). The easiest way to book a Galapagos trip is through one of the state-side touring agencies representing the ships cruising in the Galapagos.

Dallas-based Adventure Associates, (800) 527-2600, represents Metropolitan Touring, which offers cruises on the luxury Isabela II, the M/V Santa Cruz and a number of smaller yachts. A four- or five-day trip on the Santa Cruz, (including round-trip airfare from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Ecuador and the Galapagos, and all sightseeing, accommodations and meals) costs from $1,500 to $1,800; an eight-day trip runs about $2,400.

Worldwide Holidays Inc., (800) 327-9854), represents the 100-passenger Galapagos Explorer ship, as well as a fleet of smaller yachts. Prices on the Explorer are comparable to the M/V Santa Cruz (prices go up about $100 on Nov. 1). International Expeditions Inc., (800) 633-4734, also offers tours of the Galapagos. All tours offer optional trips on mainland Ecuador.

It's possible to fly to the Ecuadorian cities of Quito or Guayaquil and make all the arrangements for a Galapagos cruise there. However, don't plan on traveling about the islands yourself. Because all visitors to the Galapagos are required to be with tour groups, public transportation there is scarce.

In addition to airfare from the United States (round trip from BWI to Quito on American Airlines is about $600), it costs about $350 for the round-trip flight from the Ecuadorian mainland to Baltra Island, where most ships embark. The cruise itself may cost between $800 and $1,500 for the week, and there's an $80 national park fee on arrival.

No special visa requirements or immunizations are required for travelers to the Galapagos. Bottled water is used aboard ship and all vegetables are specially washed to avoid contamination.

The heat in the Galapagos is tempered by sea breezes, making temperatures comfortable pretty much year-round. The weather varies little from summer to winter, but the sun is incredibly strong. Pack hats, sunglasses and plenty of sun block. Dress is always casual. A bathing suit, good walking shoes, comfortable shorts and shirts are all necessities.

Most ships and yachts offer snorkeling. However, visitors who want to scuba dive should make arrangements beforehand.

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