Child Of Nature; The Galapagos: The islands that inspired Darwin continue to evolve as more humans make the voyage. But even to a naturalized citizen, they remain fascinating and beautiful.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I was only 2 years old when my parents left war-ravaged Belgium in 1955 to seek a new life. They arrived in the Galapagos Islands when almost no one knew the islands even existed and raised they their two children in the midst of nature.

My earliest memories are of sunshine and endless beaches marked only by the footprints of turtles and seabirds, of diving among sea lions in search of abundant lobsters, of climbing volcanoes and helping my father hunt wild goats for the dinner table.

I wore no shoes and few clothes, knew no electricity or running water, saw my first automobile when I was 10. But life was rich beyond measure. The Galapagos Islands were my classroom throughout my learning years.

At first the family just lived under a tent, then in a tiny lava-rock house built just in time for the birth of my brother. A small sailboat was added later, in which we made long forays around the islands.

When they settled in the Galapagos, my parents were part of a slowly growing group of hard-working, peace-loving pioneers who painstakingly cleared the land and planted crops of coffee, bananas, avocados and vegetables, hunted feral goats and cattle, or fished the abundant grouper and lobsters.

My father, like others, fished and salted his catch to export on the occasional ship that came from the mainland of Ecuador. Two, three, six months might pass before one of these small freighters would appear on the horizon, the only contact with the outside world. With it came letters from families far away, and vital supplies such as candles, flour and sugar. When it left a few days later, it took away the dried fish, dried coffee and live cattle that were the inhabitants' only source of cash. Life was hard, simple and beautiful back then.

By 1968, change was in the air. Our largest volcano, Fernandina, erupted spectacularly. The next year, I acquired my first professional camera. Planes began to reach the islands, occasional charters at first, then regular tourist flights. A new era had begun.

In the three decades that followed, the islands were propelled from utter isolation, during which the last of a string of penal colonies was finally abolished, to quasi-modern living, with daily flights, schools, supermarket, politicians, roads and traffic, and all the hum-drum of a miniaturized contemporary society. But this face of Galapagos is only skin-deep, with 98 percent of the total land area under National Park status, where the wildlife remains as captivating as it was when young Charles Darwin stopped here in 1835.

Darwin's finches

From the very first time man set eyes on the Galapagos (the first written accounts date to 1535) to the present day, what has impressed everyone is the strangeness of the animals that abound on the virgin shores, from the prehistoric giant tortoises to the little finches that now bear Darwin's name. The isolation of the islands, and time for life to evolve and adapt in an environment where no continental predators ever existed, culminated in species that were as bizarre as they were unafraid when the first people arrived.

The highlight of scientific investigation today is the group of 13 closely related species of Darwin's finches. Even from a nonscientific point of view, the little Darwin's finches are a source of much fascination.

When I was 7 years old, I tamed a young cactus finch by offering breadcrumbs in my hand. This finch, a female, later brought her mate and her babies, year after year, to feed from our fingers. She learned that the bread was kept inside the house, and would sit by the door, rattling the insect screens and making as much noise as possible to attract attention to be allowed to come in. Or she would sit on our heads, flying back and forth to the door, either to come in or to leave again when she had finished feeding inside. In years of drought, she was the only bird in the vicinity who was able to raise a family, thanks to her private food supply. For 18 years she returned, establishing a longevity record for her species at the time.

In the wild, Darwin's finches are equally clever. On some isolated northern islands one species has even learned to peck at the flight feathers of nesting seabirds to drink from the resulting trickle of blood during times of severe drought, earning them the name "vampire finch." The cool, dry season is when most of the boobies nest, which is handy for the vampire finches.

On the other hand, our warmest months, March and April, are when frigates are in the full flurry of mate selection, a process centered on the males' astounding air-filled scarlet balloons, or gular sacks, which they develop for the occasion.

Everywhere, small groups of males huddle in the low bushes, occupying potential nesting sites. Each time an eligible female swoops overhead, they erupt into a frenzy of collective attention-grabbing, throwing their heads back to reveal the outlandish size of their red balloons, cooing and fluttering their 7-foot-plus wings for added effect. Females are choosy and many days may pass before one will descend and accept a mate after closer examination.

Sea lions

Traveling along the coast, often just in our little rowboat, we came in constant contact with all sorts of wildlife.

Many of my earliest childhood memories are laced with the presence of sea lions. These were the days before motorized traffic in Academy Bay (Santa Cruz Island), when barely 600 to 800 people lived here.

In 1964, with our tiny boat, the Puck, proving seaworthy and reliable, we made our first trip to Santa Fe Island, only 21 miles east of our home. Reaching the turquoise waters of the only anchorage on the far side, we were at once surrounded, even besieged, by sea lions. From all directions they came: pups leaping and somersaulting and egging each other on in tight groups; large bulls looking stern, circling our small hull, growling and rolling their eyes as they do when meaning to intimidate a rival.

When we landed gingerly on the idyllic white beach, the entire mass of sea lions asleep on the sand rushed into the sea in a sudden stampede, so surprised were they to find humans in their midst. From the comforting safety of the shallows, their fear soon turned to curiosity and, emboldened by numbers, the entire mob followed our every move with obvious interest. The beachmaster bulls, however, were not amused by all the commotion, charging us repeatedly up the beach with bluster and bravado designed for maximum intimidation.

More than 30 years have passed now, and I look back with amusement to those days of wonder and caution. Now, as then, humans and sea lions remain fascinated with each other, both species being curious by nature. But today a new level of comfort has been reached in the relationship. On the same beach where sea lions once panicked at our very appearance, people now spread their beach towels within arm's reach of newborn pups nursing contentedly, the rotund cows barely casting an indifferent glance at their human neighbors. The beachmaster bulls guarding their breeding rights chase away rivals while ignoring splashing human swimmers.

Marine iguanas

Even more prevalent along Galapagos shorelines than the sea lions, though certainly far less boisterous, are the omnipresent marine iguanas.

The only seagoing lizard in the world and found nowhere else, marine iguanas are probably the oddest of all Galapagos creatures. They need no plant cover, no shelter, no shade and no fresh water to survive, but are quite at home on a barely cooled new lava flow.

As each new day begins, the iguanas are dependent on the morning sun's warmth to dry the salty dew on their backs and thaw them from the night's chill. For hours they remain motionless, eyes half-closed, their bodies seemingly fused to the ground and to each other, soaking up the sun's rays until heat waves shimmer over the land. Only then do they begin to stir, first one or two, then hundreds, gradually moving down over the rock slabs toward the sea.

When they reach the water's edge, the iguanas hurl themselves resolutely into the wave wash. Almost all the largest individuals, mostly males, begin to swim to where their favorite seaweed grows lushly.

Marine iguanas are capable of remaining submerged for an hour or more, but their dives rarely last longer than five or 10 minutes. It is not oxygen supply that limits their feeding time, but rather the loss of body heat to the cool waters. As they feed they lose heat fast, and the colder they get the more difficult it is for them to remain alert and active.

After about an hour, the reptiles become dangerously chilled. At times of exceptionally high seas and strong, cold currents I have seen dozens of full-grown iguanas drifting far out to sea, quite alive but unable to move from hypothermia, doomed to a certain death unless washed back to shore.

Sailing between Isabela and Fernandina islands I once picked up a number of these castaways several miles out to sea and piled their rigid bodies in our cockpit. Within half an hour of lying in the sun they perked up and scrambled across the decks, none the worse for wear.

Giant tortoise

Venturing inland on Isabela Island's Alcedo Volcano, I have come to know one of the other amazing Galapagos reptiles, the giant tortoise -- though much of its ageless lifestyle still eludes understanding.

No one knows just how long a Galapagos giant tortoise may live in the wild, since no person has been in these islands long enough to see one live to its natural old age. Possibly the massive male in the shallow puddle outside my tent was already here when young Darwin visited the islands more than 160 years ago. No matter, this old tortoise has watched the equatorial seasons slowly go by, has seen volcanic eruptions and the rains come and go so many times that the passing of years hardly seems relevant.

Alcedo Volcano is home to the largest population of Galapagos giant tortoises remaining today, numbering between 4,000 and 5,000. I made my first visit here in 1969, when I was only 15, a short, magical incursion into a timeless, circular caldera world where giant reptiles still roam as in eons past. Over 25 years, I have returned dozens of times.

Before man arrived, 14 distinct populations existed in isolation on different islands or volcanoes. Although all belonged to just one species, each one had developed individual characteristics to suit the conditions it lived in. The most extreme adaptations are found on the smallest, driest islands where the reptilian grazers turned to browsers. Looking quite different from the "dome" type tortoises of Alcedo, these "saddlebacks" evolved to reach high in the arid scrub, plucking leafy branches or juicy cactus pads for moisture.

But the survival of the giant tortoises today is threatened by a bevy of domestic animals brought along by man that have since gone wild. With more and more people living here, and especially increasing commercial exploitation of their marine life, the islands' delicate natural bbalance is undergoing unprecedented stresses. Today, 16,000 people live in Galapagos and 60,000 more come to visit each year.

Man's influence

Cursed, revered or ruthlessly exploited, the Galapagos have always attracted passionate feelings. Pirates, convicts, mystics, pioneers, explorers, scientists, heads of state and royalty, all have trodden their forbidding shores.

I feel most content to have been one of the pioneering families who have dedicated their lives to carving a niche for themselves in harmony with nature. My brother, Gil, was born in Galapagos, and still lives there with his wife, Martha, and their young daughter, Nathalie. My father is buried in the islands' volcanic soil, while my mother, Jacqueline, still lives in the artistic house they built together overlooking Academy Bay. Although, with my partner Mark Jones, my own home is now in a sun-filled bay on New Zealand's verdant South Island, to me Galapagos is still a place where the Earth is at peace with itself, and man is only a guest -- a colorful, turbulent guest who must learn the hard way to respect the environment. Galapagos is timeless -- man, in his hurried lifetime, only passes through.

Excerpted from "Galapagos: Islands Born of Fire" by Tui De Roy with original new material by the author; Warwick Publishing, $39.95.

WHEN YOU GO

For information on travel to the Galapagos, contact a travel agent or Galapagos Travel, Suite 47, 783 Rio del Mar Blvd., Aptos, Calif. 95003; 800-969-9014; www.galapagostravel.com.

For information on the Charles Darwin Foundation, contact the foundation at Suite 311, 100 N. Washington St., Falls Church, Va. 22046; 703-538-6833; www.galapagos.org.

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