“They’re just not afraid.”
So says everyone in our group about the animals we encounter in the Galapagos Islands, the national park and World Heritage site straddling the equator, 600 miles from the Ecuador coast..
We’re there, in the birthplace of Darwin’s Origin of Species, on a Lindblad/National Geographic expedition aboard the cruise ship Endeavour. And over and over, we can’t quite believe our eyes.
Start with the place itself. The Galapagos occupy 575 square miles of Pacific ocean at the planet’s midriff. At zero degrees latitude, the days are about equally long year-round – no daylight savings time here. It’s July, the island’s winter, a dry season where the highs and lows range from 77 to 65 degrees, F.
The seasons here are all about ocean currents. Volcanoes formed the Galapagos archipelago at the confluence of three major ocean “rivers,” the Humboldt, Cromwell and Panama currents. In July the Humboldt dominates, chilling the hot islands with tons of Pacific “refrigerant” from June to December. Summer (December) shifts the currents and creates a warmer, wetter, greener setting through May.
The mild climate, distinct seasons and extreme isolation combine to yield an astonishing variety of species. On the morning of our first island landing our rubber Zodiac boat is greeted by a committee of blue-footed boobies, so named for their ice-blue, webbed feet. These intrepid birds, with stylish beaks to match, belie their names by dive-bombing the coastal waters, fearlessly crashing into the surf to spear fish. Their dives are violent enough to render the average boobie sightless after seven years of hunting. For the moment, they rest on the volcanic rocks, paying us no mind whatsoever.
Red “sally lightfoot” crabs accent the charcoal-colored rock. As our party of twelve – aged seven to 70 – treads inland behind our Ecuadoran guide, smooth, brown and gray boulders appear on the sand. But these rocks move. As we near them, one rears its head to reveal the doglike, bewhiskered face of a sea lion.
Ranging from a few dozen to over 1100 pounds, the Galapagos sea lions bask along the beach, warming and resting themselves after a night of hunting fish in the chilly waters. And here, they’re unconcerned about human interlopers. As a child approaches a young sea lion pup (“no touching,” warns the guide), we experience how decades of stewardship have erased the fear lines between man and beast. And this beast happens to be impossibly cute.
By the afternoon of Day One we’ve already moved on to another island, where sea lions loll on rust-colored sand, pounded out from iron ore. We’ve literally stumbled upon a sea of marine iguanas, black and gray lizards who mask themselves in colonies atop the volcanic rocks. These Iguanas -- who live on land, but forage for algae in the ocean every day -- exist nowhere else on earth.
The islands attract diverse visitors as well. The ninety-odd travelers on this expedition include four grandparent-child groups, among them a septuagenarian grandma from Mexico City and her six grandchildren. Our group, my wife, our 25-year-old daughter, Maureen, her friend, Aerene, and me is typically inter-generational.
Our seven-day voyage through the islands takes us from young (6,000 years old), still-fiery Fernandina in the northwest, across Isabella, Santiago, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal in the east; we experience the archipelago much as Darwin did in 1835. The expedition leaders have packed our itinerary; with two hikes and one snorkeling outing a day, we’re constantly on the go; the ship ferries us from habitat to habitat during much-needed “down” time (eat, sleep, enjoy the sun and stars with a cerveza).
Off one island we swim with green sea turtles. In the waters between the massive slices of Kicker Rock, we snorkel twenty feet above reef sharks and hammerheads.. On our lone shallow-water dive we spy ten-foot manta rays and flightless cormorants (the latter, of course, found only in the Galapagos).
But not until we reach the Darwin Center on Santa Cruz do we encounter the most extraordinary species – the giant tortoise. At up to 150 years old and 500 pounds, these gentle beasts, almost hunted to extinction through the early 1900’s, exemplify the lonely majesty of the islands’ species.
As the sun fades one warm afternoon, we find ourselves on a rocky outcropping. Earlier that day Maureen had sat still while a 3-day-old sea lion pup flopped his way over to sniff her leg (that picture quickly became her Facebook photo). Now we’re entranced by an adolescent sea lion, about to leap into the water from his rocky perch. As I slide into position to snap a photo, I barely sidestep a pile of sunning marine iguanas. One rock over three pelicans prune themselves before an afternoon fishing expedition. Sally lightfoot crabs lie among them, unphased. Below us a green sea turtle surfaces.
We’re in the best zoo in the world, and there are no walls or cages.
Only in the Galapagos.