A typical Galapagos day begins with music piped into your cabin and a breakfast of delicious, unfamiliar fruits and juices. A panga
awaits you and the dozen or so other passengers. This small dingy ferries you from the cruise ship to a long, low headland of twisted volcanic rock, or else to a pristine sandy beach, where a strong-armed boat boy helps those laden with cameras, binoculars, large sun hats and suntan lotion through the "wet landing".
Here, prehistoric marine iguanas
, which Charles Darwin
called "Imps of Darkness", lounge on black rocks while sleek and slithery sea lions
bask in the sun on the beach, their whiskery noses smudged with sand. Both play starring roles on the islands, supported by blue-footed
and masked boobies
. Galapagos doves
, lava herons
, night herons
, swallowtail gulls
, various finches
, lava lizards
and the occasional snake
take cameo roles.
Surprisingly, the animals don't scurry away when approached. Even the birds appear quite tame, pecking about at your feet and perhaps even landing on your shoulders. For hundreds of years human visitors have commented on the abundance and tameness of the wildlife in these remote and isolated islands that straddle the equator in the Pacific Ocean, about 1,000 km [625 miles
] off the coast of Ecuador. In fact, the word tame isn't quite accurate since it implies domesticated wildlife. For the most part animals of the Galapagos have evolved and lived without fear of predators common in other parts of the world, neither human nor four-legged. This absence of fear on the part of the birds and animals makes human visitors feel an extraordinary, uplifting harmony with nature difficult to find elsewhere on earth. It's for good reasons the Galapagos Islands have often been called the Garden of Eden.
For equally good reasons, the archipelago is also known as the world's greatest natural laboratory of evolution. Ever since Charles Darwin's
visit in 1835, scientists have been drawn to the islands to study creatures that evolved in isolation from their cousins on the mainland. In 1959, responding to a growing awareness of the environmental and scientific importance of the archipelago, Ecuador designated 97 percent of the 8,000 sq km [3,088 sq miles
] land area of Galapagos as a national park. In 1986, the water around the archipelago was also protected, UNESCO recognizing the islands as a Man and Biosphere Reserve, and as a World Heritage Site soon thereafter.
After lunch back on the cruise ship, passengers prepare for an afternoon snorkel in waters glinting and flickering with millions of tropical fish. You may spot a turtle
or two. Or perhaps a white-tipped shark
will cruise silently past you underwater, like a policeman of the deep keeping an eye on things. Often, a school of curious sea lions
will approach, ducking and diving about you, zooming right up to your mask only to pull away at the last moment. The cheekier ones will grab your flipper.
On other days, an afternoon stroll on a neighbouring island beckons. About a kilometre's walk [just over a half mile
] from landing at Punta Suarez
, for example, along the path marked by black and white stakes, you come to the edge of a high cliff overlooking a vibrant blue sea flecked with white-tipped waves. Fork-tailed frigate birds soar and glide in the thermals, while the breakers crash on the rocks below. At one point the surf thrusts itself into the entrance of a lava tube blowhole and bursts out the other end in a 30m [100ft
] fountain of white spray.
For most people, travelling to the Galapagos is a trip of a lifetime. Not just because it's an expensive enterprise, but because so few places on the planet remain where you can enjoy such close encounters with wild animals, and feel so near to Nature itself. For many, the Galapagos are as much about reinforcing a spiritual bond with the natural world so often lost in our urban lives, as they are about enjoying a wonderful vacation amid these "enchanted isles".
The islands are fragile and unique. Human intervention has already caused devastating repercussions; mainly the loss of unique species which once thrived upon only one island. "Lonesome George", the last giant saddleback tortoise
of the Pinta
breed, has become the islandís icon. When George finally dies, so will his species. For this reason, itís essential to heed the warnings and advice of your guide regarding the doís and doníts of the national park, but also to contribute in some positive way to the vital scientific research and environmental protection programs carried out in the Galapagos.