I was aboard the Galapagos Legend, cruising amongst the bizarre and wondrous Galapagos Islands — 13 major, six minor isles and numerous islets — that straddle the equator about 600 miles West of Ecuador.
It is not their fiery geology that has brought these isles fame, but rather the Galapagos Islands isolation, which, as Charles Darwin famously noted has led to rapid evolution, resulting in the most remarkable displays of wildlife on this planet.
I was aboard the ship because to protect the fragile environment, authorities declared 97 percent of the Galapagos Islands a national park. In other words, most of the Galapagos Islands are in their natural state, with no hotels, resorts or amenities. The only way to visit is by boat and on foot.
I traveled with 55 other passengers to tour the islands. We were divided into four groups – I was with the Boobies, as in blue-footed boobies. After unpacking, we clambered into inflatable rubber dinghies with powerful motors and motored to Santa Cruz Island.
Soon, we were near the island’s center, among immense, lumbering tortoises with shells about three to four feet across. A Cowbird perched nonchalantly atop one. We approached a tortoise with a creased, wizened face. Our guide, Indira, studied its shell and announced, “He’s about 150 years old.” She also warned us not to touch them. “These tortoises are amazing and can survive a year without food or water. They were almost hunted to extinction because sailors of yesteryear would cram them into the ship’s hold so they could have fresh meat during their voyages.”
These arid Galapagos Islands formed as the Pacific tectonic plate inched eastward over a deep volcanic hot spot. The Western islands, which are still over the hot spot, are geologically very young with volcanic activity and barren volcanic rock. The older Eastern islands have eroded and soil has developed, which fosters life, at least as much as such a hot, arid place can.
Evidence of recent volcanic activity abounds. We entered the dark interior of a lava tube; a long circular tunnel about 20-feet across, which formed when a river of lava flowed down the slope. The outside cooled and hardened while the hotter inside kept flowing until the long tube was empty and formed this curious worm-like feature.
During the night, the Legend carried us to Santiago Island.
The next morning, our dinghy deposited us on a golden sand beach occupied by hundreds of glistening sea lions. Males snorted and preened, possessive of their harems; mothers nursed and cared for young, others simply sunned themselves. And all of them ignored us visitors, who walked amongst them in awe, cameras clicking.
Just off shore, pelicans and blue-footed boobies patrolled the sky and every few moments one transformed into a svelte dagger and plunged into the water after a fish.
At the end of the beach where layered lava rocks jutted into the ocean, we witnessed what appeared to be a confrontation. A pelican stood atop a black rock like the king of the castle with its long beak pointed diagonally down directly at a black, 3-feet-long Marine iguana, which looked like it had come from the Paleozoic era and was slowly climbing upward to conquer the pinnacle. Dozens of bright red and black Sally Lightfoot crabs were scattered on the rock like spectators, a few small ones even riding on the iguana.
We followed a trail along the coast which was barren, dusty and dotted with large lava cacti. Indira was clear, “Please do not touch or feed any wildlife, and stay on the trail.” Miraculously, where the desolate, inhospitable land met the ocean, life thrived thanks to the rich plankton brought by ocean currents.
We saw thousands of black Marine iguanas lounging lazily together often flopping right on top of each other. Indira explained that they swim and seek food in the sea and then later, back on land, blow saltwater out their nostrils. Sea lions sprawled on sandy beaches. Crabs dotted every rock, and flotillas of birds wheeled overhead.
Each evening, after an adventure-filled day and a sumptuous buffet dinner, I was drawn outside onto the deck. In the water below lay a spooky spectacle: dozens of sleek, shadowy forms — sharks! They were attracted by the ship’s lights. They cruised slowly around, ominous and powerful. Occasionally, a sea lion would pass by frolicking and playful. Now and then, a dolphin flitted past.
Over three days, we visited several of the Galapagos Islands and went on numerous outings with one incredible surprise following another.
On one tour, we strolled through a colony of blue-footed boobies, passing nests of jumbled twigs, youngsters covered in fuzz and males conducting intricate courtship dances. In the frigate-bird nesting area, males puffed out large bright-red throat pouches, like balloons, striving to impress females. At a lake, elegant pink flamingos waded, their long necks bent forward and their hooked beaks often poking under water looking for food. We saw yellow Warblers and, of course, the ordinary-looking finches whose beaks helped Darwin decipher the processes of evolution. In one cove, several pairs of penguins walked about upright like tuxedoed maestros.
Life under water, we discovered when snorkeling, was just as incredible. Floating gently along, I encountered schools of colorful fish ranging from minnow size to almost two feet in length. Large turtles nibbled at seaweed on rocks. Their movements underwater, unlike on land, were as graceful as ballerina dancers.
A young sea lion swam just below and rolled upside down to get a better look at me with its big, curious eyes. Occasionally, a shark slid past looking lethal like a stealth bomber. I wasn’t reassured at all by Indira’s words, “Don’t worry about sharks, they’re harmless.”
Every night we recounted the astonishing sights we had seen among the Galapagos Islands — as Darwin and his companions must have — marveling at the incredible range of size, color and shapes life can take.
As the blazing sun dropped into the sea, we toasted these bizarre volcanic islands and their unusual menagerie.
This story was originally published December 20, 2013.