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Cover Story December 4th, 2008

  Untitled Document

Lonesome George... Address The Galapagos Islands

photoby jim winnerman

An Ecological Adventure in the Galapagos

For some time I had been intently watching the chocolate brown sea lion use its flippers to propel its large body across the white beach, when it suddenly turned and started lurching directly toward me. As I prepared to scurry out of the way, the animal thrust itself into the small patch of shade where I was sitting, laid its head down on the sand and exhaled. After a quick glance through a half opened eye and one last wiggle to get comfortable, she was asleep at my feet.

Only a few hours earlier our plane had arrived in the Galapagos, an archipelago of small islands straddling the equator about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Even though we knew animals there were not tame yet thrive without fear of humans or natural predators, lying elbow to fin with a sea lion was unexpected. Wildlife encounters, however, are the reason 65,000 ecologically-minded tourists come to this cageless zoo each year. The spectacular beaches are not the attraction, and there are no lavish accommodations or gourmet restaurants.

The only way to see the largest variety of Galapagos flora and fauna is to visit several islands on a cruise. Many of the ships are small yachts, and we booked a week cruise on the M/S Flamingo, owned by Ecoventura in Miami, a firm sailing exclusively in the Galapagos. Company literature indicated the boat was configured into ten staterooms for 20 passengers and a crew of ten, and that two naturalists would split the passengers into small groups and lead two daily land excursions.
The itinerary included stops at most of the major islands, and proved perfect for the ecological adventure we were seeking. During the week, we got within a few feet of so many animals, each occasion made us feel we had been accepted as one of their species.
An added bonus was that our 18 fellow passengers were from Italy, England, Scotland, France and Canada. The different cultures made for excellent conversation, and a common fondness for nature immediately solidified the new relationships.

Up Close and Intimate with Nature

The sea lion that greeted us on our first day has 50,000 cousins in the Galapagos, and many heralded our arrival at each of 12 landings. Lounging in a variety of comical poses, they presented endless photo opportunities, including sleeping with one flipper raised skyward. A bull sea lion was always present too, expending enormous energy patrolling the shoreline and barking loudly to frighten away challengers to his position as head of his beachside harem. On the sand, the females keep up a constant barking of their own, sometimes sneezing loudly or lapsing into a prolonged cough until they spit up rocks purposefully swallowed to add weight, thus making it possible for them to dive deeper for fish.

Also waiting at each beach was the Galapagos marine iguana, a prehistoric looking creature with a black body topped with a bumpy head and a pointed crest. Alison Veitch and Nicky Court from London, England, were particularly taken aback by the marine iguana's habit of laying two or three deep in piles of twenty or more, while constantly spitting salt ingested in the sea out through their noses.

Larger and also forbidding, but more solitary, the Galapagos land iguanas can grow to 30 pounds and reach over three feet in length. Their yellowish brown body with a brownish red back was frequently spotted under inland cacti, where they patiently wait to chomp on cactus pods as soon as they fall.

The most common creatures in the Galapagos are the birds. Tom and Alison Barkley were avid birdwatchers and joined the cruise from Scotland. Each carried two cameras, never wanting to miss an opportunity to get close to as many of the 140 bird species as possible.

Blue Footed Booby
Lonesome George. See story on page five.
Above, two SCUBA divers swim with a giant whale shark in the Galapagos Islands. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world. They are completely harmless to humans, eating only very small fish and krill.
Frigate Bird - See Page two

"This is particularly thrilling because the birds constantly exhibit behavior normally only observed in a documentary," Tom observed while we were standing within a few feet of a pair of waved albatross' on Espanola Island. As if to prove him correct, or to show they understand English, the birds immediately began their courtship ritual of making clicking sounds as they rubbed their long bills together while bobbing their heads at the same time.

Another mating ritual was underway on North Seymour Island as we walked through a colony of nesting great frigate birds. While the females soared overhead, several males were loudly thumping their long beaks on their hugely inflated crimson chests to attract a mate.

A hundred feet further, the Barclay's cameras were ready to capture a male blue-footed booby (the red-footed booby with a blue beak is also in the Galapagos) that had gently placed sticks at the webbed feet of his intended mate. This strange appearing bird was named "bobo," or clown, by the Spanish, due to its habit of comically tilting side to side while walking. However, when we witnessed a flock soar gracefully through the air before plummeting in unison fifty feet straight into the sea to spear a school of fish, it seemed the name may have been a misnomer.

We were not fortunate enough to swim with Galapagos penguins as some tourists do, but we did see them along several rocky coastlines. Vibrant pink flamingos were spotted in several freshwater ponds, and we got within a foot of the brilliantly red and black Vermillion flycatcher, one of the most colorful birds in the Galapagos. After our group stood motionless snapping photos, he flew away only to return to a branch a few inches from the Barclay's cameras.

Being so close to so many birds and other wildlife comes with a few unpleasant surprises that make a Galapagos visit all the more real. It was not unusual to walk past sea lion pups that had been abandoned by their mothers and lay dead or dying on the beach. Likewise, bird carcasses are spotted frequently on naturalist lead walks. Bird life, however, is so plentiful the risk of being splattered with droppings is high. I was particularly unfortunate to be between a bird and the beach at the wrong time twice the same day, but our guide good-naturedly assured me it was a sign of good luck.

Galapagos Tortoise Synonymous with the Islands

Galapagos is Spanish for giant tortoise and they are the island's most famous inhabitants. In fact, they are the largest tortoises in the world, reaching 600 pounds. They live to 150 years of age, all the while crawling along under a shell that may reach five feet in length and three feet in height.

During a visit to a farm on Santa Cruz Island where the tortoises congregate in the wild, tourists are able to stand within a few inches of these monster living shells. The eerie scraping noise the shell makes as it is pulled over seemingly insurmountable rocks sounds like a piece of concrete being dragged slowly across a street. If one tortoise feels another is infringing on its territory, the E.T.-like head is extended to its full height, and a slow hiss is emitted that sounds like Darth Vader breathing.

The ecological bent in the Galapagos is the reason that the most famous inhabitant is not a person but a tortoise named "Lonesome George." Discovered on the Galapagos island of Pinta in 1971, he is the last survivor of his species. A worldwide effort to find a mate of the same species has so far been unsuccessful.

Abundance of Life Extends into the Sea

While the giant tortoises are vegetarian landlubbers, their cousins, the Pacific green marine turtle, can also grow to 300 pounds and three feet in length. The opportunity to snorkel was possible at the end of several of the two-hour beach walks, and fellow passenger Giovanni Desiati from Italy was fortunate enough to be able to find himself swimming above one.

While snorkeling, there is also a chance a sea lion may decide to join you. I was swimming back to the beach after observing the colorful tropical fish and a mammoth manta ray, when several sea lions darted alongside. Instantly one was directly below me, playfully swimming on its back a few feet from my face and looking straight into my eyes. Back on shore, Magdalena Cruz, the naturalist who led each of our shore excursions, said the animal had been following me for five minutes.

Naturalist Guides

Shipboard naturalists are an integral part of any cruise to the Galapagos. They lead the walks and conduct evening briefings aboard ship preparing guests for the next day's adventure. Like all guides, Cruz was licensed by the Galapagos National Park Service, the Ecuadorian government organization managing the island park. Part of a guide's responsibility is to act as a park policeman, ensuring visitors respect island habitat, and Cruz was diligent at her job. If anyone in our group wandered off the narrow inland trails in the pursuit of the perfect photo, she politely asked the offenders to step back on the path, adding "further, please," until she was satisfied.

During a brief rest stop on a hike, a Galapagos mockingbird landed in front of me and began to peck at the water bottle I had placed at my feet. Intrigued but forgetting it is strictly forbidden to touch any wildlife, I made the mistake of pouring water into my palm and offering it to the bird. In a second she landed on my hand and was taking a drink.

Immediately Cruz was running toward me yelling: "Sir, Sir, please stop now!" A fellow passenger came to my defense and pointed out the bird had asked for a drink, but a lecture ensued. Her brief talk implied my intervention with nature may have begun an unnatural change in the evolution of an entire species, possibly leading to its extinction.

Betcha the tortoise wins this battle!
An attacking eagle will go away hungry

Charles Darwin

The context of Cruz's mild scolding was not a surprise, since evolution is the topic responsible for making the Galapagos famous throughout the world. These islands are where Charles Darwin developed his widely accepted belief that species physically and behaviorally evolve and adjust to their environment.

Less well-known is that Darwin's biology-changing thesis germinated after just five weeks visiting only four of the 13 major islands. The year was 1835 when Darwin was a young, 26-year-old naturalist, and only 19 days had been spent on land.

Darwin came to the Galapagos as a creationist, and this slowed him from making hasty decisions about what he had observed. It was almost a quarter of a century later in 1859 that he published "The Origin of Species by Natural Selection," fueling a controversy on the origin of life which continues today.

The Galapagos finch (now referred to as Darwin's finch) was especially important to Darwin's theory of evolution, and the small black bird is readily seen on a visit to any of the islands. Darwin observed that although they originated from the same parent population and initially appear identical, the shape of their small beak varied greatly island to island with 13 distinctive shapes and sizes, ranging from curved to short and stubby. Since most islands are separated by 60 miles or less, he determined the differences were the result of the birds' adaptation to their confined local environment, and that the variety of beak traits was passed on to future generations.

Important to Darwin's conclusions were that the Galapagos Islands were young geologically, (eruptions are still occurring, with the most recent volcanic activity in November 2005), and were isolated in a remote setting devoid of outside influence.

Island Geography

The volcanic origin of the Galapagos has also created some spectacular scenery worthy of a visit on its own merit. On Genovesa Island, our walk to observe wildlife began on a tiny beach inside an immense caldera measuring several miles in circumference. When the volcano erupted, the side was blown away, allowing sea water to fill the void. Other than the one small beach, the fifty foot high walls of the caldera almost entirely encircled the large cove.

As we approached the beach at Sullivan Bay on the island of Santiago, brilliant orange sea sponges clung in a line under an overhang of lava, and as we disembarked hundreds of brilliantly colored orange and blue Sally Lightfoot crabs scurried out of the way. On land we found ourselves on an immense bed of black lava. Walking for several hours, we explored the petrified ripples and patterns that seemed to have cooled and hardened only hours earlier.

Another landscape that was a result of volcanic activity were the dark red sand beaches on the island of Rabida, the consequence of a high concentration of iron in the volcanic rock.

The Galapagos Worst Enemy: Man

Although a popular tourist destination today, humanity has not always been protective of Galapagos. In the 1800's crews of whaling ships feasted on the island tortoises. More than 100,000 were killed and some races were eliminated. At the same time, island sea lions were almost hunted to extinction for their pelts. During World War II, troops stationed on the island to protect the nearby Panama Canal almost eliminated the land iguanas, which were used for target practice.

About half of Galapagos plant life is endemic, but man has introduced hundreds of plant species that in places have overtaken some of the native vegetation. The impact has been devastating on the terrain and the animals that rely on native flora for nourishment.

Dogs, cats, goats and other domestic animals brought to the islands over the last few centuries have also escaped and become feral, inflicting damage. An extensive campaign to eliminate problem animals has been successful on several islands, but is still underway on others.

In 1934 Ecuador declared the islands a wildlife sanctuary, but it was not until 1959 that increased awareness to the damage being done caused the nation to set aside 97% of the Galapagos (all the area that was uninhabited) as a national park. In 1979 the park was one of the first places in the world to be a United Nations World Heritage Site. In 1985 it was declared a World Biosphere Reserve. In 1986 it was also declared a marine reserve protecting sea life within a 40-mile radius around the park.

Today visitors are not allowed entry without a guide, and onto only a limited number of landing sites. Smoking and even the use of flash photography is banned. A $100 per person park entry fee raises funds used to perpetuate the park for future generations.

Flora and Fauna Utopia?

The successful effort to protect and restore the Galapagos is easy to appreciate, and 95% of the original Galapagos eco-system has somehow remained in tact. Proof is in our tally of sightings, which included two mammals, six reptiles, 13 sea birds, 13 shore and lagoon birds, 19 land birds and countless varieties of sea life including sharks, rays, sea turtles and tropical fish.

It was a visit to what seemed like a mystical lost world where all creatures have no natural predators, and live in harmony without fear of each other, or man. The difference, of course, is that this world is not lost at all, and is very real.


Cruises are the only way to ensure the widest variety of animals and geology are seen in the Galapagos. Most trips include two landings a day on deserted islands, and the transfer from the ship onto the panga (the small boat that ferries passengers to shore and back) requires dexterity. Island trails are rocky and lack shade, and the sun at the equator is intense even when the temperature is in the low 70's. Medical help is not readily available on smaller boats.

An excellent aid for selecting a cruise is A Traveler's Guide to the Galapagos Islands by Barry Boyce. An entire chapter is devoted to choosing the right boat to meet passenger expectations. The book is also worthwhile as an all-around resource for a visit to the Galapagos. Most cruises include all meals and snacks, airport transfers in the Galapagos, a cabin for two, shore excursions and guides, use of snorkeling equipment, sea kayaks and wet suits and all non-alcoholic drinks.

Just one of many cruise ships that service the Galapagos

Depending on the time of year and cabin location, Ecoventura rates range between $1865 and $2645 per person for a double cabin on an 8 day, 7 night cruise. Prices do not include shipboard tips for the crew and guides, suggested at $175 per passenger.

1 800 633 7972

A site that presents 16 cruise options is:

Some firms do offer three and four night cruise options, and short day trips are possible from inhabited locations.

Round trip from St. Louis is about $1475. American Airlines flies daily from Miami to both Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador. Both cities are gateways to the small airport at San Cristobal, Galapagos. Ecuador charges a $25 departure tax and the Galapagos park entrance fee is $100.

For general information about the Galapagos, visit these sites:
http://www.galapagos-islands.net/ or http://www.galapagos.org/

Galapagos Facts and Statistics

photoPopulation and size-The Galapagos Islands are part of Ecuador. About 17,000 people live on four islands in eight main settlements. There are 13 major islands and six minor islands and numerous smaller rocks and reefs. The park and marine reserve extends 40 miles from land, and covers 27,000 acres.

Access-There are no major roads. However, 56 isolated landing locations have been selected for their diversity of wildlife where visitors can explore the islands, along with 64 scuba diving locations. Visitors must be accompanied by a licensed guide.

Cruises-Eighty ships are approved to cruise the Galapagos. Four carry 100 passengers and four others carry 50 tourists. All remaining boats carry between 16 and 20 guests. About 65,000 visitors arrive each year from all over the world.

When to visit-The islands are relatively dry all year, but the warmer and wetter season lasts from January through June. July through December the weather becomes drier and cooler. The temperature belies the tropical location due to cold water surrounding the islands from the Humboldt Current. Highs are generally in the mid-70's to the mid-80's.

Currency-Ecuador and the Galapagos use the U.S. dollar as the national currency.

Time-Cruise ships observe Eastern U.S. time. Daylight savings time is not observed. Since the location is almost directly on the equator, twelve hours of sunlight is consistent throughout the year.

Species-Almost all the reptile species and half the plants and birds in the Galapagos are not found elsewhere.
The Galapagos has 140 species of birds, while Ecuador (about the size of Colorado) has more than 1500 compared to the 925 species in North America.

About the Author: Jim Winnerman is a retired marketing executive who travels the world and writes travel articles free lanced. He is based in St. Louis, Missouri. See photo, below.

The author, Jim Winnerman, is a regular contributor to The Paper









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