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The Galapagos A Naturalist's Dream

Yellow Warbler, endemic sub-species, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador F-3-3-18

Ecuador is one of South America's smallest countries. Despite its size, it has a great deal to offer the adventure traveler or would-be naturalist. Ecuador straddles the equator and is naturally divided into various geographic zones. Two parallel ranges of the Andes, about 25 - 40 miles apart, running north to south, form the country's backbone. The area between these ranges is known as the "avenue of the volcanoes." The hot, humid lowland area along the Pacific coast is known as the Costa. The Andean highlands are known as the Sierra. The section lying east of the mountains, in the Amazon Basin, is known as Amazonia, and then there are the Galapagos Islands.

A pre-packaged tour of one form or another, is the most efficient way to see Ecuador. Almost all packaged travel uses Quito, the capital, as a base. Depending upon the type of tour and number of transfers to be made, guests will be spending one to three nights in Quito. Though Quito is very near the equator, the 9,384 feet in altitude ensures that it isn't hot. In fact, the climate is like perpetual springtime. The city, founded in 1534, has many historical buildings and has been recognized as a United Nations World Heritage site.

San Cristobal Island, Ochoa Beach, Galapagos Islands, Ecuado F-3-4-4Unique is an overused word in travel writing. However, the word fits when used to describe the Galapagos. There is no other place on earth quite like these islands. Untouched by man until the Sixteenth Century, completely volcanic in origin, they were never part of another land mass. The area remains one of the most volcanically active places on earth. The currents which wash by the islands explain the diverse species of animals on the islands. The Humboldt Current, driven by trade winds, originates in the Antarctic and flows north to the islands, which explains why there are now penguins, Galapagos penguins, in this equatorial location. The Panama current, flowing south from the coast of Central America, has brought several species; the California sea lion among them. The converging currents causes an up-welling of nutrients from the sea floor, providing life-giving sustenance for the islands' animals.

Galapagos Tortoise, Darwin Station, w/visitor, Galapagos Islands F-3-21-8The rugged, volcanic islands present a rather inhospitable environment for any life. Left stranded by the currents, the animals either adapted to their new home or died out. Today there are 29 species of land birds in the islands, 22 of which are endemic. Twenty of the twenty-two species of reptiles are endemic. The islands take their name, Galapagos, from the Spanish word for the giant tortoises which roam the islands. These slow-moving beasts may attain weights of up to 550 pounds. In the 16th Century, there were 14 giant tortoise subspecies, three of which were hunted to extinction.

Sea lions, Genovesa (Tower) Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador F-3-11-20The islands were declared a national park in 1959. In 1965 the park service started a program to further propagate the remaining tortoise subspecies. Tortoise eggs are gathered in the wild and brought to Darwin Station on Santa Cruz Island. Here the eggs are incubated (they are "sexed" by incubation temperature according to gender need). The tortoises are raised for several years then re-introduced to their original islands.

In 1970 (when tourism was just starting) only about 4,000 visitors came to the islands, now 50,000-60,000 visitors pass through the islands each year. All travel in the islands is on Galapagos licensed cruise ships or chartered yachts. There are over 40 official landing sites in the islands, controlled by the park service. Ships cannot simply drop passengers anywhere. When one site has received a number of visits, it is then closed for a period of time. In this manner the park service ensures that one site isn't swarmed with tourists. I seldom saw guests from another ship.Magnificient Frigatebird, Genovesa (Tower) Island, Galapagos F-3-5-10

Each landing must be accompanied by a licensed guide. The guide is trained and licensed by the Galapagos National Park Service, but remains a member of the ship's crew. Guides must work at least 180 days a year to maintain the license (or be completely retrained). Guides are expected to explain and enforce park rules. They are responsible for keeping visitors on the marked trails and making sure visitors do not touch the wildlife (wildlife can touch visitors, but not the other way around).

The islands' only real source of income is from tourism, yet tourism is a double-edged sword. Tourism provides the money needed in this third world country for the conservation of this unique resource, but if tourism isn't well managed it will destroy the very ecosystem which brings visitors to the islands. The delicate ecosystem dictates that tourism be tightly controlled. It is very important that visitors follow park service rules and preserve the site for others.

Since the islands do not have the infrastructure for tourists, the ships act as hotels and restaurants. These ships offer all-inclusive prices which cover guides, accommodations, and food. In addition to the charges made by the ship, there is a $100 park entrance charged upon entering the islands. Tours vary in length from four days to two weeks, and the type of ship varies as well. Some cruise ships take up to 90 passengers, small yachts carry eight to twenty passengers. On the larger ships, one will always be traveling with larger groups of people. On the smaller boats each passenger receives more personal attention. Smaller groups also mean having a more thorough tour of the islands. Each guest will have the chance to ask questions of the guide. My visit was spent on a smaller vessel, the M/Y Flamingo I. The Flamingo is an 83-foot, 20 passenger motor yacht (one of three such yachts operated by Ecoventura). The air-conditioned comfort of the yacht was welcome after hiking in the hot sun. The food was a bit on the heavy side but delicious.

Masked Booby [Sula dactylatr granti] Genovesa Island, Ecuador F-3-6-6A trip to the Galapagos is the ultimate nature trip. The wildlife seemingly has no fear of mankind. My first few hours spent in the islands were nothing short of astounding. The day had started in Quito, a flight to San Cristobal Island, a transfer to the Flamingo, a short cruise down the coast to Ochoa Beach and the adventure started. We took the panga (the small motorboat used to shuttle passengers between ship and shore) to the beach for a "wet" landing. Landings are "wet" if one has to step off the boat into water, and "dry" if one steps off the boat directly onto shore. As we landed a group of several sea lions were interacting with one another--they barely took notice of our presence. Beautiful, brightly-colored Yellow Warblers flitted about catching bugs--often too close for me to focus my telephoto lens (which has a minimum focusing distance of nine feet). In fact, many times during the trip I was able to photograph birds using only my 50mm lens--forget photographic blinds and long telephoto lenses. Quite often the birds would come right up to investigate me. A Galapagos Mockingbird pecked at my shoe. Another sat on a limb six inches above my head, eyeing my hair. The opportunities for wildlife photography are better than any location in the world.

On Genovesa Island I was lying in the sun when a slight movement a couple of feet away caught my attention. It was a marine iguana sunbathing on the black basaltic lava rock. The iguana's black color caused it to blend in so well with the black rock I hadn't even noticed it. In fact, once I started looking, iguanas were all around me. The marine iguana's are the world's only sea-going lizards. The lizards spend most of their time sunbathing, attempting to raise their body temperature after a dive in the ocean. They lose as much as 20 degrees of body temperature in a dive. The black color also protects them from their only natural predator, the Galapagos Hawk.

Don't get too close when photographing the marine iguanas. You may get a surprise. I was down, eye level with an iguana taking its picture when it "sneezed." A blast of saltwater spray was expelled nearly two feet from its nostrils. Iguanas often expel excess saltwater (left over from diving) in such a manner.

Earlier in the day, while hiking a Genovesa trail, I was surprised to look down and see a pair of Galapagos Doves practically underfoot. They quietly moved about picking at grass seeds along the trail. Masked Boobies nest on the ground right beside the trail, Red-footed Boobies nest in the trees alongside the trail. There is never any problem spotting wildlife in the islands.

The increase in tourism has had some impact on the animals. Certain landing sites have experienced degradation. Visits to those sites have been restricted by the park service. Though I was completely impressed with the accessibility of the wildlife, one couple who had visited the islands nine years previously were not as impressed. The lady told me about a land iguana that had approached her husband and tugged at his shoe lace while she videotaped the incident. During our visit, each land iguana we saw was heading away from us, with the exception of one female on a nest. Perhaps the iguanas have had too many cameras with flash shoved in their faces. Incidentally, use of flash to photograph the animals is no longer allowed.

Cruising the islands is a naturalist's dream, but must be arranged before arriving in the islands. This is best done through a travel agent or tour packager. Every so often people show up in the islands, hoping to get on one of the ships--that are already booked. The guides provide a wealth of information on the natural history of the islands. The entire journey is a highly educational experience.

Performance Apparel @ ExOfficio.com

Stock photography by Thomas R. Fletcher at Alamy

 

IF YOU GO:

Ecoventura 

Av. Colon 535 y 6 de diciembre

Quito, Ecuador

Phone: (5932) 507-408

Web: http://www.ecoventura.com/ 

Magellan's  

Galapagos Network 

7200 Corporate Center Drive, Suite 510

Miami, FL 33126

Phone: (305) 592-2294

(800) 633-7972

Fax: (305) 592-6394

E-Mail: gpsnet@aol.com 

Text and Photos [c] PROSE & PHOTOS/Thomas R. Fletcher

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