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The Gardens of Hell

[Photo: Jeff Greenberg]

Except for the occasional barking of bull sea lion, the beaches of the Galapagos are quiet, havens for wildlife and naturalists.

Though stark and forbidding, or because of that, the Galapagos Islands provide a nursery for enigmatic creatures spotted nowhere else in the world.

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 8, 2002

[Photo: Jeff Greenberg]
The Galapagos tortoise, the islands’ namesake, can weigh as much as 500 pounds.

In 1534, when Fray Thomas, Bishop of Panama, discovered the Galapagos Islands, he reported "the birds were so silly that they didn't know how to flee and many were caught by hand." He also found sea lions and "tortoises so large that each could carry a man on top of itself."

The islands haven't changed much in 500 years, we discovered on our return trip to these "Enchanted Isles." We could still shmooze nose-to-nose with a blue-footed boobie, sidle up to a sunning sea lion and pose shoulder-to-shoulder with a marine iguana.

We were so mesmerized by the islands on our first trip, that now, a dozen years later, we decided to return. This time we chose yacht cruising for the more intimate experiences lacking in the earlier, larger 90-passenger vessel. Our ship, Ecoventura's 20-passenger M/Y Flamingo 1, offered us a glimpse into the untamed existence of the unique creatures on these tiny volcanic islands spread over 3,000 square miles in the Pacific, some 600 miles west of Ecuador's coast.

Mystical, they are; beautiful, they're not. Charles Darwin called them the "Gardens of Hell."

But the islands' beauty appears under the intimacy of close scrutiny: scarlet Sally Lightfoot crabs gingerly stepping across black craggy lava; swallow-tailed gulls gliding so close we could almost touch them; and sea lions teasingly cavorting while we snorkeled amid gold-rimmed surgeon fish, royal blue tangs, yellow tailed butterfly fish, burgundy anemones and orange-flower sea urchins.

[Photo: Judy Florman]
A male magnificent frigate, his scarlet throat puffed as part of its mating ritual, sits by his screeching mate.

One morning we spied a frigate chick feeding from the mother's mouth. Incredibly, the mother sat still, mouth open, as the baby stuck its head down her throat, scraping out oil-rich fish from deep in her gullet.

Galapagos is the area where Darwin visited in 1835 from the HMS Beagle and first conceived his theory of the evolution of the species. The idea was so heretical, he dared not publish for more than 20 years. Yet these islands and their inhabitants produced such a profound effect on Darwin, that, though his one visit lasted only five weeks, he dedicated his whole life to developing the ideas that germinated there.

On these 13 major islands, six minor and 43 islets formed millions of years ago, exotic fauna and flora with characteristics found nowhere else have evolved and survived. Many arrived involuntarily, hitching a ride on logs spewed from river mouths on mainland South America. Since variable winds create capricious swimming currents, there has rarely been migration between islands. Each has retained its own distinctive species.

The Galapagos archipelago, named for the giant tortoise endemic to the islands ("Galapagos" means tortoise), were once safe harbors for pirates who scavenged the trade routes between Europe and the Far East.

Our ship, commanded by Capt. Andreas Dergara, traveled between islands when we were otherwise sleeping, dining or attending orientation lectures of the next island. We visited about a dozen isles and islets, touring during early morning and late afternoon.

Our guides, Renalto and Kathy, licensed naturalists, well-schooled in the ecology, geology, flora and fauna of the area, met our plane from Miami in Baltra and took us by panga (Galapagosese for a Boston whaler boat) to the Flamingo, our home for seven days.

After a flavorful lunch of salad and pasta (food on board was a tasty melange of continental and ethnic Ecuadorian dishes), we putt-putted in our panga to Ochoa Beach for the first of many "wet" landings (without shoes, for there is rarely any dock to tie to).

photo A playful sea lion swims with snorkelers in the Galapagos Islands, which are about 600 miles west of Ecuador.

[Photo: Jeff Greenberg]

It was utterly quiet except for an occasional bark from a sea lion bull protecting his mate. A chestnut lion cow, looking very much like the neighboring boulders, raised her snout and gently honked to warn us as we were about to use her as a steppingstone.

[Times art]
Sources: ESRI; Nature

Tourists to the Galapagos Islands, a National Park of Ecuador since 1959, are limited to 60,000 a year. No more than 90 people (the maximum number allowed per ship) disembark at any one time from ships whose itinerary is determined by the Park Service and led by the naturalists. Our intrusion into the animals' domain was controlled along marked paths. Thus, though we hovered intimately, without an inundation of humans, the animals never felt threatened.

Since Ecoventura is the only small cruise line in the Galapagos that operates on mainland time (all others use Galapagos time, one hour later), each morning we experienced the serenity of the islands before other tourists arrived. Thus, when we encountered the rare land iguanas on South Plaza Island, we weren't hampered by the intrusive noise of other tourists. Our early arrival enabled us to sight an unusually grand total of four.

We hiked over lava trails, surrounded by Opuntia prickly pear cacti (which has evolved with spines turned down to avoid being eaten by the iguana), searching for the celebrated reptile. A big change in islands for us was represented by the skittishness of the giant lizards.

Previously, we had been able to observe them up-close when they had to be wary only of their arch enemy, the mockingbird. The latter, always on the prowl for food, hovers nearby, searching out iguana nesting holes for eggs to steal. Now the iguanas have also become easy prey of the feral pigs, goats and dogs introduced on the island by early settlers. As a result, the iguanas, are jittery of all sounds.

As we reached their habitat, Renalto admonished, whispering, "Walk stealthily." Suddenly, he stopped, held up a hand and put his finger to his lips. There, across our path, sat the king of the land lizards, the golden crowned, red speckled-face iguana. He was alert, listening. Our cameras whirred as we caught his stark beauty. Instantly, he slithered into his adjacent burrow -- only his black tail peeking out.

The captain earlier had emphasized the importance of protecting these unique natural species. As an example, Renalto explained that the ubiquitous Any bird, originally brought in to eat the ticks off mice, have bred voraciously and are threatening the bird population of the island.

On another island, a Galapagos dove waddled in front of us, guiding us down the trail to a grove of female masked boobies nesting on the ground. The pairs produce two eggs, Kathy explained, but, as an example of Darwin's noted natural selection, only one offspring survives. The weaker is pecked to death by the stronger, thus maintaining an adequate food supply.

On other islands, gray albatrosses, stretching to an 8-foot wing span, sprinted into a flying leap off the cliff's edge, necks outstretched, wings flapping as they caught a draft and soared. Other cliffs teamed with ground finches, magnificent frigate birds, blue- and red-footed boobies and yellow crested night herons.

The blue-footed boobies entertained us with their mating dance as the snowy white male announced his intentions by placing a gift of twigs at his intended's feet. Having gained his love's attention, he ceremoniously wooed her with a display of his pale blue-webbed feet, lifting one foot, then another. (Tradition claims boobies were named after the Spanish 'bobo," meaning clown or dunce.)

One morning we viewed the first attempt at flight by a young black-and-white masked boobie. The chick fluttered his wings madly, rose about 2 feet off the ground, then plopped down onto the rocks and waddled over to his mother, who opened a wing to enclose him.

Like Darwin, after intimate scrutiny, we found each island inviting and abounding with the beauty of pristine life.

-- Freelance writer Judy Florman lives in in Santa Ana, Calif.

* * *

GETTING THERE: We flew to Quito on one of SAETA Airlines' daily flights from Miami. They also connect from New York to Guayaquil, continuing to Quito. Flights to Galapagos (San Cristobal) are serviced by SAN Airlines, an affiliate of SAETA. American Airlines runs flights from Miami; Continental Airlines connects through Houston.

YACHT CRUISING: We chose a seven-day cruise on Flamingo I operated by Ecoventura, which operates two other yachts, Eric and Lefty, starting at $1,895, not including airfare. Contact Galapagos Network, 7200 Corporate Center Drive, Suite 510, Miami 33126. Phone toll-free 1-800-633-7972; e-mail

Other yacht companies include Inca Floats, 1311 63rd, Emeryville, CA 94608, (510) 420-1550; and Special Expeditions, Galapagos Department, 720 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10019, Fax (212) 265-3770.

ENTRY: The National Park Service charges $100 per person fee for entrance to the islands.

WHAT TO BRING: Khaki pants and shorts, cotton shirts, two bathing suits, good walking shoes, rubber-soled thongs or sport sandals, windbreaker, sun hat and sunglasses and a small backpack. Include fast film for late-afternoon photographing and a plastic bag to keep your camera dry.

WHEN TO GO: Located on the equator, the Galapagos Islands have a surprisingly cool, sub-tropical climate. Ocean currents keep them temperate all year. May through December is the cooler, dry season; January through April, the warmer, rainy season. Wet suits (rentals available on board) are recommended July to November.

SPECIAL SIGHT: We saw the giant Galapagos tortoises (for whom the islands were named), whose population was ravaged by whalers and buccaneers as a source of food for their ocean voyages, at the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz, where they are being preserved, hatched and prepared for repopulation into the wild.

SUGGESTED READING AND GUIDE BOOKS: Darwin's Islands, A Natural History of the Galapagos by Ian Thorton; The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin; Darwin and the Beagle by Alan Moorehead; The New Key to Ecuador and The Galapagos, Ulysses Press; Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands, Lonely Planet; Ecuador-Galapagos, Insight Guides.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Ecuadorian Consulate, Tourist Information, 167 W 72nd St., New York, NY 10023.

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