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Galapagos: An Enchanted Island
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Galapagos: An Enchanted Island
  Galapagos Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton


ecuador_flamingo3.jpg I sit on a bluff facing a silty lagoon fringed with leafless Palo Santo trees. A pair of plump, pink flamingos bob for shrimp. It isn't a particularly pretty sight; rather, the image is a mystical grey and eerily quiet, as if the rest of the world doesn't exist.

I had read about the Galapagos Islands. I had seen pictures and watched National Geographic documentaries. But, I realize now, I know nothing about the islands. Not even after four days of following our leader Cindy's footsteps like a shadow, listening to tales of eruptions and evolution and currents and reproductive cycles. I still don't really know.

"Sit and don't say a word," said Fernando Zambrano, dive instructor and manager of Galapagos Sub-Aqua. This was our last day. He knew I was too hurried, too frantic. "Only then you will know the magic of Galapagos."

So I sit and ponder the magic. A lemon-yellow finch hops from twig to twig, looking wondrously busy; I could reach down and touch it. I think about Bishop of Panama, Fray Tomas de Berlanga. How, when he chanced upon " Las Islas Encantadas" in 1535, he reported the birds "so silly they do not know how to flee." Perhaps trusting is more accurate.

ecuador_dolphin3.jpg Dozens of rambunctious teenage seals greeted our pangas (rubber dinghies), flipping and splashing for our photo shoots when we first arrived. Boobies and frigates spread their wings, dove for supper and fed their squawking young undisturbed by our presence. Iguanas gnawed cactus oblivious to our stares. Marine turtles, looking like harmless jumbo grenades, floated in circles. Dolphins and whales raced playfully at our bow.

And I sit, feeling more and more detached from the coast of South America six hundred miles away. I sit on a volcanic eruption that broke free from beneath the floor of the Pacific Ocean and created this string of islands -- thirteen large, six small and forty really tiny -- some three to five million years before. Like Darwin's flightless cormorant, I am perched on the fissured masses of molten rock (described by Herman Melville as "heaps of cinders dumped here and there),

Most of the jagged peaks protrude south of the equator where distinct marine currents converge. Like sailing carpets, these winds of change sucked in twigs, leaves and clinging creatures from across the ocean to set up housekeeping on the unsullied lava beds. Despite the rough textured "mattresses," or perhaps because of them, the adaptable survived and evolved into species unique to the world. All the Galapagos reptiles, half the birds, 32% of the plants, 25% of the fish, and many invertebrates, are found nowhere else on earth.

The finch darts back and forth across my shoe and I wonder, is it a good thing that the Ecuadorian government vetoed a bill that would allow the Galapagos fishermen to fish for sea urchins? Japanese importers paid mucho dinero for sea urchins and the fishermen really needed the money.

Rumors were the opposition feared an onslaught of development would follow: ... schools, hospitals, perhaps a cannery, maybe more hotels, more people . . . the delicate ecosystem of Galapagos could be in jeopardy.

Isn't that the way? Conservationists tirelessly working for our future while hungry laborers tirelessly work for their daily bread. Perhaps the outcome is as simple as Charles Darwin's unorthodox conclusions--adapt or die.

ecuador_islands3.jpg Young Darwin spent five weeks in Galapagos in 1835. During his brief stay, he noticed that although all the islands were similar in geology and climate, the animals, even of the same species, had slight differences, differences relating to feeding habits: Birds with large beaks ate large seeds; birds with small beaks ate small seeds, and so forth. Most famous are Darwin's finches: . "One might really fancy " Darwin notes, " that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends."

He published the revolutionary "Origin of the Species" in 1859. The book was controversial and upsetting. The idea that humans evolved from a primitive form shocked the world.

Our tour began in Baltra, the location of the country's military base and the only island with a jet landing strip (built by the US Army during World War 11).

Baltra is a desolate and dusty island, yet, even here oily seals languished on wharf pilings like silky fur wraps. They looked ridiculously out of place. So did the loitering gun-toting soldiers who watched us with amusement as we snapped pictures.

ecuador_signs3.jpg Tourists are probably the biggest danger to Galapagos today, and our group, like all visitors, had strict rules to follow. Every morning we scooted across the water to a dry or wet landing and explored cautiously. No-one stepped beyond the well-trodden paths. My husband's hat flew off his head down a slight embankment and he was forbidden to go after it. It seemed extreme, but he could have caused a rock to roll. A rolling rock could start a landslide, the landslide could destroy a nest and . . . multiply that by 20,000 plus, the amount of yearly visitors, and it doesn't take a scientist to figure it out.

Our guide could have been a scientist, a biologist, a historian or a storyteller. She interwove her descriptions of sesuvium plants and cinder cones with threads of history and mystery. We learned that Ecuador annexed the islands in 1832. We learned that the buccaneers and whalers practically ate all the tortoises, that those that escaped the soup pot, the rats ravaged. We learned that goats ate vegetation, pigs damaged the meager soil and dogs attacked iguanas.

Feral animals (domestic animals gone wild) posed (and still do) a serious threat to Galapagos. Finally in 1959, Ecuador declared the islands (except those already colonized), a national park and eradication programs began.

The endangered giant tortoise, with its skinny neck, wide head and soft eyes (and Spielberg's model for E.T.) lives among the cattle and horses on Santa Cruz, the most populated island in the chain. We boarded a bus hardly big enough to stand in and climbed a hill to the mist-shrouded scalesia highlands, onto a muddy road and wet grass of a farmer's field.

Unlike the unoccupied islands, litter marred the road banks of Santa Cruz and dirt stuck to the banana leaves. The tortoises were skittish. Who wouldn't be after such a torturous past? Their heads retreated into their shells when we got too close or were too noisy. The sight of these gargantuan headless creatures was perplexing and disturbing. How could the sailors flip them over and store them in the ship's hold for months? They looked helpless, reminding me of the movie where giant pods fell from the sky.

"We can sit here as long as you like," Fernando's voice interrupted my contemplation.

Darwin's little finch is gone. Reluctantly, I get up to leave. I clap my hands to wake a fat seal that languishes belly up in my path and I think of the world's zoos, the animal reserves and the marine parks.

I take one last look at the iguanas. Silhouetted against the stark lavascapes, staring at the sun, they look like dragons from the land that time forgot. I take one last look at the crabs, the color of Halloween lanterns, gripping the porous rocks. I take one last look at the blue-footed boobies, the sleeping herons and the sea lions, so innocently fearless of the two-legged creatures that stream by, ghost-like, day after day, month after month, year after year.

ecuador_crabs4.jpg And I feel the magic. It sweeps over me like the billowing winds that carried life to this remote piece of our planet. It doesn't come from books or words. It doesn't come from pictures or film. It comes from the rocks I climb. It comes from the baby powder sand I wash off my feet. It comes from the seals that patiently let me pass. It comes from the tangled pile of lava lizards I step around. It comes from the little finch that skips across my shoe. It comes instinctively, once I connect to the drama of existence that unrolls so naturally on the islands of Galapagos.

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