Only those lucky enough to visit the Ecuadorian archipelago will have a chance to enjoy this Swiss...
The Enchanting Galapagos Islands
Distant sweet notes catch our ears. In the trees, we can see a Darwin Finch, fat as a tennis ball, small as a sparrow, eyeing us. “Shhh, stop, he will come to you,” we are told. Our group freezes, fascinated. “Whistle to him,” our guide whispers to me. My head bent forward, I respond to his melody with a whistle. He hops closer, curiously eyeing me. I whistle again, and then, with the gentleness of a tropical breeze, he alights on my shoulder. I can hardly breathe and do not move. The Darwin Finch tugs out a couple of strands of my hair for his nest, politely thanks me with a canorous chirp and then gets lost in the tumble of branches. “Darwin Finches prefer blondes,” our guide laughs.
The birds and animals of the Galapagos, an archipelago of 13 islands in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles northwest of Ecuador, have evolved with no fear of man. You can walk/swim up to any thickly armored lizard, giant tortoise, flightless cormorant, sunning sea lion, crusty iguana and even the white-tipped reef shark. You can put your camera lens to the beak/snout/whisker/feather and shoot, although you might not want to risk the salty spit from prickly marine lizards sunning themselves on the lava rocks.
The Galapagos were formed as a result of volcanic action some five million years ago, give or take a million. As the islands were cooling, various kinds of organisms arrived on rafts of vegetation from the shores of Central and South America. They thrived and evolved in a different direction from their continental ancestors. Humans are the newest kids on the block, having landed a mere 500 years ago. English naturalist Charles Darwin came to the islands on the HMS Beagle in 1835, and he spent five weeks here, observing and collecting data that formed the basis of his theory of evolution.
Snorkeling in the sapphire environment of the Pacific Ocean, beside Turtle Island, I think that my mind is playing tricks on me; I cannot believe what I am seeing below. Like the animals on land, these aquatic creatures have no fear of humans, except for the very shy octopi who hide in the crevices of their underwater world. We spot a white-tipped reef shark who seems more interested in his afternoon siesta than in having one of us for a snack. At this point, our guide confesses that he didn’t don on a wet suit because sharks have mistaken divers in dark neoprene for seals, one of their main dietary staples. We are reassured that the sharks around the Galapagos are timid and pose no threat and that the white-tipped reef shark is a nocturnal predator. Still, I’m glad I’m not wearing a wet suit.
All of a sudden, a sea turtle about the size of a VW bug swims right in front of me. I’m snorkeling with a family of sea turtles! Breaking into my watery reverie, a dark blur torpedoes past me and I panic, removing my mask to be greeted with the laughter of fellow snorkelers. We have become the newest playmates for a group of frolicking sea lions. These fat and awkward clumps of heaviness that one finds sunning on sandy beaches are agile, curious, graceful swimmers, teasing us with their antics in the aquamarine waters.
There are wonders waiting on land as well, like the Giant Galapagos Tortoise, the largest living tortoise on the planet. Giant tortoises can weigh well over 500 pounds and measure six feet from head to tail. It’s a good thing that they have no fear of people, because their top speed is a breakneck 0.1 miles per hour. With lifespans of up to 150 years, these giant reptiles have become an emblem for the Galapagos. In fact, they gave the archipelago its name in 1892. In the old Spanish language, “galápago” meant the front part of a riding saddle. When the first settlers landed on these islands and saw 300,000 tortoises with carapaces resembling riding saddles, they dubbed these enchanted islands “Las Islas Galápagos.” Today, there are only about 18,000 giant tortoises left on the islands.
The Galapagos Islands can only be written about in superlatives and even then words do them little justice. They are the last vestiges of an Eden-like state of nature on the planet, and one leaves them with lightness in the heart and a more agile step.
Ecuador has protected the Galapagos Islands as a national park since 1959 and as a marine reserve since 1986. The rules are strict: no smoking anywhere except aboard ship and no touching of marine or land animals. “Take only photographs and leave only footprints” is the strictly enforced motto. In 2001, the park became a World Heritage Site. It is considered one of the seven underwater wonders of the world.