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Published: Sunday, 11/20/2005

The glorious Galapagos

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR - Shortly after jumping off a small boat onto Punta Espinosa island, camera in hand, I came across a single marine iguana resting lazily in the sun.

His black, scaly skin glistened, the result of speckles of salt left behind after a swim in the Pacific Ocean. He was ugly, to be sure, but it was the first marine iguana I had come across on our week-long trip, so the shutter on my camera went into overdrive.

Until our guide asked what I was doing. Come, he signaled with a smirk, there are more.

And so it is in the Galapagos Islands, always more of everything. On these islands, 600 miles west of Ecuador, animals are usually found in schools, flocks, and, in this case, a mess of iguanas.

A few more paces down the path from my first iguana encounter, through lush greens and then around to the water's edge, scores of the creatures were warming themselves on the rocks, legs and tails entwined.

At first glance they appeared as a rocky shoreline, different shapes and sizes and barely a movement among them. But soon one head could be seen shaking into a violent nod - a move made before iguanas spit out the salt collected during their ocean swims - followed by another and then another.

This, our guide pointed out, was a real photo.

And the iguanas weren't alone. As they rested, soaking up the heat of the sun, little lava lizards scurried about them. Sea lions grunted as they slid in and out of the water. And flightless cormorants, birds whose odd wings look like they've been plucked of most of their feathers, nested near the shore, occasionally stooping to feed their young.

Punta Espinosa is a small island where no humans live, but like many of the islands, it swarms with life.

That's not so surprising because 90 percent of the Galapagos Islands - or 1.7 million acres - has been a national park since 1959. By comparison 2.2 million acres of land comprises Yellowstone National Park. Basically, all land in the islands not already settled by people was designated and incorporated into the park. Despite the vast amount of land dedicated to nature, the population of the 13 larger islands and more than 40 smaller islets has swollen over the years to nearly 30,000 people.

Park officials continue to work to preserve the pristine environment by regulating tourism. An entrance fee is collected from all visitors, which for foreign tourists 12 and older is $100.

The Galapagos Islands are a paradise for both the adventurer and the nature lover, where hiking boots are essential for land, and scuba gear allows you to delve beneath the seas.

But the key to enjoying the islands is in the preparation. Getting there involves a trip to Ecuador, along the Equator on the western coast of South America, and then a two-hour flight to the Galapagos airport on San Cristobal island. From there, you best have made arrangements with one of the charter boats, whether it's one that features land excursions or one that caters to scuba divers.

It was with a scuba diving charter booked through Rec Diving of Royal Oak, Mich., that I made my summer trip to the Galapagos.

As a diver, I spent most of my time watching nature underwater. But no trip to the Galapagos is complete without spending some time as a land lubber.

That's how we saw blue-footed boobies - those are birds by the way - and Sally Lightfoot crabs, bright orange-red crustaceans who received the "lightfoot" name because they can quickly scurry out of harm's way.

The islands' most famous inhabitant, the giant tortoise, can be found en masse at the Charles Darwin Research Station at Puerta Ayora, where researchers are breeding them. Although books and travel guides say they can be found in the Galapagos, they were not roaming free on the islands we visited.

The most photographed of these giant reptiles inhabiting the research station is Lonesome George. At nearly 80 years old, he is the sole survivor of one of the 11 remaining species of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise - the numbers of which were heavily depleted in the 19th century by sailors who used them as food. Although scientists have tried to mate the tortoise with females of another species, they have not yet been successful. So, Lonesome George lives by himself in a large leafy area, a marvel for visitors who are lucky enough to see the sole example of a dying breed.

The park official who accompanied us on our trip explained that it was the giant tortoise that tipped Charles Darwin off to the incredible diversity of the Galapagos fauna and flora and led to his research on the island. Darwin noticed in 1835 what most visitors still notice more than 150 years later, that the critters that roam, fly and swim around the islands are unique.

It was the Galapagos finches in particular that led to Darwin's theory of natural selection. Although I never saw the birds during my trip, it was the finch - which appeared on different islands but not exactly in the same form on each - that became an example of how a species will develop different features to help it thrive in a particular environment.

But while I gazed eye to eye with 100-plus pound turtles on land and walked among the grunting sea lions, it was what I found more than 60 feet under the water that was the most exhilarating.

Our 16-member group dove into the relatively chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean (between 62 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit) 18 times over the week, bringing us within feet of massive whale sharks, playful sea lions, one particularly irritated penguin, roaming hammerhead sharks, and schools and schools of fish.

Open water certification and plenty of experience are a must. Dive leaders said it is not suitable for novice or infrequent divers due to strong currents.

Although the water is a flurry of aquatic predators and prey, it is the sharks - specifically the whale sharks - that lure most divers to the Galapagos. It is nearly impossible to be disappointed by the nearly 40-foot-long fish that plowed through the water, filtering nourishing plankton from the sea. Despite being nearly the size of a semi truck - they are, after all, the world's largest fish - the sharks glide quickly, and just one thrust of their tail will send them easily away from furiously kicking divers.

We took a different approach when dealing with the hammerheads - wait and watch. While grasping the lava rock that makes up the ocean floor, we held on with hopes that the meat-eating sharks would swim by.

Unlike in years past when members of the Rec Diving group saw schools of hammers at a time, we generally saw them in pairs or alone. That changed on our fourth dive at Wolf Island - one of the Galapagos' most remote islands - when we encountered shark after shark after shark. I can't be sure, but I'd estimate the numbers eventually reached 100.

As we floated, suspended in about 20 feet of water, the sharks swam by, barely noticing us - until the curiosity of a few got the best of them and they came up to investigate. It was a bit nerve-wracking to be within feet of what can be dangerous animals, but the thrill of the moment definitely outweighed any fear.

Although visitors to the Galapagos Islands will try to spend as much time during the day trudging around the wildlife-laden lands or swimming in the salty Pacific Ocean, the nights will most likely lead to a small cabin on a live-aboard boat. That's because the only true way to see the islands is to travel from one to another, something only accomplished with a charter boat.

With the help of an attentive crew, we enjoyed everything from stories about the islands' history to meals made up of traditional Ecuadorian fare, including unidentifiable fruits and lots of seafood. And at night, we had a chance to gaze out at the stars from the boat's top deck.

But there was no North Star nor Big Dipper winking at us in the southern hemisphere. Instead, our celestial show - made even more brilliant by the lack of any city lights - consisted of the Southern Cross, a constellation you can only see south of the equator.

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com or 419-724-6076.



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