Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Paradise Found

Blue Footed Boobies mating dance
For years, I’d heard about the wonders of the Galapagos Islands. For years, I promised myself I’d get there. For years, it never happened. Then it did. And then I wondered why it took me so long to visit one of the most amazing places on earth. 

I dare say one of the reasons for my early reluctance had to do with expectations. Many a time I’d heard about the wonder of a place, only to be disappointed when I saw it in person. I couldn’t comprehend that a group of islands like the Galapagos existed -- where flora, fauna and man live in harmony and not a single creature feared man. I needed to see this for myself, so I finally jumped on a plane and flew out from mainland Ecuador, ready for 10 days of exploring the Galapagos Islands.

Situated 972 kilometers (525 nautical miles) off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are an Ecuadorian province, national park, and a biological marine reserve, all rolled into one. The islands have a total of 23,000 residents, and the government strictly controls the human population of the islands. In 1998, the Ecuadorian government issued a law that granted permanent residence to anyone who had lived in the Galapagos for five years or more. But since 2003, the only people granted permanent residencies are those who marry a resident or are born to one. In the future, new inhabitants of the islands will be required to undertake a special Galapagos Resident course.

Fernandina Island
There are strict regulations as to how many tourists can be on an island at any given time, and naturalists and guides must accompany visitors 24/7. The park entrance fee isn’t exactly cheap, but 100% of the monies goes into the protection and research of this spectacular chain of islands. 

The first European discovery of the Galapagos Islands was in 1535, when Fray Tomás de Berlanga drifted off course on his way to Peru to settle a dispute between Francisco Pizarro and his lieutenants. The most famous visitor was Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle in 1835. A geologist at the time, Darwin referred to the islands as “that land of craters.” During his five weeks on the islands, Darwin made numerous important geological discoveries, including how volcanic tuff is formed. And it was at this time, he noted the creatures that roamed, flew, and swam around the islands were completely different from those in other parts of the world. He also noted how many of the species on various Galapagos Islands adapted to their environment, be it volcanic, sandy, or verdant. These annotations formed the basis for Darwin’s work of scientific literature, On the Origin of the Species. Even now, Darwin’s observations and theories cause controversy.

For those who want to do some exploring of their own, the best way is by boat. Excursions run from four days and longer, but I highly recommend 10 days if the budget can handle it. With so much distance to travel between many of the islands, a longer sail offers the opportunity to learn about the diverse flora and fauna of the archipelago. Penguins, blue-footed booby birds, seals lazing on the beach or swimming in the waters with visitors, are all experiences that are hard to forget. 

One of the best memories of my entire life was swimming near Isla
España. I’d only been in the water a few minutes when I felt a whoosh beneath me, and then a cluster of bubbles appeared on the surface. A second later, a moist nose and whiskers emerged, only inches from my face. The young sea lion’s dark eyes beckoned me to join in the game, and we spent a half hour or so diving under the water, swimming close to each other then quickly away. Kind of like a game of cat and mouse. When it was time to go, I felt like I was leaving a good friend behind, but taking a precious memory with me. Since then, it’s been hard to match that experience.

Sailing the Galapagos is not like traveling on a five-star cruise ship. Every day there are activities that involve long hikes up extinct volcanoes, trekking through scrubland to view bird or iguana colonies, or snorkeling through the tropical waters, and admiring the vast array of sea life.

My most favorite inhabitant of the islands is Lonesome George, believed to be the last living member of a special species of tortoise. He’s thought to be 100 years old, and it’s predicted he has at least another 50 years ahead of him. In an effort to preserve his species, scientists have tried mating George, but this giant tortoise hasn’t shown much interest in procreating. George is in his prime baby-making years right now, so scientists have recently introduced two new female tortoises that are a better genetic match to George, so they are hopeful he’ll finally produce offspring. There is a regal air about this lumbering giant, and I hope the world gets a chance to experience more of his kind, or at least similar, in the near future.

Alli and the giant tortoises
Until my visit to this breathtaking archipelago, I’d never stood a couple meters from a bird colony without them flying away in panic. Nor had I walked along a beach and taken a seat near a group of sea lions lazing in the sun. The lack of fear of humans makes these islands unique, and with the tough controls by the Ecuadorian government and local and international authorities, the Galapagos Islands should remain a tranquil and fascinating place to experience. 

Too many times, nature has been spoiled by tourism and human greed. Somehow, the Galapagos Islands have managed to find a balance. With people from all over the world traveling to the Galapagos and witnessing nature living in harmony, I like to think we can take those experiences and incorporate them into our own worlds upon our return home. Maybe I’m naïve, but for as long as there are people in this world educating others about living in harmony with nature, I believe the world has hope. Because without hope, we have nothing.


  1. I cannot wait to see this place and especially to see it with my kids. How kid friendly is it, Alli? And they do have a theme park there, right? ;)

  2. Oh, I soooo hope George likes his new mates! Such a lucky guy - he gets two! Although most guys have enough trouble keeping one happy - or so they say!