Mary King gets up close and personal with the creatures of the Galapagos.
The blue-footed boobies looked on nonchalantly as I clambered ungainly
over rocks, desperately trying to edge in with my camera just that little
bit closer. I couldn't believe my luck. After days of cruising around
the Galapagos Islands, seeing these magnificent birds only from afar as
they dived like kamikaze pilots into the sea, my chance had finally come
for those close-up shots everyone had been talking about.
As I inched in even closer on the boobies, whose most striking feature is their bright blue webbed feet, I still couldn't believe that they hadn't taken flight. I was close enough to touch them, and quickly shot a whole roll of film using a wide-angle lens. This magical moment on the lava rocks of San Cristobal Island, as deep blue waves crashed around me, was just one of many I was to experience during my nine-day visit to the archipelago that lies on the equator, about 800km off the coast of Ecuador.
Birds of paradise
Small Darwin finches are abundant, resting on branches or rocks mere
inches away, while out at sea the pelicans swoop so low you can reach
out and touch them. However, as tempting as it may be, touching the animals
and birds is forbidden, as is feeding them. "The only exception is
the seals, and then you can only touch them when they're in the water,
not when they're on land," explained Diego, our tour guide, as he
took us on our first day to see the sea lions on Loberia Beach, San Cristobal
A few days later we took a speedboat from Santa Cruz Island to Caamano
Island, where we donned goggles and flippers and went snorkeling in the
choppy waters. The sea lions dozed on the rocks of the small island, keeping
a wary eye on us before deciding to join us in the icy-cool waters. Once
they realized we posed no threat, they were soon leaping off the rocks,
splashing into the sea, darting around us in frenzied circles, and diving
playfully between our legs.
Heading back to calmer waters, we put our snorkeling equipment back on to swim with a shoal of nine stingrays. The live-action show continued at Playa de Perros, where we watched hundreds of marine iguana as they scrambled over lava or stood petrified like the black rocks they were standing against. It was a Jurassic Park of mini-dinosaurs as the prehistoric-looking reptiles scurried here and there, finally spitting at us when they tired of our presence. Those of us panting for the ultimate adrenaline buzz got our kicks at Isabela Island when we swam with about 30 white-tipped sharks, our hearts thumping like taiko drums as we glided through the still, clear waters behind a shoal of small gray sharks.
A wonderful day was spent horseback riding on Isabela Island, where we
cantered out to the Sierra Negra Volcano. Its crater, 10km in diameter,
is the second largest in the world after Tanzania's Serengeti. The surrounding
area is equally breathtaking with its dramatic views of smaller craters,
lava spills and patterns in the rock formations. But for most visitors
to the Galapagos, the highlight of their trip is finally coming face-to-face
with the giant tortoise, the Galapagos, after which the Spanish named
these isles. The tortoise can be observed in the wilds on many of the
islands. At the Tortoise Reserve near Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz Island, you
can see some as old as 150 years, weighing up to 270kg and measuring as
long as 1.5m moseying along and sucking on cactus fruit and leaves.
To see tortoises in captivity, the place to go is the Charles Darwin
Research Station, which is named after the islands' most famous visitor,
who first came in 1835. Based on Santa Cruz Island, the research station
operates alongside the Galapagos National Park to save the island's endangered
species by eradicating both alien vegetation and introduced animals that
pose a threat to endemic species. The research station outlines the plight
of the giant tortoise, land iguana and fur seals, all of which makes for
sad reading. When the Spanish discovered the islands in 1535, there were
14 races of giant tortoise. Today, three races are extinct and the Pinta
race has only one member, Lonesome George, who can be seen in his corral
with two girlfriends of another race with whom the research station hopes
he will eventually mate.
The threat to the giant tortoise started with the whalers who came to
the islands in the 1700s and took tens of thousands, perhaps even 100,000,
of the creatures on board their ships for food or oil. Hunters vying for
animal skins also brought the fur seal to the brink of extinction, stopping
only because the seal population declined so drastically that it was no
longer economical to hunt for them. The land iguana, like other endemic
wildlife to the islands, has been threatened by feral dogs, cats, black
rats and even goats, animals that were all introduced to the Galapagos
by settlers who first came here in 1832, after Ecuador laid claim to the
It's clear that conserving the animals of the "Enchanted Isles" is a never-ending battle.
Lonesome George cuts a poignant figure as he munches on cacti fruit before a group of tourists armed with video cameras and zoom lenses. When he was found in 1971, some 65 years had passed since the last recorded sighting of a giant tortoise on Pinta Island. Today he serves as a stark reminder to visitors that the fate of the Galapagos' unique and fearless wildlife rests largely in the hands of humans.
Where to stay
Photos by Mary King
HIS Experience Japan is offering tourists and residents of Japan a chance to experience “real Japanese culture,” in addition to the usual tourist spots. The company has nearly a dozen programs that allow participants to learn directly from professionals. Activities include sushi-making, yuzen silk-dying, calligraphy, karate and ninja lessons, taiko drumming and lantern-making, among others. Guides who speak English, Chinese, Korean and Spanish are available, and reservations can be made online at http://hisexperience.jp/. Further info is available in English by calling 03-5322-8988.
From August 26 through September 13 (excluding September 7-9), Tokyo Dome Hotel is offering a late summer accommodation promotion, in which rooms will be discounted by up to 45 percent. During the period, the rate is ¥14,000 for a single room, ¥18,500 for a twin or double and ¥21,000 for a triple. Fifty rooms will be available per day. A variety of events are being held at Tokyo Dome City during this period, including the 78th Intercity Baseball Tournament (August 24-September 4) and the popular children’s program The Jukensentai Geki Ranger Show will be performing on stage at Sky Theater until September 2. For reservations, call 03-5805-2222 or visit www.tokyodome-hotels.co.jp. CB
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