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International Travel:
Fowl play

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.
"You don't need any of that fancy camera clobber you're carrying for pictures in the Galapagos. I got shots good enough for National Geographic with this," one Australian tourist back in Quito had boasted, proudly waving his disposable camera under my nose. At the time I had merely nodded and smiled, dismissing him as a blithering idiot when he claimed the birds were not scared of humans and "even seem to enjoy posing for the camera."

A marine iguana strikes a pose

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.

The flamboyant frigate

Birds of paradise
A stroll around the more secluded parts of these islands offers the feeling of being transported back to the very beginnings of time, to a garden of innocence where humans live as one with the animals. Certainly, for the birdwatcher, the Galapagos is a veritable treasure trove. The boobies, flamingos, penguins, albatrosses and flamboyant frigates that make the islands their home are among some of the world's most unusual birds.

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 Island.
Lolling in the sand like sun-worshipers on the Costa del Sol were at least 100 sea lions. The cows were nursing their young while the bulls gamboled in the sea, occasionally charging us when they judged us to be too far into their territory. "They won't hurt you. You don't have to run away," said Diego with a laugh, but we weren't going to take our chances with the bulls, which are as burly as sumo wrestlers and grunt menacingly.

Diving with sharks off Isabella Island

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.

Island universe
The Galapagos archipelago consists of 13 major islands, five of which are inhabited, and numerous smaller ones. Like most tourists, we flew into Baltra Island and spent our time traveling between the various islands. In between wildlife watching, our tour made other excursions to get a taste of life on the islands. We visited lava tunnels, some over a kilometer long, near Bellavista on Santa Cruz Island, and drove around to see how many of the islanders live (most are farmers, fishermen or involved in the tourist industry) and view the local vegetation.

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 isles.

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.

Getting there
The Galapagos are located about 800km west of the coast of Ecuador. Travelers should plan to fly into Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador and arrange air travel or boat tours from there. Continental (, Delta ( and American Airlines ( fly to Quito via Houston, Atlanta or Miami.

Where to stay
See for information on hotels, cruise ships and other lodging options. Additional information on chartering yachts can be found at

For sailing, diving, surfing and bird watching information, see,, and

Photos by Mary King



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