Close en­coun­ters on a Gala­pa­gos ad­ven­ture

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - Travel - LAU­REN KRAMER PA­CIFIC COR­RE­SPON­DENT

They stand like solemn sen­tries with wiz­ened faces, men­ac­ing-look­ing claws and stat­uesque bod­ies of green, black and red lead­ing to long spiny tails. Hun­dreds of marine igua­nas con­sti­tute our wel­com­ing com­mit­tee to Es­pañola Is­land in the Gala­pa­gos ar­chi­pel­ago, and lay­ered one on top of the other, they block our path on a well-worn is­land trail.

My group hangs back ner­vously, anx­ious about how these pre­his­toric rep­tiles will re­act to us. “Be­ware of your jugu­lar veins!” jokes our guide, Jose Be­na­vides, as he strides past them, step­ping gin­gerly be­tween heads and tails and en­cour­ag­ing us to do the same. “They’re com­pletely harm­less.”

It’s Day 3 in the Gala­pa­gos, where I’m spend­ing a week vis­it­ing five is­lands, along with 19 co-trav­ellers, on a small pas­sen­ger ship, The Eric. The ship is small enough to ven­ture close to the bays and coves of is­lands with names as colour­ful as the species they shel­ter: Flore­ana, San Cris­to­bal, Es­pañola and Santa Cruz.

By day we kayak and snorkel, tak­ing short hikes into the is­lands’ in­te­rior to ex­plore the bird life, mam­mals, rep­tiles and am­phib­ians that in­habit them. With no other ships nearby, we have the beaches and coves to our­selves, giv­ing our jour­ney an Eden-like qual­ity. We are Dar­winesque trav­ellers step­ping back in time to an un­touched par­adise, a place where we’re never once per­ceived as a threat or dan­ger by the igua­nas, sea lions, tur­tles, sting rays or many species of birds we en­counter.

We’d like to be­lieve the is­lands are truly un­touched, but sev­eral have been tainted by hu­man en­coun­ters over the years, spoiled by hu­man depre­da­tion and the in­tro­duc­tion of black rats, goats and feral cats that have en­dan­gered the en­demic species.

As we ap­proach Flore­ana Is­land, we no­tice a small cat swiftly nav­i­gat­ing the rocky cliffs. Be­na­vides swears qui­etly un­der his breath and turns to our group with a solemn face. “The goats we man­aged to get rid of here,” he says. “There are pro­grams to erad­i­cate the cats too, but clearly we’ve not got­ten all of them yet.”

The cats, re­leased over the years by the 100 or so full-time res­i­dents of Flore­ana, are a prob­lem be­cause they threaten the wildlife, feed­ing on lava lizards, mock­ing­birds, finches and tur­tle eggs. Still, the is­land is flour­ish­ing.

Dis­em­bark­ing at an olive-coloured beach we’re wel­comed by sea lions with gleam­ing bod­ies and faces turned to­ward the sun. A few steps down a sandy path, we ar­rive at a shal­low la­goon where the smell of sul­phur hangs heavy in the air. The la­goon is filled with crus­taceans, the favourite food of flamin­gos, and a flock stand like pink avian bal­leri­nas in the dis­tance, dain­tily feed­ing in the shal­lows.

It takes min­utes to cross the is­land, and on the other side, we’re in the nest­ing grounds of the green sea tur­tle. In day­light the only signs of their pres­ence are the many in­den­ta­tions in the sand where they’ve laid their eggs on pre­vi­ous nights. Once those eggs hatch, only two per cent will make it to the wa­ter, the re­main­der suc­cumb­ing to hun­gry preda­tors like the gi­ant frigate birds that cir­cle above us.

This is the gift of the Gala­pa­gos: the abil­ity to ex­pe­ri­ence na­ture close up with­out ever be­ing per­ceived as a threat­en­ing pres­ence. Es­pañola Is­land, the old­est in the ar­chi­pel­ago at six mil­lion years, is home to 17 species found nowhere else in the world. Septem­ber is breed­ing sea­son, and Es­pañola’s white sand is lit­tered with sea lion pla­centa, tes­ti­fy­ing to the new­ness of the pups cud­dled close to their moth­ers as we walk by.

Far­ther down the path, at a rocky look­out where waves smash and foam over the black vol­canic rocks, the sky is filled with swal­low-tailed gulls, gi­ant frigate birds with blood-red pouches, the rare waved al­ba­tross with its mas­sive wing­span and red-billed trop­icbirds trail­ing spec­tac­u­lar long tails.

Santa Cruz Is­land is our first con­tact with civ­i­liza­tion af­ter five days at sea, and we board a bus to the lush high­lands to see gi­ant tor­toises, long-necked be­he­moths with gen­tle, in­tel­li­gent faces. They wal­low in mud pools and munch on grass, their im­mense shells sug­gest­ing that many are over a cen­tury old. These tor­toises are the hand­ful that sur­vived af­ter their pop­u­la­tions were dec­i­mated from the 1500s on­wards, their an­ces­tors har­vested for their meat and oil by pi­rates, whalers and buc­ca­neers.

At the Charles Dar­win Re­search Sta­tion in Santa Cruz, suc­cess­ful breed­ing pro­grams are re­turn­ing in­creas­ing num­bers of tor­toises to the wild, where these 700-pound crea­tures have a cru­cial role to play. By dis­pers­ing seeds in their dung, they re­vi­tal­ize im­por­tant eco­log­i­cal sites, help­ing to re­store and pre­serve the flora of the Gala­pa­gos.

As we cruise from one is­land to an­other, we’re stunned by the va­ri­ety of wildlife and the close­ness of our en­coun­ters. Sea lions swim play­fully along­side us as we snorkel near the basalt cliffs, pel­i­cans and gi­ant frigate birds hover near our ship, and on land, our walks take us inches from nest­ing blue-footed boo­bies and the un­blink­ing faces of pre­his­toric-look­ing igua­nas.

Like the nat­u­ral­ists that lead and ed­u­cate us on this jour­ney of nat­u­ral dis­cov­ery, we leave with un­for­get­table mem­o­ries and a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­tect the in­tegrity of the Gala­pa­gos. A week in the em­brace of this ex­quis­ite ar­chi­pel­ago we learn that this smat­ter­ing of is­lands and the uniquely adapted birds and an­i­mals that in­habit it are Ecuador’s most price­less jewel.

Ad­ven­ture Life co-or­di­nates itin­er­ar­ies through­out Ecuador, Gala­pa­gos Is­land cruises and vis­its to the jun­gle. For in­for­ma­tion: 800-344-6118; www.ad­ven­ture-life.com.

LAU­REN KRAMER PHO­TOS

A large, dor­mant vol­cano with a gi­gan­tic lava tun­nel, Santa Cruz is the sec­ond largest is­land in the Gala­pa­gos. At many of the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands, the wel­com­ing com­mit­tee con­sists of sea lions, marine igua­nas and boo­bies, who use the is­lands as their nest­ing grounds.

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