Where the wild animals are tame

Penguins on the equator? Swimming with marine iguanas as well as turtles and sea lions? Getting up close and personal with blue-footed boobies, a…

Penguins on the equator?

Swimming with marine iguanas as well as turtles and sea lions?

Getting up close and personal with blue-footed boobies, a nesting pelican, or a 200-year-old giant tortoise?

It all happens right here in one of the world’s unique places where birds, reptiles and other animals have no fear of humans.

Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution based on natural selection, Origin of Species, after he visited these islands in 1835 in the HMS Beagle.

He based much of his work on the 13 species of finch (which came to be known as Darwin’s finch) in the Galapagos, each with different beaks depending on their food source.

The finches continue to thrive. But it’s the larger birds, as well as the reptiles and other animals, which attract most visitor attention.

Days 1-3: I join the 27 people on the Harvard Alumni Association Travel tour in Quito. (HAA Travel sends its brochures only to Harvard alums but anybody can sign up for a tour — see www.haa.harvard.edu/alumni/html/travel.shtml or call 1-800-422-1636.)

I have flown from Miami, at sea level, to Quito, at 2,800m (9,186 feet). That’s the equivalent of going almost three kilometres straight up in four hours. Luckily my body fends off altitude sickness without the help of any drugs (Diamox is one medication used for prevention).

Ecuador sits astride the equator (hence the name) so day and night are 12 hours long year ’round. The country uses the US dollar as its currency. Thanks to petroleum reserves, you pay only 25 cents a litre for diesel, 45 cents for premium gas.

We visit museums and churches, which reflect the native Indian and Spanish heritage. We go bargaining-shopping for colourful, very soft alpaca wool blankets and various handicrafts in Otavalo, South America’s most famous Indian market, which dates back to pre-Inca times.

We visit a rose plantation: Ecuador is one of the world’s largest rose growers/exporters. This plantation produces and ships 340,000 roses a month, double that figure for Valentine’s and Mother’s Days.

Day 4: We take the one-hour flight from Quito to San Cristobal Island, permanently colonized only 150 years ago. It is one of the six largest islands in the Galapagos Archipelago, which has more than 100 islands in total.

Here we board the MV Galapagos Explorer II, our home for the next week. At 100 passengers, the ship is big enough to be comfortable but small enough that embarking and disembarking, which we do morning and afternoon, don’t take too long.

Indeed, we are off after lunch for our first shore excursion — and it’s all about the “up close and personal” encounters with the animals which have attracted us to the Galapagos.

Our academic leader (we also have a tour guide and youth counsellor) is Scott Edwards, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology in the department of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard.

“I stop for each and every bird,” he warns when I ask if I can tag along after we hop off the Zodiacs and wade ashore on to the white sand at Wizard Hill.

Colonies of sea lions laze on the beach, oblivious to our presence. We also meet our first marine iguanas and numerous bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs.

Edwards uses his binoculars to spot several bird species, but the big birds are still another day and island away.

Day 5: Today is the day of the blue-footed boobies. We find them after a dry landing, stepping on to the rocks at Punta Suarez on Espanola Island.

“They really do have bright blue feet,” exclaims one of the group. Indeed they do, and the brighter the blue, the more attractive to a mate as they are shown off in a high-stepping strut.

Half the world’s breeding pairs live on the Galapagos Islands. We see quite a few sitting on their nests, covering the eggs with their large webbed feet. About the size of a large goose, the booby is an exceptional diver — plunging from up to 24 metres above the ocean with 1.5-metre wingspread tightly folded.

It is also the day of the even larger albatross. “Albatrosses cross oceans for breakfast and deign to touch shore only when it involves sex,” writes Carl Safina on the National Geographic website. “Land is an inconvenient necessity for breeding.”

And that is where we find the waved albatross, along with more marine iguanas, and sea lions, and crabs, and lava lizards, and in the air, swallow-tailed gulls and Galapagos doves.

Day 6: After watching sea lions chase flying fish in the light from the ship at night, we land on Santa Cruz Island to visit the giant tortoises, both the actual giants and also their (relatively) tiny offspring in the tortoise nursery, at the Charles Darwin Research Station

And we meet Lonesome George, the last of his particular species whom curators have been trying to get to mate — until now, unsuccessfully.

Believed to be between 60 and 90 years old, and so in his sexual prime, George has apparently finally done his mating duty although it is still not known whether the eggs his females have produced are fertile.

In the afternoon we go ashore on the red sand beach of Rabida Island to visit a group of pelicans nesting in the bushes. We stand only centimetres away, typical of how close we get to most of the wild (actually quite tame) life.

These creatures have never learned to fear people. And our groups of about a dozen visitors, each led by a local naturalist, don’t seem to stress them.

“One study checked their corticosterone to measure their stress levels and found no increase in stress caused by the proximity of the tourists,” Edwards says.

After our hike, we snorkel and swim, frolicking in the shore break with a couple of sea lion pups who just want to play.

Day 7: We visit Santa Cruz Island, where we spot a couple of flamingos standing in a saltwater lagoon.

Day 8: We hike and climb the 360 wooden steps to the volcanic summit on Bartholemew Island, accompanied by the usual gang of lava lizards. Back at the beach, we swim and snorkel with penguins, turtles and white-tipped sharks.

Day 9: Fernandina Island is home to the largest concentration of marine iguanas, hundreds of them sunning themselves on the rocky terrain during the day. These prehistoric-looking spiny reptiles pay scant attention to us.

The stark lava landscape is broken only occasionally by a small clutch of lava cactus.

Day 10: Frigate birds, with their distinctive forked tails, soar overhead as we land on North Seymour Island. On land, the males puff out their bright red breasts and hold nest-making twigs in their beaks to impress potential mates. Flightless cormorants congregate on the shore.

In the afternoon, we drive to the highlands of Santa Cruz Island to see giant tortoises, some up to 200 years old, in the wilds of a large reserve.

Day 11: We visit the very informative Interpretation Centre on San Cristobal Island, which tells the history of the Galapagos Islands — from their discovery in 1535 through periods of piracy, whaling, prison settlement, various other settlement attempts of the early 1900s, the setting up of a US Army Air Force base on Baltra to protect the Panama Canal during the Second World War, and today’s conservation programs.

Day 12: We fly to Guayaquil, back on the mainland and Ecuador’s largest city with a population of four million. We visit a downtown park, home of some 400 land iguanas whom we are allowed to pet, something forbidden on the Galapagos.

And so we return home, to a world where wild animals are once again wild. But where we all treasure our memories of the special creatures we have met on one of the most unusual and special places on Earth.

Travel writer Mike Grenby teaches journalism at Bond University, on Australia’s Gold Coast.