Where the exotic is commonplace

Cruise the Galpagos where Darwin conceived theories that shook the religious and scientific worlds.

It looked like the sad remains of my 1978 Volkswagen Beetle - a round, dented dome of rusted steel abandoned in the bush.

Until, that is, it got up and walked.

The animated tourists in our group froze as four legs appeared under the massive carapace. First, two legs from under the "hood," then two under the "bonnet," and the giant tortoise rose like my VW on a garage lift. Then a neck - long and arched with a headlight-sized skull - turned in our direction, as he gave one of those slow, ET blinks with his limpid, black eyes.

Less impressed by our presence than we with his, he slowly lumbered off deeper into the bush to a staccato of camera clicks. With broad grins and our heads bobbing like courting albatrosses, we all began breathing normally again. This is what we had come to see. More would only frost the cake. And frosting we got.

We had seen these eternal giants earlier at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the island of Santa Cruz. There we actually got down on all fours in their pen and got as up-close and personal as we wanted with these 500-pound living Sherman tanks. But seeing them in the wild was a rare treat indeed.

At the Darwin Station, tortoises (and land iguanas) are bred and raised to eventually repopulate the islands where tortoises once numbered in the hundreds of thousands. An estimated 15,000 survive today.

The most famous resident at the station, and certainly the oldest confirmed bachelor (though not by choice) in the world, is Lonesome George, thought to be the single survivor of a subspecies of tortoise found only on Pinta Island.

Although they are the public-relations representatives of Galpagos, the tortoises share these islands with hundreds of unique species of plant and wildlife.

And now for that frosting...

Late one afternoon after an exhausting walk over fields of hot, sun-baked black lava resembling thick ropes of dreadlocks, we came upon a small pond. This oasis in the middle of acres of barren land was lush with new growth. There, among the tall grasses, three flamingos stood reflected in the still, dark pond. We sat quietly as these narcissistic birds preened their bubble-gum-pink plumage while the setting sun danced on the water.

On Hood Island, sea lions joined us for a swim. Moving like torpedoes, they veered away, seeming to enjoy the sport as much as we did. Many of the cows had given birth that night and lay in dark contrast against the white sand while their hours-old bleating pups cautiously tested the waters for the first time. "Never touch a pup," we were warned, "Or the mother will reject it."

On Isabela Island, large gangs of marine iguanas that Charles Darwin referred to as "little imps of darkness" sunned themselves on guano-covered lava outcrops. Nearby, pumpkin-hued Sally lightfoot crabs did a kind of Virginia reel as they tiptoed sideways over the lava. The iguanas soak up the sun's energy, which enables them to dive into the chilly waters for up to 20 minutes and dine on marine algae. When courting, the males' drab skin turned to blotches of orange, red, malachite, and black - to win the hearts of females.

As we buzzed over the waters in rubber puntas with our naturalist guides, sea turtles and dark, ominous delta-winged rays glided under our boat; Galpagos hawks soared above, waiting to pick up a quick meal from an unguarded gull nest. Penguins practiced their Charlie Chaplain waddle for our amusement, occasionally diving into the sea for a fresh sardine.

Although rather nondescript when compared with goofy-looking boobies, frigates, swallowtail gulls, vermilion flycatchers, and huge albatrosses, the various species of Darwin's finches may be most remarkable. One, the sharp-beaked finch, will peck the skin of boobies, drawing blood for its afternoon tea. Hence its nickname - vampire finch. Another, the woodpecker finch, uses a "fork" when dining. The clever finch prods insects and grubs from holes and under the bark of trees with a thin stick or cactus quill in its beak.

"Stay on the trails, single file. No wandering off. And never touch, or in any way distract, an animal or bird," we were told when walking in areas strewn with nesting boobies.

The only time we went off the trail was to walk around a sea lion or another animal in our path, if it wouldn't move. "These animals have no fear of man, and we don't want to give them a reason to. This is their land. We are the guests," our ever-watching guides reminded us.

For all its tourists and illegal immigrants - be they pigs, goats, dogs, or cats - these islands have fascinated travelers and scientists since before Darwin, 22 in 1835, disembarked from the H.M.S. Beagle for a five-week stay. Twenty years later, in his revolutionary work that shook the religious and scientific worlds, "On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection," he reflected:

"Seeing every height crowned with its crater and the boundaries of most of the lava streams still distinct, we are led to believe that within a period geologically recent, the unbroken ocean was here spread out. Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to the great fact, that mystery of mysteries - the first appearance of new beings on this earth."

For more information on Galpagos cruises, contact a travel agent or Metropolitan Touring, Av. Repblica de El Salvador, PO Box 17-17-1649, Quito, Ecuador. Telephone: 011-593-2-464-780. In the US, Adventure Associates, 13150 Coit Road, Suite 110, Dallas, TX 75240. 800-527-2500. E-mail info@ecuadorable.com or visit www.ecuadorable.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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