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Wild encounters: no matter what expectations you may have about the Galapagos Islands, the reality of a visit will surpass them. (Galapagos tour).

QUICK, QUICK, THE DOLPHINS ARE HERE," shouted Franklin, our guide, shortly after dinner one evening. Leaping to our feet we followed him out onto the deck and into the inky blackness of a Pacific night in the Galapagos. How was I going to see dolphins, I wondered, when I couldn't even see my hand in front of my face? "Down there," said a disembodied voice somewhere in front of me. I clutched the railings of the Beluga, our elegant 110-foot yacht, as she pitched and rolled at around 15 knots, heading north towards the equator.

Suddenly I saw what all the fuss was about. Surfing on our bow wave were a dozen or more bottle-nosed dolphins glowing wondrously in the plankton-rich seas which, through the clear water, appeared bioluminescent. Plunging and weaving centimetres from the Beluga's bow, these dolphins had an unearthly green glow that was simply breathtaking.

Everyone instinctively knows the Galapagos is a special place to visit, but only when you get there do you realise quite how amazing it really is. The wildlife here acts differently to anywhere else, and the land on which it lives is a collection of volcanic outcrops and sections of sea floor that have been formed by the movement of tectonic plates.

This is where Charles Darwin spent five weeks 166 years ago while on a voyage of discovery which culminated in the publication of On the Origin of Species, the book on natural selection that polarised scientists of the day. Little has changed in the intervening years. Except for lines of short posts marking out the tourist paths, the land is just as it would have been when Darwin arrived. The creatures go about their business with an arrogance gained from knowing they were there first, and the tourists that visit must fit in around them. On those few islands that have been colonised, the area permitted for habitation is severely limited, ensuring that over 95 per cent of the landmass is free from humans, whether tourist or inhabitant.

The only blot on the volcanic landscape is the introduction of a variety of animals that came with human life. Goats, dogs, cats, pigs, donkeys and rats have been brought to the islands. A big clean-up campaign has been in operation for some years now with great success, meaning many islands are now rid of all imported species and are back to their natural state.

When the Ecuadorian government set aside 90 per cent of the Galapagos islands as a National Park in 1959, it created a haven for wildlife photographers. Leave your big lenses at home: here you can get up close and personal with every creature. Birds are particularly tame. Mockingbirds sit on your shoulder waiting for a chance to steal some water from your bottle, while flycatchers pick flies off tourists--a useful bird indeed. Darwin himself commented that he needed no gun, "for with the muzzle of one, I pushed a hawk off the branch of a tree".

Franklin, our excellent Ecuadorian naturalist guide, had his own brand of humour and an in-depth knowledge of subjects ranging from the life cycle of the medium ground finch (which sounded like a type of coffee to me) and the sex life of barnacles to the currents and winds that affect the islands. He provided the first truly understandable account of E1 Nino and its effects I'd ever heard.

With Franklin educating and entertaining us, we moved from island to island over the course of a week, escorted by frigate birds and dolphins while on the move, and welcomed by pelicans and sea lions whenever we stopped. On Espanola Island we had to pick our way past a pack of marauding marine iguanas before finding ourselves in the middle of a waved-albatross landing strip. This giant bird with a three-metre wing-span is so graceful in flight, but seems to have severe trouble landing. Once on land, however, it performs one of the most spectacular courting rituals in the bird world, with the clacking of bills, whistles and a romantic sort of fencing match with its intended mate, which starts with open bills and finishes with a dance of neck swerves.

The blue-footed booby is another treat of the Galapagos, not just because it is rare but because it is highly entertaining. With its exquisite turquoise-blue feet, this bird performs an amazing dance, nicknamed the `booby two-step', as part of its courtship display, accompanied by whistles from the male and honks from the female.

At the bachelor sea lion pad on South Plaza Island I watched great bulls lumber up an almost sheer rock-face while honking continuously--presumably telling the rest of the boys to get the beers out. Some displayed vicious-looking cuts where they had fought for, and lost, their harem to a bigger and tougher bull. But for all the noise and bluster, these animals didn't give us a second look, other than stopping to pose for our posse of photographers to take a few shots.

Our one and only encounter with other human beings was on Santa Cruz Island at the Charles Darwin Research Centre, which has an ongoing programme of raising giant tortoises to a size where they can be returned to their home islands. As each island has its own subspecies of giant tortoise, the eggs and hatchlings are kept separate to ensure the purity of each bloodline.

The star attraction of the centre is undoubtedly Lonesome George, the only surviving giant tortoise from Pinta Island. George is already over 100 years old, and the centre hopes to keep part of his lineage alive by housing him with two females from Wolf Island, home to his closest relations. However, so far Lonesome George seems happy with his solitary life, and has shown no interest in his two hapless mates.

In stark contrast to the other islands, the highlands of Santa Cruz are damp and lush with an abundance of evergreen trees and plants--moss, liverwort, bromeliad and vines--and are one of the main haunts of the giant tortoise. The hunt for these beasts took place in the pouring rain. Our guide rampaged through the rainforest with a machete, chopping away at overhanging branches, as if in a hurry to catch up with these ponderous creatures.

If Santa Cruz offers a wide variety of terrain and wildlife, then Bartolome Island is the opposite. In geological terms it is quite young--some of the lava formations look as if they have only just stopped flowing--and the volcanic terrain has an eerie moonlike quality where virtually nothing grows. Wooden steps have been built to enable the tourists to climb to a peak, where they are rewarded with a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape. Although there is little wildlife on the island, it is home to a small family of Galapagos penguins, a rare sight this far north.

I was almost in tears as I left the Beluga for the last time and looked with envy at the next group of visitors who stood patiently waiting for Franklin to begin his unique blend of charm, comedy and education.

The bottle-nosed dolphins are not the only things to glow in these enchanted islands, and Darwin is not the only person to have been bewitched by them. Every tourist must surely leave with an inner contentment, born of having been privy to courting boobies, albatross and frigate birds, and mingling with sea lions and giant tortoises, as well as seeing life as nature intended.

Responsible tourism in the Galapagos

The Galapagos is an extremely fragile environment and conservationists are constantly fighting to preserve its unique flora and fauna. Certain responsible tour operators are also giving valuable support to the National Park. Discovery Initiatives, which charters the Beluga, donates 3,000 [pounds sterling] to Galapagos conservation programmes each time it travels to the area. In return, staff at the Charles Darwin research centre give cruise members exclusive access to the island's hidden secrets.

Corinne Hitching "Going to the Galapagos was a dream come true for me," says Corinne Hitching, whose spellbinding trip to the islands is described by her on page 90. The West Sussex-based journalist's appetite for adventure has clearly grown because of it; she has a burning ambition to visit the tribes and eco-lodges of the Amazon basin. It may be a tougher assignment than visiting the Galapagos, however. "I loved being pampered on a yacht for eight days while travelling around the Islands," she beams. "Swimming with sharks was great too."
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Author:Hitching, Corinne
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:3ECUD
Date:Jun 1, 2002
Words:1417
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