A captivating display by beauty of the beasts dispels any fears about island excursion
Chris Zelkovich – TORONTO STAR – (Go to Source)
GALAPAGOS ISLANDS–As the clouds parted to unveil the stark landscape of the Galapagos Islands, the doubts began to re-emerge.
Why had we spent so much money to come to a place that looked more like the dark side of the moon than a tropical island? Why were we taking part in what has been described by some as an organized assault on one of the world’s greatest natural treasures? The first fear was sparked by our wallets, which had taken a serious hit when a trip to celebrate our 25th anniversary was planned. I’ve bought cars that cost less than a week in the Galapagos Islands. The latter fear was instilled in us by a documentary we had seen, after booking, that showed hordes of boorish tourists trampling all over the islands that made Darwin famous, as if they were rushing to beat the lineups at Disney World. But thanks in part to a friendly sea lion, and the behaviour of our fellow tourists, those fears were all put to rest. The sea lion showed up early, sort of like an aquatic Welcome Wagon. Within a couple of hours of landing, our 20-passenger cruise ship had sailed around San Cristobal Island, home to one of the archipelago’s two airports, and dumped us on a small beach called Playa Ochoa for some snorkelling. We weren’t in the water more than five minutes when I sensed something large beneath me. Before the Jaws music started playing in my head, a sea lion’s face appeared no more than a foot from mine. And again, and again, and again.
It didn’t take long to realize this wild marine mammal was playing with me, possibly mistaking me for a relatively hairless cousin. He did loops under me, around me, never getting close enough for me to touch him but close enough that I could count the whiskers on his face. Whatever concerns I had about cost disappeared at that moment. This was not some penned-up sea creature cavorting with the tourists for a mouthful of fish; this was an honest-to-goodness wild animal that should have been swimming as far away from me as possible, if not sizing me up for lunch. As the ship’s captain told us later, “When you look into the eyes of a wild animal, you regain your innocence.” In many ways, spending a week in the Galapagos lets you regain your innocence, mainly because you’re looking into the eyes of wild animals pretty much every day. These are creatures that, because of the islands’ historic isolation, have little or no fear of humans. Even the giant tortoises and the comical boobies, both hunted mercilessly by sailors centuries ago, have avoided the instinctive reaction to escape or hide when two-legged predators arrive. You can get within a few feet of any Galapagos denizen unless one of them chooses to get closer. A Galapagos mockingbird stalked me for about 100 metres on one island, finally taking advantage of a rest stop to attack my shoelaces. Another bird landed on the cap of a guide, either mistaking him for a tree or simply wanting a closer look. Sleeping sea lions litter every beach and will allow tourists to walk right up to them, though if anyone gets close enough to reach out and touch one he will have to deal with the rather menacing bull stationed on every stretch of sand. Then there’s the sheer uniqueness of the fauna here. Even though the equator bisects the islands, they’re home to tiny penguins that belong thousands of kilometres away. Vermilion crustaceans, named Sally Lightfoot crabs, cover the rocks while marine iguanas nearby snort out salt they’ve ingested while deep-diving for algae. And the tortoises, which gave the archipelago its name, look more like aliens than reptiles. But all this cheek-by-jowl nature can have its downside, as many critics have charged. With tourists trampling all over the islands, damage is inevitable. That’s true, especially when you think about all those boats idling offshore and the tonnes of garbage produced by tourists. But those who visit the Galapagos exhibit a concern for the environment seldom seen anywhere else. In our week of hiking and snorkelling, I didn’t see one piece of garbage, not one gum wrapper, lying around. When the guides warn people about leaving the trails, the tourists listen. When a British tourist headed across an iguana nesting ground to get a closer look at a group of sea lions – the only time we saw anyone break the rules – a guide did everything but call in the reptile police to stop her. Anything the wildlife police could have done couldn’t possibly have been as painful as the withering looks her fellow tourists directed her way. Our group of 20 included an eclectic mix of tourists: families as well as professional singles. But we all had one thing in common: a love of nature and a respect for it. While most of us were on the downhill side of 50, there were several young people, including one young man who proudly announced halfway through the week that he had just spotted the 1,000th bird species of his life. The beach-and-beer crowd seldom makes it as far as the Galapagos. “For the most part, the Galapagos Islands have been extremely well-managed,” says Lewie Gonsalves, president of Toronto’s Quest Nature Tours and a Galapagos tour leader. “The park authorities have done a great job of regulating the number of boats and tours on the islands.” There are limits on how many people can disembark at one time, as well as limits on the size of cruise ships. Nothing that holds more than 100 passengers is allowed to stop at the islands, an improvement on the situation that existed a few years ago and provided the documentary makers with some of their more shocking images. As long as those limitations are in place, and there’s no indication that will change, tourists will benefit the Galapagos more than they’ll harm it.