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ECUADOR

Evolution runs wild

The Galápagos, birthplace of Darwinian theory, are a unique haven: blue-footed birds, swimming iguanas and a lonely tortoise named George. Call it survival of the quirkiest.

September 02, 2007|Carol Stogsdill | Special to The Times

The synonym for paradise is Galápagos. The definition is an archipelago of 15 islands and dozens of islets in the Pacific, straddling the Equator and belonging to Ecuador, 600 miles east. Never mind the 19th century visit of Charles Darwin and how he began formulating his theory of evolution here. Anyone who comes here will tell you that what really put this place on the map are the sheer wonders that occur when nature is allowed to thrive unspoiled.

But lately, there have been signs of trouble in paradise. Ecuador is considering restricting not only tourist permits and flights to the islands but also residency permits. UNESCO selected Galápagos as its first world heritage site in 1978 but in August declared the islands "in danger" because of increased development and tourism.

But Ecuadoreans have a saying: "If it's not a problem today, it's not a problem yet." And, today, the iguanas are happily basking in the sun. In the middle of these wonders, trouble is easy to overlook.

SAN CRISTÓBAL

The view from an airplane on approach to the island of San Cristóbal, home of the smaller of the Galápagos' two airports, is not especially overwhelming. We look in vain for the lush greenery or swaying palm trees that one would expect in a tropical archipelago. The disappointment mounts when the plane lands; it's insufferably hot, and the inland terrain is dusty and brown.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 09, 2007 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Galápagos map: In the Sept. 2 issue, a map accompanying the article on the Galápagos Islands mislabeled the country of Colombia as Ecuador.

But then our naturalists, Robert and Fabio, appear and describe the seven-night, eight-day sail that will take our group of 15 to nine islands.

Once we leave San Cristóbal, we will see few islands with full-time human inhabitants. Before leaving, we have our first up-close encounter with sea lions that have no fear of mankind -- yet. Snorkeling in the bay at Lobos Island is awesome, and we worry about this apparent strategy of strutting out the best act first.

FERNANDINA

On Fernandina, the youngest of the Galápagos, our naturalists gather us around a large pool on the craggy lava shore to observe a sea lion. In a flash, it snatches a tuna from the water and clenches the unfortunate creature in its jaws. The sea lion repeatedly flails it against the rocks, ripping it apart and devouring chunks of flesh.

We think it's over, but then three small, white-tipped sharks enter the tidal pool, by now a bloody red. They circle and circle, looking for a piece of the action. The sea lion, gone now, has left only scraps of the fish for its visitors to nosh on. The sharks move in to claim their share, followed by the frigate birds that had been keeping close watch, then the marine iguanas and, finally, the crabs.

Earlier that morning, we had been told we'd likely spot marine iguanas swimming in the waters offshore. Darwin's evolutionary theory is based on his study of Galápagos finches, but it may just as well have been based on this remarkable creature, the only existing sea lizard.

It's theorized that a long drought on these islands forced the land iguana to the water to find food. Thousands of years later, this adaptation has made the marine iguana look and act different from the land reptile that occupies most of these islands.

When our panga makes its landing, the sun is quickly warming up the black lava surface. Debarking is disconcerting; it seems as though the rocks up ahead are sliding out to sea. Suddenly, we stop; otherwise, we would step on a marine iguana. Hundreds of them are waking up, warming up and moving out, slithering past us to the waiting ocean.

GENOVESA

Although its nickname is Hitchcock Island as a nod to the movie "The Birds," Genovesa seems more like the Island of Love. This is where courtship is constant and babies are turned out with production-line speed.

The wooing and mating of frigate birds are especially mesmerizing. The females fly overhead as the excited male birds -- their red chest sacks inflated -- sing their love song, hoping to woo that special lady.

Steps away, the blue-footed boobies do their flirtation dance, employing some fancy footwork. This is also the only place you can be assured to spot the red-footed booby -- and we're lucky enough to see the hard-to-spot Galápagos owl as well.

Later, we climb Prince Philip's Steps, a steep path up the back side of cliffs. The view below and the birds you encounter on the way up are worth every step.

ISABELA

Several of our days begin with heavy fog that lifts just as we are enjoying our second cups of coffee. On this day, it's the same, with the (human) early birds taking their positions on the deck of the Lammer Law, our 93-foot trimaran, kibitzing about the snorkeling adventure ahead.

Once again, on cue, the crew lowers the anchor just as the curtain of fog begins to rise, and we are in an intimate, crystal-clear bay with dramatically high cliffs, dotted with boobies, cormorants and iguanas. In the water, we can already spot the sea booty: sunfish, manta rays, turtles and sea lions aplenty.

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