Galapagos: Witnessing Nature's Power To Astonish

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As a young girl in Germany, I learned with fascination about the Galapagos Islands as the birthplace of Charles Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection, inspired by its diverse and fearless wildlife.

To walk among these rare animals, indeed to come within inches of these unique creatures, was but a dream. Yet, there I was, landing in Quito, Ecuador, and then taking a three-hour flight to the island of Baltra.

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Fewer than 10,000 "Galapagos tortoises" live on the Galapagos Islands, west of Ecuador.

Once on the ground, I boarded a natural Habitat Adventure's 124-foot luxury yacht, the Parranda, with only a 14-passenger capacity.

Six hundred miles west of Quito, adrift in the Pacific, lies this amazing archipelago sprinkled with 19 islands and 42 islets, surrounded by clashing Arctic and tropical currents. As the water circles, it also boils with fearless wildlife. Here, cold-water creatures swim beside warm-water fish, sharks and rays, often cruising in large packs. The setting is idyllic.

Our first landing was Santa Cruz, a major egg-laying site for sea turtles. And in the highlands, we found the giant "Galapagos tortoise" in the wild. Our small group visited the Charles Darwin Research Station, home to "Lonesome George" the famous 500-pound and more than 100-year-old Galapagos tortoise. The station's special breeding pens and successful conservation efforts are credited with the tortoise population increase from a low of 13 to more than 1,000 in the past 30 years.

To maximize our time on the islands, our boat traveled at night, so each day brought a new island to explore and gave us a glimpse of a very old, yet new, world to experience.

As a very early riser, I was on deck in the morning when I was greeted by a couple of lazy red-footed boobies hitching a ride on the boat's railings, while we were approaching the collapsed volcano called Genovesa/Tower Island.

Our guide told us this island was "teeming with birds." And, so it was, as we saw when we passed bushes laden with male frigate birds, their red throats inflated like balloons, wings extended to more than 6 feet, rattling the air with their come-hither calls to potential mates.

The vast number of birds was staggering and included red-footed boobies, which were perched everywhere, like ornaments on Christmas trees.

Fernandina Island is the youngest and most active volcano in the Galapagos. The flat lava surface reminded me of Hawaii, but here the black volcanic cliffs were draped with hundreds of marine iguanas.

It is also the island with the nesting grounds of my personal favorite Galapagos bird. To finally see the large, blue-eyed flightless cormorant rise out of the water and walk tipsily along the beach, stopping to spread its proportionately tiny wings to dry them in the wind, was breathless. It is seen only in the Galapagos, where hundreds of years without predators have influenced its flightlessness. The Ecuadorian government is very protective of these one-of-a-kind birds. Hence, we had to keep our distance.

Later that afternoon, we leapfrogged to the largest island of the archipelago, Isabella. We took a panga (motorized rubber boat) ride in the sheltered water of Tagus Cove. Having been to Antarctica, I was delighted when we came upon a small colony of "Galapagos" penguins. As it happened, one would later be instrumental in my rescue at sea.

One of the highlights of this extraordinary journey came on James/Santiago Island, where I had my first snorkeling experience. Numerous sea lions joined us, as soon as we hit the water and we were tumbling, flipping and zigzagging with these very sociable but kamikaze-like creatures. Trying to keep up with then, one goosed me and I spun out of control while they continue to frolic and show off, as they torpedoed and barrel-rolled themselves into our hearts.

Later that day, we had our second snorkeling trip. The sea was full of fish, including some small sharks. They seemed afraid of us, as they made a quick exit, while I tried to follow them. I looked around, surfaced and found myself all alone, not even the boat was in sight. I was lost at sea. Which way to go? I looked into the water, when out of the blue, a tuxedo form shot past me and I went under to follow him. When again this black and white bowling pin rocketed alongside me, I tried furiously to follow him again. The penguin surfaced and I followed and saw this huge rock a few feet ahead. As I climbed up on the rock he was sitting on, the penguin took off and I sat there for almost 20 minutes alone.

For me, the marvel of Darwin's evolutionary theory came alive, not in a single, but a double-defining moment -- when I saw the evolutionary oddball, the rare flightless cormorant and the gargoyle-faced marine iguanas -- perfect examples of nature's power to astonish.

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