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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, May 23, 2005

Galavanting in the Galapagos

Joan Rose and a young sea lion trade admiring glances on the shoreline during the Roses' seven-day cruise of the Galapagos Islands. A yellow land iguana enjoys the spring sun. The lizard will burrow as deep as 18 feet to escape summer's intense heat. A blue-footed booby engages in a mating dance. Eggs are laid on the ground, encircled by a ring of guano.

Photos by Lou and Joan Rose • Special to The Advertiser
 •  If you go...
 •  Map (opens in a new window): The Galapagos, island by island

Former Advertiser art critic Joan Rose and her husband, Lou, a former University of Hawai'i economics professor, have been traveling the world since their retirement in 1999, visiting Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and South America. The Advertiser is publishing a monthly series of stories from their recent travels.

By Lou and Joan Rose
Special to The Advertiser

Lou and Joan Rose cruised the Galapagos aboard the Coral, a first-class yacht built for 20 passengers.

Lou and Joan Rose • Special to The Advertiser

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, Ecuador — The dark shape darted straight at our masks, veering away at the last possible moment. Here it came again. And again — turning, swerving and passing us just out of reach. A sleek young sea lion was playing with us! When we finally returned to the beach, he followed us to the water's edge, looking wistful over losing his playmates. To our utter delight, 500 years of human contact haven't been long enough for the creatures of the Galapagos Islands to evolve a fear of humans.

We were excited to be in the fabled islands of Charles Darwin's inspiration. Riding from the airport to our Galapagos cruise ship, however, it seemed as if we'd caught a flight to Hawai'i by mistake. The soft air, red dirt and tropical vegetation (bananas, hibiscus, crotons, ti and palms) reminded us of the Hawaiian archipelago. At times, we thought we were traveling through lush Upcountry Maui and at other times in dry, volcanic areas of the Big Island.

Our ship was being cleaned and refueled between cruises, so we were taken from the airport straight to the Charles Darwin Research Center. This plan upset one European on the bus so much that he loudly demanded to be taken directly to his "luxury cabine" on the boat and not "dragged around on land" when he'd paid for a cruise! The rest of the passengers were quietly appalled at his behavior, but an obliging guide agreed to take him directly to his ship. Later, we giggled at the thought that he'd spent the whole afternoon on the boat with the cleaning crew, lifting his feet as they vacuumed. (One of the down sides of travel is encountering the occasional boorish tourist. Fortunately, this guy wasn't on our ship.)

The name Galapagos comes from some of the islands' most famous inhabitants, the giant tortoises (galapagos in Spanish).

Advertiser library photo • Oct. 7, 2003

While at the Darwin Center, we met "Lonesome George" — the last of his particular species of giant tortoises. (Galapagos means giant tortoise in Spanish.) His line will go extinct when he dies in 50 or 60 more years. Right now he's 50, in his breeding prime. Researchers have done their utmost to breed him, but he has been unwilling to mate with closely related tortoise species, and artificial insemination hasn't worked. So Lonesome George remains totally alone in the world.

Soon we were zooming off in a panga (motorized inflatable boat) to our cruise ship, the Coral, anchored at the mouth of the harbor. Some of our friends have said they'd never want to travel the way we do — for long periods of time, often in uncomfortable conditions. But almost everyone would enjoy cruising in the Galapagos. And anyone who can walk slowly for a couple of miles over rocky terrain can do it, then return to a cruise ship with all the comforts (air conditioning, familiar foods and hot showers).

We joined our fellow passengers for a welcome drink in the Coral's teak-paneled lounge. We were there in mid-May, off-season, and there were only 13 of us on a boat that holds 20. We came from the United States, Australia, Britain and the Netherlands. After dinner, our naturalist guide Hernan described the eight-day cruise in detail and the following day's activities. The ship motored out of the harbor about 9:30 p.m., and when we awakened the next morning we were anchored off beautiful Espaņola — the first of the seven islands we would visit on this seven-day tour.

After breakfast, we climbed into pangas for the 10-minute ride to the island — bobbing over the waves like a flock of orange-vested boobies. After landing on a stairway of wet rocks on which bright-red crabs wriggled, we climbed a path and came face to face with a tangle of sunbathing marine iguanas — the only deep-sea-diving lizards on the planet.

Marine iguanas dive to the ocean floor to graze on algae. Salt deposits form a helmet of crystals on their spiky heads.

Lou and Joan Rose • Special to The Advertiser

Marine iguanas captured Joan's heart. These ugly, Godzilla-like creatures are a prime example of outstanding evolutionary accomplishment. Thousands of years ago, some green iguanas that lived in rivers in South American jungles inadvertently floated on logs or tangles of vegetation 600 miles from the mainland to the Galapagos. Finding nothing to eat on the barren volcanic lava of those early islands, they learned — in a spectacular bit of adaptation — to dive as deeply as 40 feet into salt water and graze on algae along the ocean floor. Over time, they turned black like the lava rocks they live on, better to absorb and retain heat after their cold ocean immersions. The iguanas have dragon-like backs, long toes and extrude salt by sneezing it out their nostrils and onto their spiky heads, where it forms weird helmets of crystals.

On one of our panga rides, Hernan scooped up a baby marine iguana struggling in the water. It had been washed off the rocks before it grew strong enough to swim against the surf and was in danger of dying of hypothermia. Hernan gave it to Joan, who cradled it in her hands for 20 minutes until it was warm enough to be returned to the rocks. For her, this was the highlight of the cruise.

Over millennia, the various creatures that washed up on the shores of the Galapagos had to fit themselves into any available biological niche. Green iguanas who arrived too late to find room in the algae beds along the shore hauled themselves several miles up to the hot, dry inland areas, where they evolved into three-foot yellowish land dragons that live on prickly cactus fruit. To escape the heat, they tunnel as much as 18 feet into the ground. (One land iguana was so curious about the camera that he came right at Lou, who had to keep backing away to get enough distance for a photo!)

Lou's favorite experience was swimming with two Pacific green sea turtles that flapped gracefully along just below him as he snorkeled. He swam with the giant creatures for much of an hour, at times coming within a foot of them as they munched on algae along the rocky cliffs. These turtles can reach 300 pounds and may live as long as 80 years.

Lou and Joan Rose travel extensively, but their Galapagos cruise was "the trip of a lifetime."

Lou and Joan Rose • Special to The Advertiser

The blue-footed boobies did their charming mating dance right next to us as we walked along a trail. Necks stretched skyward and wings spread, they lifted one bright blue foot after another in a stately dance. After mating, the female booby creates a "virtual" nest on bare ground by shooting guano in a precise circular pattern; the pair takes turns shielding the eggs from the hot sun.

After years of watching wide-winged frigate birds from a distance in Hawai'i, we were able to see the birds up close in the Galapagos. Pirates of the air who steal their meals from other birds, they were named after the armed ships used by the pirates of old. The male frigate bird establishes a territory and puffs up his red pouch to attract a female. The females sit nearby, debating the merits of each male and trying to decide if he's worth the trouble or not. On one island, we walked within a few feet of a nesting frigate bird with downy chick. We also got close to a waved albatross, in the Galapagos for breeding from April to December, then spending the rest of the year at the South Pole. The fastest long-distance flier of all birds, the waved albatross, can go 8,000 miles in just five days.

Hernan told us that the eyesight of the Galapagos hawk is so good that he could read fine newsprint at a distance of 1,500 feet — if he could read. We snorkeled over a sleeping shark (Hernan promised he was a "vegetarian" shark because that species doesn't bother humans), and watched from pangas as an school of about 70 golden manta rays flapped gracefully through a lagoon. We saw a red-lipped batfish, visited the island where the Russell Crowe film "Master and Commander" was shot, crossed the equator (didn't see any line) and happily disembarked after a fine cruise through these "enchanted isles."

When we were planning this trip, we looked at several ships on the Internet, many of them less expensive than the Coral. But this was the trip of a lifetime and the time to splurge on quality. We'd read too many horror stories of cheaper boats with guides who spoke almost no English or knew little about the wildlife, and of boats where all the passengers got sick from the food, or where the plumbing quit, the water ran out or the promised itinerary was changed.

In contrast, the Coral lived up to its brochure promises. We were comfortable on this well-appointed, air-conditioned classic motor yacht. We ate well, went to the most interesting islands, saw everything we wanted to see and had an excellent guide. We usually travel more modestly; having a really good naturalist to explain the Galapagos was the primary reason we chose a first-class boat. Only the best boats (first-class and deluxe) carry Naturalist III guides, who must have a university degree in marine biology and speak several languages. The rest of the ship's crew of eight (captain, bar/dining room steward, panga drivers, engine-room guys and cabin steward) were friendly, competent and spoke almost no English. We had fun trying our fractured Spanish on them, which they good-naturedly pretended to understand.

Next, on June 26: Visiting San Francisco on a budget. Reach the Roses at tworamblingroses@yahoo.com.

• • •


THE GALAPAGOS ARCHIPELAGO: The Galapagos Archipelago (official name: Archipiélago de Colón), part of Ecuador, is composed of 10 main islands with about 12,000 people and countless animals centered on the four largest islands. The Charles Darwin Research Station is on Santa Cruz island in a national park with a museum.

WHEN TO GO: While the Galapagos can be visited at any time, high and low seasons affect both prices and comfort. High season is Nov. 1-April 30 and June 15 to Sept. 14. December through mid-May can be very hot, and there is a possibility of heavy showers, but the water will be warm for snorkeling and the sky clear for photos. During low seasons (May 1-June 15 and Sept. 15-October 31), prices are lower, the water colder, the sky is often overcast and it may drizzle; however, the temperatures are better then for walking the islands, where shade is scarce.

GUIDEBOOKS: "Ecuador" (Footprint Handbooks); "Ecuador" (Lonely Planet).

BACKGROUND READING: "Charles Darwin: Voyaging" and "Charles Darwin: The Power of Place," an award-winning, two-volume biography by Janet Browne; and "The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time," by Jonathan Weiner (Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction)

CRUISE SHIP: The Coral is one of several first-class ships that can be booked through Adventure Life, incongruously located in Montana: www.adventure-life.com. If you are 50 or older, you can take an eight-day tour on the Coral with well-run Eldertreks, which is not connected with Elder Hostel but is a well-run Canadian company specializing in small group adventure tours for older travelers: www.eldertreks.com.

WHAT TO PACK: Sunscreen (SPF 30), hat, sunglasses, swimsuit, waterproof sandals, walking shoes or boots, lightweight knapsack, fleece jacket or warm sweater, motion-sickness medication (not always needed), water bottle, camera, U.S. dollars (the official currency of Ecuador). Snorkeling gear and wet suits can be rented aboard ship.

QUITO: Most tours of the Galapagos leave from Quito, capital of Ecuador. Cafe Cultura is a charming, secure mid-range hotel: www.cafecultura.com. A less-expensive option is clean, comfortable Casa Helbling: www.casahelbling.de. Both hotels have English-speaking staff.

SIDE EXCURSION: Some packaged tours to the Galapagos provide an optional add-on tour of Peru's famed Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. The ruins are easily reached by train from Cusco, Peru, and are accessible to almost all, regardless of fitness level. The more energetic can make a four-day trek to the ruins. Whether going by train or foot, independent travelers can arrange tours through Cusco-based Enigma: www.enigmaperu.com/english.

SAFETY: The Galapagos Islands of Ecuador have to be one of the world's safest places to visit. The only potential difficulty is getting to the Galapagos, since it involves going through Quito, Ecuador, where the high level of poverty has raised the level of crime. While travelers should be alert for pickpockets and bag-snatchers, and use caution in big cities such as Quito at night (i.e., take radio taxis rather than walk), most tourists don't have problems. By reserving a Quito hotel room in advance and arranging for the hotel to send someone to meet you at the airport, you can minimize potential difficulties. If you go to the Galapagos on a package tour, a guide will meet you when you arrive at Quito's airport.