• Photo gallery: Galapagos Islands
By Chris Oliver
Advertiser Staff Writer
The wildlife are celebrities in some places on Earth: Antarctica, the Serengeti, Costa Rica, Alaska, Australia's Northern Territory — and the Galapagos. All are contenders for prime viewing of the natural world.
Take the blue-footed booby, an ornithological fashion plate with a courtship dance so dazzling that his quarry can only surrender to his antics (her tweet might be: "on tuft with bfb, has darling feet").
The blue-footed booby lives on the Galapagos, a clutch of volcanic islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The islands are remote — and unique — having done more to advance science per square mile than any other place on Earth, inspiring the young Charles Darwin to unlock the mysteries of evolution.
Stars parade around this Bel Air of the tropics: pink flamingoes, flame-red crabs, blue crabs, green sea turtles, black marine iguanas, yellow sturgeonfish, sea lions, penguins, rays and dolphins. The list is long.
None is more famous than the giant tortoises for which the Galapagos are named; galapago being Spanish for "saddle," a reference to the creatures' immense saddleback shells. Tortoises are a favorite of the human paparazzi who arrive by ship — but the blue-footed boobys are what attracted Isabella Gioia.
As Gioia stepped ashore on Seymour Norte, one of the smaller islands, she was delighted to see that the birds were everywhere.
"I had seen the birds in National Geographic, and I thought they were beautiful; since then, I've had always wanted to travel there," she said.
In December, Gioia joined a small group tour leaving Quito, Ecuador, for a week's sailing adventure to the Galapagos archipelago. The group lived aboard the motor yacht Princess of Galapagos, landing by inflatable dinghy on seven islands.
"Each island is different," she said. "Not only the wildlife, but the landscape is stunning, rust-colored lava rock, green beaches, red grass, candelabra cactus and stunted palo santo trees the color of bleached bones."
Straddling the equator, surrounded by a turquoise ocean, the Galapagos felt to Gioia like the beginning of the world. The Italian scientist, photographer and part-time Hawaii resident was enchanted by this "world within a world."
"The animals are astonishing; they don't run away, they don't care about humans," she said. "During the days they rest, do nothing; there are no animal predators; it is all astonishing."
At the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz island, "Lonesome George," a 100-year-old tortoise, give or take a few years, enjoys a celebrity lifestyle. His shell gets washed daily; he feeds on organic food, mainly grass, and female tortoises are in constant attendance. He's possibly the only giant tortoise to have his own Web site: www.lonesomegeorge.net.
George has come by his stardom at a price: He's the one remaining tortoise from the Pinta Island species, the last of his line. Finding the old boy a mate has been tricky. Galapagos tortoises are the oldest living animals on Earth; one recorded lifespan reached 152 years. It's possible George could be just holding out for the right gal, but until then, his days go by slowly.
His predicament reflects the real predators of the islands: humans. It's a familiar story of damage done to a pristine ecology. People first landed there in the 17th century, and went on to slaughter thousands of George's ancestors.
The plant life of Galapagos is just as extraordinary as its wildlife, but receives less attention. As in Hawaii, campaigns to safeguard endangered species and control the many invasive plants introduced by humans are an ongoing battle.
Today, regulations for visiting the Galapagos are strict: No one steps ashore without a guide, and groups can't be bigger than 16 people. Visitors are encouraged to stay on cruise ships rather than in hotels on the islands, and there is no eating or drinking within the Galapagos National Park, which covers 97 percent of the archipelago.
Visitors pay $100 to go ashore and must keep to the trails.
"But even with these restrictions, visitors don't need to look far," Gioia said. "The wildlife is all around and it doesn't run away."
In the Galapagos Islands, Darwin found the perfect conditions to form his evolutionary theory. During a five-week visit in 1835, he observed that finches — particularly the shapes of their beaks — appeared different on each island he visited. This helped convince him that the specific conditions on each island had caused the birds to adapt and evolve.
In 1859, Darwin published "On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection," which changed forever the way we look at our origins.
More than 175 years after Darwin's ship Beagle anchored off Santiago island, the Galapagos remain the closest place to Eden. Once known as Encantadas, or Enchanted Islands, the archipelago remains mysterious and bewitching, a place where nature's celebrities live out their lives in peace.