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Wednesday 15 Feb 2006
Galapagos, Ecuador

The Galapagos Islands On Land

The Galapagos Islands have been one of the few refuges from the impact of man. Their habitat consists of volcanic rock filled with coarse, dense bush and cacti. It has never been connected to the continent, which has meant most of the wildlife which somehow made the trip across from the Americas over thousands of years, has uniquely evolved to the conditions. In some cases, species have evolved differently on different islands.

The existence of the islands, over 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador, has been known for some time. Ships would stop at the islands and load their hulls with Giant Tortoises, which can survive for many months without food or water so made a very welcome addition to the sailors' rations. It goes without saying that Sir Francis Drake had a good plunder (there's hardly anywhere we've been which has not been pillaged by that pirate). But it is probably Darwin, through his studies of the finches here, which he wrote about in "The Voyage of the Beagle" and "The Origin of Species" that brought the islands into the global spotlight.

A group of Norwegians attempted to settle on the islands and start a fish processing plant, but failed and it has fallen to tourism to finally stamp humanities mark on the enchanted isles. It started with a couple of chartered yacht tours in the 70's and has exploded in a very short period of time to the point where there are now two airports flying thousands of tourists in and out on a daily basis. The islands and their delicate ecosystem, which have been so valuable to our understanding of the world, will now be the litmus test for whether man really can exist alongside nature.

The only way to see the islands is a by a boat tour, which takes 4 to 8 days. Our boat, The Queen Mabel, was at least half the size of every other boat we saw (think Popeye's tugboat) and somehow squeezed 12 passengers alongside a crew of 5. At night, our tiny cabin was a furnace. So hot hat after the first few hours on the first night we gave up and slept on deck for the rest of the trip. The crew was mainly hot-blooded Italians and they gave the boat the feel of a pirate galleon. On our penultimate, day they managed to sink our dinghy whilst full of divers as a wave broached the overloaded boat. Luckily other boats in the area recovered everyone and they all had a story to go home with. We didn't have a boat however.

The wildlife on the Galapagos Islands is utterly spectacular. It is also so prolific and unconcerned with your presence that the challenge became to see how many different species you could fit in one photo. The Sea Lions lounge around on the beach like stray dogs and barked lazily if you got too close. The huge lizards appeared to stop in your path and pose for photos and on Isla Española you could barely move for Blue-Footed Boobies, Masked Boobies, iguanas, sea lions, crabs and cormorants. The giant tortoises were by far the most fantastic. They were the size of golf buggies and, if you sat quietly, they would carry on their business of munching grass and dragging their heavy shells around you across the highlands. When disturbed they inhaled through their noses with a hollow sound that made you feel you were with a creature from another time.

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