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The red sesuvium of the islands. Photo: Sumana Mukherjee
The red sesuvium of the islands. Photo: Sumana Mukherjee

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador | Bird’s-eye view

On these isles, up close and personal with the strangest fauna on the planet

“I love boobies."

Scribbled in a scrawny, uneven font, the message on T-shirts was everywhere we looked, dangling at storefronts, stretched right across the pectoralis major and sometimes hanging loose in a too-large size, overshadowing the sketch of white-jodhpur’d, blue-webbed feet. The blue-footed booby is something of an icon in the Galápagos, but it is obviously no holy cow.

The blue-footed boobie is an icon in the Galapagos. Photo: Thinkstock
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The blue-footed boobie is an icon in the Galapagos. Photo: Thinkstock

Enchanted by the spell cast by the expanse, I am almost resentful of the Americans—unmistakably Americans—who spill out of the aircraft laughing and chattering, complacent in their cargo shorts and leather thongs. Can they not feel it, I wonder, can they not sense the primeval magic in the air? This is not just another holiday destination, it cannot be.

The impression of unreality persists when we roll into Puerto Ayora, a ferry-ride and drive away from the airport at Isla Baltra. With its cobbled roads, bicycle lanes and free circulation of the US dollar, the town recalls a time-warped Anytown, USA, more strongly than Archie comics. On the white beaches on the other side of the island, lapped by Tiffany blue waters, silent sun-worshippers stretch out on striped towels, ignoring the pelicans that flutter and fish in the shallows.

This was not the Galápagos I’d fantasized about since my school days, since my life science textbook mentioned the wonderland that helped Charles Darwin formulate his theory of natural selection on the basis of finches that developed special characteristics to deal with the unique habitat and diet on various islands.

Wait. Was it I who was in a time-warp?

It takes a boat out to Plaza Sur the next morning for me to figure out that if I was living in the past, so were the natural-born denizens of these islands. And that, sometimes, the past and the present do meet, and the result isn’t chaos, but a continuum.

The principal element of that universe, I think, is fearlessness. Located some 900km from Ecuador, the 20-odd islands of the Galápagos archipelago are actually volcanic formations that rose from the sea, not breakaways from the South American continent. By virtue of their spread and relative isolation, the Galápagos islands are home to several unusual species in both flora and fauna, most of which would have come over the oceans at some point in history. This brutal crossing is also said to be the reason there are very few mammals on the islands; except for sea-lions, rice rats and two varieties of bats, no one else apparently had the stamina for the long transoceanic haul.

“And that is why the birds and animals here have never learnt to be afraid," pants David Ascencio, our guide, as we walk carefully within the white-marked lines on the Plaza Sur, away from the red sesuvium, a variety of weed that gives the island a particularly other-worldly look. “Very few of the islands’ species have natural predators. The human footprint, too, is carefully controlled."

I’d seen that myself. Our boat, the Queen Karen, spent 15 minutes bobbing off the island as an earlier group of tourists negotiated the slippery rocks to return to their skiffs. Only after they departed did we dock at the island.

For a city person accustomed to seeing pigeons take off at the twitch of a curtain, the Galápagos fauna’s nonchalance takes some getting used to. Like all camera-happy tourists everywhere, we fall over ourselves trying to shoot everything we see, from the ungainly sea-lions slithering over the rocks to the dark-headed Nazca boobies in the higher reaches of the island, convinced that a moment uncaptured was a moment lost. “By the time we’re done with Plaza Sur, you’ll be sick of all of them," David warns us, minutes into the trek. He’s talking through his sunhat, we think, as a swallow-tailed gull squawks overhead. It takes us less than half-an-hour to realize that these creatures really aren’t going anywhere; that the sharp breeze ruffles their feathers more than a dozen pairs of human eyes.

An iguana. Photo: Thinkstock
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An iguana. Photo: Thinkstock

But where are the blue-footed boobies? They are not to be found on Plaza Sur; even within the limited land territory of the Galápagos, some species prefer one island over the other (a vital contributory factor to Darwin’s theory). It takes another day, another ride on Queen Karen and another island—bypassing encounters with the more swallow-tailed gulls, Darwin’s finches, juvenile white-headed frigates and grand red-chested ones, a solitary elegant pink flamingo, giant tortoises and sundry marine creatures during snorkelling and scuba-diving expeditions—to come up close to them in a magnificent colony on the North Seymour island.

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By Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

It’s ancient and new and phenomenally familiar, as eternal as time. Watching from a few feet away amid a hushed silence, we know instinctively that this pair will be together for life. They will produce baby boobies that will be white balls of fluff at first and then grow into elegant creatures of the sea, flying for fish far into the Pacific and coming back to the island to nest, never knowing fear or change.

I think I love boobies too. But I know I’ll skip the T-shirt.

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Getting there

There are no direct flights between India and Ecuador. Use a European and/or American gateway to reach Quito. Round-trip fare starts at 1 lakh. From Quito, take a local airline (Tame or Avianca) to fly to Baltra. Round-trip fare is around $500. Indian nationals are eligible for a visa on arrival.

Stay

Spend the nights on a boat or at Puerto Ayora. It is advisable to tie up with a tour operator: Zenith Travels and Guanguiltagua Expeditions , based in Quito. Our day excursions were organized by Galápagos Deep.

Eat

Ecuadorian cuisine is unheard of at Puerto Ayora, but a few restaurants do excellent infusions of local elements into mainstream dishes. A top-end boat will take care of your meals, but day trip boats, too, make excellent use of yellow-fin tuna.

Do

Go swimming, snorkelling, scuba-diving in some of the clearest waters

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