GALAPAGOS
First published in Global Adventure, October 2004.

I have always been rather fond of boobies, lovely things that they are.

I saw my first pair on a television program at an impressionable young age and fell in love instantly, vowing that when and if I [eventually] grew up I should like to see as many as possible.

It is a well known fact that a young man, wishing to fulfil such a fantasy, should look no further than the exotic and far-flung Galapagos archipelago, a place unlike any other where boobies can be seen in abundance.

A stroll along the golden sands will reward the enthusiast with sightings of hundreds, if not thousands of pairs, fully exposed, just begging, it would seem, to be touched, fondled and photographed.

So here I am now, lying on my belly, partially concealed in a bush, with my trusty zoom lens targeted on a gorgeous pair just three meters away. It's such a thrill to finally see my favourite bird.

The male nearest me lifts his outrageously coloured and enormously outsized feet one at a time in a perfectly choreographed dance. She, the demure female, glances furtively at his appendages, while he, the proud strutting male, proffers them out to her with sinuous grace. The equatorial sun above illuminates each of his bright blue paddles, lending to their brilliance that little extra "oomph" required to elevate his feet above the status of the competition.

Surrounding me on all sides are scores of performers, individually intent upon showing the entire world the eminence of his feet. I am in the midst of a most unlikely ballet, a performance by gulls with grace. The dance ends with arching necks and a courtly sweeping gesture of the wings, followed by an elegant bow.

"Darling, may I say you look simply ravishing tonight."

"Oh please, such flattery is too much from one so devilishly handsome."

At this point in the proceedings however, the ceremony loses some of its finesse. Elegance is cast aside in a fit of ham-fisted passion, and the artfully composed ritual breaks down into a bout of good old-fashioned shagging.

He tries to scrabble up onto her back, but fails and slides off sideways, ending up on his back instead. Vivid blue feet flail around for all to see, calling attention to his embarrassing predicament. Opportunistic sideliners seize the moment, bundling in for an all out gang-bang. Yellow beaks snap this way and that, feet are pushed into faces, feathers fly, and there is much hullabaloo and indignant squawking. Once the melee has dispersed it is not really clear who has mated with whom. He shakes himself down, regains his composure and begins the dance all over again, as if none of this ever happened.

"Ok everybody, its time to go see the endemic iguanas," announces Roberto, my highly animated Ecuadorian guide. "Follow me."

Obediently, we extract ourselves from the shrubbery and follow our leader, in single file, like ducklings behind their mother. My group and I have learned to be compliant, for there are very strict rules governing what we can and cannot do during our visit here.

I recall Roberto's welcoming speech on our first day here. We had just disembarked from an air-conditioned cabin straight into a furnace full of heat-hazed cactus, when a smiling man with a clipboard and floppy hat bounded out of the tiny customs office towards us.

"Hello, and welcome to the Galapagos. Firstly, you must never step foot outsideof the designated trails. You must, under no circumstances, remove any plants,animals, rocks or shells from any of the islands. It is forbidden to touch anyanimals and preferred if you don't touch the plants either, and finally, you may not wander anywhere alone without me, your guide, and don't forget, we are all here to have fun."

I wasn't entirely convinced.

This perfunctory introduction was conducted with a broad smile but the undertone was a serious one "Behave.or else!"

We were then ushered over to customs where our bags were diligently searched by uniformed officers for plants, ants, lemons and dirt. A perturbed-looking local woman was escorted into a small side room for being in possession of a bunch of daisies. I never saw her again!

"Quarantine," said Roberto in response to the questioning stance of my eyebrows.

"We don't want anything arriving that may escape and endanger our native wildlife."

This was an entirely new experience for me; I am used to be searched for drugs, nasal hair tweezers, flick-knives and bombs, but I had never been frisked for insects before.

To be honest, prior to jumping on the plain, I had been harbouring a few nagging doubts about this trip. After all, over the years, there has been a great deal of hype on the subject of the "Enchanted Archipelago" and its fearless wildlife; and hype undoubtedly attracts hordes. Imagine having to cudgel your way through thronging crowds of cruise-ship passengers each time you wanted to glimpse a sea lion or albatross? It had looked that way on the holiday programs. Nearly 100,000 people visit annually, making the Galapagos one of the most popular eco-destinations on earth.

Mercifully it took less than a day to lay those fears to rest. Although a veritable armada of sea vessels ply these waters, over sixty visitor destinations spread out across 126 islands, islets and rocks guarantee that there is always going to be sheltered locale where the giant cruise liners can be avoided.

And as for the rules? Well, we soon came to appreciate them for what they are: protective measures that safeguard a delicate eco-system against the thunderous feet of an army of tourists.

"The environment here is very, very delicate," Roberto told us as we stood gathered around a large, shiny boulder in the middle of a grassy field. "When humans first arrived in 1535 they brought with them many pests."

At that, the boulder sprouted a long, wrinkly neck on the end of which sat a small wizened head. Rheumy eyes blinked at the assembled crowd as if just awakening from a deep sleep. Obviously, less than happy to discover itself surrounded by humans, the neck retracted from whence it came, accompanied by an audible puff of flatulence.

"Introduced animals were partially to blame for the decline of our giant tortoisesand other endemic wildlife. Pigs dug up the nests; rats, dogs and fire ants atethe babies, while goats and donkeys nibbled away at the tortoise's favourite food. Nevertheless, these days things are looking up," Roberto informed us.

The islands were declared a national park in 1959 and became a World Heritage Biosphere Reserve twenty years later. "The rarest of the tortoises were brought to a safe-house breeding facility whilst rangers set about eradicating the pigs and goats. These captive tortoises bred very well, and now, every year, their youngsters are repatriated to pest-free islands."

At the Charles Darwin Research Station we met Lonesome George, a giant, lumbering e-tortoise from the Island of Pinta. He is the last of his kind and despite efforts to locate him a mate, none has ever been found. The name suits him. It sounds a little like a country singer to me, and I can easily imagine him sitting on a stool with a guitar and a shot of JD, balefully singing doleful laments.

In 1986, a giant marine reserve was added to the park to curb a rising problem with commercial fishing practices. It was an unpopular move with some of the local fishermen, but the decision was deemed essential to the continued survival of the Galapagos ecosystem.

The entire archipelago is dependant on several convergent oceanic currents which transport nutrients from as far a field as the Antarctic Circle, bringing incongruous cold-water animals such as penguins, albatross and sea-lions with them. Every plant and animal owes its survival to the presence of a healthy marine ecology.

I, for one, am happy the decision had been made. Perhaps if things were different, I would never have had the opportunity to watch dolphins by moonlight riding the bow wave of our little boat. They spouted monochrome rainbows into the star-studded night and probed me with inquisitive clicks as I leaned over the side. I am not a spiritual person, but this experience truly moved me to the point where I felt an overwhelming desire to play the pan pipes or didgeridoo.

Later on, the heavy sound of anchor hitting water announced that we had arrived at our latest destination. I stood in the midnight darkness at the bow listening to the electric voices of dolphins and boisterous sea lions braying like dogs. Unseen things splashed around below me, playing or hunting, I could not tell. As usual, I chose not to return to the confines of my cabin. The open deck, a ceiling of stars and the music of the sea was far too enchanting to sacrifice for the sake of a comfortable pillow. I spent many a night sleeping out there.

No matter how frequently I came across sea lions snoozing upon the bounty bar beaches, the sight of it never failed to astound me. They look so ludicrously out of place, lolling around on the hot golden sands, mingling with the sun bathing humans, as if they too were on holiday.

The first thing one notices about them is their appalling halitosis; hardly a surprising condition considering their diet. But it is always a little overwhelming each time one of them kisses you - something that happens quite often on the Galapagos.

Despite being smelly, the pups are adorable; shiny little floppy things with a boundless enthusiasm for tourists. Three of them were playing a game with me this morning, the rules of which consisted of tickling my feet with their whiskers and then running away in the hope that I would give chase. I so much wanted to join in, but the minute I raised my hand to tickle them back an assemblage of eagle-eyed guides attacked me with a harsh barrage of commands.

"Don't touch!" they shouted in unison. "Hands down!"

"Stop that!"

"Hands by your sides!"

"You have been told!"

"You should know better!"

And so forth and so on until I felt thoroughly embarrassed. All heads (including those of the resident sea lions) were turned my way. I had attempted to break one of the sacrosanct rules, and every one knew it.

The animals of the Galapagos are at liberty to touch, alight upon, crawl over or kiss you, should they so desire, but you must never touch them; a rule that was, at times, exasperating. I often felt like a frustrated patron at a sea lion lap-dancing club. However, they are sensible laws, and their enforcement prevents the animals ever coming to harm at the hands of clumsy tourists. In hundreds of years to come, if things stay as they are, people will still visit a unique group of islands where wildlife has no fear.

After eight days aboard the Darwin Explorer it was finally time to go, but not before one final hour or two of snorkelling in the clear, azure sea. The three pups were overjoyed that I had chosen to join them in their realm, and they showed their delight by spinning around me like agile torpedoes. They nudged the backs of my knees and nibbled my flippers whilst I held my breath and dived down to be with them for as long as my lungs would allow. I kept my liaison a secret from the rest of my group who had chosen to stay on the beach, and as a result, spent the most delightful two hours of my life with three native guides. They showed me penguins that flew beneath the waves, snapping up fish with adept little beaks. A turtle drifted by and the sea lions gave chase, teasing it as any group of youngsters would; they gently nipped at its fins and slapped it across the face, until it tired of the attention and sunk into the depths. We discovered caves full of lobsters and starfish the size of dinner plates, and generally larked around and had a jolly good time.

I think I would have stayed forever if I could have, but eventually I heard Roberto calling his flock: "Come on everybody; more endemic iguanas on the next island," and I was forced to leave my new-found friends.

My trip to the Galapagos was so much more than I had expected; everything from the ancient lava flows to the hammerhead sharks were utterly delightful, but perhaps the most wonderful thing about the region is that it will always be here, unchanged forever. This little Ecuadorian province is one of the few places on earth where mankind has decided not to destroy, loot and pillage the natural world; it is a unique place in every sense of the word. The groundwork undertaken by the national park wardens, the well-trained eco-guides and the scientists at the Charles Darwin research centre, saving and restoring the islands, will be a legacy for all eternity.

Its is a pleasant thought that even in a world full of shopping arcades, highways, and logging trucks, there will always be a very special place where wildlife and mankind have learned to live in harmony, a place where sea lions will kiss you, lizards will sit on your lap and boobies will happily show you their great big blue feet.

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