Friday, September 26, 2008

Wildlife Vacation


If you're crazy about wildlife, this is a place for you. You'll get a close up look at some gorgeous critters, such as this red-footed booby.

If you want to be alone in wilderness, this is not the spot. You must be accompanied by a registered guide, and that usually means you'll be in a group on a boat.

The islands are a great place to learn about evolution and ecology. Many animals, like the giant tortoise and the marine iguana are endemic--meaning they evolved and only live here. Some islands have their own distinct subspecies of the animal.

I swooned over the marine iguana (pictured here). This cute little monster is the only iguana in the world (that we know of) that swims and feeds in the ocean. These guys can hold their breath under water for as long as an hour! They feed on seaweed, then bask on the rocks to warm up after a cold dive.

Another highlight for me was watching male blue- footed boobies try to attract a mate. They shift side to side, displaying their bright blue feet, and point their long beaks at the sky. A certain amount of bottom-thrusting, and wing-spreading goes on, too. If a female is inclined, she'll join the dance, syncing up with him.

A trip to the Galapagos can also give you a glimpse of the little Galapagos penguin. It's the third smallest species of penguin, and the only one that lives so far north. Watching these little guys dive into the ocean, I worried about their future--and the fate of many other species here--in a warming world. Many of the booby mothers I saw were either nesting on low-lying beaches, or panting as they shaded their eggs on hot, exposed bluffs.

No trip to the islands would be complete without a glimpse of a Giant Tortoise, although you'll probably see a captive, not a wild one. Researchers think as many as 100,000 of these animals were eaten by 17-19th Century sailors. Mammals introduced to the islands--goats, pigs, dogs, rats--have also taken a toll on the reptile, damaging nests, eating eggs, etc. These tortoises grow huge and are famously long-lived. Nobody knows for sure how old they get, but they can probably live more than a century. I enjoyed observing this hatchling at a breeding center.

There was much more. Send along your questions, and I'll do my best to get you a decent answer.

Recommended Reading: Galapagos: A Natural History, Michael H. Jackson.

P.S. If you're contemplating this trip, be sure to plan some time on the continent. We enjoyed a too-short stay at an ecolodge in the cloud forest near Mindo, on the western slope of the Andes.

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