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The Galapagos are a small cluster of volcanic islands that straddle the equator, some 600 miles from Ecuador, by whom they are owned. Their discovery was associated with events following the conquest of the Incas by Pizzarro and his band of conquistadores. Pizzarro met the Incas in feigned peace, kidnapped and later brutally murdered their ruler, Atahualpa. The spaniards then fought among themselve, so the Spanish king asked Fray Thomas Berlanga, bishop of Panama, to travel to Peru to make an inspection. Berlanga traveled down the west coast of South America, but when the winds failed, the prevailing currents carried his ship to the Galapagos. After barely escaping starvation and thirst, the bishop returned, and sent a report to the king describing these barren islands and their peculiar animals and plants. Ignored for centuries, the Galapagos became an icon for the study of evolution following Darwin's visit in the Beagle in 1835. Today the islands are an ecotourism mecca visited by thousands of people each year.

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  Our trip begins with a day in Quito, Ecuador's capital in the Andes, and a visit to the nearby equator and monument.

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On the following day we fly to the Galapagos, where we are met by our guide and the crew of our yacht, Samba. During our week in Galapagos, Samba becomes our floating home.

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  On board Samba, we cruise through the islands, stopping at each visitor site. Once on land, our guide describes the trail and explains what we will see. Sometimes we are joined by local residents.

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The cool, nutrient-rich waters around the Galapagos support abundant marine . This, in turn, supports a large population of sea birds. Most common, and most obvious, are the three species of boobies; the masked, the red-footed, and the blue-footed booby. Like most Galapagos wild-life, these birds are fearless and can be approached easily.

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  A second, very abundant sea bird is the frigatebird. As part of their courtship behavior, male frigatebirds inflate red throat sack to balloon- like proportions to attract a mate. Both males and females share in rearing a single chick. Frigatebirds are graceful fliers and seem to float in the sky like a big, black kite.

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Like most islands, the Galapagos counts sea gulls among its population of sea birds. Surprisingly, however, the two species of gull found in the Galapagos are both unique species, found nowhere else. The beautiful Swallow-tailed sea gull, with its striking red eye rings, is the only sea gull in the world that fishes at night. The rare lava gull gets its name from its dark gray plumage that camouflages it on the dark lava rocks. The entire breeding population of lava gulls consists of only about 800 breeding pairs.


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  By contrast to the endemic sea gulls, the Galapagos supports a large population of the familiar brown pelican. The population in the Galapagos is an endemic subspecies.

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The flightless cormorant is one of the most unusual and rarest of the sea birds in the Galapagos. Their total distribution is limited to a few sites on Fernandina and Isabela. Cormorants, which are related to boobies, frigatebirds, and pelicans, are generally good fliers, but the species in the Galapagos, in the absence of predators, has exchanged the ability to fly for better swimming ability. They retain, nonetheless, a trademark characteristic of cormorants. Upon leaving the water, they extend their wings to dry, revealing small wings with scraggly feathers. Adult Galapagos cormorants have striking blue eyes.

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The waved albatross is the largest of all Galapagos sea birds, with a wing span of some eight feet. They nest on only one island, Espanola, and are found there only for part of the year. During nesting, they engage in an extremely long, complicated courtship dance. Waved albatrosses produce one chick, which they feed with an oil made in the stomach from fish they catch at sea.


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The careful observer will spot waders like the semi-palmated plover, the wandering tattler, the ruddy turnstone, the whimbrel, the common stilt, and the striking American oystercatcher.

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Galapagos boasts three species of heron among the shore birds and waders. Two species, the familiar great blue heron and the yellow-crowned night heron are found elsewhere, but the lava heron is a unique, endemic species. It can be found along the shores and tidal areas where it preys on the ubiquitous red sally lightfoot crabs, but it is easy to miss because it blends in so well with the black lava rocks for which it is named. Juveniles, however, are easier to spot because of their speckled, golden-brown plumage.  

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The remaining sea birds and waders are a curious and unlikely mix. Brackish lagoons and ponds support small populations of white-cheeked pin-tailed ducks and American flamingos. The cooler waters on the western side of the archipelago, and selected sites in the center, such as Bartolome, support populations of the endemic Galapagos penguin. This penguin, the smallest in the world, is the only one to live on the equator, where the warm equatorial waters are cooled by the cold Humboldt current.

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  The Galapagos land birds are smaller and less obvious than the sea birds, but equally if not more interesting. Virtually all are endemic species or subspecies. Important examples are the yellow warbler, the Galapagos Dove, the Galapagos flycatcher, and an endemic subspecies of the striking vermillion flycatcher. 

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The major natural predators in the Galapagos are the short-eared owl and the Galapagos hawk. The hawk is actually a member of the buzzard family which has adapted to a hawk-like appearance and life-style in the Galapagos. Adults are nearly black while juveniles are chestnut with gold spots. Like most Galapagos species, the hawk, especially the juveniles, can be easily approached. 


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Of all the birds in the Galapagos, none were as important to Darwin's thinking, or to the on-going study of evolution than the mockingbirds and finches. While intrigued by the finches, Darwin was especially struck by the 4 species of very similar mockingbirds. He wondered why there were multiple species in the Galapagos, when any one could have easily filled the niche of any other on such closely spaced islands. Of the four, only three can readily be seen by visitors - the Galapagos mockingbird, the Chatham mockingbird, and the Hood mockinbird. The fourth, the Charles mockingbird is extinct on its main island, Floreana, but is still present on the small islets adjacent to Floreana. 

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The centerpiece of evolutionary biology in the Galapagos are the 13 species of Darwin's finches. The finches are small, drab birds that differ from one another primarily by their beak shape and, therefore, the ecological niche in which they live. They represent a group of very closely species at the point at which they are still in the process of diverging away from each other. The finches were far too complex for Darwin to understand - indeed, their history is still in the process of being unravelled, but he observed that with this birds, it was as if a single pair reached the island and then they evolved into the various types which he saw. The birds in the slides below are the small, medium and large ground finches, the cactus finch, the large cactus finch, and the warbler finch. The differences in plumage are sex and age related: mature males are black (except for the warbler finch). 

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Although the Galapagos Islands are a paradise for bird watchers, they are best known for their reptile population. The two species of iguana, the land and the marine iguana, are unique species found nowhere else in the world. While people sometimes think they look fearsome, both are vegetarians. The land iguana, which is yellow/brown in color, lives largely on cactus and has learned to scrape large thorns off the cactus pads with its feet. 

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The marine iguana feeds on seaweeds that grow on rocks in the intertidal zone and beneath the surface. Large males can dive to feed, and they can stay under water for considerable amounts of time. Like other diving animals, marine iguanas have evolved special physiological adaptations like slowing their heart rate and directing blood flow to the most vital parts of the body. Historically, sailors who visited the islands in earlier centuries found the appearance of the marine iguana to be repugnant. Darwin called them "imps of darknes." 

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Of all the animals in the Galapagos, the one most closely associated with them, indeed, the one that gives the islands their name, is the giant tortoise. To the early Spanish discoverers, the tortoise's shells reminded them of a particular type of riding saddle, the galapago and, accordingly, they applied this term to these giant reptiles. Hence, "las Islas de las Galapagos" literally means "Islands of the Giant Tortoises." Darwin was struck by the fact that each island has its own unique race of tortoises and this was a key observation in the development of his theory of evolution. Today 15 races are recognized and four are extinct. A fifth, from Pinta island, is survived by a single male, Lonesome George. The 11 living races can be divided into saddle-backed tortoises, whose shells arch high over their necks, and the domed tortoises, whose shells are low over the neck. Saddle-backed tortoises live in dry desert areas where most of their food is high. The arch allows them to stretch their necks up for browsing. The domed tortoises, on the other hand, live in the moist highlands where they graze or grass and low-growing shrubs.

Today, the Charles Darwin Research Program is engaged in a conservation and captive breeding program to try to preserve the remaining tortoises. In recent years, conflicts over fishing rights in the Galapagos have led some fishermen to register their protests by poaching and killing tortoises, and the tortoises are as endangered today as they have ever been. Lonesome George, the last of his race is the symbol of conservation in the Galapagos. He represents both the value of this World Heritage Site, and fragility of Darwin's laboratory of evolution. 

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  There are relatively few mammals in the Galapagos. It is a typical experience to see porpoises surfing on the bow wave of the yacht while cruising from island to island, and one occasionally sees whales. 

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Probably the most engaging of all Galapagos animals is the Galapagos sea lion, an endemic subspecies of the California sea lion. Sea lions are found on many beaches throughout the Galapagos and can be found in all stages of life, from just-born pups to old bulls no longer able to maintain their position as beach master and relegated to the bachelor colonies. The young pups are curious, friendly, and enjoy playing with each other and with the visitors who spend time with them. 

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No galapagos trip is complete without snorkeling. There is a snorkeling session almost everyday and visitors routinely see typical Galapagos fish and invertebrates. There are always sea lions in the water and they love to play with snorkelers. It is not unusual to see green sea turtles and, if we are lucky, penguins as well. 

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This slide show has focused on the unique Galapagos animals and the interaction that visitors can have with them. However, no view of the Galapagos would be complete without seeing the beautiful and surprising landscapes. To sailors of previous centuries, the Galapagos were also known as the "Enchanted Islands," or "Las Islas Encantadas." This name was originally derived from the difficult currents and sudden fogs that made the islands so hard to navigate and chart. Indeed, some thought that there were several sets of Galapagos Islands, and others thought that the islands actually floated from place to place. Today, the name "Encatadas" takes on a new meaning. It is hard not to be enchanted by the harsh volcanic landscapes, the magnificent sea cliffs, the cloud-covered volcanoes, the striking beaches, and the beautiful sunsets.

The Galapagos are a haven of conservation, but also a place where ecological disaster looms near. After following Darwin's footsteps in the Galapagos, it is easy to see why he believed that here "we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact - that mystery of mysteries - the first appearance of new beings on earth."