Quite amazing things happen in the Galapagos Islands. It was here that a divinity school drop-out named Charles Darwin, hit upon the idea of natural selection and the survival of the fittest. It was also here that a cross-eyed bird fell in love with my shorts.
The bird was a blue-footed booby, a creature with a slightly wonky look that waddles as if it has just consumed several Christmas dinners.
On the Galapagos Islands, boobies come in three varieties: blue, red and masked. They were given their strange name by Spanish sailors who thought the birds' silly behaviour and blue feet reminded them of clowns (bobos in Spanish). Later British sailors noticed that the birds liked to perch on the raisedhatches of their ships, hence the origin of the name "booby hatch."
On my first afternoon in the Galapagos, only hours after boarding the Santa Cruz, our 90-passenger ship, we were on our way in the ship's pangas and headed for North Seymour Island.
Just a few feet from where we landed, large, dirty-coal brown marine iguana sunbathed blissfully on a rock, looking for all the world like a miniature Godzilla stand-in. With hisprehistoric appearance, spines on his back and barnacles on his nose, he was truly one of God's less fetching creatures, ugly as sin to us but probably Brad Pitt to a female iguana.
A battery of Pentaxes, Nikons and Minoltas whirred clocking up a small fortune for Fuji and Kodak until Emma Ridley, the naturalist assigned to my group, reassured us that really, therewould be other reptiles, mammals and birds to photograph.
Within five minutes, we spotted our first blue-footed booby, strolling down the path andnot the slightest bit fazed that there were 14 immense two-legged creatures the size of skyscrapers (well, at least in relationship to him) blocking his route.
He paused, obviously waiting for us to get the heck off his path. Then, while waiting for our dim brains to register our trespass, he looked over and noticed my shorts which just happened to be exactly the same colour as his feet. He waddled over and gently laid his beak on my shorts.
Another small fortune in film was consumed as a writer was wooed by a love-struck booby.
The Galapagos, which sit smack dab on the equator 600 miles west of Ecuador, are relative youngsters, geologically speaking. They were formed about 3 to 5 million years ago from "hot spots" on the ocean floor that rose as volcanic cones to form the islands. Over the centuries, vagrant seeds took root, sea birds blown off course stayed and nested and reptiles that could go without food or water for long periods floated in on vegetation rafts tobring life to the barren islands.
The most adaptable of these plants and animals survived and over the course of a few thousand years evolved into species found nowhere else onearth. Today, there are only 600 plants on the islands, but of these, one-third are found nowhere else. There are 22 species of reptiles, 400 species of fish and fewer than 100 bird species. Of the land-based animals, birds and reptiles, more than 80 percent are endemic to the Galapagos Islands.
So here was a simple, pristine laboratory waiting for someone like Charles Darwin when he arrived in 1835 on board the HMS Beagle. He was 26 years old and had left England as a medical school dropout and uninspired divinity student to try his luck as an unpaid observer on a scientific mission. No one, not even Darwin's father, had any hope young Darwin would amount to much: "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching," his father said. "You will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family."
As history now knows, Darwin was anything but a disgrace. His astute observations during his brief five-week stay in the Galapagos set the stage for the development of the theory of evolution by natural selection and ignited the greatest revolution of all time in the way man viewed himself in relation to the world and God.
Because there were such a limited number of species on the island, Darwin could easily see how these birds, animals and reptiles had adapted in order to survive. A male lava lizard born with darker coloration, for example, could blend in with the environment and therefore live longer and transmit his genes more often. A male booby with feet that were more colorful than his mates would attract more females and also pass on his genes more often. Darwin's most famous illustration was the "Darwin finches," 13 similar species that likely descended from one original species. Each of the 13 had adapted to its particular island's environment -- some, for example, had short, thick beaks to split seeds; others had long, thin bills to catch insects.
The total lack of fear displayed by fauna on the islands is hard to believe at first. You can sit inches away from a dozing sea lion and he'll hardly stir a whisker; place your camera lens within a breath of a masked booby's beak and he couldn't care less. Because of the extreme isolation of all these species over so many thousands of years and the lack of natural predators, they simply never learned to shy away or flee when approached. Pirates, whalers and early explorers left dogs, cats, rats and goats on the islands which turned feral; but evolution moves slowly and the gene responsible for "fight and flight" still doesn't seem to exist.
Some of the species are so unafraid, they actually make the first overture. One day, near Pinnacle Rock on Bartholeme Island, I was merrily snorkeling, gawking at vivid blue King Angels and watching rainbow-colored parrot fish chomp away on the coral. Suddenly, a brown form streaked by, did an abrupt U-turn and then swam underneath me. Looking up into my face mask was a juvenile male sea lion. As I reached out toward him, he did a back flip and then zoomed away to a nearby rock. I swam toward him -- he did another flip and positioned himself between two larger rocks. It was pretty obvious I was being invited to join him in a jolly game of sea lion-and-human tag. We played for about 30 minutes, chasing one another around the rocks, sometimes swimming parallel under the water, sometimes diving, sometimes surfacing. Whenever I started to leave, he would swim right in front of me, perpendicular in the water and stare into my face mask. When I finally, very reluctantly, returned to the panga, I announced I had just become engaged to a younger mammal.
Most visitors to the Galapagos will provide similar stories of games with sea lions or occasionally bottle-nose dolphins. If you sit on deck of your ship, you'll likely see dolphins frolicking and leaping in the waves right off the bow. If you happen to visit around mating season, you can watch the quaint courtship rituals of boobies since they lay their eggs on the bare ground right off the trails. The masked boobies on Tower Island were mating the day we were there, not just one or two, but hundreds of them. The male would waddle up to a female and formally offer her a stick or a feather as if it were a diamond engagement ring, then they would click beaks. The female would accept the piece of grass or twig and then send her suitor off for another, sometimes with a vigorous peck. Ironically, all this twig business is probably more ritual or coyness since the masked boobies lay their eggs in guano circles.
Frigate birds were also mating on North Seymour Island. Picture dozens and dozens of large black males, their feathers glinting blue and purple in the sun, perched on the top of small shrubs and using every bit of internal wind they can muster to inflate immense red pouches under their beaks. As the females fly overhead, the males shake their red balloons and squawk, a not terribly subtle but highly effective proposition. At least if you're a frigate bird.
In nautical terms, frigates were warships used by pirates, and this is exactly what these huge, yet graceful, birds are -- pirates. We watched one extraordinary display in which a frigate bird swooped up toward a swallow-tailed gull returning home from a day's fishing and harassed it so much that the gull regurgitated a small octopus in midair. Immediately, the frigate bird snatched it up with its long, hooked-tip beak, swallowing the whole octopus as it soared away. It gave a whole new meaning to the concept of take-out food.
Like so many other species, it was evolution that dictated the frigate birds' outlaw behavior. The frigate does not have enough preen gland oil to make its wings waterproof, so it can't dive after fish the way other seabirds do. Rather than become waterlogged and sink, it has learned to steal what has already been caught.
From the dozing marine iguanas, inflated frigate birds, cooing doves and vivid scarlet Sally Lightfoot crabs to the romantic Red-billed Tropic birds and venerable giant tortoises from which the Galapagos Islands take their name, it's all a little like the legendary Peaceful Kingdom with a touch of Dr. Dolittle thrown in for good measure.