The Galapagos: An Island Adventure Halfway Around the World
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Don’t bother bringing your binoculars to the Galapagos.  These pristine islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador are no long-distance wildlife-watching trip.  On the contrary, the animals you’ll find here (and usually nowhere but here) are so unafraid of humans, they might just fog up your camera lens with their breath.

At the bus stop just outside the Baltra airport, where I began a recent island itinerary, there was no room to sit, because of all the sea lions sacked out on the shaded benches.  Only the National Park regulation against touching any of the animals deters visitors from putting their arms around these gregarious creatures.

A National Park officer accompanies every excursion, explaining the names of all the flora and making sure nobody gets too chummy with the fauna. Under the watchful eye of an English-speaking guide named Enrique, I was still able to come within a whisker’s length (theirs, not mine) of countless sea lions—on the beaches and volcanic shores, in the turquoise ocean, and even on the back deck of our 16-passenger catamaran, where they occasionally flopped aboard for a siesta.

I gave a wider berth to the white-tipped sharks that meandered into the placid, clear waters where I snorkeled amid butter-colored parrotfish, pointy barracudas, rainbow-hued triggerfish, and the occasional ray.  Sea lions, marine iguanas, and Pacific Green Sea Turtles also joined in our adult swim. Another highlight: the three Galápagos Penguins that teamed up to hunt for the same fish I was admiring.  They hurtled themselves through the water at torpedo-like speeds, back and forth until they cornered their seafood lunch.

Blue-footed boobies, on the other hand, caught their prey by dive-bombing straight down into the water from above.  Like the penguins and sea lions, these seagull-sized birds had no trepidation about letting humans get up close and personal. On occasion, they would even pick up their azure feet and point them daintily at me, as if showing off a new pair of blue suede shoes.

The show continued into the night as well.  I was roused from dinner by the sound of splashing in the water just off the port bow.  I strained in the darkness of a new moon—my kingdom for a flashlight—to see whether these were sharks, dolphins, or sea lions pursuing the white trails that shot through the bay.  Letting my other senses take over, I learned to identify the sea lions by the heavy breathing I heard every time they came up for air.  Meanwhile, the silent predators I came to recognize as hammerhead sharks soundlessly joined the hunt, piercing the surface only with their telltale dorsal fins. ...

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