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Travel

Swimming with sea lions and sharks

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The Galapagos Islands teem with wildlife that lets you get up close and personal. That's because there are virtually no predators here

The blue inflatable panga (raft) is bobbing up down, waiting for us to board, its outboard motor sputtering impatiently. But how to step over all those sea lions sprawled on each of the eight steps leading down to the panga? Some are snoozing and others look bored;it is abundantly clear they have no intention of stirring. To add to our dismay and fascination, there are giant-sized bright orange crabs crawling all over the walls and rocks of the jetty. We hurriedly dig into our bags and pull out our cameras to click, little realising that we would be seeing literally thousands of them over our next few days on the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. 

On the three inhabited islands of San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabella, sea lions are everywhere, including park benches, bus stops and even souvenir shops. But the locals don't seem to mind;after all, they get tourist dollars. The sea lions too seem to know they are cherished and protected and take full advantage of it! We, of course, are not. So we refuse to negotiate the sea lion- and crab-infested jetty. Eventually our exasperated boatman moves to another jetty where a single sea lion keeps lone vigil, and we manage to step gingerly over him to reach our panga. 

The panga takes us to Letty, our yacht moored in the open sea where we will spend the next eight days. But wildlife does not spare even Letty. Her masthead is crowded with frigates and her upper deck encircled by raucous gulls while her cleat and tiller are often crowded with sleeping sea lions. 

What explains such nonchalance on the part of wildlife is the fact that there are no predators on these islands. Thrown up by relatively recent volcanic activity and detached from the mainland, the twenty odd islands in the Galapagos have long developed as a nursery for various life forms, unmolested by predators of any kind including man. It was only in the last century that our species landed on this planet but thanks to Darwin's discovery of this island paradise, they decided to keep it that way. 

A very seasick Charles Darwin first landed here in 1935, perhaps to escape his eternally lurching vessel, Beagle, and wandered through the lava-encrusted terrain, marvelling at the teeming life here. During the next five weeks, he picked up plants and insects, animals and birds to study them. During this voyage, Darwin discovered a dozen species of finches which showed minor variations from island to island, such as longer beaks or fluffier feathers. He divined that in those islands where food was scarce and had to be dug from the soil, finches grew longer beaks. Some grew black feathers to shield themselves from the equatorial sun while others stayed brown to merge with the vegetation around. After some intense research, he concluded that natural selection and adaptation determined survival of a species. A couple of years later, Darwin came up with the superstitionshattering theory of evolution, the subject matter of intense debate even today between Creationists and Evolutionists. 

Today, the Galapagos Islands are a Natural World Heritage Site and zealously protected not only by UNESCO, but also by the Ecuadorian government for which it is a money-spinner. Tourism is regulated. People have to stay on boats, and even the number of boats licensed to cruise the islands is limited. Even residents are closely monitored and residency permits strictly regulated. Nothing gets into or out of the islands without the knowledge of the hawk-eyed park professionals ably aided by satellite cameras and X-ray machines. Try and smuggle a tiny shell and the scanner will set up a racket at the airport. 

Sitting astride the equator, the Galapagos Islands enjoy tourist-friendly climate throughout the year. We snorkel every day, sometimes even twice a day. Shafts of sunlight pierce through the aquamarine waters to reveal the psychedelic colours of fish that swirl around you in shoals. The Galapagos are the only islands where you can expect to swim not only with sea lions and marine iguanas, but also with penguins and white-tipped or hammerhead sharks. This is paradise where aggression is non-existent. 

Our trip takes us through nine islands, all of which teem with wildlife. On San Cristobal, stunning blue-footed boobies show off their pirouetting prowess as they woo their mates with mesmerizing footwork, ignoring the intruding clicks of cameras;on Espanola, marine iguanas, big and small, populate every rock and cranny, sunbathing and showing off their impressive scales in pink, yellow, brown and blue. Giant tortoises crunch leaves noisily and hobble lugubriously in the grassy highlands. On Floreana, mother Nasca boobies groom and feed their fluffy chicks eager to get a peek of the world outside their mothers' feet. Mocking birds nibble at your water bottle as you sprawl on the beach sands. Penguins preen themselves on the rocks, in preparation for their forthcoming courtship ritual;giant pelicans dive in and out of the crashing waves, their silvery catch dangling from their massive beaks. Lava lizards perch on stumps, curiously eyeing your camera, but make no attempt to move. 

Ubiquitous are the sea lions, which get into the sea only to hunt. Most of the time, they are stretched out on rocks, ledges, crevices and on sandy beaches where they vie for space with visitors. Shiny, playful and clumsy, the cubs suckle noisily and entreat you with their soulful eyes to cuddle them. The mother may appear indifferent and lazy, but try approaching the baby, she will rear up to her full five feet of pure blubber and be upon you in a flash. One bite from her can have you howling in pain for months. 

Eight days fleet past in a jiffy, dishing up a feast of weird and wonderful wildlife. Yet, one spectacular courtship display eludes us. How can we leave the islands without witnessing the red male frigate wooing his female with a ballooning pouch? The ones we had seen so far had shrivelled up red pouches. Ivan, our naturalist guide shakes his head and tells us mating season has not yet begun. But we would not be persuaded to turn back. Back on the boat we make a beeline for the bridge where our obliging Captain Pablo makes calls on the walkie talkie to the two sibling yachts of Ecoventura, Eric and Flemingo. In a few minutes, Letty makes a U-turn towards North Seymour, another island not far away. 

Even before we land, we can spot dozens of frigates putting on a dazzling display with their puffed up pouches and dancing clumsily to impress their ladyfolk who feign supreme indifference. Their ladies may not be impressed. But we surely are. Cameras are out and lenses extended to their fullest, we click away as one clumsy frigate after another puts up its endearing, if ridiculous, display. They look even more spectacular against a glorious sunset carelessly dripping ochre all over the firmament. 

AT A GLANCE 

How to get there: Delhi-London (9 hrs)-Miami (8 hrs)-Quito (5hrs)-Guayaquil (30 mins)-San Cristobal (2 hrs). Total flying time is 24. 5 hours, plus airport transfers What to see: Hop from island to island, crossing the equator many times in the process. Even the islands you visit are regulated by Galapagos National Park. The same islands cannot be visited consecutively. There has to be a 15-day gap between two visits to an island by any boat What to eat: Plenty of fresh seafood, Humitas, grilled bananas, aromatic Galapagos gourmet coffee and cocoa What to buy: Souvenirs include replicas of Galapagos wildlife, and T-shirts. Nothing local can be taken away from the islands

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