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16 March, 2007
For me, the highlight of the Galápagos was the wildlife. From the moment we arrived, the animals were a delight. In Wreck Bay, friendly sea lions would play round the boats for hours. Convinced that we were there for their sport, they dived under the hull and climbed into the dinghies. Some even got aboard the yachts, and one catamaran’s crew had a distinct sense of humour failure when they woke up to find 4 sea lions lolling around in their cockpit! Our dinghy was too tippy for the larger sea lions, but several young ones managed to get in. Generally, it was only the females and young ones that tried these games, but it was quite astonishing how agile even the big bulls were. In the harbour were several 60 or 70 ft fishing boats, with flying bridges some 20 ft above the water. When we passed, we often saw sea lions sunbathing there, along with pelicans and boobies. The boobies are quite astonishing, with bright blue feet and legs: natural show-offs, they would pose obligingly for the camera. Because of the cold current that comes up from S America, there are also Penguins here – on the Equator! These were more camera shy and I suspect that most of us took numerous photographs of water swirls where a penguin had just dived. Ashore there were the various birds, including the famous Darwin finches. (It was noticing both the similarities and the differences in these birds that inspired many of Darwin’s ideas on evolution. However, this didn’t happen when he was actually in the islands, but some years later when he was studying his collections.) These birds have all evolved in separate ways from the same progenitors. Their specialisations are extreme: from the one that uses a stick to make holes in cactus in order to obtain its juices to the one that has developed a beak capable of pecking through the skin of fledgling birds to draw their blood. Seed eaters, insect eaters, nectar eaters have all evolved different beaks to fill niches in the ecosystem. Equally interesting are the giant tortoises, which vary from island to island, often quite considerably. These animals are very endangered: not only were their numbers reduced drastically by the sailors, who used to take them away by the hundred and use them for meat (they can live for months without food and water; the sailors used to stow them upside down, where they couldn’t turn over, and keep them like that until they wanted to eat them), but their eggs have for years been a favoured delicacy. In addition, there are now wild goats, horses and cattle to trample the eggs, wild pigs, dogs and rats to eat the eggs and cats and dogs to eat the hatchlings. There are several sanctuaries where tortoises are bred, but one or two subspecies are extinct and some more are probably not going to survive. Fortunately, after 15 or 20 years in captivity, the tortoises can be returned to the wild, now large enough to be predator proof (man apart), but unless more urgent measures are taken to eliminate the introduced predators, it’s unlikely that they will ever breed successfully in the wild again.