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The Surprising Secret of the Galápagos Islands

Galápagos Islands: lizard and sea lion

Rich Beattie

My group heard about one of those battles at Punta Pitt, on the northeastern tip of San Cristóbal Island. The area had only recently reopened to travelers after the park service suspended visits to eliminate the feral cats that were hunting red-footed boobies. As my group walked up a steep dirt trail through a surreal volcanic landscape that felt like the moon, we saw the swallow-tailed gull. We saw the frigate bird. But it will apparently take a while for the red-footed boobies to return in significant numbers; we saw none of them.

Yet just the fact that we all walked the same well-defined hiking trail is an achievement, and a relatively recent one. In the 1980s, boats overflowed with tourists, who could wander wherever they liked, trampling the life out of the flora. Even into the ’90s, the Galápagos was still the Wild West.

But regulating the experience hasn’t meant diminishing it. And nowhere was that more evident than on the island of Española, where, on a crisp September morning, face-to-fur meetings came fast and furious. Our excursion began with a landing party of sea lions greeting our dingy on the beach. We stepped over them, only to stumble upon hundreds of Christmas iguanas, still huddled en masse against the overnight chill, their red splotches forming a Jackson Pollock–like canvas on the sand.

We continued on to a front-row seat just a few feet from two albatross doing a frenetic mating dance, slapping their egg yolk–yellow beaks against each other repeatedly before sticking them straight up in the air with a guttural cluck (then walking away from each other, apparently uncharmed). We passed two eagles standing guard on a rocky outcropping. And the hike capped off with a pair of blue-footed boobies hanging out on the trail, sunlight bouncing off their bright webbed feet. 

It was a dizzying showcase of evolutionary magic.

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