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Animal Magnetism

Our five Ecuadorean naturalists play a big role, too. One joins every panga to lead our groups of no more than 11 people (the maximum permitted by park rules) on boat tours and walks around the islands. Each leader notices different things and has a different style: Daniel, smart and professorial, is prone to excited outbursts, À la Howard Cosell: "There is a frigate bird, stealing the booby's fish right now! Look! Ninety-five percent of its food is stolen!" And buff Lucho, every child's favorite, is the comic extrovert. After lunch one day, when the Polaris has crossed the equator, a bearded "King Neptune" (Daniel) wearing flippers and a crown appears on deck with his coconut shell-bikinied wife (Lucho), demanding tribute from the travelers. (He settles for a few people drinking a horrible red juice concocted in the kitchen, or kissing his flipper.)

The trip proceeds something like a slide show. Boats are permitted to drop anchor off just nine of the islands; we visit one or two a day and then, around bedtime, hear the engines start up. We fall asleep to an orchestra of rumbles and raps and the gentle rocking of the ship as it transports us to a new landscape. This creates an ongoing sense of anticipation with the start of each day, a constant desire to look out and see where we've landed.

It's always somewhere interesting—though you wouldn't call the Galápagos a "tropical paradise." From July to December the islands look dry and even desolate (and until you get up close, it's hard to believe much lives on them at all). Some of the islands, such as Española and Santa Fe, are low, rounded, and nondescript. But others, like Isabela and Fernandina, separated by a strait, are spectacular. High volcanoes slope to ragged cliffs; a hardened flow of black lava fills a crease down one side of Isabela. On our morning ride to these two islands, a small black-and-white bird keeps circling the panga; Daniel identifies it as an Elliott's storm petrel (though the Auduboners already seem to know that). Then comes a call to the walkie-talkie of our panga driver, a wiry Ecuadorean named Chicken Wilson: a Bryde's whale has been spotted. We zoom near enough to see its rough black back, maybe 12 feet long, as it breaches several times and blows spray into the air.

The cliffs are full of life; atop one bluff is a red-footed booby rookery. Around the corner from it are the wave-splashed nooks of fur seals and a flightless cormorant. Black marine iguanas a foot-and-a-half long abound; when one of them, fresh from a briny plunge, clears its nostrils, the mist reaches our boat. Heading back, we pass over a giant manta ray; Chicken tails it for several minutes as it flaps ethereally through the clear blue water.

Back on the Polaris, Emma announces just after lunch that the bridge has spied a pod of bottlenose dolphins dead ahead. A large pod. Enormous, it turns out—several hundred dolphins, the biggest group Emma says she's ever seen. They shoot high out of the waters ahead of us and arc back in; the sea is boiling with them. What is riveting is not just their numbers but their seeming exuberance, the wastrel thrill of putting all that energy into a flight through the air when simply breaking the water's surface would do.

We have seen more than a day's worth of wonders and it's only 2 p.m. Shortly after, Asa and I go out snorkeling together. The sun is high, the water shallow, and for once we aren't cold. (Even with wet suits, most snorkelers are shivering by the end of an excursion—currents from the south keep the water temperature in the sixties and low seventies this time of year.) With him still new to snorkeling, we swim holding hands, our flippered feet doing most of the work. We trail a sea turtle until it notices us and veers away, but soon we see a ray, a penguin diving for a fish, and, looking up to the surface, a cormorant's webbed feet pushing leisurely against the water. This is the ocean's equivalent of an African watering hole. When the next sea turtle comes into view, Asa is on it in a flash, pulling me along, flippers churning the water like a paddleboat.

The following day, our fifth, is the most jarring: a visit to Santa Cruz, which has the islands' main human settlement, and even a few hotels. After the amazements of places preserved by keeping people out, we are reminded of how forcefully our species asserts itself. Not that Santa Cruz is ugly—compared with most any Caribbean island, it is lightly populated and uncongested. The main street has the expected overabundance of open-air shops selling T-shirts and statuettes of turtles and boobies, but also a view of the water, with pelicans and fishing boats, both sleek and dilapidated.

Still, to see cars—and to have to get out of their way!—is like waking from a dream. Our guides (some of whom live here) act as though nothing is wrong and usher us into the Charles Darwin Research Centre, much of which is a kind of zoo. For years the discrete varieties of Galápagos giant tortoise have been preserved and bred here: leafy pens display them in many sizes, all with numbers painted on their backs. It's a success story, except for one: Solitario Jorge (Lonesome George), a tortoise from Pinta Island, is the last of his line. He is thought to be 70 or 80 years old, and there is no remaining female for him to breed with. Goats, introduced to Pinta by fishermen years ago, ate the tortoises' food and destroyed their nesting sites. When Lonesome George dies, the Pinta Island strain will be extinct.

Trying to lighten things up, our guides Lucho and Daniel trade gibes. "This sticky berry," says Daniel loudly to my group as we pass a moyuyu shrub, "is used by the post office for stamps, and by Lucho for his hair." Only a few minutes later, Lucho can be heard telling his group, "Steven Spielberg used the head of a tortoise as the model for the head of E.T., the extraterrestrial. And for the body, his model was Daniel."

Our tour of the Darwin center over, members of the group throng to its gift shop, and the kids get their hands on gobs of candy; I'm antsy to return to the boat. But then I'd miss a visit to a highlands ranch where native tortoises cover the fields like so many bumper cars. Some are more than a century old. Apparently they're a problem for farmers, since when they reach a fence line, they just push and dig with their massive bodies until they get underneath it. That makes me feel better.

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