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Destinations: Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador:

KINDS OF BLUE 

THE GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR
DOMINIC HAMILTON
 

Sarah Darling sits on the floor, her weight leaning on one arm, the other wielding a paintbrush. She dabs and scrapes, orchestrating the canvas with flicks of her wrist.

 
“If I could eat all these hues of blue,” she laughs, “I’d be very fat!”
 
Sarah is in fact slim and petite, radiant even. She goes running on the beach every morning at dawn. However, she’s not the picture of health she at first seems. She’s addicted to French Ultramarine Blue. Not your average junkie’s tipple, to be sure. But if you lived, like her, on the Galápagos Islands 600 miles from anywhere on the Equator, you too would have succumbed to her addiction.
 
If God held a painter's palette as He brought light to the world, He surely perfected the color blue at the Galápagos archipelago of islands. Every hue and shade of cerulean, azure, turquoise, aquamarine and cobalt seem to have been applied with meticulous skill, and divine intention.
 
We talk in Sarah’s studio, an upstairs room in her house on Santa Cruz island, one of few inhabited in the archipelago. Not twenty yards from her window, the sea bursts into color beneath the blinding early afternoon light. Boats nod on the waves. Frigate birds, boobies and pelicans dive and swoop. The wind ruffles the sparse vegetation.

Sarah first came to the islands to paint in 1989. There, she met Franklin Angermeyer, the son of one of the few early settlers on the islands. Together they took tourists on cruises around the islands which Charles Darwin first sailed in 1835. Slowly but surely, her addiction worsened.
 
From her canvasses, a mesmerizing menagerie of creatures cavort: marine iguanas, sea lions, dolphins, whales, albatross, penguins, sally lightfoot crabs, giant tortoises, flightless cormorants. The same creatures which fascinated Darwin on his visit. The same creatures which would lead him to draw the conclusions expounded in On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection, the book that changed the face of natural history forever.
 
The Galápagos remain, in large part, as Darwin would have experienced them over a century and a half ago. They are the last true Garden of Eden. Many of the archipelago’s animals, such as the amazing marine iguana, are found nowhere else on the planet. They have evolved in complete isolation over millennia. This would be reason enough to visit the Galápagos. But there’s more, much more: the animals are fearless.
 
“Finches eat from the palm of my hand. The other day, a mockingbird landed on my head,” Sarah tells me, grinning impishly. “The marine iguanas bask in the sun in front of my house. None of them are afraid.”
 
Last year Sarah’s beloved dog, Hooley, died. He was friendly with a sealion who would swim up to her house most mornings. She buried Hooley at sea in the bay where she lives. As she watched the sea envelop him, the sealion swam by her dinghy and a marine turtle raised his head. A friendship between a dog and a sealion sounds as improbable as a human sitting not two feet away from a sealion suckling her baby. But on the Galápagos at least, it isn’t. Not for nothing are they known as ‘the enchanted isles.’
 
The Galápagos archipelago are larger than most people imagine. Its Marine Reserve extends over 27,000 square miles. Although I began my cruise from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, we had sailed many hundreds of miles before we returned to port a week later. Boats follow a set route, determined by the national park authorities. They sail between the islands, stopping at a dozen or so of the 60 designated visitor sites.
 
The islands are as diverse as the flora and fauna. As Darwin put it, the archipelago “seems to be a little world within itself.” In the morning, you could be climbing the crest of a hill on Bartolomé Island, its craggy lunascape surface tumbling down to a sandy beach below, and in the afternoon you could be on one of the Plaza islands, flat and haunting, only punctuated by lonesome tombstone-like cactuses.
 
The southernmost island of Española, formerly known as Hood, was our first stop after an overnight crossing. A small dingy ferried us a hundred meters or so to the visitor site of Punta Suárez, a long, low headland of twisted volcanic rock. Laden with cameras, binoculars, large sun hats and suntan lotion, our party of pink-skinned, bare-footed bipeds was helped off the panga for a “wet landing” onto the black lava rock by a strong-armed boat boy.
 
I immediately felt like I had entered a cross between the Garden of Eden and Dante’s Inferno, into an “infinitely strange” world, as Darwin put it. Prehistoric marine iguanas, which he called “Imps of Darkness,” lounged on coal-black rocks, while slithery sea lions basked in the sun on the beach.
 
About half a mile from landing at Punta Suárez, we came to the edge of a high cliff overlooking a vibrant blue sea flecked with white-tipped waves. Fork-tailed frigate birds soared and glided in the thermals, while the breakers crashed with all their might on the rocks below. Nearby, the surf thrusts itself into the entrance of a lava tube blowhole, and burst out the other end in a 100‑foot fountain of white spray.
 
On Española, a great many of the Galápagos wildlife cast take to the stage. Decidedly dumb-looking blue-footed and nazca boobies are always in the spotlight, while marine iguanas and the ubiquitous sea lions aren’t shy of appearances. Galápagos doves, mockingbirds, hawks, lava herons, night herons, oystercatchers, swallowtail gulls, various finches, lava lizards and the occasional snake are among the supporting cast. Always hiding in the wings is the reclusive Española subspecies of the giant saddleback tortoise, some 700 of which have been reintroduced to the island during the last 25 years. While top of the bill has to be the waved albatross, a creature famous for its elegant flight, elaborate courtship display and its size — it’s the biggest bird of the archipelago, and is only found on Española and an island off the Ecuadorian mainland.
 
During lunch, our boat motored over to Gardner Rock off the northeast shore. We donned our snorkeling gear and plunged from the dinghy into waters that glinted and flickered with myriad tropical fish. Bursts of excitement rippled through the group as we were fortunate enough to witness a marine turtle glide through the waters below, the colors of its shiny carapace seeming to transform as the sun and sea played tricks with the light.
 
I was lucky to be aboard one of the few boats that combines scuba diving with natural history tours. But although I made three immersions during the week, the best experiences I had were with nothing more than a mask and snorkel, off one of the Plaza Islands. There we played with a group of female sealions and their pups (the male bulls are best avoided). These curious creatures, so lumbering on land, shot and twisted, rippled and dove, zoomed and banked about us, strings of incandescent bubbles streaking up their elegant sleek bodies. The pups swim right up to you, nosing your mask or grabbing your fins between their teeth. I dove down alongside one with a lung-full of air, her beautiful dusky eye gazing out at me as we swam side by side. Our courtship dance only lasted about twenty seconds, but in my pocketed memories, those seconds last for hours.
 
“My paintings are reflections of energy, the sun, the moon, the stars, the wind and the sea – all creatures great and small,” Sarah wrote to me some time after I met her. “I seek to express a universal cry for peace, for empathy – for human beings and all living things. For serenity. For hope.”
 
Sarah has been swimming with sealions for over a decade. I only managed half a minute. But I too came away full of serenity and energy, and full of hope – that at least somewhere on this messed-up planet of ours one can still feel at one with all the creatures, great and small. 

 

 

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