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Ten Days in the Galapagos: Following Darwin's trail for a once-in-a-lifetime experience 

Jim Amderson fulfills a life long dream of visiting the Galapagos Islands and brings back photos to prove it.

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Did you know it is possible to travel from your home to the Redmond Airport, plunk one's self in the innards of a Continental airliner at 6 a.m., and - with only three connecting flights - find yourself in Quito, Ecuador, at 9 p.m. that same day? It is. I did just that a couple of weeks back on my way to the Galapagos Islands.

Never in my wildest dreams of "things to do, and places to go," did I think that some day, when I was over 80 years old would I set foot on what is, without a doubt, one of the most exciting biological and geological treasurers on planet Earth. But thanks to many, many friends, and three people in particular - Jay and Teresa Bowerman and my dear wife Sue - it happened.

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I first became aware of the Galapagos when I was about 12 years old, spending hours with a woodcarver/storyteller who lived in a little shack between my grandfather's farm and the Heinie place that adjoined our apple orchard.

Grandpa Heine's snug little home was my usual destination Saturday after Saturday. While most of the kids in the neighborhood went to the Rivoli Theatre in West Haven to watch Johnny Weissmuller swing through the trees as Tarzan, a few of us kids from that era would go to Grandpa Heinie's little cabin and listen to his wonderful stories of the places he visited when he was a young man. Among those exciting, far-flung places was the Galapagos.

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While I was sitting at the Sunriver Nature Center a couple of weeks back at a surprise party celebrating my 83rd birthday, I suddenly had an unbelievable announcement in my hand informing me that I was going to the Galapagos, Grandpa Hienie's shaky old voice flooded into my consciousness: "If you work hard," he said, looking at each of us kids right in the eye, "You can have these same adventures I've lived over the years, and maybe you'll even get to the Galapagos."

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And there it was, in a large envelop Sue handed to me: instead of going to Panama which I'd like to do some day to look for the little flammulated owls that nest here in summer and then head south to winter in Panama, the astonishing piece of paper I was holding said I was going to the Galapagos for 10 days. The tour leaders had hooked up with an outfit called Galapagos Travel that made arrangements for us to live on the Tip Top IV, an elegant 16-passenger vessel and island-hop through the Galapagos. Never in my wildest dreams...

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Right off the bat, I have to say that I would never have gotten through the bewildering mass of travel Ecuador requires if it hadn't been for the absolutely wonderful, gracious and efficient assistance of Tanya of Galapagos Travel. From the moment we set foot on Ecuadorian soil - until we disembarked from the jet that took us to the Galapagos and stepped into the Zodiac that took us to the Tip Top IV, to the farewell banquet in a beautiful restaurant overlooking the city of Quito when we returned - Tanya was with us every step of the way. All we had to do was keep breathing and do as we were told.

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The trip to and from the Galapagos, however, also reminded me of one of the bothersome deficiencies in my life - my failure to learn another language. If I weren't so lazy, I would have learned to speak Spanish, the mother tongue of the people of Ecuador and the Galapagos. While our tour leaders and guides spoke to us in their version of English, it would have been much more polite and I would have gained so much more if I could have conversed with everyone in Spanish. It was my loss that I could not do so.

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The yacht, Tip Top IV, part of Rolf Wittmer's fleet of touring vessels operating in the Galapagos, was a pleasure beyond my ability to describe. Rolf Wittmer was the first (known) person to be born on the Galapagos. His parents emigrated from Germany in the 1920s and lived in a pirate cave on the Island of Florena where he was born. We traveled from island to island in the vessel, crossing the equator four times.

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In order to see, photograph and learn about exquisite wildlife and geology of the Galapagos, we had two outstanding tour guides, both naturalists of the first order: Martin and Earnesto. Those two men, with the never failing help of the ship's crew, especially the chef, made the 10-day tour of the archipelago a wonderful once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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They took us from one highlight to another, experiencing the wondrous natural history of the Galapagos. Pick up a map of the Galapagos and follow our route: Baltra to Seymour, across the equator to Genovesa, back across the equator to Sanitago; crossing the equator again to the northern tip of the largest island in the Galapagos, Isabela.

Then, we went down the western coastline and bays of Isabela (crossing the equator for the last time) where we snorkeled, hiked and swam. From there, we visited the island of Fernandina, back to Isbela again, around the other end of the island to Puerto Villamil; south to Florena, then on to the second largest island of Santa Cruz, south again to Espanola, on to San Cristobal, where the capitol of the Galapagos is located and back to Baltra.

And everything living and volcanic is all guarded over scrupulously by the Galapagos National Park Service. There was not one piece of litter to be found anywhere on or in any of the uninhabited islands.

The national park system keeps track of every tourist who is on or near the islands every moment of the day. (The number of visitors to the Galapagos rose more than 250 percent to 145,000 in 2006, while the number of commercial flights to the area has increased 193 percent from 2001 to 2006.) The NPS insist that each tour group setting foot on the islands and in the waters is doing what the park dictates, which is necessary. In every bay we stopped, there were at least three to five other tourist vessels coming and going.

Marine and land iguanas greeted us at most islands, with blue-footed, red-footed and Nazca boobies within an arm's reach; frigate birds, albatross and gulls - many doing mating displays, several nesting while others wheeled overhead. The first animal I photographed was the Galapagos snake, and all I could think was: "Oh, I wish Al St. John was here..." We came up to within a couple of feet of black-crowned night herons (try that the next time you come upon a yellow-crowned night heron at Summer Lake), snorkeled with marine turtles, white-tipped sharks, flightless cormorants and marine life that would knock your socks off.

And of course, the most famous birds of science, Darwin's finches. When we stepped off the jet that flew us from the mainland of Ecuador to the island of Baltra, the first bird to greet us was Darwin's cactus finch building a nest in a cactus alongside the pathway from the plane.

With that beginning, everything from there went from great (frigate birds) to magnificent (frigate birds) to beautiful Galapagos gulls, blue-footed (and other) boobies, swallow-tailed gulls (that only forage for food at night). There are countless numbers of marine iguanas (we had to be careful we didn't step on them) to the rare and awesome Galapagos tortoises, to, well... visit and check out all the photos. Or just hit the QR code on this page to view them on your mobile device.

Lastly, I'd like to thank all my dear friends for making this experience possible.


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