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BASILE: Following in the footsteps of Darwin in the Galapagos

June 29, 2009

Over the next few months, celebrations will be taking place honoring the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. These will culminate Nov. 24, the 150th anniversary of the publication of his famous book, "On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection." Indianapolis had its own Happy 200th Birthday Party for Charles Darwin (along with Abraham Lincoln) back in February. Birthday cake was served and films celebrating these two men ran continuously.

While films are great (and I never argue with cake), there's nothing like following the wildly influential thinker's own footsteps, which I had the pleasure of doing by visiting the beautiful, mysterious, isolated and enchanted Galapagos Islands.

With their lunar-like black and ashen lava slopes and white and red and black sand beaches, these islands constitute Darwin's famous "living laboratory" of strange, exotic, otherworldly animals and birds. (For the record, the islands were discovered not by Darwin but by a drunken Spanish priest who drifted there by mistake in 1535.)

The islands, which have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, were never attached to the South American mainland, so the animals and plants adapted to the conditions of the islands, not the continent. Their uniqueness stems largely from their geographic isolation.

About half of the islands' plants and practically all of its reptiles are not found anywhere else in the world. It is a unique oasis for diversity in exotic plant and animal life, including the dinosaur-like lizards and birds in various stunning colors. We walked among the penguins, flamingos, albatross, the Galapagos turtle and blue-footed boobies while learning more about them than we ever cared to know.

We went onto several of the islands in both dry landings and wet landings. In a dry landing, we stepped from the dinghy onto rocks or a dock. In a wet landing, as the dinghy edged onto a sandy beach, we stepped into knee-deep water and waded ashore.

There were several options for our sightseeing, such as observation of the submarine life from a glass-bottom boat, swimming, snorkeling, dinghy rides or short walks. Because the walks were usually over lava rocks, all passengers had to be in good physical condition to thoroughly enjoy the excursions. In fact, all passengers over a certain age had to produce a statement from their physician stating that they were in good health prior to being booked for the cruise.

The total population of the four inhabited islands (including Santa Cruz Island, home to the Charles Darwin Research Station) is about 40,000. There are nine uninhabited islands, which are free of human intrusion with nothing to mar the natural vistas and landscapes, such as billboards and buildings.

The ships that ply these waters are not your typical cruise ship. For example, our ship, the Santa Cruz, with 48 cabins, had no casino, entertainment, dancing, piano bar or midnight buffet. Instead, there were scholarly lectures on all aspects of the land and the plant and animal life and Darwin's research along with a library crammed with technical books on these subjects. The people on these cruises are there to learn, explore and marvel, not to party.

All flights to the Galapagos Islands depart from two cities in Ecuador. The flights are closely controlled by the government and no one is allowed on without being booked on an authorized cruise and under the auspices of a licensed naturalist guide. Strict adherence to these regulations has enabled the islands to stay in pristine condition, unlike many other tourist destinations.

The challenge is to protect the unique and fragile ecosystem by placing reasonable restraints on tourism while providing adequate access for visitors and the locals who accommodate them. They appear to be successful in maintaining this balance.

That Darwin would recognize these islands after more than 150 years is a good, almost miraculous, thing.
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Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired executive of the Gene B. Glick Co. Basile can be reached at Frank_ Basile@sbcglobal.net.

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