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By Colleen Friesen

Snorkelling a thousand kilometres off Ecuador's coast in their Galapagos Islands is like diving directly into your DVD to discover yourself in a very Finding Nemo-inspired watery world. Parrotfish do a gay-pride parade with their rainbow bodies, clown fish make jokes and the rays do fly-bys as they scud past the shimmering clouds of sardines.

In fact, the entire Galapagos experience is a surrealistic adventure. It's not just that the Sally Lightfoot crabs look as if a punch-drunk Picasso attempted paint-by-number on their backs. Or that the marine iguanas piled hundreds deep on the black lava rocks have a definite sci-fi twist to their wise old faces. And when you first see the Blue-footed Boobies, it won't be the weird turquoise feet that take your breath away, but that you can practically kiss those goofy birds and they won't flee.

Ditto on the flee-factor for those aforementioned iguanas, the hundred-and-fifty-year-old tortoises or the flopping and rolling sea lions. Even sharing a rocky outcropping the size of a sofa cushion with two penguins, the theme is the same. They are oblivious to your existence. They don't fly, waddle, swim or walk away.

How cool is it to be standing on a path when an albatross with a nine-foot (three metre) wingspan lands directly in front of you, greets his lifelong mate with a bizarre, bobble-headed mating dance and then gives her a clicking-beaked kiss?

Of course, this also means that when you're snorkelling and see a five-foot long, white-tipped reef shark looming out of the deep, the odds are pretty good that he's not going to go away either.

In my defence, a little background is in order. It needs to be understood that my husband is a true gentleman. He walks on the outside of me when we're on sidewalks to save me from splashes and always opens my door. In short, he is my gallant protector, which surely must be why I grabbed him, made sure he was between the shark and me, and then tried to climb directly up and out of the turquoise sea using his back as a stepping stone…all while screaming through my snorkel.

Luckily, the shark was rather blasé and I finally remembered the naturalist telling us that the sharks were non-threatening. Good thing, cuz it's really hard to project yourself out of the ocean-even using your husband as a launching pad.

My heart slowed down on our daily shore excursions. Ivan Lopez and Malena Cruz are National Park guides. Like all tour operators in these islands, our group can only go ashore with government certified hosts. This ensures that the tightly controlled excursions are kept within the Ecuadorian environmental guidelines

Each day we wake up in a different island world. We walk through lava fields that look like bulldozers broke up a massive parking lot of asphalt. We hike up dusty trails on mountains made of magnesium sand and stand where Darwin once stood. We are witnesses to recently risen landscapes. It is easy to see what inspired Darwin to do some deep thinking.

For the most part, the islands look stark, trees doing death rattles with their bleached stick branches. Cruz explains, "A lot of these islands lie in the Pacific Dry Belt, and are actually classified as semi-desert or desert. So, these trees will only be green during one rainy month each year …"

Each afternoon, two small boats come ashore to return us to our ship. As we step aboard, our smiling bartender waits, holding a platter of hot empanadas and offering cold juices before we head for our showers.

At the end of every sensory-overloaded day, we tuck into our ship-shape bunks, rocked to sleep by some serious wave action. We float for a week in this emergent world, surrounded by those famous finches, hot pink flamingos and all the other creatures that embody Darwin's rather harsh epiphany and a not-too-shabby motto for day-to-day life, "Adapt or die!"


For the eco-award winning operator of choice go to:

All Photos: Kevin Redl

1. Observing sea birds
2. Sally Lightfoot Crab
3. Writer with Marine Iguana
4. Magnificent Frigate bird

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