The closer you get to something, the more interesting it becomes. How perfect, then, that one of the earth's most fascinating places for unique wildlife, allows for real close-up experiences.
Before I first went to the Galapagos Islands I could take or leave birds. Mostly I left them, preferring the more obvious thrills of seeing elephants or lions - not in the Galapagos, you understand. I could watch elephants for hours. They stick around, chat with each other, wallow, eat, give you a gentle warning shake of the ears if you get too close, but mostly, if you're polite and sensible, they will accept your presence. Birds on the other hand, usually just fly off before you can get a good look at them. To my mind this always made them, well, boring, and a pair of mediocre binoculars did nothing to alter this view.
My week in the Galapagos Islands changed everything. My first meeting with a blue-footed booby was on a path on San Cristobal Island. I got closer, it looked at me. I inched forward, it looked away. I squatted down (I'm not really sure why - to make myself less big and threatening?) and watched it as it studiously ignored me. I can't have been more than 3 feet away, but he wasn't going anywhere. At that distance, this bird became as interesting to me as an elephant. I remember taking in the vivid blue of his feet, the piercing sharpness of his eyes, and the pure white of his feathers.
Here in the enchanted islands I discovered that magnificent frigatebirds really are, that waved albatrosses in their mating season are as enthralling and funny to watch as gorillas, and that flightless cormorants are expert swimmers.
As a not very brave swimmer myself, I was unbelievably shocked and hugely elated to find that swimming with wild young playful sealions was laugh-out-loud fun. This experience made me realise how easy it was for people to get carried away in the Islands. A friend of mine was in a panga (small boat) when they were surrounded by many hammerhead sharks. Having got used to the non-threatening nature of most of the wildlife of the islands, he didn't think, but just leapt into the water to swim with them. His guide quickly gestured to him from the boat, that perhaps being so close wasn't such a great idea in this case.
The island nature trails are the focus of most visitors' close encounters with Galapagos wildlife, but even when you're on the yachts cruising to the next meeting with a unique iguana or preparing to natter with a Nazca booby, the seas often give you glimpses of the prolific beauty all around you. Dolphins just love to ride the waves near the boats, and as you skim alongside them, you can almost hear their laughter as they play beneath you.
You don't have to be close to wildlife to appreciate it, but for me the privilege of proximity that the Galapagos offers you, is a source of undeniable pleasure and happiness which can affect the way you see and respond to wildlife ever after.
I guess I should admit to my guilty pleasure at this point - I'm a halfway decent birder now!
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE GALAPAGOS:
The UK's most comprehensive website on visiting the Galapagos Islands: cruisethegalapagos.co.uk
Click here for excellent special offers on Galapagos yachts.