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Fascinating close-up on Galapagos marine life

Spirit of Adventure: Beneath the Sea - the Galapagos ABC, Sunday, 5-6 p.m. Documentary featuring author Peter Benchley and photographer Paul Humann. He's photographed sea life the world over - and won international renown for it - but Paul Humann says if he had to choose one place for his last dive, it would be the Galapagos Islands. No one who sees this dazzling documentary will wonder why. Sometimes it's actually hard to absorb the kaleidoscopic world of color and form explored by Humann and ``Jaws'' author Peter Benchley, who narrates the program.

For some 150 years - since Darwin started studying animals there - science has been noting marvels of evolution among land creatures in isolation on the Galapagos, situated 600 miles in the Pacific off Equador. But marine evolution has also been performing virtuoso feats. Humann takes Benchley to some of the prime sites and finds an embarrassment of photographic riches. Each one is a revelation, says Benchley, who sometimes has to avoid being scalped by little fish for whom he seemed a free lunch.

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In noting the wondrous variety achieved by what it calls ``the ingenuity of nature,'' the show happily avoids the gee-whiz tone sometimes found in documentaries that feel nature needs a little production hype to keep viewers involved. Benchley's narration is generally low-key and credible sounding, letting the footage itself provide a feeling of exploration in the old-fashioned sense rare today.

Throughout the show you see the two men swimming in a surreal world - making friends with gaping-mouthed moray eels and penguins (yes, penguins on the Equator - the Galapagos species). The swimmers' encounter with sperm whales - who still live what Herman Melville called an ``unwritten life'' - is sheer wonder. A whale calf, for instance, swims toward the men for a close look before joining his mother.

Humans aren't used to seeing creatures this large in motion, and the image of the giant forms in slow-motion underwater pantomime stays in the mind's eye long afterward. So does the unjaded attitude of the Galapagos sea life, unused to human company. They are inquisitive - even brazen sometimes, but not aggressive - and often treat their clumsy land visitors as no more than a curious nuisance factor.

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