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Wildlife with its Own Agenda
But oh what a nature visit it is! The problem in touring the Galapagos is not getting good photos; the problem is deciding which ones to delete. I am glad I heeded Angermeyer’s pre-trip advice to “bring extra memory cards for the camera.” I’m also glad our cabin has an outlet for frequently recharging the battery.
It’s hard to anticipate the thrill of being right next to sea lions rolling around on the beach or having a baby one look directly into your mask as you are swimming along the rocky shore. I’ve been on snorkeling jaunts where seeing a sea turtle 30 meters away is a cause for celebration, but here it’s not unusual to have four or five swim so close their shell almost grazes your stomach. You can look an iguana in the eye and have a blinking contest—though look out, he might sneeze seawater on you.
We have the requisite nature talks to figure out how these unique Galapagos creatures evolved, and in the case of giant tortoises, how their population is being restored by the Darwin Foundation. The workers there gather up eggs, hatch them, and take care of the babies for four years. After that they are returned to the wild, where they are now big and sturdy enough to survive on their own.
Visitors are not allowed into the secluded areas of other islands where they roam, free of people, but we do get to see them in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, ten minutes up the road from the Darwin Center and the main population center of Puerto Ayora. The beasts—who can reach up to 660 pounds (300 kilos)—lumber around pastures and fields of flowers, eating anything and everything green. For the most part they grudgingly put up with the daily parade of visitors, just drawing their heads into the big shells if anyone gets closer than the tortoises would like.
Approaching Española in our panga boat on another excursion we see what looks like a beach punctuated by black boulders. As we get closer we realize what they really are: hundreds of sea lions. They bark, they roll around in the surf, and mostly they just lie around in the sun. On the real rocks the bright red and yellow Sally Lightfoot crabs are like a moving collection of paint splotches.
On the other side of this island we hike past a rocky field used as a landing strip by the waved albatross, a bird that spends years at sea when young then comes back here to mate, lay eggs, and raise the next generation. The dramatic cliffs here are beautiful, with sea spray coming up through blowholes in the rock and turning rainbow colors in the sun. Occasionally an ungainly albatross leaps off a cliff to go flying. We almost trip over a Blue-footed Booby mother and her young chicks. Even she looks at us without a hint of alarm, like we are just another stream of those odd two-legged creatures with cameras permanently attached to their arms.
Our ship covers a lot of territory during the eight–day sailing and the itinerary takes us to harbors where we only see three or four other boats. The terrain is as varied as the animals. On Isabela Island I am glad I packed a pair of leather Keen shoes with a thick rubber tread: our trail goes through a barren landscape of sharp lava rock, just occasionally punctuated by a seawater pool surrounded by grasses or bushes—one of them populated by a flock of flamingos.
On one typically fantastic day, a dawn hike on Floreana Island brings flamingos wading on a perfectly still salt flat pond, plus rays we can see from the beach while a heron saunters by. A baby sea lion exits the surf, looks us over, then ambles up and smells a few legs and feet. Satisfied, it continues up the beach.
Porpoises swim past while we have breakfast back on the ship, then we venture out to where they passed and go snorkel at the Devil’s Crown rock formation. We see a Galapagos shark, a horn shark, a diamond stingray, and a whole host of wrasses, angelfish, and trigger fish.
The Sailing Ship Experience
After lunch the same day we stop at Post Office Bay, where sailors use to leave letters they hoped someone else would deliver to distant lands. Today the tradition continues, working better than the Ecuadorian postal service (which charges US$2 and up just to send a postcard abroad). I grab a postcard to deliver to someone’s parents in Virginia, where I’ll be passing through during the upcoming holidays. My mother-in-law receives our postcard in less than a month after our visit.
Back on the ship the sails have been hoisted and we sail into the sunset, the sleek Mary Anne racing along beside us. Unfortunately this is the only day the sails go up, the one big disappointment for some of us. The schedule is too packed for us to move around on wind power, especially on our ship. While the Mary Anne was once a true sailing ship (looking much like the one Darwin rode in the mid-1800s), ours is really a reconfigured cargo boat with masts. Those booking for the future will have the opportunity to go on the Mandalay, which used to be part of the now–gone Windjammer fleet. It’s all a bit theatrical since the motor is running along with the sail for the Sagitta, but romantic nevertheless, especially when we try chasing a big whale that is blowing water out of its spout in the distance.
In between various shore visits and snorkeling jaunts, we eat and laze around on the deck. Our shipmates read books, chat, and have a few drinks now and then—a perfect mix of stimulation and plain old vacation downtime.
After a week of wandering among marine iguanas and sea lions, swimming with sea turtles, and watching frigate birds and boobies flying overhead, it’s time to leave this beautiful natural laboratory and return to the world of asphalt and strip malls.
I see there’s a reason these animals are fearless in their island paradise, while their counterparts in the civilized world are very, very afraid. I’m happy I’ve gotten to spend time in this place that defies expectations, a place that proves it’s still possible to be delighted and surprised.
Book this trip through Andando Tours
Story and photos by Timothy Scott.
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