I didn’t realize how many preconceived notions I had about the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. When I booked my trip, I was looking forward to seeing animals, sea life and a few birds in their natural habitat, but I wasn’t prepared for the vast numbers of sea lions, marine iguanas, as well as the great variety of spectacular birds.
I imagined the islands to be low and plain but was thrown by their jaw-dropping beauty, each one so completely different than the previous one. There were views of jagged coastlines, with waves crashing against rocks on islands consisting of little more than lava rock, and no other island life visible besides our small tour group. Every morning, our guide told us that we were going to see one of the most beautiful islands, and our group chorused back asking how that was possible when we saw the most beautiful the day before, and the day before that.
Traveling by ship is the best way to see the magnificent Galapagos Islands and the smaller the ship, the better. In the highly regulated Galapagos National Park, smaller vessels are given access to more islands. I travelled through them on the Ecoventura line’s 67-ft, 20-passenger motor yacht Eric. Our itinerary for the seven-night journey took us first to Genovesa in the north, then east to Fernandina – a relatively young island at half a million years old. We then worked westward through successively older islands back to San Cristobal, crossing the equator four times.
The Galapagos Islands sit atop the equator – an archipelago of volcanic peaks spread across 50,000 square miles from stark Fernandina to relatively fertile Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal. They are separated from the mainland of South America by 600 miles of very deep water and lie at the confluence of marine currents from the Antarctic, equatorial Pacific and South American coast. The hot and cold water temperatures give rise to a wild diversity of habitats and creatures adapted to them.
Did you know that the animals ignore human visitors unless you get too close. Any month is good to visit, but October is particularly special because of all the newborns and hatchlings we saw. We snorkeled with penguins, white-tipped sharks, sea turtles and sea lions; we came face to face with many giant tortoises – signature animals of the islands. We stepped into a veritable maternity ward of sea lions nursing their newborns.
Ambling along the shoreline of Santiago, we came across fur sea lions, a species once on the verge of extinction. The many animals and exotic birds took my breath away time and time again, and reduced me to tears on more than one occasion. A flood of marine iguanas lounging lazily in the sun blended into the landscape so well so you had to step carefully to avoid stepping on them or their droppings. Hundreds of dolphins swam alongside our ship one evening. On another day, as we crossed the Bolivar Channel, we spotted seven Bryde whales just off the bow. We hiked along ancient lava tunnels and felt like explorers going back to the beginning of time.
Snorkeling was a focal point of the trip – even for the water shy, who soon were enraptured by the colourful inhabitants of the crystal clear water: angel fish, parrot fish, yellow tailed graits, surgeon fish, sea urchins, white-tipped reef sharks , sting rays, and chocolate-chip star fish (yes, that is their name). Currents from the Antarctic, called the Humbolt current accounted for the frigid water and the delightfully tiny Galapagos penguins.
As Santiago Dunn, President of Ecoventura says, “Galapagos is the type of place where nature and simplicity rule and less is often more.” We saw signs reminding us, “Be prepared to leave only your footprints and only take away photographs and memories.” We have many of both.
We cruised aboard the Eric, a 67-foot motor yacht built in 1990 in Guayaquil, cruising a total of 424 nautical miles, mostly overnight, at an average speed of seven knots.
My trip was sponsored by the tour company Ecoventura. The company has a fleet of three small ships and is Ecuador’s first carbon-neutral company.