An account of a cruise through the Galápagos Islands aboard a deluxe yacht, including snorkeling, nature walks, and diving.
"You have been baptized with the name of...(drum roll please)...Bottlenosed Dolphin!" The captain’s baritone echoing throughout the lounge area, I rose to accept my award certificate, indicating not only my new Galápagos nom de guerre but recording the fact that I had crossed the equator several times under the watchful eyes of Neptune. Feeling lucky to have been so honored with the name of such a sleek and intelligent animal, I felt a measure of solidarity with the smiling crew. After all, I could have been dubbed "Lava Lizard" or "Rice Rat."
The naming ceremony concluded my stay aboard the M/Y Letty, a luxury yacht plying the fertile waters of the Galápagos Islands, the famed evolutionary laboratory straddling the equator 1000 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador. Our trip, run by the Ecoventura, a company exclusively dedicated to the Galápagos, was the perfect one-week introduction to this amazingly unique place where certain reptiles swim in the sea and certain birds cannot fly. Not only did the itinerary provide a welcome exposure to the varied islands and ecosystems that comprise the archipelago, but the boat and crew helped us do it in style, with quality meals, a fun atmosphere, and comfortable accommodations.
Each day, we would rise early, eat breakfast on board, and then leave by 8:15am for a shore excursion to a new island. Once on land (following either a wet or dry landing by panga), the two on-board naturalists would give a talk about the local wildlife and geology--as was often the case, the islands’ unique environment helped determine the evolutionary pathways that have made the native and endemic wildlife famous. Since 97% of the islands are protected as a national park, all visitors must use designated landings, stay on marked paths and be accompanied by a naturalist. In our case, Renato and Malena provided the insight of endemic Galapaguenos on our nature walks. Afterwards, we typically donned our wetsuits, masks and snorkels for a swim among the plentiful marine life just offshore, including seas turtles, marine iguanas, surgeonfish, barracuda, damselfish, parrotfish, angelfish, stingrays, and the occasional shark. Although the Galápagos lie abreast of the equator, the cold Humbolt and Cromwell currents keep seawater temperatures relatively cool throughout the year--you’ll probably want a 7m wetsuit May through November and a 3-5mm suit during the summer months of December through April.
Back on board for lunch, we would cruise to a nearby island or point of interest, and repeat the process in the afternoon. By late afternoon, we’d again be back on board, enjoying a sundowner cocktail on the roof terrace and then going over the next day’s plan with Renato or Malena. It was the perfect balance between relaxation and activity, and designed to appeal to those who are legitimately interested in seeing and learning about all that the Galápagos have to offer, but also wouldn’t mind a bit of downtime during their vacation.
The week-long itinerary included most of the key islands, including Genovesa, Santiago, Isabela, Fernandina, Seymour, and Santa Cruz. Each offered a slightly unique land and/or marine environment, and each featured different species, showcasing the process of evolution and adaptation at work. Whether it was the largest marine iguanas, abundant sea turtles, flightless cormorants and recent lava flows of Fernandina, the red-footed boobies and warm-water marine life of Genovesa, the huge volcanic cones of Isabela, the fur sea lions of Santiago, the frigatebirds of Seymour, or the giant tortoises of Santa Cruz, the islands’ yielded their natural bounty so readily to us, who were only casual visitors. Without an instinctual fear of humans borne out of millennia of predation, the animals of the Galápagos are more likely to completely ignore you as you walk by than to run or fly away.
On many islands, endemic plants and animals have been severely strained by the introduction of non-native species, to the point where several species and sub-species have become extinct or are nearly so. Feral goats and pigs, rats and other introduced animals destroy critical vegetation, while non-native plants outcompete endemic species for precious water, sunlight, and nutrients. The situation of native and endemic species is even more precarious with the growth of commercial fishing in the Galápagos by Ecuadorian immigrants and illegal foreign vessels alike. Eradication campaigns have enjoyed some success on certain islands, paving the way for recovery, but it’s an uphill struggle. The entire saga just goes to show what can happen when the hand of man interferes with the natural process of evolution.
If you’re like many of our readers, you might be worried that a cruise through the Galápagos means sharing a large boat with a hundred somewhat geriatric companions wearing excessively dark glasses, plaid shorts with knee-high socks, and with more hair in their ears than on their head. Luckily, the group on the Letty quickly allayed any such fears. Not only did the boat only hold 20 passengers (plus 10 crew members), but the vast majority of my fellow travelers and wildlife buffs were young and interesting, ranging from a honeymooning couple in their late twenties, to a father and his teenage son, to a thirtysomething couple from France, to a pair of travel agents. Although the Galápagos could never be confused with a party destination, socializing provided a welcome interlude between the snorkeling, hiking, and other terra firma activities.
With regret, I chose to leave the Letty a day early in Puerto Ayora, the main hub on San Cristóbal, in order to dive the following day. I spent the day on the island with the group, checking out the Charles Darwin Center (an independent non-profit dedicated to research and conservation in the Galápagos), the giant tortoises in the misty highlands, and an enormous lava tube, before returning to town and saying my goodbyes. Dinner was on the main drag before I rested up for the next day’s trip.
The following day, I joined with a few other guests from the Letty who had also elected to dive, and we set out with the dive operator for a spot several hours north called Cousins Rock. While we did manage to play with several sea lions and see a turtle and shark or two, the visibility was average to poor, and the marine life was not plentiful. The second dive at a rock island called Daphne Minor was even less appealing. The only thing that made up for the below-average diving was the long boat ride out and back amid large swells, pitching the boat back and forth and side to side. Or not.
Despite this, we managed to enjoy ourselves and rounded out the week with a Halloween buffet at the Angermeyer Hotel, reached by a short panga ride from the town dock. Although it was a bit of a shock to the system to see such bounty and so many people after the relative barrenness and isolation of the other islands, we managed to enjoy ourselves as the Latin pop band crooned away. As the sounds wafted through the misty night air, I marveled at the way humans had managed to carve out a space in this difficult speck of land. I just hoped that the space they created would remain the exception rather than the rule in a place as special as the Galápagos.
The Galápagos Network is the U.S.-based sales operation for Ecoventura (www.ecoventura.com). They run 3 excellent boats in the Galápagos, including the Letty, the Flamingo, and the Eric, each holding 20 passengers and 10 crew. Prices range from $1,475 for a lower deck cabin on a 6 day/5 night cruise in the low season (May-Oct) to $2,645 for an upper deck cabin on a 8 day/7 night cruise in the high season (Nov-May), with a few date ranges priced independently. Their boats and itineraries are ideal for anyone who wants combine affordability with comfort and relative luxury and who prefers smaller, more intimate boats to cruise ship monstrosities. For dedicated divers, they also offer live-aboard trip aboard the Sky Dancer, a 16-passenger 100-foot boat that heads north to Darwin and Wolf islands, where schools of hammerheads, manta rays and other large pelagics ply the waters. They can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 305/262-6264.
In Puerto Ayora, the Hotel Galápagos is a pleasant place to base yourself for several days before or after your cruise. Owner Jack Nelson doubles as the U.S. Consulate’s representative on the islands, so his hotel is a handy place to be should you come down with some exotic disease or lose your passport. He also runs a well-regarded PADI-certified dive operation called Scuba Iguana of out of the hotel, plus additional land tours. For information, visit www.hotelgalapagos.com. Rates start at around $100.