My plane left Quito early in the morning, and – despite a delay in Guayaquil – our wheels touched down in the Galapagos Islands before noon. There aren’t too many situations that still give me the “Kid on Christmas Eve” feeling, but as the plane landed I might as well have been a five-year-old straining to hear the clip-clop of reindeer hooves on the roof. I peered wide-eyed out the window, eagerly anticipating my first Blue-footed Booby sighting.
For the next seven nights I would be touring the islands on the Estrella del Mar, a 16-passenger boat rated First Class, which made it a clear step up from the bare bones Sulidae, my boat when I visited the Galapagos in 2001, and the Tourist Class Guantanamera, my boat in 2008. Enrique, the Estrella del Mar’s naturalist guide, met me and four other passengers at the Baltra airport (which, incidentally, was built by the U.S. military during World War Two). We took a bus to the narrow channel separating Baltra from Santa Cruz, rode a ferry across, and then made the 45-minute drive from the north side of the island to Puerto Ayora, the Galapagos’ largest city, where the Estrella del Mar was waiting.
Our boat, surprisingly, would only be half full for several days, which helped me understand why I was able to get such a good last-minute deal. Three passengers had already been on board for five days: Jerry and Maria, a father and daughter from Massachusetts, and Matti, a solo traveler from Finland. Arriving with me on the plane was a family of four from Mexico. The two parents – Fernando and Lorena – were taking their young sons – Fernando Jr. and Alejandro – on a six-week trip around South America, with the Galapagos as their first stop.
We hardly had time to shake hands before Matti yelled “Shark!” and pointed to the water near the boat. Two shark-like fins were in fact sticking out of the water, but it was a manta ray – the first I’d ever seen. It glided through the water in slow circles before fading from view. I guessed that if my dad had been with us he would have wondered aloud how much Galapagos National Park had to pay the manta ray to welcome us to the islands.
We ate a quick lunch before returning to Puerto Ayora to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station. As we walked I fell into conversation with Fernando. “My wife wanted to sell the house and travel for a full year,” he told me in fluent English. “But I was too scared. We decided to test the water first with this trip.”
Enrique stopped us at the entrance to the Charles Darwin Research Station. “There are really two organizations that work together to study and protect the islands,” he explained. “It is a partnership. The Charles Darwin Research Station is like the brain, and Galapagos National Park is like the hands.” The CDRS also serves as a home and rehabilitation center for a variety of Galapagos tortoises, including 100-year-old local celebrity Lonesome George – the last known tortoise of the Pinta Island subspecies.
As we walked through the CDRS, Alejandro, Fernando and Lorena’s youngest son, lost his balance and reached out to grab the nearest source of stabilization, which, unfortunately, turned out to be a cactus. Fernando had to remove 30 spines from Alejandro’s hand. But at no point did Alejando complain or whine. Both he and his brother were unfailingly well-behaved and positive, and they genuinely seemed to appreciate the fact that they were in a special place.
After visiting the station we had some time in town before returning to the boat. I stopped by Puerto Ayora’s small seafood market, where fish of all sizes are killed, cleaned, and sold in a simple wooden hut. The place is always crowded with pelicans and sea lions that enthusiastically dispose of any cast-off entrails.
Puerto Ayora’s Fish Market in the Galapagos Islands (Video)
At dinner I sat with Jerry, Maria, and Matti. Jerry, who at first impression struck me as cerebral, reserved, and methodical, appropriately enough turned out to be a scientist for a biotech company outside of Boston. His daughter Maria had just graduated from high school and would be heading to Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the fall. Given that the Boston Bruins had recently won the Stanley Cup, I asked Jerry and Maria if they followed hockey. “Yes, I do,” said Jerry, “but fighting is ruining the game.”
“Have you seen the movie Slap Shot?” I asked.
Matti jumped in before Jerry could answer. “Zat ess gret movie!” he gushed in his strong Finnish accent. “Zee Hanson Brothers!” How can a Finn making a Hanson Brothers reference at the start of a Galapagos trip be interpreted as anything other than a very good omen?
A half-empty boat meant I was treated to the unexpected luxury of my own cabin. I fell asleep to the rhythmic rocking of the waves and the low rumble of the engine as we began our overnight journey from Santa Cruz to North Seymour.
Day 2 – North Seymour and Bartolome
I woke up well before sunrise, too excited to sleep. Armed with my camera and iPod I climbed to the small observation deck at the top of the boat. The dim outline of North Seymour was just becoming visible on the horizon. Frigatebirds soared overhead, still only silhouettes against the blue-black sky. What I saw and heard and felt, but most of all the distinctive smell of the Galapagos – sea air, volcanic earth, bird feathers, prickly pear cactus and mangrove trees – triggered a rush of memories from my previous visits, almost every morning spent identically, alone at the top of the boat in the endless hour before dawn.
After breakfast we took the panga (a zodiac-like motorboat used for transferring people and supplies to and from the larger boat) to North Seymour, a tiny island just north of Santa Cruz. Waiting for us on the rocky steps of the primitive dock was a baby sea lion that, in keeping with the Galapagos wildlife’s famous indifference to the presence of humans, showed no fear as we disembarked on its doorstep.
Distracted by all the photo opportunities on the island, I stepped directly in a large pile of sea lion crap just before hopping back aboard the panga. “Rob, no!” cried Enrique. Too late. Several dark brown footprints decorated the bottom of the boat. My popularity with the crew, not particularly high to begin with, plummeted. Days later the panga driver was still giving me the evil eye.
Later that morning we left on our first snorkeling trip. The underwater experience in the Galapagos is as incredible as anything on the surface. Three major ocean currents – the Humboldt, Cromwell, and Panama – converge on the Galapagos, giving the islands an unusually rich variety of marine life. On any given day you might find yourself swimming with sharks, sea lions, rays, moral eels, sea turtles, or penguins. The exact moment I became hopelessly smitten with the Galapagos occurred as I was snorkeling in 2001: a sea lion swam right up and touched its face to mine. Just above my mask I could feel individual whiskers pressing against my forehead.
We didn’t find any sea lions off North Seymour that morning, but we did spot a white-tipped reef shark cruising slowly along the ocean floor. Sharks in the Galapagos don’t tend to be aggressive towards humans, and guides are fond of dragging out the old saw, “They’re more scared of you than you are of them.”
White-Tipped Reef Shark at North Seymour (Video)
After lunch we motored from North Seymour to Bartolome, joined briefly by several dolphins. As soon as we arrived at the island we headed out to snorkel in the bay next to the iconic Pinnacle Rock. I remembered that I’d once seen penguins on a particular outcrop of stones, and despite the passing of several years I found them in the exact same spot. Water had condensed on the lens of my underwater video camera (a problem that plagued me the entire week), but I managed to get a cloudy shot of one of the penguins as it hopped into the water next to me and swam away.
Penguin Swimming at Bartolome (Video)
Baby Shark at Bartolome (Video)
In the late afternoon we rode the (recently-cleaned) panga back to Bartolome and climbed up a hill for the classic view of Pinnacle Rock.