Galapagos Boat Tour, Part 1

Having never been on a big-boat cruise, my primary point of reference for that kind of experience is the classic 70s/80s TV show The Love Boat, where passengers played shuffleboard on the Lido Deck, dressed formally for dinner at the captain’s table, and mingled with hundreds of other people who never left the boat.  It’s possible, therefore, that my perspective is a little warped, but I feel pretty confident that boat life in the Galapagos bears little resemblance to a traditional cruise.

An obvious difference is the size of the boat.  There are notable exceptions, but most Galapagos boats only carry 16 passengers (thanks, in part, to a Galapagos National Park rule that visitors must be accompanied by a certified guide, and that a guide can be responsible for no more than 16 people).

Another big difference is the routine.  A normal day on a Galapagos boat is pretty active, with two island hikes and two snorkeling sessions.  Passengers wear swimsuits and sun hoodies instead of suits and dresses.  There’s a naturalist guide instead of a cruise director.  And with your free time you’re more likely to be looking for whales and dolphins than playing shuffleboard.

Before this trip I’d been on four Galapagos boat tours and loved them all.  Marie and I had really enjoyed our first week on land in Puerto Ayora, but we were both excited to get out on the water.  The last-minute deal we found was for a week-long trip on a boat called the Monserrat, which looked nice and had an ideal itinerary, including stops at two of the less-commonly-visited islands, Genovesa and Fernandina.

A dinghy picked us up at Puerto Ayora’s main dock and took us to the Monserrat.  Almost immediately we met two passengers who’d already been on board for a few days – Richard and Mona, an older couple from Colorado.  Richard was red-faced and barrel-chested.  “How has your trip been?” I asked.

“Hot!” Richard barked.  “The heat here really saps your energy.”

Momentarily daunted, I decided to try again.  “What’s been the highlight so far?”

“The air conditioning,” Richard said with a scowl.  I started to laugh, assuming he was joking.  He wasn’t joking.  Marie and I exchanged looks.  Thankfully, while waiting to board the Monserrat we’d met a father and daughter from South Carolina, Larry and Melissa, two fellow passengers who seemed great, so we knew we weren’t stuck with a boat full of Richards.

That afternoon we left the Monserrat for our first outing, which, ironically, was a return to Puerto Ayora for a ride to the El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve in the Santa Cruz highlands.  Marie and I had already visited the reserve back in 2019, but I always enjoy trying to get good shots of the tortoises.


Giant Tortoise at El Chato Reserve


Giant Tortoise in the Muck Portrait


After the reserve we visited a nearby lava tunnel.  We descended a long staircase to the tunnel’s dark entrance, where Richard promptly tripped on a rock and wiped out.  Everyone raced over to help him up.  “I’m fine!” Richard insisted, despite the blood streaming from his arms and legs.  Rafael, our guide, broke out a first aid kit and patched him up.  The bandages Rafael applied overlapped with numerous bandages from previous cuts, giving Richard the appearance of being fully dressed in Band-Aids.

“I don’t think Richard is having a good trip,” I whispered to Marie.

The next morning I woke up early to watch the sun rise, a habit I repeated our entire tour.  Several frigatebirds soared alongside the boat, gliding effortlessly on updrafts.  They sometimes matched our speed so perfectly that they seemed motionless.


Frigatebird Flying by the Boat at Sunrise


After breakfast we visited Dragon Hill on the northern side of Santa Cruz, where a large land iguana almost ran me off the trail.  That afternoon we moved on to a site called Sombrero Chino (Chinese Hat) on the island of Santiago.  While snorkeling there we had a chance to watch two Galapagos penguins chasing a school of small fish.  It was amazing to see them in action, and I can’t get over how fast and agile they are in the water.


Land Iguana Coming In Hot


Flamingo Feeding at Dragon Hill


Baby Land Iguana on Dragon Hill


Marine Iguana Swimming by a Flamingo at Dragon Hill


Sea Lion Mom and Child Touching Noses


Galapagos Penguin Mighty Roar


Baby Fur Seal and Sally Lightfoot Crab


Oystercatcher with Sally Lightfoot Crabs



The next morning we reached Genovesa, arguably the best island in the Galapagos for bird-watching.  On Genovesa you can find Red-footed Boobies, which are rare on most other islands, as well as the endemic Galapagos short-eared owl.  Spotting an owl is far from guaranteed, but we were lucky enough to see several.


Red-footed Booby Preparing to Take Off


Galapagos Short-eared Owl Hunting on Genovesa


Young Genovesa Booby Straight-on Close-up Portrait


Galapagos Short-eared Owl Drying Its Wings on Genovesa


Later while snorkeling we ran across four large hammerhead sharks.  I’d seen a hammerhead on a previous visit, but this encounter was much closer, with better visibility.  I know that sharks in the Galapagos essentially never attack people, but it’s still a little spine-tingling to see several hammerheads swimming towards you.



Nazca Booby Straight-on Portrait at Genovesa


Swallow-Tailed Gull in Flight


Night Heron Drying Its Wings on Genovesa


Red-billed Tropicbird in Flight


Pensive Baby Booby on Genovesa


Swallow-Tailed Gull Family on Genovesa


Young Heron on Genovesa


Back on the Monserrat we were getting to know our fellow passengers.  The dining room only had four-person booths, so we ate every meal with another couple.  In addition to Richard, Mona, Larry, and Melissa, our group included two retired couples from the UK, two guys – both hydrologists – from (coincidentally) Montana, two 20-something Swiss women, and a husband and wife from Seattle.

Everyone was nice, and that included Richard.  Underneath Richard’s old-school curmudgeonly bluster I think he was actually a good guy that had been expecting more of a Love Boat kind of cruise and wasn’t adjusting well.  There’s an ironic dynamic with Galapagos boat tours – because they’re expensive the people who take them tend to be older and less active, but the experience is much more enjoyable when you’re still spry enough to snorkel, jump on and off heaving dinghies, and hike over rocky terrain.

The next morning we returned to Santa Cruz and headed out on the dinghies for a look around Black Turtle Cove.  There were sea turtles everywhere, including a mating couple.


Sea Turtle PDA at Black Turtle Cove


As we navigated around the cove I noticed a small brown shape hanging from a mangrove branch.  “Are there bats here?” I asked Rafael.

“Yes, we have bats.”  He confirmed that they’re small and brown.

We’d only just passed the brown shape I thought might be a bat, so I asked if we could go back for another look.  “It’s either a bat or a dead leaf,” I said.

The dinghy driver turned us around, and through my camera lens I got a better look at the brown shape.  “It’s…  a dead leaf,” I said, prompting a round of laughter at my expense.

“We went through all that just for that?” scoffed Richard.

After our dinghy ride it was time to swap out some of the passengers.  We were losing Richard and Mona, the Swiss women, the Montana guys, and the Seattle couple, and we’d be adding nine new passengers.  Rafael gave us the option to spend an hour or two at a nearby beach during the passenger swap, and Marie, Melissa and I jumped at the chance.  “It’s a nice beach but the snorkeling is no good,” Rafael informed us.

I decided to take my snorkeling mask anyway, just in case, and I was really glad I did.  In shallow water off one end of the beach I counted at least 16 sea turtles.  Blue-footed boobies and pelicans hunted just off shore, ghost crabs peeked out of holes in the sand, and land iguanas shuffled around a group of old military buildings bordering the beach.  It was an awesome way to end the first half of our boat trip.


Pelican in Flight at Baltra Beach


Galapagos Ghost Crab Emerging from Its Lair


Blue-footed Booby Skimming the Water

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