At the halfway point of our boat tour on the Monserrat we said goodbye to eight passengers and added nine new ones: a French couple, a Canadian couple, a German couple, a French woman traveling alone, and a mother and daughter who defied easy categorization. The mother, Susanna, was born in Japan, grew up in Paraguay, married a Scandinavian, and now spent time in Italy, Austria, and Finland. Her daughter, Marina, grew up in Singapore, recently graduated from college in the US, and worked in New York City.
Our group had grown to 17 people, which – according to Galapagos National Park rules – meant we needed a second naturalist guide. Our original guide, Rafael, was older, low-energy, and methodical. We liked Rafael, but his nightly briefings about the next day’s agenda seemed to drag on forever. The new guide, Leonidas, was younger, high-energy, and less conventional. At Leonidas’ first nightly briefing he demonstrated the basics of Salsa dancing and still had us out of there in 20 minutes.
Rafael and Leonidas didn’t seem to get along particularly well. They decided to split us into two fixed groups for most of our excursions, with Rafael leading the OG passengers who’d been aboard for a few days (including me and Marie) and Leonidas taking the newcomers.
On our first afternoon with the new group we stayed at Santa Cruz for a walk on Bachas Beach, and that night we motored to the northern part of Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos islands. “Dolphins!’ someone shouted early the next morning. A pod of more than 50 dolphins had appeared nearby. They were moving fast and many were leaping completely out of the water. The captain turned our boat to follow them for a while.
Later that morning we explored Isabela’s Tagus Cove on foot, on dinghies, and in the water. We saw a bunch of penguins and had our first look at the flightless cormorant, endemic to the Galapagos. While snorkeling I watched a penguin playing with a minnow as several flightless cormorants darted through the water in search of prey.
February is rainy season in the Galapagos, and that afternoon we found ourselves in the middle of a downpour. We busted out our rain jackets for a wet walk around Urbina Bay, where we saw several wild Giant Tortoises. The rain was heavy enough that I had to refrain from using my camera for the first time on the trip. (It was traumatic but I survived.)
The next morning we anchored at Fernandina, the island I was most excited to see. Fernandina is the youngest and westernmost island in the Galapagos, and, like Genovesa, it’s far enough away from the Galapagos population centers that overnight boat tours are the only way to visit. Other than a single site – Punta Espinosa – the island is preserved in its natural state.
We headed to Punta Espinosa after breakfast. It’s one of the best places to see the Galapagos hawk, and I had my fingers crossed that we’d find one, ideally close enough for a photo. Turns out I didn’t need to worry. Soon after we started our walk we spotted a hawk up in a tree, and a little later we found another hawk drying its wings on a log by the trail. I could hardly believe our luck when a third hawk flew over to the carcass of a marine iguana it had killed earlier and began to feed.
Around that same time Melissa, one of the OG passengers, spotted a Galapagos snake slithering over some volcanic rocks, and I managed to get a decent shot before Rafael approached too closely and spooked it.
Snorkeling that day was one of the trip’s highlights. In the morning we watched marine iguanas feeding on underwater vegetation while penguins, flightless cormorants, sea lions, and sea turtles swam nearby. Snorkeling again in the afternoon was even more fun. Four sea lions were in a playful mood and spent quite a bit of time interacting with us. I loved every second of it.
Eating three meals a day with people we’d only recently met grew more challenging as the trip progressed. As an introvert, I particularly struggle with people who like to talk but seem uninterested in asking questions or listening. Susanna and Marina, thankfully, were the opposite. They asked thoughtful questions, actually listened, and then helped steer the conversation towards things that interested all of us. It feels odd to call out such a seemingly basic thing, but it happens so infrequently that I’m impressed and grateful when it does. At first we made an effort to get to know all the other passengers, but eventually we found ourselves trying to sit with Susanna and Marina or Melissa and her father at every meal.
The following morning we walked around Egas Bay on the island of Santiago and then went snorkeling. Visibility was poor during that first snorkeling session, but conditions were better in the afternoon and we stumbled across a school of more than 30 whitetip reef sharks. It was a rush. I’d never seen so many sharks in one place before.
The next day was our last on the boat. We did a morning walk on North Seymour, where Marie spotted a Galapagos snake attacking a lava lizard and called out to let me know. I caught the very end of the amazing scene, but unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough to get any photos.
After North Seymour we returned to the Monserrat to eat breakfast and pack up our gear. A dinghy took us to a dock near the Baltra airport, and by mid-day we were back at our apartment in Puerto Ayora. The trip had worn us out, but we felt really lucky to have had such a great time, and equally lucky that we still had two weeks left in the Galapagos.