By Ann Banks
“That is not a seal!” said our guide Ceci, in her mockstern-teacher voice. “That is a sea lion. Does anyone know how to tell the difference?” I looked around. It was the first shore excursion of our Galapagos cruise and we passengers on the MY Ericwere just getting acquainted.
Someone did know: Chad –who, with his oversized canary-yellow sunglass frames and black sneakers with matching yellow shoelaces, was easily the hippest looking of our group. He’d majored in biology, it turned out, and could effortlessly reel off sentences like, “Speciation occurs when…”
“Sea lions,” he said, “have ears.”
A few days later, it was hard to believe that I’d been ignorant of this fundamental feature of my new favorite mammal. Or that I’d associated bird-watching with boredom. (Their sex lives alone!) Or that I’d thought of evolution by natural selection as an abstract scientific concept, not as a process whose effects were wonderfully manifest right before my eyes – bird beak by bird beak, cactus spine by cactus spine. My week on the Eric turned me into a much more acute observer of nature.
The Galapagos archipelago is one of the most physically remote spots on earth — a group of 15 main islands and many smaller ones, directly on the Equator, about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, to which they belong.
It is that very isolation that put these islands on the map, so to speak, ensuring their place in the history of science. In 1835, the young Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos on a research expedition, and the islands provided him with the key puzzle pieces for his theory that species are not fixed, but transform over time to fit their particular environment.
In the Galapagos, Darwin wrote, “we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact–that mystery of mysteries–the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”
Ninety percent Natural Park
More than 90 percent of the land area of the Galapagos has been set aside as a national park, and although hundreds of tour boats ply the islands, they do so under strict conditions designed to protect the fragile ecosystem. I was fortunate to travel with Ecoventura, a family-owned, small-ship cruise company with a dedication to the environment that goes beyond the minimum requirements.
We encountered other tour boats, but thanks to deft time-management by our guides we had the places to ourselves more often than not. There were 20 of us on board the Ericand during our twice-daily walks we split up into groups of ten, comparing notes on our sightings back on board. (“Did you spot the baby frigate bird pretending to fly?”)
My fellow passengers on the Eric ranged in age from 20’s to 70’s. Despite the generational disparities, we bonded with one another and with our two naturalist guides, Yvonne Mortola, and Cecibel Guerrero. Yvonne and Ceci were knowledgeable about the Park, highly entertaining and impossible to stump.
Ceci is a natural comic, and she liked to intersperse her remarks with imitations of the animal she was describing – on one occasion, cocking her head to one side and hopping up and down to impersonate a finch. Our guides’ passion for their subject matter was contagious, and before long we all were eagerly absorbing some elementary fauna facts, like why the Galapagos gull is nocturnal (less hunting competition), how the Magnificent Frigate Bird attracts a mate (by inflating a red balloon-like sac in his neck), and what marine iguanas do to keep themselves warm (snuggle up with one another).
These last were the same iguanas that had so disgusted Darwin when he visited. Browsing through his account of the trip in “The Voyage of the Beagle,” I found his uncharitable description of them as “hideous reptiles” and “stupid and sluggish.”
Reptilian they are. Motionless as statues and the same sooty shade as the lava rock they bask on in great untidy piles, the marine iguanas blend so perfectly into the terrain that it was hard to avoid tripping over them.
Cries of “Watch out for the iguana!” punctuated most of our walks, and I had the fanciful notion that in some wacky version of natural selection these creatures might have evolved specifically to be stepped on by tourists.
Everyone who has written about the Galapagos, from the Bishop of Panama, who discovered the islands by accident in 1535, to Darwin, to Herman Melville to the great naturalist William Beebe, has remarked on the strangeness and tameness of the wildlife. I found that encountering this strangeness and tameness face-to-face brought on a curious Alice-in-Wonderland feeling.
Was that really me, holding the steady and interested gaze of a nesting red-footed booby who was so close I could reach out and touch her? This is strictly forbidden, of course. The rule is to stay six feet away from all wildlife.
Genovesa, the second island we visited, was alive with birds. Swallow-tailed gulls, doves, great frigate birds with their downy-headed chicks, mockingbirds, four species of finches, and of course the boobies, with their big, red clown feet – and all of them seeming as tame as if Pixar had conjured them there.
The Galapagos finches, with their variously shaped beaks, inspired Darwin’s world-shaking insights about adaptation and natural selection. But my personal “Aha” moment was prompted by a cactus.
On Genovesa Island, and only there, grows a species of prickly pear with spines as soft as baby hair. As Ceci explained it to us, the species developed this characteristic because there are neither reptiles to eat it and nor insects to pollinate it. So the pollination job is left to doves and other birds whom prickliness would repel; thus the evolutionary advantage of soft spines. Aha!
Darwin’s time in the Galapagos changed the world, yet I felt I had the edge on him in one respect: Darwin didn’t snorkel. I did, and seeing the Galapagos through a snorkel mask added hugely to my enjoyment of the trip. The fish were not quite as tame as the birds, but there were great clouds of them and they provided us with plenty of eye candy. In William Beebe’s wonderful description, “They were fish, but they were color before they were fish.” Imagine that a rainbow had exploded under water and you will have the idea.
Here is Chad, describing to Ceci, a fish he’d just seen: “It had a triangular-shaped body, and swam like an eel along the cracks in the rocks. It had yellow eyes sticking up on top of its head and was olive-green, with maroon stripes along the side of its face.” Everyone within earshot teased that Chad must have been smoking something, but Ceci instantly knew what it was: large-banded blenny.
Penguins, Reef Sharks and More
In addition to tropical fish, we also saw penguins, reef sharks, diving cormorants and gliding sea turtles, whose gravitas and gently waving flippers,made me think of chubby brown angels. But my most captivating encounters were with creatures entirely lacking in gravitas: Sea lions.
I knew from my pre-trip reading that the Galapagos is washed alternately by warm and cold ocean currents, and that during our October sailing the sea temperature would be 68-70 degrees. These were definitely wet-suit conditions and I might have wished that I’d gone during the warmer season, except for one thing:
Chilly water makes the sea lions frisky. And frolicking with an exuberant young sea lion has to be one of nature’s most joyful adventures.
On the beach, sea lions loll around like so many Beanie Babies. In the water, they are hilarious show-offs. They twirl and spin and somersault and do their best stuff, inviting you to admire them after every pirouette.
When they see they’ve captured your complete attention, they streak away, leaving you fleetingly bereft, and then – zoom! — they’re back again, for more twirling and whirling and blowing of bubbles.
This rambunctious adolescent male behavior (we guessed) was not the only form of sea lion entertainment. One afternoon Chad and I provided an audience for the sea lion equivalent of a conceited teen-aged girl. She fixed us with a long, sultry stare, and then slowly craned her neck like a starlet offering the paparazzi her best angle. We burst into giggles, flooding our snorkels.
On the final night on the Eric (fair warning if you take this cruise yourself) there is a test. After dinner, Ceci and Yolanda introduced us to a game they had concocted called Galapagos Jeopardy.
We were arbitrarily divided into two groups and instructed to choose a name for our team. It was my team, the Magnificent Frigate Birds, competing against the Albatrosses. Both teams grappled with such questions as:
Which sea bird cannot touch salty water?
The frigate bird.
How many times did we cross the equator?
What islands did Charles Darwin visit during his stay in Galápagos?
San Cristóbal, Floreana, Isabela and Santiago.
This reptile can lay more than 100 eggs.
The marine turtle.
The Albatrosses, I am sorry to report, ate our lunch. Of course. They had Chad on their team.
What to Know
If you go to the Galapagos with Ecoventura, you won’t have much time for lolling around on the beach like a sea lion. Most days include two guided island walks, sometimes over jagged lava fields; in order to avoid other tour boats, the morning call sometimes comes as early as 5:45. Your reward for these exertions comes in the form of unparalleled natural splendor.
Snorkeling excursions – one or two per day – are optional, but for me they easily doubled the pleasure of the trip. Ecoventura supplies snorkels, masks and fins, as well as wetsuits when needed, but you’re better off bringing your own snorkel and mask. Since my trip was during the cool season (June through November) I invested in neoprene gloves and booties, and was happy for the extra bit of warmth.
The Eric is one of three identical 20-passenger expedition yachts in the Ecoventura fleet. Starting in 2012 the company will offer two alternating 7-night itineraries designed to comply with new regulations meant to mitigate visitor impact on the islands. (Shorter five or six night tours are sometimes available on seasonal departure dates.)
Ecoventura has won awards for green travel and Santiago Dunn, the company president, serves on the board of the World Wildlife Fund. Together with the WWF, Ecoventura has launched education and conservation projects in the Galapagos to strengthen local communities’ ability to manage natural resources.
It also recently installed solar panels and wind generators on the Eric, making it the first hybrid vessel in the Galapagos. To learn more about the company’s environmental initiatives and for current rates, schedules and itineraries, log on to or email [email protected].
Ann Banks is a journalist based in New York. Her travel writing has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, The New York Times, and Arthur Frommer Budget Travel, among other magazines. She is a contributing writer for the Travel Intelligence website.
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