Cruising through the primordial Galápagos archipelago aboard a brand-new ship proves the perfect way to follow in Darwin’s footsteps, and the ultimate family adventure.
Photographs by Matt Dutile
During a snorkeling session at Gardner Bay on my third day in the Galápagos, I can’t decide what I love most: the sea lion that corkscrews playfully below me then swims right up to my mask, staring deep into my eyes; or the fact that my 70-year-old parents are actually here with me too, finning along like regular water babies in the frigid shallows of this otherworldly archipelago.
You could say that this moment was years in the making. On our annual parent-daughter trips that had become a tradition in recent years, my sister, Janet, and I had made it a point to travel with our mom and dad to as many bucket-list destinations as possible while they were still willing and able. And any place there was water, we had practically forced them into snorkeling gear for a look below the surface.
It hadn’t always gone smoothly. Once, in the warm, calm Caribbean, I’d popped my head up to see my mother spy hopping like an orca, eyes wide behind her mask, scared out of her wits but unable to say why. Then there was the time in Norway when my dad looked like he was about to drown in a meter of water; I had to flip him over and push him like a pool float back to the beach. The ocean was clearly not their cup of tea.
So when Janet and I decided to book a family cruise to the Galápagos, 1,000 kilometers off the Ecuadorean coast, I made sure to warn them that snorkeling would be on the agenda. Because what most visitors to these wild islands don’t realize until they arrive is that there is almost as much to marvel at below the water’s surface as above it.
“We have this idea that the Galápagos Islands are just about what’s on land,” says Dirk Grosse-Leege, a Berliner who is among our fellow passengers on the seven-night cruise. “But if you snorkel through a bay here and you’ve seen the landscapes above water just before, you go underwater and realize there are the same mountains and landscapes, just flipped around. It’s fascinating.”
Along with Dirk and my family, also onboard for the week are Dirk’s partner and twin 16-year-old sons, a father-and-son duo from New England, and a fun family from Manhattan with two girls aged seven and ten. Our vessel is the 10-cabin MV Origin, the newest addition to the Ecuadorian-owned Ecoventura fleet. Forty-three meters long, the ship is designed for a maximum of 20 passengers (plus 11 crew members and a pair of naturalist guides), so with only 14 of us aboard it feels every bit the posh mega yacht that it is. Big windows in the spacious staterooms ensure you never miss a passing view, while the upper deck is populated by plush lounge chairs, daybeds, and hammocks for kicking back in between land excursions. To stern, an outdoor Jacuzzi invites passengers to soak under the starry skies at sea.
There are paddleboards and kayaks at the ready for exploring remote shorelines as we cruise from one volcanic island to the next on a looping itinerary that takes us from San Cristóbal to Santa Cruz and back via the southern Galápagos. And the snorkel gear comes out at least once a day too. Whenever we arrive back at the Origin, shivering in our wetsuits or weary from a hike on land, there’s always hot chocolate and a tasty snack—empanadas, perhaps, or sandwiches—being served by the ship’s barman at a table on the stern. But for all the onboard comforts, it’s never too long before we’re itching to get back inone of the Origin’s inflatable Zodiacs for a new adventure among these remarkably preserved islands.
“If you think you’re on vacation, I’m sorry, but this is like summer camp,” says Maria Gabriela Espinoza Peña, one of two Galápagos National Park naturalists aboard the Origin as our guides for the week. And when Gabby—as she tells us to call her—reveals that she has been with the park service for 26 years, I know we’re in good hands.
Each evening, she and fellow naturalist Santiago Moran prep us for the next day’s adventures with a briefing in the ship’s lounge. “It’s kind of boring, but also kind of fun because you learn what you’ll be doing tomorrow,” chirps our youngest passenger, the seven-year-old girl from New York, describing the nightly sessions as only a kid can.
There are shore excursions every morning and afternoon, and having two guides onboard means passengers have the choice between a more strenuous hike (for the athletic Berliners and New Yorkers among us) and a mellower nature walk (that’s my family). And each island on our itinerary is different from the last, so there’s always something new to see, learn, and do. When I wake up in the night to the clang of the Origin’s anchor chain being lowered after a few hours of sailing through the darkness (the ship cruises mostly at night), I can hardly wait for the sun to come up to see where we are.
On our third morning we awake off Española, the southernmost of the archipelago’s 13 main islands. Once a looming volcano but now flattened into a seamount with rocky terrain, Española at first glance doesn’t appear to have many secrets in store. But that’s the thing about the Galápagos: the desolation that greets your eyes as you cruise past these primordial-looking islands is quickly replaced with an explosion of life, often before you even you step ashore.
“One of the beauties of the Galápagos is that the animals have lost the instinct to fear,” says Gabby as our Zodiac nudges the beach at Punta Suárez, an entourage of splashing sea lions in its wake. Explaining that most of the islands’ creatures evolved here without any major predators, she adds, “They see us as part of the environment. There are other places in the Pacific with blue-footed boobies and sea lions, but they don’t come as close to people as they do here.”
Scores of marine iguanas are blocking our path, their rotting-seaweed stench wafting on the warm air of dawn. The sluggish reptiles conjure Christmas with their red and green coloring (Española’s marine iguanas are the most colorful in all of the Galápagos, which is to say the world, since they only exist here), but they also look like something from a Halloween horror film. Charles Darwin, who arrived in these waters on the HMS Beagle in 1835, called them “hideous looking” and “disgusting, clumsy lizards”—a rather uncharitable sentiment given how much the islands contributed to his groundbreaking theories in The Origin of Species.
“They’re recharging their batteries,” says Gabby in terms everyone can understand, describing how the iguanas are ectothermic and must rely on the sun to warm their bodies before they can head into the water in search of algae to eat. With the day just breaking, it’s clear our heat-seeking friends won’t be moving anytime soon. So we carefully pick our way between them—they pay us absolutely no heed— and make our way along the Punta Suárez hiking trail, considered one of the best walks in the archipelago for its diversity of wildlife.
It’s not long before we come across a blue-footed booby nesting on the ground within a circle of guano. It, too, doesn’t so much as flinch as we pass by. “You’ll often see male boobies standing on a rock to show their feet so females can see how sexy they are,” Gabby says. “They need three years to get that pretty blue color on their feet, so you can bet they want to show it off.”
Finally, we reach Española’s famous albatross colony, situated on a cliff above a pounding sea. The biggest seabirds in the Galápagos (but the smallest in the greater albatross family), the endemic waved albatross have a wing span of almost two meters. We watch them perform a mating dance, waving their corn-yellow beaks from side to side, opening them wide, and clashing them against each other like musical chopsticks.
“I never thought I’d actually be in the Galápagos, looking at albatross,” I hear my dad say to my mom, and I realize that every day is full of such revelations for me, too.
During the briefing before we visit the starkly beautiful island of Floreana, Gabby sets us up for potential disappointment. It’s late August, the coolest month of the dry season, and most of the 600 or so flamingoes that usually hang out in the island’s hypersaline lake have left for more plentiful pastures. “If we see one we can be happy; two, super happy; and three or more, we are drunk!” she says. What we get is positively bombed, after the short walk from a green-hued beach to the lake delivers the sight of no less than 10 pink flamingoes stalking the shallows for brine shrimp. Once we’ve snapped hundreds of shots of the flamboyantly hued birds, Santiago, our other naturalist guide, points out the red, black, and button mangrove trees lining the lake that tell a larger story of plants adapted to salty water that act as a nursery for the shrimp. “Even though we focus on big animals like flamingoes, every little piece of the picture in the Galápagos is important,” he says.
So busy are we spotting birds, snorkeling with sea lions, and enjoying sunset cocktails on deck that I’m almost surprised when we arrive one morning at Santa Cruz Island for the chance to see the famous tortoises for which the archipelago is named (galápagos is Spanish for tortoise). After several days at sea and calling into remote islands, Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galápagos, feels like a major metropolis, complete with skateboarding kids and a busker playing ’80s tunes on an Andean flute. Outside a bank, a sea lion sprawls across the steps as if he’s waiting to open an account.
We ride a bus from the port up into the mountains to visit Rancho El Chato 2, a family-owned tortoise reserve where the ponderous reptiles pass through as they migrate between the highlands and lowlands throughout the year. The air is misty, like being inside a cloud, and as we turn down a dirt road toward the ranch the driver brakes sharply to let a giant tortoise cross ahead of us.
Once there were as many as 300,000 of these animals in the Galápagos, divided among 15 different subspecies. Today that number is closer to 15,000, with several of the surviving 11 subspecies seriously endangered. Humans, inevitably, are to blame, starting with the early Spanish sailors who captured them for food for the long sail back to Europe. Gabby tells us that tortoises can live in a boat hold for a year with no food or drink. “It was like having a living refrigerator.” Now, of course, the animals are protected. But I’m not surprised to discover that, unlike some of the other wildlife we’ve encountered, the tortoises tend to hiss and retract into their shell if you come too close. Good for you, I think, as we board the bus for the drive back down the mountain toward the beckoning sea.
The last days of the expedition pass in a blur of more exotic bird sightings, remote beaches, and vistas unlike any other place on the planet. One day, Janet and I opt to climb the nearly 400 wooden steps to the top of Bartolomé Island, and are rewarded by a breathtaking view of the volcanic landscape. But we miss out on the dinghy ride my parents take with Gabby and the youngest New Yorker to search for penguins. When we meet back on the ship, everyone is gushing with excitement, especially the seven-year-old. “The penguins were mating!” the girl squeals as her mom thanks Gabby for the penguin sex-ed lesson she was happy to have a pro naturalist deliver.
And on North Seymour Island, we have an intimate encounter with the beautiful but aggressive birds that have been chaperoning the Origin during most of our time at sea. Known as the pirates of the sky, frigate birds are unable to dive into the water to catch fish so they wait for another bird to do the fishing then ambush it in the air, sometimes shaking it upside down until the fish falls from its mouth. Our hike brings us to an area where scores of juvenile male frigates are perched on silvery palo santo trees, leafless in the dry season to conserve their energy for photosynthesis when the rains return. The young birds’ red throats are puffed up like balloons to attract a mate.
“It’s the same as when a man drives a red Ferrari,” Santiago quips.
A rope strung across the area stops us from exploring farther. “The national park is constantly changing the walking paths in the islands,” Gabby explains, “When they feel nature needs some privacy, they will rope off a section.” We watch in silence and then quietly retreat, leaving the birds to court unobserved.
One of the last anchorages of the cruise is at Sombrero Chino. A cinder cone with a steep-sided crown, the tiny island loses a little of its magic when our guides translate its name as “Chinese hat,” but quickly gains it back when I spot a posse of chubby sea lions lounging on its beach and crimson-hued Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttling across the dark lava-rock shoreline.
I’ve almost become accustomed to these kinds of encounters, and Janet and I discuss taking the afternoon off snorkeling, opting for a siesta in the top deck hammocks perhaps, or something cold and frosty to drink. But when we see my parents squeezing into their wetsuits on the Origin’s stern, we realize we don’t want to miss out and hustle to get geared up for one last snorkel.
I slide off the Zodiac with my family into an explosion of yellowtail surgeonfish, grunts, sardines, and the odd Mexican hogfish snacking on urchins. The water temperature may be hovering somewhere around 15°C, but the scene around the reef is wildly tropical.
After a few minutes, I poke my head up to see my mom spy hopping again, but this time with pure excitement.
“Whitetip reef shark swimming your way!” she calls before plunging her face back into the clear turquoise water. I fin over to join her and dad as quickly as I can.
Based out of San Cristóbal, Ecoventura’s MV Origin offers year-round, seven-night sailings in the Galápagos, with two itineraries to choose from: southern-central (as described in this story); and northern-western, which visits the islands of Fernandina and Isabela. Rates are US$7,500 per person for a double cabin and include all meals and snacks, open bar, all excursions, wetsuits, and all water sports (kayaking, snorkeling, paddleboarding). Local airlines connect San Cristóbal Airport with Quito and Guayaquil on the Ecuadorian mainland.
This article originally appeared in the December 2016/January 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Islands for the Ages”).