Story and Photos by Carol Canter.
When my daughter was a young child, we learned the courtship dance of the blue-footed boobies at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It was part of their “hands-on” — or was it “feet-forward”– children’s program and I’ll never forget it because it was hilarious fun … and educational. We faced one another, standing in the “footprints” of two boobies, and were guided through their dance, clicks, honks and all. Little did I know that decades later–while cruising the Galapagos Islands with Ecoventura–I’d recognize the dance steps of two real blue-footed boobies as they performed this stylized ritual on a rugged windswept island in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands chain.
The dance was strangely thrilling, the setting wildly spectacular, and the memory hauntingly intact. Yet it was “just another day in paradise,” as our naturalist guide would announce each morning over the intercom of our small ship, the Letty, as he’d wake us for breakfast and a full day of activity. The rhythm of those magical days revolved around early morning and late afternoon excursions on different islands of the Galapagos to hike, swim, snorkel or kayak.
Long after the trip home, the images remain cinematic – in full Technicolor: pink flamingos snoozing on one stick-like leg in their lagoon on Bachas Beach on the north shore of Santa Cruz Island; said blue-footed boobies facing each other down, clicking, honking and whistling through a stylized mating dance on the rugged lava rock island of Española; flame red-orange Sally Lightfoot crabs scampering across craggy black volcanic rock on multiple islands;
giant tortoises, for which the Galapagos are named, mating in the verdant highlands of Santa Cruz Island …and these are just a few highlights a visitor might see above the surface.
Below the sea, snorkelers and divers become part of an aquarium where the intensity of color dazzles; the grace and speed of its denizens takes your breath away. Penguins and sea lions swim circles around divers; spotted eagle rays and green sea turtles glide by and brilliant magenta sea stars cling to the rocks. To say the Galapagos Islands are a feast for the senses is to greatly understate.
Yet a trip to this far-flung archipelago, 600+ miles west of mainland Ecuador, is also a feast for the mind, for as each island approaches, the lessons of Charles Darwin become crystallized. The concept of species adaptation and survival of the fittest may be second nature to us now, but these were radical concepts in 1835, when Darwin arrived aboard the HMS Beagle for just five weeks. Simply by observing nature with an open mind and spirit of awe, the 26-year old naturalist was led to draw certain conclusions that would shake the foundations of religious belief forever! Specifically, he noticed the beak structure of finches varied from one island to the next, designed to optimize food gathering in each setting. The realization that these and other adaptations were passed on to the offspring led him to write “The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” in 1859, almost 25 years later. Until then, people believed that species were created by God, and therefore immutable.
When cruising the Galapagos, expert naturalist guides with Ecoventura point out the specific adaptations made by flora and fauna on the dozen or so islands visited aboard the company’s three 20-passenger expedition yachts – the first-class MY LETTY, or the MV ORIGIN, which takes cruising the Galapagos Islands to the next level. Launched in 2016, the sleek vessel was accepted as a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group in 2018. Identical to the MV ORIGIN, MV THEORY debuts this month, March 2019. Understated sophistication define the two new luxury vessels. Ecoventura’s fleet also includes a dive live aboard, GALAPAGOS SKY. Week long cruises allow passengers to unwind, unhook from civilization, and begin to understand through their every pore the concept of evolution.
On daily hikes, adaptation becomes clear in unexpected ways. When our naturalist guide asked group members to touch a prickly-pear cactus, we gingerly complied. Much to our relief, not a finger was pricked by the needle-like spines. “There are no reptiles to protect against on this island, and soft spines allow birds to land here,” says Harry, our 32-year old island native and dive-master. Along with senior guide Orlando, these are two of the experts that make an Ecoventura trip more than just the thrilling chance to see exotic wildlife, unafraid of humans, in settings of stark and varying beauty. Their training and intelligence means no opportunity for learning is wasted. Yet it’s their passion that is infectious, and instilled in every one onboard a desire to help insure the survival of the Galapagos, both as a living laboratory and a visitor destination.
Ecoventura’s 20-passenger boats are an optimal size, both for the onboard camaraderie that invariably develops, and for the minimal impact each onshore arrival brings. Two pangas, or motorized zodiacs, shuttle between boat and shore, ensuring an ideal ratio of one guide to 10 passengers for every hike, swim or snorkel expedition. Daily briefings in the lounge before dinner cover what conditions to expect for the following day, what wildlife will be viewed, and whether to prepare for a wet or dry landing. For example, Day One on bird-rich Genovesa Island in the northeastern portion of the archipelago, brings the only chance of the trip to see red-footed boobies, perched on branches in the Palo Santo trees, and the short-eared owl, unique for its habit of hunting by day. At a cove on stark Fernandina, youngest and most pristine of the islands, hundreds of dark grey marine iguanas sunbathe on the black pahoehoe (smooth ropy) lava, while pairs of flightless cormorants prepare their nests. Both are prime examples of species adaptation, the former evolving from land iguanas who sought food by going deeper into the water for algae, the latter becoming more efficient hunters without wings, which then atrophied over time.
On Bartolome Island, a 30 minute climb to the summit of a once active volcano leads to a sublime panorama of surrounding Sullivan Bay, and the spatter cones, lava tubes and other volcanic features that define the landscape.
The rhythm of each day revolves around an early morning and late afternoon excursion at a different island to hike, swim, snorkel or occasionally kayak. Highlights might include a walk through a fern-draped lava tube or the chance to watch a male frigate bird balloon out his chest like a giant red tomato to attract a female. They could be as simple as watching the pattern of green sea turtle prints in the sand, or as dramatic as watching an orphan sea lion pup rejected by another pup’s nursing mother. The snorkeling, whether deep sea or off the beach, is thrilling, especially when your companions are white-tipped reef sharks. We loved watching Harry, our technical dive-master, free dive so deep he was often mistaken for another sea creature. And snorkeling along ledges lined with chartreuse and coral and orange sea horses, anemones and mollusks was akin to browsing the most exquisite underwater jewelry display.
The return to the boat after a full morning or afternoon excursion is always met with a welcome tray of drinks and snacks. Compact cabins serve for sleeping and dressing; the sundeck and teak lounge and bar are the main gathering places onboard. Meals are plentiful, with multiple choices of healthful cuisine, always devoured by passengers who work up an appetite after each outing. Local dishes like ceviche and platanos are perennial favorites. The sundeck is the preferred place to gather, at night to stargaze and at sunset, to enjoy a cocktail and trade stories of the wonders seen that day. Multiple copies of “The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in our Time,” “The Voyage of the Beagle: Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches,” and other books that help explain the mysteries encountered in these islands are read and discussed on deck, on hikes and over dinner. Sightings of dolphins or pilot whales generate further excitement, as the boat travels on to its next island destination. One young veterinarian on the cruise said, “it seems like we went to “eco-college” for two weeks. What a vast amount of experience and learning took place, sometimes without even realizing it!”
IF YOU GO
Contact: Ecoventura at www.ecoventura.com or through their Worldwide Sales and Reservation office in Miami, FL. The 2019 rates for the 8-day/7-night cruise start at $4,700 per person, based on double occupancy. (Book early as many departure dates are sold out.)
Galapagos Network: 800-633-7972; email@example.com A recognized leader in sustainable tourism in the Galapagos Islands, Ecoventura was named the #2 Top Small-Ship Ocean Cruise Line in Travel + Leisure 2017 World’s Best Awards!