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EXPLORING THE
GALAPAGOS
by Andrew Mersmann
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Wow. Look at this. Come over here and put your head in this shark hole!” I'm sorry, what? I must have salt water in my ears from all this snorkeling. I thought you said to put my head in a shark hole. It was one of our two naturalist guides calling us over from deeper water to a tumble of lava stones along the sheer wall of rock. We swam over and he was pointing to a hole in the rocks about three feet beneath the surface of the water.

"Hold your breath, grab the edges, and stick your head in—it won't be big enough for your shoulders, but get in as far as you can—there are sharks in there."

I'm not sure who is crazier, him or us, but we all line up, treading water, waiting for the chance to dive down and look in the hole to see the three or more better-than-six-foot-long reef sharks in the underwater cave. Big gulp of air, reach down, grab edge of dark hole, insert head, turn to the left and there they are, looking malevolent (which of course they are not) and shark-y.

I come up for air, clearing the snorkel, and am left wondering, as I often am when contemplating things like skydiving and fire eating (both of which I've done)…who was the pioneer? I'm sure the guide did this with a group last week and will do it again next week, probably taught from other guide veterans exactly where the hole is and that in the afternoons when the light reflects from below you can give the clients a thrill…but still. Who was the first person that thought, “Now THAT would be a good idea—I think I'll stick my head in a cramped place filled with sharks.”

The entire Galapagos Islands experience is like that. You know others have been here, but could be forgiven for giving over to the fantasy that you are the first to ever tread these imposing volcanic rocks sticking up from the middle of the Pacific. You could be forgiven for forgetting you are even on Planet Earth.

The otherworldly sense you get in these somewhat harsh and forbidding isles is best experienced as alone as possible (though you cannot visit without being accompanied by a licensed guide). My partner Bob and I feel extraordinarily lucky to be traveling with Ecoventura (www.ecoventura.com), widely lauded as the greenest company in the Galapagos, not only for their environmental credentials, but also because there will only be 18 other passengers on our boat. This diligent tour provider was not only the first carbon-neutral boat operation in the Galapagos, they are also partnered with the World Wildlife Fund (www.wwf.org), the Rainforest Alliance (www.rainforest-alliance.org), the Inter­national Ecotourism Society (www.ecotourism.org), and Su­stainable Travel International (www.sustainabletravelinternational.org). Add to this that they are winners of the Condé Nast World Savers Award and the Travel and Leisure Global Vision Award (as well as several local and national accolades).

It wasn't too many years ago that larger cruise ships sailed these waters, but today, the largest ship that can tour the Galapagos is 100 passengers; most of the tour companies tend to host 40 passengers, and our boat, named the Letty, takes 20 clients, so we have beautifully personalized attention from staff, as well as access to places and experiences we would never get on a bigger boat. Ecoventura has three basically identical boats on our route, and an additional live-aboard scuba boat that goes farther north to a few distant islands. To be fair, every company makes a considerable effort to make the experience unique and uncrowded. When we are ashore with other ships (National Geographic, for example) and their clients, guides take tour groups of no more than 16 (in our case, ten) in opposite directions so nobody is swarming—as can so often be the case in other wildlife “safari” experiences. No matter the care taken by tour companies, the Galapagos is still classified as a World Heritage Site “At Risk.” Ecoventura's commitment to the ecology as well as community (they hire local Galapaguenos for staff as well as provide conservation scholarships to local schoolchildren) is another feather in their vivid green cap.

The Galapagos Islands have the most notoriety as the site where Charles Darwin developed his theories about evolution from his visit on the HMS Beagle in 1835, expounded in The Origin of Species. There are 14 species of finch that Darwin studied in the Galapagos, and each has developed a specific physical trait and beak shape based on which island they call home and the food sources available there: one has a short, tough beak to eat seeds from the ground, one has a long, pointy beak to reach insects from holes in the branches of trees, one has developed the knowledge of how to use sticks as tools to stab tasty grubs, etc. Because each island is so isolated from the others, and remote from the rest of the world, it was seen as a perfect control study for the development of specific traits. (Some folks still don't get it—but that's another story.)

These 61 volcanic islands, with 13 main islands, located at the equator (we cross the equator four times during our cruise) are part of Ecuador and lie about 600 miles west of the mainland coast. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, they were formed from eruptions about five million years ago, though additional lava flows still add to the terrain with some regularity. I've never seen an ecosystem that was more iconically volcanic—Buzz Aldrin said this is the most moonlike place he's ever seen off the moon. Ash cones, cinder cones, and tuff cones (each looking just like a child's drawing of a volcano) make up the prime geographic features of each island. As tectonic plates drift slowly to the southeast, new islands form over the “hotspot” in the ocean floor (a process that takes eons), so the northwestern islands of the group are the youngest.

CLICK FOR SLIDESHOW OF GALAPAGOS
After being spoiled by the service on LAN Airlines (www.lan.com)—one of my favorite and most comfortable airlines in the world—with lie-flat beds, great service, and an excellent wine list—we spend the night in Guayaquil before boarding a smaller Aerogal flight, with its cheeky iguana logo, to San Cristobal Island. (Others on our cruise would overnight in Quito, but then have to fly from there to Guayaquil in the morning, whereas we had a direct flight from New York, saving an extraneous transit step.)

The flight from Quayaquil to the Galapagos is a puddle jumper that takes about an hour. Upon landing, Ecoventura team members take over so all we have to do is relax while our boarding passes, luggage, national park fees, entry cards, taxes, and every detail are taken care of.

We're met at the tiny island airport by our two naturalist guides for the week, Karina and Ivan. They will be with us on land and sea for the next seven days, so this relationship is important, and I feel like we've won the lottery. I've had lots of trips led by guides around the world, and this brother and sister who live in the islands are the best guides I've had. Karina, a scuba divemaster, has been working for a larger cruise company as lead guide/tour director, but has chosen to switch to Ecoventura for some of the same reasons we went with them—the company's commitment to environmental issues. Her younger brother, Ivan, is the court jester, and a big teddy bear who makes us laugh while imparting tons of knowledge. They both seem to know about all things Galapagueno.

The cabins on the ship are tiny, as most cruise cabins are, but larger than I anticipated considering the size of the boat. On the lower “Iguana” deck, cabins have rectangular portholes, the main “Boobie” deck cabins have windows, and our upper “Dolphin” deck has maybe an additional window and a little more floorspace, but largely they are the same with twin bunks or queen beds. The fact that each cabin has its own air conditioning and bathroom is frosting.

The common spaces are cozy with a lounge area with dual flatscreen TVs for nightly briefings about activities, a library of Galapagos-themed books and DVDs plus a few paperback novels left behind by previous guests, a bar that gets a lot of traffic in the evenings, and the dining area with booths that seat four or six. Up top, on the roof over the captain's deck, is the sun deck, half covered and half open to the sky, with large chaise lounges, two multi-person, couch-like daybed platforms, and a few upholstered chairs. Each night it seems most of our shipmates are in bed by 9:30, but Bob and I are always topside, enjoying the sway (more pronounced the higher the deck) and the breeze. On every wall is a wildlife photo or poster about the unique ecosystem in which we are immersed.

We unpack, do the obligatory safety drill, snack on a buffet lunch, and check out fins, snorkels, masks, and wetsuits (though the water is warm at most locales), and we head out for the first, short leg of the journey around to the northern side of the island to Playa Ochoa for a wet landing and chance to snorkel around a bit. We will, on a daily basis, snorkel twice or more, and also have land excursions/hikes plus a few opportunities to paddle about in clear-bottom kayaks. Each time we leave the boat for shore in the pangas, inflatable zodiac tenders with outboard motors, we have a wet landing or a dry landing. Dry landings are at docks or stone outcrops to which we can step without dipping into the brine, and wet landings have us over the side of the panga and into the beach surf up to our ankles or sometimes knees. There is also an almost daily “deep water” snorkel excursion where we slip over the side of the panga into water where you cannot touch bottom.

Continued
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