7 Days in the Galapagos with Hurtigruten
“Close your eyes and picture a moving tortoise,” instructs our orientation leader. “Because that’s how fast our WiFi is.”
He isn’t joking. The internet connection on the Santa Cruz II brings us all back to the days of dial-up. Forget posting videos. Simply uploading a photo is an overnight affair. At first, my fellow passengers and I find it frustrating. A few of us even complain to the ship’s hotel manager. But ultimately, we all know we didn’t travel 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador to scroll through Instagram.
Without WiFi, I resort to reading my guidebook. It refers to the Galapagos Islands as “a place where God has rained rocks.” To me, this creation story seems plausible. But according to geologists, the archipelago is the result of millions of years’ worth of volcanic activity. In all, there are 127 islands. Our 7-night Hurtigruten Expeditions cruise, “Following in Darwin’s Footsteps,” has plans to stop at nine of them. Mother Nature, however, has other plans. On the first day of our voyage, Wolf Volcano, the highest point in the Galapagos, starts spewing ash and lava. The eruption makes national news. It also makes visiting Isabela Island — the largest island in the Galapagos — a no-go. Despite being last-minute, the itinerary change doesn’t bother us. We have our bucket-list blinders on; we’re just thrilled to be here.
Wild Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos has never been a stopover destination. The islands are remote, expensive, and strictly regulated. Nearly 97 percent of the archipelago is protected as a national park. If you find yourself here, it’s because you went out of your way to make it happen. Ironically, however, the islands were discovered by accident. In 1535, the first bishop of Panama happened upon them while attempting to sail to Peru. Three hundred years later, the second most important anchor in the islands’ history dropped. It belonged to the HMS Beagle, a British Royal Navy vessel conducting a survey of the South American coast. Among its crewmembers was a 26-year-old geologist named Charles Darwin.
Surprisingly, given their contribution to the theory of evolution, Darwin’s famous finches aren’t part of the Galapagos Big 15 — the archipelago’s answer to Africa’s Big 5. Birds on the list include the Galapagos albatross, Galapagos hawk, blue-footed booby, red-footed booby, Nazca booby, flightless cormorant, American flamingo, and frigate. Mammals and reptiles making the cut include the land iguana, marine iguana, Santa Fe land iguana, Galapagos penguin, Galapagos sea lion, Galapagos fur seal, and Galapagos giant tortoise. On the first day of our cruise, we spot at least three of them.
If wild animals in the Galapagos have any respect for mankind, they do a terrible job of showing it. Most creatures we encounter are indifferent to our presence. Others appear annoyed, but not bothered enough to flee. Sea lions, insatiably curious and playful, are the exception. They glide alongside me as I snorkel, sizing me up as if challenging me to a race. I know I wouldn’t stand a chance. For how awkward they move on land, they’re surprisingly agile underwater. When I paddleboard, they dive beneath my board. Sea lions are like the mole in Whac-A-Mole; I’m never sure when, or where, they’ll pop up. They’re everywhere, too. In San Cristobal, we hear about a floating dock that sank because there were too many sea lions on it at once.
As entertaining as the sea lions are — there’s even a stowaway attempt when one climbs aboard the ship’s steps — it’s the birds who have my fellow passengers and I fighting over the binoculars. Birds account for more than half of the Big 15. There’s no prize, but each one of us wants to be the first person to spot them all. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a letdown the day we learn blue-footed boobies don’t really have blue feet. They’re born with gray feet. The blue color comes from the carotenoids they get from a diet heavy in fresh fish. And the feet of the red-footed boobie? Their feet only turn red when the booby is sexually mature and ready to attract a mate. One day, we come across a pair of red-footed boobies going at it, beak-to-beak. Our guide tells us they’re “probably smooching.” We’re so close to the couple we almost get caught in the crossfire.
Bold is Beautiful in the Galapagos
It’s one thing for the brochures to say “You can’t get this close to wildlife anywhere else in the world.” It’s another thing to live it. On the island of Santa Fe, I accidentally step on a marine iguana — the world’s only seafaring lizard (found only in the Galapagos). It was bound to happen. They’re everywhere: swimming in the surf, sunning on the sand in messes — what you call groups of iguanas — and clinging to rock walls for warmth. Like most of the fauna found in the Galapagos, except for the tropical fish we see while snorkeling, they’re not exactly aesthetically pleasing.
Much of the flora, which includes no fewer than three cacti species, is also lacking in the good looks department. On the island of Santa Cruz — where the majority of the Galapagos’ human population lives — there is so much prickly pear we may as well be in the Sonoran Desert. Under a barebones tree, offering little….