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Touring the Galapagos: A Little World Within Itself

On board the Aqua Mare, a 50-meter luxury yacht in the Galapagos, the fantastic landscapes and unique fauna are a springboard to the contemplation of the inspiring variety of life on earth. 

Photo courtesy of Aqua Mare

A dozen of us—children, adults, tourists, guides, and boat crew—are aboard a Zodiac, gradually navigating further into Caleta Tortuga Negra (Black Turtle Cove), a mangrove-fringed inlet on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos. It is late afternoon, and we have made our way into a remote part of the swamp, where we have found lots of young black-tipped reef sharks and a large group of green sea turtles, some venerable ones with shells splattered with barnacles. The pilot cuts the engine, and we look around, pointing out new sightings and sharing our excitement. Then, gradually, the boat falls silent, and the only sound is an occasional quick puff of air as a turtle surfaces, takes a breath, and then silently submerges. For perhaps five minutes we bask in the nearly soundless scene.

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There is something sacred here. The beauty of the spot, the elemental nature of the sounds–and most of all, perhaps, the absence of other sounds. The intensity of the moment is amplified by the history of the place–that these islands constitute one of the hinges of our understanding of the world, the place that sparked the young gentleman-traveler Charles Darwin into conceiving a radical new understanding of where species come from. It is not just a tropical paradise, not just a place filled with strange creatures who are mostly indifferent to human presence–it is a paradise that profoundly changed the world. It truly is, as Darwin wrote in his journal, “a little world within itself.” 

Photo courtesy of Aqua Mare

I was fortunate to be on my third trip to the Galapagos–and my most luxurious. My home for seven nights was Aqua Expeditions’ Aqua Mare, a converted private yacht that went into service in the islands last year, and which is one of the most luxurious yachts in service there. I learned that Francesco Galli Zugaro, the CEO of Aqua Expeditions, takes a very personal role in the running of the ship, manifested in how rigorously the beautiful vessel is maintained, how it is staffed, and even how the extensive library shelved throughout the boat is chosen for the edification and enjoyment of the guests. 

Founded in 2007, Aqua Expeditions provides river cruises on the Amazon and Mekong Rivers, along with ocean cruises in the Spice Islands, Indonesian destinations, and new Galapagos itineraries. Judging from the Aqua Mare, the company aims to meet an exacting standard of luxury. There’s a 1:1 staff-to-guest ratio, and the staff were uniformly able and welcoming. My cabin was large and beautifully furnished, with ample lighting and deep carpet. Yet for all the luxury, the atmosphere aboard was relaxed, embodied in a no-shoes rule that sets a properly relaxed standard. 

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The boat is spread over four decks, with ample space for all. The lower deck holds four cabins (including the one I stayed in), and in the stern, by the swim platform, was the Beach Club–a small gathering place. Next up comes the main deck, with the Owner’s Suite and another cabin, as well as an indoor dining room and a rear deck area where we usually suited up for snorkeling and got ready for onshore activities. Above that is the Upper Deck, featuring the Panoramic Lounge (where we got briefed by the guides), the bridge, and an outdoor dining spot which was where we took most of our meals. The top deck has a barbecue setup as well as yet another dining area, a Jacuzzi, and an area for those who wanted to stretch out in the sun on comfortable cushions. This wealth of options meant that one could always find a private spot to read in if you wished, or a more convivial location where others were hanging out. 

Photo courtesy of Aqua Mare

Aqua Expeditions offers two Galapagos itineraries, one concentrated on the eastern islands, one on the western ones. I was aboard for the western lineup. Whichever leg you are on, the ship moves regularly from site to site, allowing you to experience the highly varied topography of the islands and to encounter a variety of wildlife. 

Travel to the islands is carefully regulated by the government of Ecuador to ensure that their unique environments are not endangered. Planes flying there are fumigated, and ships must meet stringent requirements as well. Visitors are expected to abide by certain rules–such as staying at least two meters away from the indigenous fauna, not picking flowers or taking souvenirs, and so forth. Local guides are required, and aboard Aqua Mare there were two guides for the week, Isabela Bucheli and Federico Idrovo. Their enthusiasm and their deep knowledge of the local geology, the ocean currents, the varieties of fish and birds, all made for a constantly enriching and fun experience. Our group of 12 passengers split into a group of seven and a group of five. Whenever we were off the boat there was a guide nearby to explain, and respond to questions.  

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Our first night aboard, the pattern for the days ahead was established. A half hour before dinner, the guides would convene us in the Panoramic Lounge to explain the next day’s schedule. In addition to meals, these would typically include a hike or two, at least one extended snorkeling session, and an occasional tour aboard one of the two Zodiac boats that served as tenders for the Aqua Mare


Each morning at 6 a.m. coffee would appear in the Panoramic Lounge (as the name suggests, it offers great views out–to port, starboard, and astern), and breakfast usually starts at 7. The day would get underway in earnest with a shore excursion, always described as having either a wet or dry landing. The longer hikes were arranged with dry landings, so one could put on sturdy hiking shoes; wet landings called for water shoes or sandals. 

Photo courtesy of Aqua Mare

At Punta Cormorant on Floreana Island, a lagoon was home to a flock of flamingos, including some recently hatched chicks. Nearby, on a tide-washed formation of black lava, large numbers of bright-red Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttled, and a little inland a heron surveyed the beach intently, on the lookout for turtle hatchlings trying to make their way to the sea. Floreana also contains some relics of human visitation, including its “post office”—a barrel near the shore, successor to one originally placed there by whalers a couple of centuries ago, and in use to this day. Visitors leave postcards addressed to friends and family, and later visitors peruse the contents of the barrel and may select one or two to hand deliver when back home. And to my surprise, less than a week after my own return, a couple showed up on my doorstep on Long Island with a postcard I had written to my sons, duly accepted by one of them to his astonishment. 

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The Galapagos Islands are of very recent date, geologically speaking–even the oldest parts are less than five million years old–and part of the fascination of shore visits is the different ages of landscape one encounters. On Santa Cruz Island, which is about 1.7 million years old, and where we spent part of the first day, one can visit verdant highlands that are home to farms, and also to a large population of tortoises from whom the islands take their name–the word Galapagos derives from an ancient Iberian word for turtle. The tortoises seem indifferent to human presence, unless surprised or approached too closely, when they may emit a quick hiss and withdraw their heads into their shells. (The hiss is done not to warn or frighten the intruder, but simply to expel enough air to make it easier to retract the skull into the shell.) In past centuries, the size and gentleness of the tortoises inspired pirates, whalers, and other visitors to capture them and stow them (turned over) in the holds of their vessels, to feed their crews. The tortoises were seen as a delicacy, and their metabolisms meant that they could survive for long periods in this inverted state. Today, of course, they have protected status.

Photo courtesy of Aqua Mare

The islands are the product of volcanic activity, with the oldest islands to the east and the youngest to the west, as the Pacific tectonic plate moves inexorably toward South America. After we left Floreana Island we sailed west to the coast of Isabela Island, the largest of the Galapagos chain. We went ashore at Punta Moreno, a landing that demanded careful navigation by the boatmen to trace a path through a lagoon with a maze-like bottom of submerged rocks. Our guide said that we were walking on land that was only about 1,000 years old–part of the ongoing geological activity there. The most prominent plants were cacti–the smaller lava cactus and the occasional large candelabra cactus, which resemble the famous Saguaro plants of the Sonoran desert. A couple of brackish pools harbored marine life, including a napping white-tipped reef shark. 

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On another morning the shore excursion took us onto Fernandina, where we were first confronted with the skeleton of an orc displayed against a lava-rock background. Nearby was a  large group of marine iguanas, one of the marquee attractions of the islands. We also spotted a Galapagos snake–a smallish constrictor whose dull grey-black skin allows it to move almost invisibly among the lava rocks. The snakes hunt the younger iguanas, as is shown in a spectacular installment of the BBC’s Planet Earth II, with the drama narrated with gusto by David Attenborough. The snake we saw was not hunting anything, and the most BBC-worthy moment was two adorable sea lion pups playing with each other around a tidal pool. 

In the Water

The Galapagos Islands sit at the confluence of three ocean currents: the Humboldt, which brings cold water up from the south, the Panama Current, which brings warm water down from the north, and the Cromwell, which sweeps in from the Pacific to the west. Since we are at the beginning of a new cycle of El Niño, the periodic warming of equatorial waters in the central Pacific, our snorkeling forays took place in warmer waters than normal. (Aqua Expeditions is happy to arrange for scuba diving for guests, with trusted dive operators; the cost for the boat is $3,000 for a day, which is divided among however many guests are diving that day. Conditions there can be challenging, with some strong currents, so scuba diving is probably not a good idea for novice divers. 

Photo courtesy of Aqua Mare

While I love to go scuba diving, I also love snorkeling–after all, most of the interesting things to see are in the top 20-30 feet–and that’s also where there’s ample light. The Aqua Mare provided snorkeling chances in shallow and deep waters, off a variety of islands with different underwater topography and different creatures to admire–schools of yellowtail surgeonfish, huge bluechin parrotfish, Moorish Idols, acrobatic and inquisitive sea lions, solitary stingrays and formations of spotted eagle rays, starfish and sea urchins and a variety of sharks. You can admire the gentle peregrinations of the sea turtles and the underwater exploits of diving birds like the flightless cormorants and the blue-footed boobies. I even got to watch one of the marine iguanas (Darwin described them as “imps of darkness”) about three meters down, grazing on the algae that coated the rocks not far from shore. They are the only sea-going lizards. 

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The combination of the currents and the islands’ protected status means that there are a great variety of creatures that pass through, including whales–humpback, blue, and sperm whales are all seen in these waters–as well as a great variety of sharks, including reef sharks (which we saw quite a few of), hammerheads (one was spotted–alas not by me), and sometimes whale sharks (a species I long to see in the water, but I have not yet had the luck). 

Snorkeling trips usually required rides in the tender. While not as noteworthy as those at Black Turtle Cove, these rides occasionally turned into memorable Galapagos moments when keen-eyed guides spotted something interesting during the cruise. One memorable encounter was with a cormorant that had caught a small octopus; we lingered nearby while the bird tossed its prey in the air several times to shift the position of its beak on it, finally getting things right for a final toss and swallow. It must be remembered that harsh moments like this are part of the struggle for survival that Darwin realized was a driving force in the evolution of new species. Still, one feels for the octopus. 

Care and Feeding

With so much to see in the ocean and on land, the crew’s efforts to care for us were almost like a support team for a Formula 1 driver: when we returned to the Aqua Mare after a snorkeling expedition, we were met with fresh towels, a fruit juice or hot tea, and quick, restorative bites. Snorkeling gear and wetsuits were rinsed and dried for us, and one invariably returned to a cabin that had been scrupulously cleaned and tidied. It never felt fussy, but one very much felt pampered. 

The food, too, was superbly matched to the circumstances. Using local ingredients is a bit of a challenge given the remote situation and limited agriculture in the islands, but you would not know it for the quality and variety of the meals. Sushi and poke bowl entrees took advantage of the surrounding waters’ bounty, and the vegetable gardens on the more inhabited islands like Santa Cruz furnished their harvests to the table. Given the amount of hiking and swimming we were doing, there was little alcohol consumed at lunch–more before and during dinner. Beer and house wines are included in one’s passage, cocktails and more special wines cost extra. I found that a cocktail while getting the guides’ briefing for the next day’s activity did nicely. Each lunch and dinner featured a set menu, which were presented in advance so those who weren’t in the mood for something on the day’s menu could order from a large selection of standby items. The staff graciously catered to the dietary needs and whims of tween and adult fusspots.                        

Photo courtesy of Aqua Mare

I employed my free time on board largely in reading works by or about Darwin. His Voyage of the Beagle–the diary he kept of his travels–is a surprisingly engaging and charming chronicle of a somewhat aimless young man growing in both confidence and purpose. It is filled with lovingly exact descriptions of the natural environments he saw, as well as observations on different human inhabitants encountered, from English merchants in far-flung ports to bandits of the Argentine pampas and the indigenous inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, whom he described as “almost another species of man.” My other reading was in Janet Browne’s superb two-volume biography of the naturalist. Browne illuminates Darwin’s passage from aimless undergraduate to one of the transformative thinkers of world history. In view of the impact that his Origin of Species had on our understanding of man’s place in the natural world, it’s remarkable that at the time he set off on the Beagle, his plan was that upon his return he would enter the Anglican church as a clergyman. 

More than a Vacation

There are vacations we take to places freighted with meaning for us–to walk on Omaha Beach, or to pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, or to imagine the sounds of the Beatles at the Cavern Club in Liverpool. And there are those we take to relax in some idyllic spot–diving in the Cayman Islands, hiking the Nepali Coast in Hawaii, reclining on a beach in St. Barts. It is rare that the idyllic spot is also charged with meaning and significance–but that’s the confluence of things that makes the Galapagos so special. 

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Darwin is an inspirational figure for the casual traveler. Setting out on his journey, with hazy notions of a future career in the church, supported by his family’s wealth, his greatest qualities were a boundless curiosity about the natural world, and a willingness to observe things closely and to inquire doggedly into their patterns and meaning. Good fortune brought him to the Galapagos, and his reflections upon what he observed here resulted in a theory that transformed the world. Famously, his publication of these insights did not come until another British scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, wrote to him about his own thoughts on the topic from work he was doing in the Malay Archipelago. Darwin and Wallace unveiled their shared hypothesis in concert, although Darwin’s wealth and connections ensured that he would get the bulk of the credit, and become the primary target of those who found his ideas–particularly those about “the descent of man”—unacceptable. 

Of course, one can have a fantastic time on the Aqua Mare without reading a word by or about Darwin, and the guides will make sure you understand what you are seeing, and place it in a wider context. But if you do start pursuing some of the thoughts that this place engenders, you will experience a different kind of voyage. And these mental travels in turn inspire thoughts of future journeys. This trip raised my curiosity about Alfred Russel Wallace. And as luck would have it, Aqua Expeditions also has a yacht cruising Indonesian waters, where a different set of landscapes harbors another menagerie of unique species. For those who like vacations that both delight the senses and inspire the imagination, it suggests another enthralling destination. 

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