Galápagos Islands: Trip of a Lifetime

Sunset on our first day at sea

A Galapagos Islands tour was the very first thing we booked for this holiday, and I really don’t know if we can have a better time than our week in the Galapagos Islands. (But we’re going to try.)

The Galapagos has a wonderful air of mystery and enticement because of the whole Charles Darwin thing. (Forgetting the “and then we ate them” commentary in Voyage of the Beagle.) It’s a lot of hype to live up to, and thankfully nature is still up to the challenge in the Galapagos.

Those eyes…

Obviously the variety of animals is great, but you don’t really see that directly because the different species evolved on different islands. You don’t get to compare finches or tortoises side-by-side, and there’s only so interested I can be in slight differences in birds. What you do get, though, is abundance. Birds in the hundreds, turtles by the dozen, more sea lions than you should poke a stick at. (OK, the number of sea lions you should poke a stick at is zero, so that’s a freebie.)

Sea lions have a different perspective on “personal space”

The Galapagos is popular — it’s a dream destination — which is why I was pleasantly surprised at the solitude we managed to find. The cause was a combination of good management by the Ecuadorian government, which runs a restricted schedule for each of the boats allowed to land in each site, and the efforts of our naturalist guide and ship crew to keep our small group away from the throng. For most of the week it was just the 16 of us alone with nature.

Ghost crab. I lay in waiting for 10 minutes for this photo. Just afterwards I saw a single baby turtle race down the beach to the sea.

It was the most incredible week. Every day included a few different landing sites, some walks, some boat rides, a snorkel, three delicious meals, snacks, laughter. If we had just done the “standard” Galapagos it would have been great. For example:

Giant tortoises
Land and marine iguanas
Lava and whale bones
Boobies and Finches. I love the little guy on the left — a baby bird in a bird onesie.
Sally Lightfoot crabs
Cactii and colours
Sea Lions. The lizard has a symbiotic relationship, eating the flies that are attracted to the moisture in the sea lion’s eyes.
Cliffs, rivers, birds

See? Pretty amazing.

But we got unexpected extras. Some because of luck, and some because of the amazing naturalist and crew. Early in the trip, our naturalist (i.e. guide) explained that he loved being on the Grace because the captain and company allowed flexibility in their schedule. On day two we were travelling between islands and saw whale spouts in the distance. The boat shifted direction and over the next our or so we roamed back and forth to find tropical whales and a blue whale. I never expected to actually see a blue whale, and suddenly I’m watching a giant tail flop out of the water. (I snapped a photo on my phone but it’s about as interesting as you’d expect.) We were told that seeing the tail coming out of the water is a rare treat. The next day we saw another blue whale. Every time it disappeared under the water there was a groan of disappointment when there was no tail flip.

On the south coast of Western Australia we watched a pod of about a dozen dolphins surfing through the breaking waves far below us. Until then I’d only ever seen one or two dolphins at a time. In the Galapagos we had a pod of 6 or 7 swim in the bow wave of our boat for about 15 minutes. They looked so joyful.

More photogenic than a whale
Dolphin swimming in our bow wave.

In a mangrove area we were fortunate to get one of the three kayaks, late in the afternoon, while the main group went exploring on one of the pangas (zodiac-type small boats). As well as being wonderfully peaceful and relaxing, we found a white-tipped reef shark breeding ground and watched about 20 sharks of different sizes swimming right beneath us.

By the end of the week we had seen so many spectacular things. Whales, dolphins, sea lions, fur sea lions, false killer whales, manta rays, octopodes, sharks, snakes. There wasn’t much left to see that was even remotely possible.

Galapagos snake and manta rays

Except orcas.

We got back from an excursion and the boat set off for the next landing point. I washed off my sweat and sunscreen and had just sat down with my Kindle and a glass of water when the call went out: orcas! The boat did a quick turn to follow the pod of four orcas that had just passed us. The boat behind us turned as well. Then the other boat left.

Our captain called down the pangas. I raced inside to grab the waterproof camera while Lucy jumped into the first panga with her SLR. I just made it into the second before we zoomed off in pursuit. We spent the next 45 minutes zipping back and forth with the orcas — two mothers and two young — swimming right next to us. Me with my arms in the water up to my elbows, hoping to get a good photo or video from my 5-year-old waterproof point-and-shoot. (At the airport on the way in we had another discussion about whether to buy a GoPro. I said no, we wouldn’t use it enough to justify it, and we walked past the duty free store. Damn my thrifty upbringing!) Meanwhile, Lucy had her phone.

We were so close I could feel their spray on my face.

Thank you!

Thanks to the amazing crew of the Grace, and the unbelievable naturalist Rafa, who made this not just a great week but the most incredible week of my life.

Rafa (centre, in the grey shirt) and the crew

And thanks to my Dad who made it possible to choose the Grace over that other boat — the one that paused for 30 seconds to see the orcas and then sped off to their next scheduled stop.

You stay classy, Galapagos.