“Please avoid stepping on the marine iguanas,” Ivan, my naturalist guide for the afternoon, quietly whispered to me.
I was so busy taking photographs of a family of blue-footed boobies – the mother and father’s feet so blue it matched the sky, the baby a big white ball of fluff too young for the colorful extremities for which this species is known – that I did not even see the marine iguanas walking on the trail.
Here on Espanola Island, the marine iguanas are red, and their complete lack of fear meant that they often cut across the path, regardless of the photo-snapping American tourists in their way.
Welcome to the Galapagos Islands, one of the most unique wilderness ecosystems in the world, where it’s not uncommon for colorful animals – some found nowhere else on the planet – to personally welcome visitors to their paradise.
In 1835, the Galapagos received a visitor who would change the islands – and the world – forever.
Charles Darwin, only 26 years old at the time, embarked on a round-the-world voyage aboard the HMS Beagle as part of the English Admiralty’s worldwide mapping efforts. Sailing from Tierra del Fuego and up the coast of Chile and Peru, Darwin arrived and spent five weeks studying the fauna of the Galapagos.
Darwin learned that it was possible to distinguish which island a tortoise came from by the shape of its shell. His observations about the differences between the variety of giant tortoises and later, finches, made Darwin realize a species adapts to its environment as a survival technique. Years later, in 1859, his theory came to light in "The Origin of the Species."
While native creatures of the Galapagos adapt to their surroundings, the environment itself is fragile, and the emphasis now is on preserving the islands in their natural state. Today, nearly 97percent of the archipelago and all of its waters is an Ecuadorian national park with strict rules to minimize human impact.
What makes the Galapagos Islands so unique – in addition to its local inhabitants – is the fact that the islands are completely oceanic, meaning that none have ever been connected to the mainland.
All 19 islands and 42 islets rose from the ocean floor, products of repeated volcanic eruptions. These islands are considered some of the most active volcanic places in the world.
What can you expect from a cruise in the Galapagos? In a word: animals. Amazingly beautiful and often funny-looking animals are everywhere, and they have been isolated so long and with so few predators that they have no fear of humans. You can get just feet away from penguins and albatross, and they will not run away. They are often as curious about you as you are about them.
In North Seymour Island, we walked among some of the largest breeding colonies in the Galapagos to witness the courtship of the frigate birds. The male has a large red throat pouch that puffs up big and bright to attract the female. A group of males, showing off for the ladies, waited patiently for the females to take note of their presence. The females are quite choosy – they look closely at the bright red bubbles to judge gene superiority – but after all, this is the land of survival of the fittest. I was hoping to see the courtship dance of the blue-footed boobies, and they willingly obliged. They comically mimic each other in their cartoon-like dance.
On Isla Espanola, the southernmost island of the archipelago and a favorite of many visitors, a volcano covers more than 23 square miles. This island has a high concentration of wildlife, including sea lions, Galapagos hawks and both blue-footed and Nazca boobies. In May and June, you can witness the beak-cracking mating ritual of the albatross.
On the island of Santa Cruz, you can see the land iguanas that exist nowhere else in the world. On Fernandina Island, you can observe the flightless cormorants, also existing nowhere else but here. We went snorkeling with penguins – the only tropical penguins in the world – off Bartolome Island and stood inches away from bright orange and red Sally Lightfoot crabs on Isla Santiago.
One highlight is the giant tortoises found on Santa Cruz Island. Visit the Charles Darwin Research Center in the morning to see giant tortoises, then head to the highlands to see these enormous creatures in the wild.
When cruising the Galapagos, visitors have a choice in ship size. The Celebrity Xpedition is the largest ship in the Galapagos, with a maximum capacity of 100 passengers and 67 crew members. This ship is perfect for travelers who want the luxury of a big liner – great food, open-air lounges, Internet and game area, two bars, Jacuzzi, sunbathing area – but the intimacy of a ship where everyone interacts with each other. Friendships, the kind often forged during travel in which guests spend 24/7 together, are quickly formed.
Each day, a variety of excursions are offered in the morning and afternoon. One high-intensity excursion is climbing to the top of Bartolome Island – the one-mile trail includes 358 wooden steps – to see amazing 360-degree views of the surrounding Galapagos Islands. The panoramic view is well worth the climb. A low-intensity excursion is a short walk with a naturalist in search of flamingos. Walks, zodiac rides and snorkeling activities are offered almost every day.
There’s no bad time to go to the Galapagos, but the weather and animal behavior depend on the season.
From December through May, the air and water are warm, which makes it a great time for snorkeling. It’s not uncommon to snorkel with turtles, sea lions and a variety of tropical fish. This is considered the rainy season, so it drizzles almost daily for a short time. Ironically, this is also the sunniest time of year. This is the breeding season for land birds, so you can see some unusual mating rituals. The seas tend to be smooth sailing.
From June through November, the weather is cooler, which makes it great for walks and hikes. The water is a bit cold at this time, though, so a wet suit is needed for snorkeling and diving, and the sea can be a bit rough. The highlight is that the albatross arrive at this time of year, and the blue-footed boobies perform their famous mating dance.
Regardless of the time of year, the animals are energetic and inquisitive, so close encounters happen often. Just remember to watch where you step – there could be a sea lion or iguana under foot.