The waters were unusually calm, the last rays of an equatorial sun just starting to heat up the surface of a loping Pacific swell. The broad rollers transformed, changing from a deep blue to warm tones of orange and red. The cushy couches on the stern’s upper deck slowly filled, with everyone showered, changed, and ready for a pre-dinner happy hour.
Here, a snatch of conversation about a close-encounter with some sharks, while out snorkeling. Leaning at the bar, a woman, a birdwatcher, apparently, chatted with the gregarious bartender about the rare flightless albatross he spotted. A couple of couples, still a little thrilled from the experience, white wine or whiskies in hand, chattered about a blue-footed boobie who just happened to saunter through their group.
And then, just off the back, as if posted as a soaring sentinel for our little ship, a big, black frigate bird. Not perched, but coasting on the winds. Following us closely into the night, a powerful reminder of all the wildlife we might see tomorrow. In the blink of an eye, the big bird dives, plunging into the water, hunting prey. “We’re off to a good start, guys,” says Walter, our wildlife guide, nodding his head.
I was, of course, in the Galápagos Islands. Sailing for a week aboard a small ship with just 16 guests, the vessel was beautiful—and part of the story. The Grace, famously, was a wedding gift from shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis to Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco.
But here, even on a vessel where one of Hollywood’s brightest luminaries—who became European royalty—spent her honeymoon, the wildlife remained the undisputed stars. There’s really, truly no place on earth like the Galápagos. And the story of how it all came to be shows that we live on remarkable planet, indeed.
Set a little more than 600 miles from the Ecuadorian coast, these 19 islands are, quite literally, a freak of nature. Straddling the equator—we crossed it several times during my voyage—they’re surrounded by waters fueled by three different ocean currents. This confluence bring in a richness of marine life you won’t find anywhere else. Volcanic activity is ongoing here, where three tectonic plates meet. Flows are still active—some of the islands are very old, while others are still being made.
And then, also, the isolation. The Galápagos are a long way from anywhere, untouched by outside interference. To put it simply—these famous islands are weird, in all the best ways. Here, you’ll literally see animals—and animal behavior—you won’t encounter anywhere else on earth.
The development of the crazy array of wildlife here depended on a very special set on conditions. Protected as a national park, marine reserve, and UNESCO World Heritage Site, both land and water teem with life. The islands were only discovered in 1535. But living here isn’t easy—the year-round equatorial heat is intense, and the volcanic terrain is harsh. So these islands remained entirely uninhabited until the 19th century. Until the 1920s, just a few thousand people lived here, but that’s now increased 10-fold (still a relatively small population), spread across four islands.
For the land animals, a question, one that’s never been fully answered, is: how did they get here in the first place? There are theories. For faster swimmers like sea lions and penguins, scientists believe they actually swam here, boosted by swift ocean currents. But the reptiles? Probably rode here on rafts of grass and other vegetation.
The animals here developed fascinating physical adaptations to this unfamiliar and isolated natural environment. Finches that create and use tools. Snakes that eat fish. Penguins that thrive in relatively warm waters. Iguanas that swim. Cormorants who, not finding enough food on land, learn to dive deep underwater for fish and eels. One of the rarest birds on earth, we spotted a few of the 1,500 remaining flightless cormorants that live on just two islands (Fernandina and Isabela), their wings withered and tiny compared with their commoner cousins.
And while the diversity and uniqueness of the species are probably the most remarkable part of the Galápagos, it’s how they act that really strikes you. Even from the first minutes on the islands. Landing at the airport at Baltra, you’re processed through a sort of immigration check before leaving the airport, despite the fact that most flights arrive from mainland Ecuador—a domestic flight.
Taking a short bus ride to a little port that dispatches tenders to the ships in the nearby bay, sea lions immediately surround. Chilling on the path. Taking a little dip in the tidal pools. Relaxing on park benches, as if waiting, Forrest Gump-like, for a city bus.
No fear of us humans, walking by, inches away. And it wasn’t just the sea lions. Boobies—nasca, blue-and-red footed—waddled by, right through our tour group. You could almost imagine them saying, “excuse me, “pardon me,” as if trying to get through to board a busy subway train at rush hour.
On Fernandina Island, an aquatic iguana literally walked right under me, through my legs. He was an alpha male, and made a distinctive head-shaking motion. I asked the guide if he was trying to threaten me. “I hate to break it to you, but you’re nothing to him,” he said, with a smile. “He only cares about being the boss of other iguanas.” Swimming out to sea, the animal sunk below the water to feed on green algae—a truly unique sight we’d spot later, while snorkeling.
Animals here have had few natural predators over their evolution, so they feel rather comfortable, even among humans. And on one of our last days, we saw the absolute icon of this place—a tortoise. “Before you, the most enigmatic creature of the Galápagos,” Walter said, noting that they can grow to 700 pounds and live up to 200 years.
Making his way down the path in front of us, none too concerned. An unforgettable sight. Just one of so many, in a place where the wildlife, just living their lives in this far-flung place, perform magic, every single day.
When You Go
Fly: With no direct international flights, all routes to the Galápagos run through either Quito or Guayaquil in Ecuador. From there, the majority of domestic connections land at Seymour Airport (sometimes branded Galapagos Ecologic Airport) on Baltra Island (GPS). It is an open-air, LEED-Gold certified building.
Getting Around: While hotel-based adventures are possible here, the best way to see the most wildlife is on a ship. A number of lines offer itineraries, and most are relatively small.
Stay: The Grace Yacht, part of Quasar Expeditions, is a historic and beautiful ship. Hosting just 16 guests, it comes equipped with sea kayaks and snorkel gear and a hot tub to relax after your busy explorations. State rooms are comfortable and unfussy. Guides have decades of experience, which they share both in enrichment briefings and during twice-daily excursions. Most itineraries run for seven days.
Take Note: Some paperwork is required to enter the Galapagos, which is governed by special laws to promote conservation and preserve the natural environment. While your expedition company should advise and take care of the details, you can find out more, here: Galapagos.org/travel/planning-a-trip/