Small Boats & Big Tortoises in the Galapagos

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Writer Ed Wetschler poses with Galapagos’ famous tortoises.
Writer Ed Wetschler poses with Galapagos’ famous tortoises. (Carol Loftus)

When my friend Larry returned from Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, he told me (repeatedly) that he’d found the water too cold for snorkeling. A few months ago, when I returned from the Galapagos, I told him that his skinny pal had felt warm enough. How could this be? Had Ecoventura, the company whose boat my wife and I sailed on, managed to divert the Humboldt (i.e. Antarctic) Current? Or maybe they’d found some way to heat the ocean?

Probably not, although our boat and crew did make us feel good in the water—and out of it—and they helped us squeeze a lifetime of memories into seven days, albeit with an assist from Galapagos National Park, a bucket list UNESCO World Heritage site. This archipelago hundreds of miles off the coast of Ecuador is home to creatures found nowhere else on earth. Some of the islands’ inhabitants (e.g. penguins) have no business even living on the Equator, yet here they are. Moreover, many of the fauna have never had to worry about predators, so they’re unafraid of bipeds. One hour watching some of the oddballs, such as iguanas that swim to get food (try finding that anywhere else), and you can see how these islands upended Charles Darwin’s thinking—so much so that his insights into evolution changed the world.

Ecoventura operates one live-aboard dive vessel and three identical, 10-cabin yachts that sail 7-night itineraries. (In January 2016, the company will launch a new boat; see “Letty Details and Origin of the Origin.”)

Even though our boat, the Letty, and its sisters moored within sight of each other have a combined capacity of about 60 passengers, it’s still smaller than that of some other Galapagos vessels, so we never had to walk or go snorkeling in a crowd. Moreover, the boats stagger their visits to spots on each day’s itinerary, so we never crowded around outnumbered critters, as happens on many safaris. Each 10-cabin boat has two naturalist guides who usually divide the passengers on walks, which further ensured that our groups are small.

So what do you see and do on this Galapagos cruise?

From the very first day, when we landed in San Cristobal and a bus took us to the dock, sea lions greeted us. Naturalist Orlando Romero told me, “We had to build platforms for them in the harbor because they kept jumping into people’s boats.”

About Orlando: Like all Ecoventura guides, he is a professional naturalist. He is so admired by other Galapagos guides that Ivan Lopez, our other guide, declared, “He is like my father. I am his creation!” Maybe, but Ivan, with his funny jokes and serious scuba-diving and naturalist credentials, is his own creation, too, and a delight to travel with.

I hadn’t expected the volcanic Galapagos Islands to have nice beaches, but then we visited San Cristobal’s Cerro Brujo, an endless stretch of deep white sand with a few jet-black rocks visited by birds and sea lions. For 24 hours it was the most beautiful beach I’d ever seen (and remember, I commute to the Caribbean). Then I saw Gardner’s Bay on Española. The world’s best beach? I’d be curious to know your clients’ reactions.

Other landscapes ranged from green (the highlands of Santa Cruz) to Devil’s Crown and Chinese Hat (two very different barren islands with unerringly descriptive names) to the volcanic cones of Bartolome, an isle that astronaut Buzz Aldrin described as the one part of Planet Earth that made him think he was back on the moon.

Bird, bird, bird/Bird is the word: Male frigate birds in a randy mood perched at eye level and inflated their crimson pouches to obscene proportions. A brown hawk of a species I’d never seen sat surprisingly close to the ground, hoping for iguana sashimi. The clumsy, high-steppin’ blue-footed booby mating dance exuded cartoon cuteness. We saw Nazca and red-footed boobies at ground level, too, including one nursing an egg of softball proportions. Saw some chicks, too; as white and fluffy as cottonballs.

We winced as a male marine iguana seized a young female by her neck and tried to force himself upon her. The next day, payback: Every time an iguana tried to swim out for food, sea lion pranksters yanked them back by their tails.

At Punta Cormorant, Floreana, sea turtles and big rays swam less than 10 feet from shore; the hot tub-sized craters on the beach were their nests. At Las Primicias reserve on Santa Cruz, we strolled amid 500-pound land tortoises, transfixed by their bulk and their dinosaur faces. At the Charles Darwin Research Station (interestingly, Darwin is revered in this religious, underdeveloped country), we visited baby tortoises and learned how scientists restore endangered populations. A moment of silence for Lonesome George, a breeding male who was the last of the  subspecies, and considered one of the rarest creatures in the world.

We went snorkeling almost daily. Schools of fish were so thick, I could touch them. Looking down, I’d see harmless whitetip sharks and rays in the sand. Stare ahead, and giant turtles, sea lions, dolphins, and penguins whizzed by. Ecoventura lent us 3/8-inch, full-body wetsuits, not shorties. That’s why we were warmer than you, Larry. Back on board, I didn’t stint on the Bonine, and your clients shouldn’t, either. The crew fed us well, and I wanted to enjoy that.

The Letty is one of Ecoventura’s three boats, with a fourth one expected to join the fleet in January.
The Letty is one of Ecoventura’s three boats, with a fourth one expected to join the fleet in January.

Letty Details and Origin of the Origin
Cabins on the sister boats have captain’s beds and enough storage space to smuggle a baby sea lion. Or to try. Our cabin was on the third deck, so in rough seas it pitched more than cabins on the lower decks, but we liked the light and the lack of engine noise. The second deck had a lounge area where passengers could hang out and hear presentations by the two onboard naturalists. The only evening we stayed up past 9:30 was the one when Ivan pulled out his guitar and sang, “Galapagos, Galapagos, I love to be in paradise.”

The Origin, which launches Jan. 17, 2016 will offer a true luxury alternative to its Superior First Class sisters. All 10 of Origin’s cabins will be on the main deck, so there’ll be less need for climbing staircases when the boat is underway. Each stateroom will have a panoramic window and an airy feel (average size will be 140 sq. ft.). The Origin will have an open bar, optional al fresco dining, satellite TV, a hot tub, and a fitness center, although I can’t imagine wanting to watch TV or work out after a day in the Galapagos.

2016 rates for Letty and her sisters start at $4,300 dbl; rates for Origin will start at $6,500. Some people charter an entire boat; 2016 rates start at $86,100. Travel agent commissions are 10 percent.

contact information
Ecoventura: (305) 262-6264;