My cruise was to depart from the easternmost island of San Cristobál, two hours away from Puerto Ayora by speedboat. It was a long trip; nearly a third of the 18 passengers got sick as the boat launched itself over giant swells, and when I finally boarded the Aida Maria I realized it had been entirely unnecessary. My friendly travel agent had failed to mention that our first stop was to be back on Isla Santa Cruz - we’d pick up the majority of our passengers from Puerto Ayora. The realization that I wasted the better part of two days and 300 dollars only intensified my trepidation that the cruise, ostensibly the purpose of my visit, could not possibly outdo my first five days.
It didn’t - but it wasn’t far behind. The boat was comfortable - even if the seas weren’t - with plenty of good food and company, and an itinerary that revealed an abundance of exotic wildlife that generally lived up to the billing. But the tour mostly lacked the kind of super-sized moments that I thought would set it apart from the day trips I could have taken from Puerto Ayora. I briefly saw a manta ray from the boat, and just that mysterious glance, of a black, stealthy jet gliding elegantly beneath the surface, was breathtaking. Swimming with two sea lion pups was the most fun I’ve had socializing with anything that wasn’t human. And the giant tortoises were both strange and magnificent. Otherwise, what we saw was generally more delicate. I didn’t swim with blue whales or orcas, there were no Komodo dragons (one tourist had mistakenly suggested there would be) and the impressive albatross only migrates through a distant island we didn’t visit.
To prevent overcrowding, the most appealing areas are rationed among boats via a strict permitting system. So our tour was a mix of first and second-rate destinations. The regulations are numerous; guides and boats are given harsh fines if they don’t observe strictly enforced rules, routes, schedules, and boundaries. The environmentalist in me thought it refreshing, the naturalist found it frustrating, but it wasn’t overly restrictive. The Galapagos are remarkable not just for the volume of wildlife, but for the fearlessness of the animals, many of which have evolved without predators. So at various points I found myself within arm’s reach, often considerably less, of sharks, turtles, iguanas, penguins, sea lions, fish, rays, eels and the celebrated blue-footed boobies. Generally speaking, the approachability of the animals is one of the biggest draws of the Galapagos. But it sometimes seems as if the animals have been trained, which together with our obedient “class,” watchful guide, the “employees only” islands, and well marked trails, sometimes left the impression of a field-trip to SeaWorld.
There was still room for a bit of adventure, however. The Aida Maria arrived at a remote and beautiful snorkeling spot to some unsettling news. “I have to inform you,” said Rubén, our friendly and slow-talking guide, “there was a shark attack here earlier today.” We all looked at each other wide-eyed through foggy snorkel masks. “That’s all I know. You can choose to stay in the dingy, if you want.” He paused, then offered, “I didn’t want to tell you, but what if it happened again?” And with that, we splashed into the deep blue waters off the northern shores of Isabella Island.
Needless to say, floating on the surface like sitting ducks was nerve-wracking, especially when we spotted a pair of reef sharks patrolling the shallows. But it was the best part of the week; hugging a seemingly bottomless cliff that was peppered with wildlife, as we swam toward the turquoise waters of a shallow, turtle-filled bay.
I left the Galapagos two days later with a host of exceptional memories and a thorough appreciation of it’s unique splendor. Even if the main event was narrowly overshadowed by the undercard, it was still a lifetime highlight.