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Animal Magnetism

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Four More Noteworthy Galapágos Tours

The measure of a trip is sometimes the number of photos we bring back from it. Other times it's the degree of remove we achieve, or how hard it is to face home at vacation's end. But the one that's most important to me is how often memories from a trip return unbidden, deepening and complicating ordinary life.

By all these measures, the Galápagos Islands are my favorite destination. I first visited in 1984, right out of grad school, with my mother, aunt, uncle, and cousin. We flew to the coast of Ecuador and then chugged out into the wide Pacific for three days in an old boat called the Bucanero (Buccaneer), since retired; the long passage seemed the perfect preamble to an unreal place where giant Seuss-like albatross babies waited for their parents in twig nests on the ground, penguins swam across the equator, and frigate birds with scissor tails swooped scarily overhead. Then last August, nearly 20 years later, I returned, this time flying all the way—a loss—but with my wife, children, mother (again!), and two sisters and their families—a clear gain. And as our plane neared the Galápagos island of Baltra, with its scrubby vegetation and short stretches of sandy beach edged by dark, volcanic rock, one of those memories came back, an experience I hoped now to share with my kids: a rendezvous with sea lions.

Of all the Galápagos's famously approachable wildlife, these cheerful animals are just about the only ones that pay any attention to you. Languorous on the beach, they are playful and supercharged in the water. On my first snorkeling foray, alone in a small cove, I'd seen some gamboling in the distance and began swimming in their direction. I was nervous about sharks, however—there are a few species of them in the Galápagos, too—and when my peripheral vision caught a dark torpedo shooting toward me, I scrunched quickly into the fetal position to meet the attack. But it wasn't a shark, it was a sea lion; frightened, it turned sharply away. In a while, other sea lions appeared; one came right up to my mask and had a look inside. I even managed to stay still as another brushed under my belly, leaving a field of tiny bubbles in its wake. To this day the encounter has made me think about the good things we miss in life due to reflexive fear.

Of course, this is not the larger meaning of the Galápagos for most people. Naturalist Charles Darwin visited these sere, volcanic islands over five weeks in 1835 on a sailing ship called the Beagle. He noticed that the finches on each island had beaks that were slightly different from the finches on every other island; years later, back in England, his observations led to ideas about how the pressures of natural selection give rise to distinct species. This in turn became the basis for his theory of evolution, one of the intellectual milestones of humankind.

On our flight to Baltra, some people are reading Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle; others have a prizewinning book called The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution In Our Time, which describes the way two Princeton-based biologists, a husband and wife, continue to refine the ideas of Darwin on the Galápagos island of Daphne Major. My daughter, Nell, six, is sitting by her mom, quietly drawing pictures of airplanes and family members in her journal. But my son, Asa, eight, next to the window, is peering with concern at the land below. From the start he's been deeply skeptical of this excursion. Though Asa is a longtime lover of birds and lizards, his interest is not purely scientific: above all, he's a (catch-and-release) hunter. We've been worried that the bounteous Galápagos wildlife might frustrate more than inspire him, due to the islands' strict rules against touching or taking.

And now, moments after the plane has landed, comes the first test. As passengers line up for customs—and to tread through a shallow pan of disinfectant meant to keep diseases off the islands—Asa discovers a decomposing rat under a cactus just outside the terminal gate. Using sticks, he handily extracts the rodent's lower jaw, with two incisors intact. "Can I keep it, Dad?" he begs. Furtively, I look around; no adult is watching. I hand him an empty sandwich bag from my pack. "This time only," I say, rationalizing that rats are not the focus of the islands' preservation laws.

Since 97 percent of the Galápagos archipelago (some 54,000 square miles) is an Ecuadorean national park, human habitation is restricted mainly to oneof the 14 larger islands, and visitors—most of them, like us, on seven-night tours—live on boats, with daily trips to the various islands. Almost all of these vessels are modest in size, holding 30 to 40 passengers. But we have signed on with Lindblad Expeditions, a big company and a touring pioneer in these parts, whose ship, the Polaris, dwarfs most others.

I tend to associate big with bad, but the Polaris is not one of today's floozy ocean liners. Built in 1961 as a Swedish ferry, it has a somewhat prim and Nordic feel. There is a lot of lacquered wood, all-weather carpeting, a lounge with seventies rec-room décor, and a dining room where you feel you should use good manners. Every chair swivels and is bolted to the floor. The stairways are steep and exciting, the rooms cozy and creaky. We are transported to and from the Polaris, moored just offshore, by its fleet of rubber pangas—inflatable, 12-person Zodiac boats with outboard motors that are the typical link, in the Galápagos, between mother ship and shore. Upon arrival, we are led to our rooms, fire-drilled, fitted for wet suits (if we plan to snorkel or dive), and shown the lay of the land: the library of science books and fiction, the bridge (visitors welcome at all hours), the gift shop, e-mail room, and outside decks. And we meet our fellow passengers.

There are about 75 paying guests, many of them drawn to this particular journey because it's one of Lindblad's "family trips." That means it has a children's activity leader (otherwise a science teacher at a Bay Area school) who coordinates games, crafts, and scavenger hunts tailored to each island; a kids' dinner hour so adults can eat separately later; and a larger-than-usual number of young passengers, so that our kids never lack companions. Besides the families, there's a flock from the Massachusetts Audubon Society, whom it's fun to eavesdrop on every evening in the lounge as they discuss who has seen the dark-rumped petrel or white-cheeked pintail, to add them to their life lists.

And then there is the staff. Days begin about 7 a.m. with the gentle, BBC-calm voice of British-born Emma Ridley, our expedition leader, on the intercom in every cabin: "Good morning, everyone, good morning!" A trained biologist, Emma is a consummately organized, upbeat, and knowledgeable chief: "For those who'd like the early walk on Floreana [or whatever island we are near], the pangas will be leaving in fifteen minutes. Breakfast will begin at eight. The main panga departures will begin at nine-thirty with boats for those wishing to snorkel after the walk; we will also have a glass-bottomed boat leaving at ten-thirty. Sign up at the desk." Emma runs the evening wrap-ups in the lounge, in which she goes over what we've seen that day and its significance, ably assisted by various children who are ready to answer when asked the color of a Sally Lightfoot crab's eyes, the diet of a marine iguana, or the natural predators of a sea lion.

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