Time is rushing by. On our last full day, my brother-in-law Ken, a former gymnast, decides to cap a glorious week by diving from the bow of the boat, anchored off the shore of Santiago Island. He plunges into the water like a booby in pursuit of a sardine. Told afterward by a crew member that this is very much against the rules, we wonder if there will be a repercussion at dinner—our clan has been invited to dine at the captain's table.
But either he's unaware of who committed the transgression or he's a gentleman. Probably the latter, because Captain Eduardo Neira is, quite frankly, more than you could ever hope for in a ship captain. He is a romance novelist's dream—fortyish, handsome, mustachioed, and dressed in a gleaming white uniform. And he is also an ecologist's dream, a former Galápagos naturalist who had joined Ecuador's merchant marine and seen the world before returning to the place he most loves. (When Neira spots boats fishing illegally within the 51,350-square-mile Galápagos Marine Reserve, he gets on the radio and reports them to the authorities.) And, finally, he is a New Ager's dream: a vegetarian who doesn't drink and practices yoga. (I know this because my sister saw him on the deck at dusk, meditating.) Not only that, but he sings and plays the guitar. One night in the lounge, we hear his quiet English and Spanish versions of "Feelin' Groovy" and "Bésame Mucho." My mother and wife sit on either side of him at dinner and gawk.
Despite all this, I have to admit that even I like Neira. He tells a great story of getting the boat's 2,000-pound anchor stuck off Genovesa Island and diving down himself in scuba gear to try to dislodge it. (He was unsuccessful—so they cut it loose and had to buy another.) He spends a few weeks a year helping out at a school he founded near the village where he grew up. He is utterly unassuming. About the Galápagos, he says, "Whoever comes here gets to be happier than before." And this, I think, is true, just as true as the other point about a Galápagos voyage: that whoever comes here has to consider, in a sobering way, the planet that existed before colonies of humans displaced so many other beings.
"Dad, can we come back?" Asa asks on our last day. Besides getting exceptionally close to countless cool animals, he has had a blast with his cousins and a new friend, Justin, whom they met on board. The members of their jolly band even have nicknames, which Emma Ridley, in an act of sublime indulgence, has embossed onto blue name badges just like Lindblad's official ones. CHEESE BOY announces cousin Ian's; SUNNY JIM says Justin's. Asa's reads MONKEY MAN (and he will wear it for weeks to come).
That afternoon I watch my daughter as she stands in waist-deep water, not far from her swimming mom, on Bartolomé Island. She's moving her fingertips across the surface and then cocking her head, apparently trying to glimpse what is underneath. I ask her later what she was up to. "Looking for baby sea lions," she explains—which, in fact, she's done since our first day's visit to Española Island, where we got near some overaged babies, three-year-olds that were cuddled next to their mothers, nursing.
And one evening back at home, there on the table is a new drawing by Nell of a girl in a swimsuit standing in the ocean, fingers extended below the surface. Only this time, you can see what's underwater, and it's enough to give me deep satisfaction: there's a sea lion on either side of her, smiling.
TED CONOVER's latest book, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.