This Brand-new Superyacht Will Sail the Galápagos — and Bring You to Snorkel With Penguins

Aqua Expeditions' new ship sets sail in the Ecuadorian archipelago.

Aqua Mare small cruise ship, luxury interiors
Photo: Courtesy of Aqua Expeditions

I never knew snorkeling with penguins was on my travel list until it happened.

I was sitting on the edge of the yacht, clad in a full-body wetsuit, trying to work up the courage to slide into the 68-degree water off the Galápagos' Santiago Island. Dipping my toe into the sea, I shivered.

"Pingüino, pingüino!" cried out one brave snorkeler who had already made the plunge. And that was all the encouragement I needed.

Penguins on a rock formation near the ocean
Stefanie Waldek

I was in the Galápagos Islands for the second time, and my top wish was to see the world's northernmost penguins, which had eluded me on my last trip. And this spectacular underwater encounter with the precious little birds — who bobbed at the surface amongst our group of swimmers before elegantly gliding off into the distance — happened on the third day. Three times, in fact, across two different snorkel sites off the island of Santiago. And then again the following day off an entirely different island.

On this adventure, I was traveling the Galápagos on Aqua Expeditions' brand-new Aqua Mare, the first superyacht to make permanent berth in the volcanic archipelago. Since he founded the expedition company in 2007, launching a riverboat on the Peruvian Amazon, Francesco Galli Zugaro longed to bring a ship to the Ecuadorian islands. A few years ago, he finally got his opportunity. He designed a yacht for the destination, but right when construction was set to begin, the pandemic struck. So instead of dealing with potential delays at the shipyard, Zugaro decided to purchase an existing vessel, the 163.3-foot Dr. No No, and customize it to his needs.

Aqua Mare small cruise ship, luxury interiors
Courtesy of Aqua Expeditions

Though rechristened as the Aqua Mare in joining the Aqua Expeditions fleet, the yacht retains many of its original features, such as the elegant wood paneling found in the cabins and indoor communal spaces, which include a living room and bar, a dining room, and a "beach club" that's both a lounge and a prep space for snorkeling. (There are also two outdoor spaces: another dining room and a rooftop sun deck that serves as a third dining venue and has a hot tub.) Zugaro did, however, add two cabins, bringing the full capacity of the ship to 16 guests across seven staterooms, the star of which is the 861-square-foot Owner's Suite.

Aqua Mare small cruise ship, luxury interiors
Courtesy of Aqua Expeditions
Aqua Mare small cruise ship, luxury interiors
Courtesy of Aqua Expeditions

"The opportunity to book a cabin on a superyacht like this is very rare," Zugaro tells me over lunch on the sun deck during our sailing, noting that most yachts require full charters. "That Owner's Suite is the top suite in the Galápagos. It's beautiful, absolutely beautiful. But just to be able to book that and not have to pay for the rest of the ship — that's a nice little premium."

It makes for an interesting collection of passengers, too. While most sailings will likely have several different groups split between couples, families, and perhaps even solo travelers, mine originally had just two: me and a nine-person, three-generation family. (Zugaro and his family joined us halfway through the journey.)

At first, I was concerned about the awkwardness: how bizarre to 10th-wheel a vacationing family, particularly when we spoke different languages. But, as Zugaro later pointed out to me, everyone booking a cabin on the Aqua Mare does so knowing they will likely be sharing the ship, meaning most guests will embark with a convivial attitude. And that was absolutely true of the marvelous family with whom I traveled. It only took a few shared meals of exquisite Latin American dishes — many of them seafood-based — before we acted as if we were truly one big family. And we have quite a few "family" photos to prove it.

Aqua Mare small cruise ship, luxury interiors
Courtesy of Aqua Expeditions

The Aqua Mare certainly holds up to its name regarding not only the cuisine on board, but also the activities offered to guests. We were typically in the rather, ahem, refreshing water at least twice a day, not including a few kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding excursions. (We also made landfall daily, trekking across craggy, sinister lava flows, or up the Mars-like slopes of a volcano, or along the edge of cliffs lined with pairs of waved albatross and blue-footed boobies incubating eggs or tending to young chicks — all exceptional experiences, too.)

During the aquatic adventures, I was, if you'll excuse the pun, a fish out of water among the group. Mi familia, as I soon called my shipboard companions, was a family of avid scuba divers. I, on the other hand, used to fear the abyss, though years of informal exposure therapy have yielded very positive results. "We try to push guests out of their comfort zone a little bit," Zugaro says, noting that many people, like myself, are hesitant to spend so much time in the cold water. "But that's when those 'wow moments' are created."

Aqua Mare small cruise ship, luxury interiors
Courtesy of Aqua Expeditions

In the case of our snorkel off the island of Bartolomé, we were submarine clouds drifting over a sandy plain of colorful sea stars. "It's as if the sky fell into the sea," our dynamic guide Yvonne Mórtola, a Galápagos resident for nearly 40 years, remarked to me on the surface. Her favorite star, she said, is the speckled Nidorellia armata, rightfully nicknamed the chocolate-chip star for its delectable-looking brown spines. As for me, I was mesmerized by the kaleidoscopic patterns of the Pentaceraster cumingi, or Panamic cushion star.

We swam along the coastline, encountering old lava flows that tripped over one another as they snaked into the deep water, like tree roots you'd find in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Or, more fantastically, like the architecture of a lost Amazonian city as imagined on a Hollywood set. As I was inspecting a particularly intriguing lava rock formation, I noticed that the school of black-striped salemas that had been bobbing beneath me with the ebb and flow of the sea had suddenly scattered — fast.

A penguin swims underwater
Ann Margolis

Pingüino.

A sole penguin zipped by, followed by a string of tiny bubbles like an airplane by its contrail. I abandoned my rock to follow its hunt. After the penguin outswam me — not a very difficult task — I turned around in time to spot a whitetip reef shark nonchalantly cruising by, as if it, too, had been enjoying the show. So it goes in the Galápagos.

Rainbow over the ocean from Aqua Mare ship
Stefanie Waldek
Seals in the water, enjoying it
Stefanie Waldek

Our final snorkeling excursions on the expedition didn't bring us more of my beloved Galápagos penguins. They are, after all, an endangered species, with an estimated 2,000 left in the wild. But I wasn't disappointed. "Let's go play with the sea lions," smiled Yvonne as she slipped into the water, and mi familia and I followed.

Rates for a seven-night itinerary on Aqua Mare start at $9,450 per person; book your trip here.

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