I Swam With Baby Sea Lions and Watched Blue-footed Boobies Mate Off a Luxury Yacht in the Galapagos
On an otherwise vacant beach, we gather around two blue-footed boobies immersed in a stomping courtship dance on a small bluff. We keep our distance, but they don't seem to notice (or care) that 11 people are watching and photographing their every move.
I'm amazed at our luck. It's our first day aboard the Integrity, a luxury yacht that will be our home as we travel around the western Galápagos Islands with INCA (International Nature & Culture Adventures). Little do I know now that another boobie is nesting just down the beach, or that in the coming days we will see hundreds (or maybe thousands) of the iconic blue-footed birds, including brand-new hatchlings and awkward, long-necked toddlers.
This is the norm in the Galápagos. Animals are everywhere, often in large groups, and don't seem too bothered by us — in fact some choose to sun themselves or nest right in the middle of the trail, watching us scurry around them without concern.
"This is a primordial place, so it's kind of similar to the way that the earth was before man got there. We luckily caught [the Galápagos] in time where it was kind of like what it was like before we got here — the fearlessness of the animals and the relatively pristine environment," explains Richard Polatty, our fearless leader and onboard naturalist who's worked with INCA for 30 years.
And that is what makes the Galápagos feel distinct from anywhere I've ever been — after that first boobie sighting, we shuffle ankle-deep along the beach happily yelping when stingrays slide over our feet, watch a great blue heron raid a sea turtle nest, and swim with 50 Galápagos sea lion pups, who mock our clumsy flips and dives.
And it's just the first day.
Over the course of INCA's 10-day Origins of Species tour, we watch as a flightless cormorant and octopus fight to the death underwater and hold our breath as a six-foot reef shark glides below us. We see hundreds of giant land tortoises (which can weigh up to 900 pounds) and swimming marine iguanas, and spot Galápagos fur seals, frigatebirds, flamingos, and Galápagos penguins.
"The brochures don't lie," Polatty laughs.
They really don't.
The quantity and diversity of animals, and their lack of fear of people, is thanks to protection efforts by the Galápagos National Park (which protects 97 percent of the land area) and the Galápagos Marine Reserve. Polatty, who has been guiding in the park for 37 years, says "the same things that I would see 25 or 35 years ago are largely unchanged," noting that "43 percent of the life you see statistically occurs nowhere else in the world, so if you want to see unique life you've gotta come here."
The animal-heavy experience is amplified by the fact that I am on a yacht with just nine other guests and a similar-sized staff. During our 10-day expedition, we only run into another tour group twice; for the most part we have every trail and snorkeling spot to ourselves. It's a far cry from people-packed cruise ships and tours where you can barely hear the guide.
When we're not tromping in Darwin's footsteps on a human-free island or watching two octopus mate below the surface of the water, we're enjoying the high-life aboard the yacht — cool towels, icy drinks, and homemade snacks welcome us back aboard after an excursion, and we have access to Wi-Fi, a rooftop hot tub, and a cozy lounge and library area. Three full meals — including a full-service, multi-course dinner — mark our days (as does the daily homemade sorbet and pie).
Time passes quickly, as it always does when you're doing something wonderful, and before I know it, we're taking our last dinghy ride from the yacht — this time into the mangroves, a hot spot for stingrays and baby reef sharks. My expectations are low, maybe we'll see one or two, I think. But I should know better. In the Galápagos, "one or two" is next to impossible. Within minutes, a handful of baby sharks and stingrays have passed within arm's reach of our dinghy and right when we're about to head back to the yacht, the Galápagos gives us one final gift — a group of 10 baby sharks feeding furiously on small fish while rays glide by in the foreground.
It's a sendoff only the Galápagos could pull off.
To help keep the Galápagos wild, lend your support to the Galapagos Conservancy.