5 Reasons Cruising Galapagos Wasn’t What I Expected. At All!
5 Reasons Cruising Galapagos Wasn’t What I Expected. At All!
Despite my research and preparations, at the end of a busy second day out exploring the Galapagos, on my Silver Origin cruise, it dawned on me that there were 5 things I could see that I had not fully appreciated before coming.
Sail away with me to discover what a Galapagos cruise is really like, and why for some, it should not be on their bucket list!
The first surprise I had once there was around the landscape of the Galapagos.
While I found the Galapagos landscape unique, I had wrongly, from the videos I had watched, expected to be impressed by its constant majesty, as I had on my other expedition cruises to the Arctic or Antarctica.
While there were some memorable parts, like walking on the unworldly lava field at Sullivan Bay Santiago and an unexpected beach at Cerro Brujo on San Cristobal, overall it lacked the splendour and WOW of other expedition regions.
What was more interesting was the story of the landscapes and how they are rough and harsh from their volcanic creation.
Secondly, as a more casual nature and wildlife fan, I began the cruise thinking that the wildlife sightings lacked a WOW factor – there were no “bucket list” massive beasts, like the big five on an African safari, polar bears and walruses in the Arctic, or sprawling penguin colonies and pods of whales as in Antarctica.
But, through the week, I came to appreciate this is what makes it unique. There are no large land mammals because the wildlife on the Galapagos had to find their way there. They are a thousand kilometres off the coast of Ecuador, and wildlife originally flew there or are believed to have drifted across the ocean stuck on floating vegetation.
Five key groups
I saw five key wildlife groups, that I came to appreciate. The highlight for me were the Giant Tortoises, probably what the island are best known for. The many inquisitive Galapagos Sea Lions at pretty much every place we visited. Lazy Iguanas, like the Marina Iguanas and Galapagos Land Iguana, laying about sunning themselves. Frisky Galapagos Penguins in the western Fernandina and the Isabela Islands due to the cold currents there.
I came to appreciate the birds too, including Red-footed Boobies, Blue-footed Boobies, Nazca Boobies, Giant Frigatebirds, Darwin finches, and Brown Pelicans.
Though a big revelation was the variety of marine life I saw snorkelling, like some of the apparently over 500 species of fish, Rays, sharks, and turtles.
Up close and personal
It was on my first hike at Darwin Bay on Genovesa that one of the best parts of wildlife viewing in the Galapagos revealed itself. They are not bothered by humans at all. I could walk right by and up to the iguanas, birds, and sea lions. So close that I never once needed to use the zoom lens I’d packed and had to use on every other expedition cruise and safari.
Over the course of the week, I estimate 95% of guests ended up using their iPhone to take photos as they could get so close.
I did use this, my small Sony Rx 100 which has a good zoom, only so I could get tight close-up detail of wildlife like this Iguana and this baby bird chick to use in my videos, but just as easily I used my iPhone to get these close ups of baby Sea Lions.
During my week I realised that while Galapagos is probably more a destination for true nature lovers, like my nephews who adore birds, reptiles, and fish, a more casual lover like me can be thrilled by getting up so close.
The brochures made it sound like this would be pretty much like other expedition trips I have been on, and as I was going with the same company (Silversea) I thought it would be. However, there were five things that I found were very different and unique to a Galapagos one.
First, 100% of the crew on all Galapagos ships must be Ecuadorian nationals. There is no foreign crew at any level as on other expedition cruises.
In fact, the Expedition team were all Galapagos residents, as to be a licensed guide in the Galapagos National Park they must be.
The cuisine was mostly regional dishes, using locally sourced ingredients.
It was a fuller, more demanding, and tiring schedule than any expedition cruise I’ve been on.
I had three active activities off the ship per day, with early starts of 7:00 AM or 8:00 AM for the first.
Every day there were hikes with a dry or wet landing off the zodiac. A wet landing is where we had to step off the zodiac into the water, like we did at Darwin Bay.
Most hikes were called “adventurous” like at Prince Philips’ Steps on Genovesa where we had to climb up and then down 30 steep rocky steps to go sightseeing or like at North Seymour clambering over rocks along the path. A few were “easy” like that relaxed walk along that sandy beach at Cerro Brujo Beach San Cristobal.
Another key daily activity was snorkelling. I quickly realised after day one, that anyone that didn’t go snorkelling missed out on a significant chunk of what there is to see here.
Some of my most remarkable outings were snorkelling. On some, I had a sea lion scooting around me, groups of turtles wafting by, beautiful fish all around, rays, and even sharks.
Into the highlands
Another important, but less frequent activity was heading away from the coast into the highlands. This is where the Giant Tortoises are. We did this twice, once on Santa Cruz Island’s Montemar Tortoise Reserve, which is on the tortoise migration path. Here I saw dozens of tortoises.
The other was to San Cristobal’s Tortoise Breeding Centre, where we got to see both adult tortoises and the baby tortoises they are rearing to release into the wild.
The final activity were zodiac rides in places where we were not allowed to land. We did one at Punta Mangle Fernandina Island and at nearby Punto Moreno Isabela Island. Here is where we got close to the Galapagos Penguins seeking food while Pelicans were diving into the sea all around fishing.
This is how the day went. Two activities in the morning, lunch as the ship moved to a new location, an afternoon activity, a short break before the 6:45pm lecture and 7:15pm briefing for the next day. Then dinner and bed ready for the early start.
By the way, there was no entertainment as such. Other than a pianist who played during drinks before the talk, after dinner and at lunch. There was one cooking class and one trivia on the last evening.
Based on all this, I also realised the Galapagos is even less suitable for mobility restricted or less active travellers than any other expedition cruise I have been on.
Everything requires climbing in and out of zodiacs, sometimes with a swell. The ship never docks, so even to embark and disembark requires going on a zodiac.
As I mentioned, the hikes were mostly over rocks or steps to get to see the best wildlife, and going snorkelling is key.
It does not seem that many boats or ships have accessible cabins either.
Rules and Regulations
It felt to me that the Galapagos has more rules than any other expedition area I’ve been to.
The Galapagos National Park, established in 1959, governs and polices the area. They have a set number of sites ships can go to and they schedule who can go where and when to limit numbers at any site per day.
It seems there are about 90 approved sites, and around about 80 to 90 licenses for boats to operate. Most are small with 40 passengers or less, up to a few ships like Silver Origin with the maximum allowed (100).
Before we arrived in the Galapagos, my luggage had to be bio searched. I handed my luggage over the night before at the Quito pre-stay hotel to be searched and sealed. I wasn’t allowed to break that seal until I got my bags on the ship.
During the flight from Quito to the islands, the plane was sprayed with insect spray.
The Galapagos has a huge problem with invasive species wreaking havoc. In the on-board talks I learnt there is up to 1,700 animals, insects or plants that have arrived on the island either by accident or design with terrible consequences.
For example, goats brought by man multiplied to tens of thousands, destroying vegetation the tortoises relied on. They culled something like 60,000 of them. Blackberries and raspberries spread like wildfire breaking the ecosystem and blocking migration of the tortoises. Rats affected the bird life, eating the eggs. Bugs burrowing into young chicks and wiping out flocks.
Once there I found other rules to protect the eco-system and wildlife
For example, we had to use eco-suitable sunscreen especially if snorkelling. I didn’t take any as I knew Silversea supplied it on board.
We had mandatory briefings on the first night before we could go on land, learning rules like having to stay on laid out pathways. I could not even take a step off the track to take a photo, for example.
Bags were randomly searched when leaving the island, including mine, to check nothing natural had been taken, like feathers, stones, flora, or baby tortoises, I guess, too!
Silver Origin Surprises
Let me talk about Silversea’s Silver Origin, as it is the smallest cruise ship I have ever been on, holding just 100 passengers.
There was a real concern it would feel cramped with few options. But as I’ve said, there was little time to do much on board.
While it did have limited facilities it never felt small, and I never felt it was lacking anything. There was the spacious Explorers Lounge, for the briefings and drinks, The Restaurant, which could seat everyone, The Grill, a casual lunch dining and Silversea signature Hot Rocks outdoor restaurant, small fitness centre, hardly used Observation Lounge and Base Camp, with Guest Services and Interactive information screen and the Marina, for getting on and off the zodiacs.
My cabin, which was a deluxe verandah suite, was way bigger than I’d expected. Lots of space, big walk-in wardrobe, good sized bathroom, comfortable bed. The reason it was bigger is because I had an infinity balcony with sliding glass top window.
Appreciating the Galapagos
While the Galapagos is not about grand majestic scenery, nor bucket list big mammals, I came to appreciate it’s more about the story of the unique wild, bird and marine life and how they survive in this remote and harsh environment, and how close you can get to them.
I did come away thinking this is more of bucket list destination for true nature lovers than the others I have been on.
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