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Wild at sea

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6 October 2010

The Galápagos has long been on my Bucket List so, when offered the chance to visit the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, I jumped at it. I flew with American Airlines in their Business class where the seats are angled rather than completely flat in a 2-3-2 configuration. This brought about my inevitable incarceration in my window seat by a sleeping gentleman in the seat next to aisle. I had to wake said sleeping chap before being able to make a break for the freedom of the plane’s gangway.

I was met in Quito by my guide Veronica from Sanctuary Tours and her driver, who transferred me to the Sheraton Hotel and to my sumptuous suite. I stayed in Quito for the first couple of nights - Veronica made sure I was given all the right prices in the market in Otovalo, a small town surrounded by mountains and famous for its textiles, and helped me find a local Hacienda for lunch.

The next day we embarked on an exhilarating excursion to the Middle of the World and the Ethnographic Museum where all the wonders of standing exactly on the equator were revealed, from the natural to the scientific, such as the water flowing straight down the plughole and a sun without shadows.

After a flight from Quito via Guayaquil, we arrived in Baltra, a small, arid island that was formerly a WWII US Air Force base. From there it was a short hop to the dock where we took a motorised dinghy, commonly called a panga, for the brief crossing to the MV Eclipse, the luxury cruise liner that would be my home for the next seven nights.

Before arrival we were given a crash course on the "Galápagos handshake" - basically the safe forearm grip used when getting on and off the boat. I have to say, however, that with the prospect of exotic wildlife so tantalisingly close, I had little interest in safety warnings!

I was delighted to find welcoming staff and a clean, spacious cabin on board the Eclipse. We were given lunch and a briefing before grabbing snorkels, fins and wetsuits for our first wet landing.

In our seven nights aboard the Eclipse we meandered along the rocky archipelago, stopping off for two daily excursions. The excursions were constantly changing, from easy walks one day to more challenging activities the next and there was usually an opportunity to snorkel, or, for those who wanted an easy life, a panga ride along the coast. The landscape mirrored our itinerary - each island was unique, some covered in volcanic rock and others ringed with sandy beaches.

The Galápagos Islands are part of a national park, which is exceptionally well managed to help preserve the endemic species that thrive there.

With a maximum group size of 12 people per panga, the Eclipse offers the sort of multi-option sightseeing that only larger boats can support. A national park guide, who was an expert on the islands flora and fauna, accompanied us at all times and all excursions were undertaken with a slow, tranquil pace that allowed plenty of time to enjoy the surrounding wildlife. We came across rocks filled with hundreds of marine iguanas, sea lions lazing on sandy beaches and Galápagos hawks watching potential prey.

Unlike some places where guides can become jaded by the repetitious nature of their work, the Galápagos naturalists are only too pleased to reveal their astounding expertise and explain the evolution of the islands and their wildlife. All our questions were answered with contagious enthusiasm and their boundless dedication to this environment was further proved when we spotted a whale in the ocean during a midday break - Pangas were rapidly lowered and we rushed off to try and get closer. Unfortunately by the time we got there, the whales had descended and we didn’t manage to get a close-up view.

On one hour-long snorkel around Tagus Cove I saw white-tipped sharks, stingrays and penguins while sea lions played in the water next to me. Their huge size and beauty was quite stunning. As I was floating on the water, I saw giant turtles swimming gracefully in the depths just underneath me. Watching these magical and majestic creatures was one of the highlights of my trip, however I think what touched me the most was a "flight" of spotted eagle rays, about 17 of them, swimming in serene formation below me.

The Eclipse is the perfect vessel to explore the Galápagos. With just 26 cabins, all with picture windows or large portholes, you have the space of a larger boat with the benefits of smaller group sizes and the high levels of onboard service usually only found on smaller ships. Another bonus is the al fresco dining area at the stern of the vessel - food always seems to taste better outdoors!

I travelled in the rainy season, although it didn’t rain once, but I was still able to take advantage of the boat’s sundeck and top up my suntan. Every evening the same deck could be used as an observation space for some fascinating stargazing. There was even a Jacuzzi onboard, though as temperatures stayed mild throughout the voyage it only served as a warm-up after a snorkel.

Each night on board the Eclipse we were treated to a short presentation on the birdlife, geology, marine life and evolution of the islands by one of the naturalists. Each talk was impeccably thought out with our comfort and enjoyment in mind, right down to the finest details including what to expect the following day and what we should wear.

A visit to the Galápagos is about learning and appreciating wildlife in a location quite unlike anywhere else on earth. This was not a traditional cruise with parties and nightlife, there were passengers of all nationalities and ages on board, each with one, fundamental thing in common: an inherent love of wildlife. Naturally we all got on extremely well, chatting together in the bar in the evenings; I think we must have all sounded like a collective of David Attenborough clones by the end of this unforgettable journey!


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