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Glorious Galapagos Islands: Part One

Explore the richly varied wildlife of this isolated archipelago
on a Celebrity Xpedition cruise

By Alan Fox

Vacations Magazine: Glorious Galapagos Islands: Part One
Alan Fox
Imagine the world as an apple.

Everything we can see of our planet -- the mountains and valleys and deserts, the oceans and rivers and lakes -- sits on vast tectonic plates that are equivalent in thickness to the skin of the apple.

Each of these plates moves very slowly toward or away from or along the plates that surround it, and this movement causes earthquakes and results in much of the Earth's volcanic activity.

Now imagine a vast pool of molten rock beneath a tectonic plate, magma so hot that it burns through the Earth's crust to the surface, where it appears as a volcanic eruption.

If this hot spot occurs beneath the ocean, eruptions lasting hundreds or thousands of years can build volcanoes so large they grow out of the ocean and form islands, islands that are slowly and continuously being swept away from the hot spot by the motion of the tectonic plates.

Millions of years ago, such a hot spot appeared under the Pacific Ocean, on the equator, about 600 miles west of what is now called Ecuador. The islands it formed -- and continues to form -- are called the Galapagos.

The driver nosed our Zodiac up to a rocky wall on North Seymour Island, pushing just enough fuel to the engine to hold us there, rising and falling with the swells. One at a time, we moved carefully to the front of our raft and stepped into an opening in the rocks.

We scrambled 10 feet up a black wall wet with spray, and at the top, found two sleeping sea lions that did not bother to lift their heads to acknowledge that we were there.

Steps away, a charcoal-colored marine iguana, 3 feet long with a row of spikes down its spine and a head as rough and rugged as lava rock, sat in the path we were restricted to and watched us without flinching as we passed within inches.

In the sky above, in every direction, enormous birds flapped or floated on air currents, sometimes gliding by within only a few feet of our heads. There were magnificent frigate birds with 7-foot wingspans, swallow-tailed gulls with black heads and bright red circles around each eye, blue-footed boobies with piercing yellow eyes, and many more. There was a prehistoric feeling to the place.

The island is mostly flat with sandy soil, small trees and bushes. The dry season began in June, and most of the trees had lost their leaves and the grass had turned brown. The sky and the land were teeming with birds, sea lions and iguanas, none of which took the slightest notice of our landing party.

At this time of year, North Seymour is like a singles bar for giant birds.

Male frigate birds are black with a red throat pouch that can be inflated like a balloon to attract a mate. We saw many males on bushes near the path, pouches fully inflated and heads thrown back to maximize the view for the females circling overhead. After surveying their options, females land to take a partner, remaining monogamous for that breeding season.

Not to be outdone, male blue-footed boobies spread their wings, stare straight up at the sky and stamp their big, blue feet (the bluer, the better) to attract a circling mate. We witnessed this behavior frequently as these birds tend to stand dead center in the path and make the humans walk around them.

I am writing today from the Galapagos Islands, a place that has been called the land of fire and dragons for its active volcanoes and 5-foot-long iguanas. Yet even in this remote and undeveloped wildlife sanctuary, Celebrity Cruises has created an experience of great comfort, even luxury, aboard the best vessel in the region, Celebrity Xpedition.

We arrived in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador four days ago, near midnight, descending through blackness and broken clouds as the city of Quito appeared out our window, a great, rolling swath of tiny lights at the base of soaring peaks and volcanoes.

The sprawling city of nearly 2 million people is situated at an elevation of 9,350 feet and serves as the meeting point for guests booked on Celebrity's Galapagos cruises. Our vacation includes two nights pre-cruise and one night post-cruise in Quito, a charter flight to the islands, as well as the seven-night sailing.

We were met at the airport by Celebrity employees and whisked to the nearby Marriott, the finest hotel in the city, where we were welcomed with cool towels, fruit juice and room keys.

The next day, others in our group took an included sightseeing tour of Quito, but I decided to set out on my own, on foot, to see the local shops and a park filled with vendors and artists. That evening, all Celebrity guests had a fine meal at a gourmet restaurant.

The following morning we were off to the airport and a two-hour Aerogal charter flight to Baltra, Galapagos, on a brand-new Airbus jet. Five minutes from the Baltra airport, we boarded Zodiacs and motored out to the Xpedition, anchored and gleaming in the afternoon sun, but not before noting how impressive she looked compared to other vessels in the harbor.

The Galapagos consists of 18 main islands, of which only five are inhabited, and a hundred rocky islets. The chain of islands is 150 miles long, and each island is unique in appearance, topography, flora and fauna, depending on its age.

The islands are off limits to large cruise ships due to tight restrictions on the number of people who can come ashore in each landing area. The Xpedition is the most upscale and technically advanced ship in the region, holding 98 passengers and carrying a crew of 70, including seven naturalists who are experts in the wildlife, plants and geology of the islands. The ship is immaculately maintained, and all staterooms are ocean-view, with a handful of balcony cabins.

Unlike the large Celebrity ships, the cruise fare for Celebrity Xpedition includes soft drinks, beer, house wine and liquor, all shore excursions and gratuities for the onboard staff.

After our two-hour exploration of North Seymour Island, we returned by Zodiac to the Xpedition, where we discussed our first foray ashore over cocktails and hors d'oeuvres on the open deck. Later, we enjoyed a delicious meal in the Darwin restaurant, and tonight, we are sailing southeast, to the oldest islands in the chain.

They are full of life today but the islands themselves are slowly dying, breaking up and sinking. In a million years, they'll be gone.

From there we will sail west, to the youngest and highest islands of the Galapagos, including Fernandina, which sits atop the volcanic hot spot now.

Fernandina's last eruption was two years ago, and the locals say that we are overdue. How I would love to see that hot spot in action.

To see photos from this portion of my cruise, click here.

Galapagos Discovery

In the year 1535, the Spanish Bishop of Panama, Tomas de Berlanga, set sail for Peru. En route, his vessel was becalmed and swept hundreds of miles off course by a mighty current, to strange and uninhabited islands. Following is an excerpt from a letter he wrote about his discovery:

"The abrupt landscape is desolate and mysterious, with no signs of human presence, the rocks are sterile, they found nothing but seals, and turtles and such big tortoises that each could carry a man on top of himself, and many iguanas that are like serpents ... birds like those of Spain, but so silly that they do not know how to flee, and many were caught in the hand."

-- Letter from Tomas de Berlanga, discoverer of the Galapagos, to Spain's King Charles I

The sea was choppy in the early morning, with threatening gray clouds overhead and bands of falling rain on the horizon. We bounced along to the roar of our Zodiac's outboard motor, passing the partially exposed cone of an ancient volcano, called Devil's Crown.

We were miles from the ship when we arrived at Champion Island, a cactus-covered islet jutting out of the sea, and cut our engine. I pulled on my mask and fins, slipped my legs over the side of the Zodiac and disappeared into the Pacific Ocean.

Cold water breached my wet suit at the neck and legs, and I kicked my fins with some urgency to warm up. In a minute I was acclimated, the wet suit having done its job.

Our small group drifted in a strong current by the sheer walls of the island, above schools of fish, in 15 feet of water. Suddenly, they were there, our reason for coming to this spot, a trio of curious sea lions.

One looked me over, eye-to-mask, and two swirled gracefully around us, rising to the surface and then plunging to the ocean floor and vanishing into the murky beyond, only to reappear from a new direction, moments later.

Sea lions are among the most playful of all marine animals, and they predictably arrive to greet snorkelers in these waters. These three seemed entertained by the slow-moving land creatures with odd heads and big, flat feet. It's hard to smile around a snorkel mouthpiece, but I think I managed anyway.

Like all of the birds and animals here, they had no fear of us. For nearly an hour, they came and went, never far away, and we did our best to keep up with them.

Yesterday, at sunrise, we circled Kicker Rock, the steeply rising remains of a volcanic cone. In the first light of day, the side facing the sun was brilliantly lit, but from the far side, Kicker Rock was equally impressive, two hulking black silhouettes.

From there we sailed to San Cristobal Island and the laid-back town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. We took a long nature walk, spotted our first Darwin finch, visited the Interpretation Center and strolled the cobblestoned streets of the town. We returned to the Xpedition for lunch as she sailed south again, to Espanola Island, the oldest and southernmost island in the chain.

Espanola is known for spectacular wildlife viewing, and it did not disappoint. The most famous resident is the waved albatross, a beautiful and critically endangered bird with a yellow-and-cream colored head and neck, dark body, long yellow bill and a wingspan up to 8 feet.

The bird is a graceful glider and forages up to 600 miles away from the island, but her large wings make taking off difficult. On Espanola, the waved albatross launches by running to the edge of a cliff and jumping off.

During our two hours on the island, we tiptoed through paths littered with marine iguanas, motionless except for eyes that followed us as we passed, and skirted albatross incubating their eggs on the ground. We watched a Galapagos hawk hunting for lava lizards, baby birds or iguanas. We stood at the edge of the steep cliffs on the south side of the island as waves pounded the rocks and forced water, through a blowhole, 50 feet in the air.

The highlight of the landing, for me, came as we stood in a line on the path to take photos of a pair of waved albatross sitting under a bush. First one and then the other stood up and waddled between members of our party to a clearing and began a long, noisy and entertaining mating ritual.

They bowed and paraded around each other with heads swaying side to side. They bent forward, facing each other, clicking their beaks together rapidly. They backed off, stood upright with bills held wide open and then slammed them shut with a loud clap.

The waved albatross mates for life and can live nearly 50 years, but they are being wiped out by longline fishing nets that snare the birds and kill them when they dive for fish that are already caught. Such nets are but one of the many man-made hazards threatening various species on these islands.

By now, we have settled into the ship's routine: one or two morning landings, followed by lunch and relaxation on board in the warmest part of the day, and another landing in the late afternoon. There is a briefing in the early evening to describe the following day's landing spots and activities.

For each landing, there are two options varying in length and difficulty, accommodating a wide range of physical capabilities.

The experience on board the Xpedition has been excellent, and we find ourselves busy all the time. The officers and crew are unfailingly efficient and courteous, and the food and service in the dining room and aft grill are very good.

Tomorrow, we hope to see the rare Galapagos penguin, most likely carried to these islands at some ancient time by the powerful Humboldt Current. This current originates in Antarctica, travels north along the coast of South America to northern Peru and then west, all the way to the Galapagos.

The cold Humboldt Current is the reason why these islands on the equator experience average temperatures in the 70s year-round. It sustains the penguin population and supports one of the most fertile marine ecosystems on the planet, responsible for 20 percent of the world's fishing catch.

If the Humboldt brings life to the Galapagos, it also has brought death, for it is the same current that carried de Berlanga here almost 500 years ago, and the pirates and whalers who followed. They changed the Galapagos forever.

Click here for photos from this portion of my cruise.

Glorious Galapagos Islands: Part Two

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in November/December 2011. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.

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