Travel & Leisure Family, Spring/Summer, 2004

Animal Magnetism

The measure of a trip is sometimes the number of photos we bring back from it. Other times it’s the degree of remove we achieve, or how hard it is to face home at vacation’s end. But the one that’s most important to me is how often memories from a trip return unbidden, deepening and complicating ordinary life.

By all these measures, the Galápagos Islands are my favorite destination. I first visited in 1984, right out of grad school, with my mother, aunt, uncle, and cousin. We flew to the coast of Ecuador and then chugged out into the wide Pacific for three days in an old boat called the Bucanero (Buccaneer), since retired; the long passage seemed the perfect preamble to an unreal place where giant Seuss-like albatross babies waited for their parents in twig nests on the ground, penguins swam across the equator, and frigate birds with scissor tails swooped scarily overhead. Then last August, nearly 20 years later, I returned, this time flying all the way—a loss—but with my wife, children, mother (again!), and two sisters and their families—a clear gain. And as our plane neared the Galápagos island of Baltra, with its scrubby vegetation and short stretches of sandy beach edged by dark, volcanic rock, one of those memories came back, an experience I hoped now to share with my kids: a rendezvous with sea lions.

Of all the Galápagos’s famously approachable wildlife, these cheerful animals are just about the only ones that pay any attention to you. Languorous on the beach, they are playful and supercharged in the water. On my first snorkeling foray, alone in a small cove, I’d seen some gamboling in the distance and began swimming in their direction. I was nervous about sharks, however—there are a few species of them in the Galápagos, too—and when my peripheral vision caught a dark torpedo shooting toward me, I scrunched quickly into the fetal position to meet the attack. But it wasn’t a shark, it was a sea lion; frightened, it turned sharply away. In a while, other sea lions appeared; one came right up to my mask and had a look inside. I even managed to stay still as another brushed under my belly, leaving a field of tiny bubbles in its wake. To this day the encounter has made me think about the good things we miss in life due to reflexive fear.

Of course, this is not the larger meaning of the Galápagos for most people. Naturalist Charles Darwin visited these sere, volcanic islands over five weeks in 1835 on a sailing ship called the Beagle. He noticed that the finches on each island had beaks that were slightly different from the finches on every other island; years later, back in England, his observations led to ideas about how the pressures of natural selection give rise to distinct species. This in turn became the basis for his theory of evolution, one of the intellectual milestones of humankind.

On our flight to Baltra, some people are reading Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle; others have a prizewinning book called The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution In Our Time, which describes the way two Princeton-based biologists, a husband and wife, continue to refine the ideas of Darwin on the Galápagos island of Daphne Major. My daughter, Nell, six, is sitting by her mom, quietly drawing pictures of airplanes and family members in her journal. But my son, Asa, eight, next to the window, is peering with concern at the land below. From the start he’s been deeply skeptical of this excursion. Though Asa is a longtime lover of birds and lizards, his interest is not purely scientific: above all, he’s a (catch-and-release) hunter. We’ve been worried that the bounteous Galápagos wildlife might frustrate more than inspire him, due to the islands’ strict rules against touching or taking.

And now, moments after the plane has landed, comes the first test. As passengers line up for customs—and to tread through a shallow pan of disinfectant meant to keep diseases off the islands—Asa discovers a decomposing rat under a cactus just outside the terminal gate. Using sticks, he handily extracts the rodent’s lower jaw, with two incisors intact. “Can I keep it, Dad?” he begs. Furtively, I look around; no adult is watching. I hand him an empty sandwich bag from my pack. “This time only,” I say, rationalizing that rats are not the focus of the islands’ preservation laws.

Since 97 percent of the Galápagos archipelago (some 54,000 square miles) is an Ecuadorean national park, human habitation is restricted mainly to oneof the 14 larger islands, and visitors—most of them, like us, on seven-night tours—live on boats, with daily trips to the various islands. Almost all of these vessels are modest in size, holding 30 to 40 passengers. But we have signed on with Lindblad Expeditions, a big company and a touring pioneer in these parts, whose ship, the Polaris, dwarfs most others.

I tend to associate big with bad, but the Polaris is not one of today’s floozy ocean liners. Built in 1961 as a Swedish ferry, it has a somewhat prim and Nordic feel. There is a lot of lacquered wood, all-weather carpeting, a lounge with seventies rec-room décor, and a dining room where you feel you should use good manners. Every chair swivels and is bolted to the floor. The stairways are steep and exciting, the rooms cozy and creaky. We are transported to and from the Polaris, moored just offshore, by its fleet of rubber pangas—inflatable, 12-person Zodiac boats with outboard motors that are the typical link, in the Galápagos, between mother ship and shore. Upon arrival, we are led to our rooms, fire-drilled, fitted for wet suits (if we plan to snorkel or dive), and shown the lay of the land: the library of science books and fiction, the bridge (visitors welcome at all hours), the gift shop, e-mail room, and outside decks. And we meet our fellow passengers.

There are about 75 paying guests, many of them drawn to this particular journey because it’s one of Lindblad’s “family trips.” That means it has a children’s activity leader (otherwise a science teacher at a Bay Area school) who coordinates games, crafts, and scavenger hunts tailored to each island; a kids’ dinner hour so adults can eat separately later; and a larger-than-usual number of young passengers, so that our kids never lack companions. Besides the families, there’s a flock from the Massachusetts Audubon Society, whom it’s fun to eavesdrop on every evening in the lounge as they discuss who has seen the dark-rumped petrel or white-cheeked pintail, to add them to their life lists.

And then there is the staff. Days begin about 7 a.m. with the gentle, BBC-calm voice of British-born Emma Ridley, our expedition leader, on the intercom in every cabin: “Good morning, everyone, good morning!” A trained biologist, Emma is a consummately organized, upbeat, and knowledgeable chief: “For those who’d like the early walk on Floreana [or whatever island we are near], the pangas will be leaving in fifteen minutes. Breakfast will begin at eight. The main panga departures will begin at nine-thirty with boats for those wishing to snorkel after the walk; we will also have a glass-bottomed boat leaving at ten-thirty. Sign up at the desk.” Emma runs the evening wrap-ups in the lounge, in which she goes over what we’ve seen that day and its significance, ably assisted by various children who are ready to answer when asked the color of a Sally Lightfoot crab’s eyes, the diet of a marine iguana, or the natural predators of a sea lion.

Our five Ecuadorean naturalists play a big role, too. One joins every panga to lead our groups of no more than 11 people (the maximum permitted by park rules) on boat tours and walks around the islands. Each leader notices different things and has a different style: Daniel, smart and professorial, is prone to excited outbursts, À la Howard Cosell: “There is a frigate bird, stealing the booby’s fish right now! Look! Ninety-five percent of its food is stolen!” And buff Lucho, every child’s favorite, is the comic extrovert. After lunch one day, when the Polaris has crossed the equator, a bearded “King Neptune” (Daniel) wearing flippers and a crown appears on deck with his coconut shell-bikinied wife (Lucho), demanding tribute from the travelers. (He settles for a few people drinking a horrible red juice concocted in the kitchen, or kissing his flipper.)

The trip proceeds something like a slide show. Boats are permitted to drop anchor off just nine of the islands; we visit one or two a day and then, around bedtime, hear the engines start up. We fall asleep to an orchestra of rumbles and raps and the gentle rocking of the ship as it transports us to a new landscape. This creates an ongoing sense of anticipation with the start of each day, a constant desire to look out and see where we’ve landed.

It’s always somewhere interesting—though you wouldn’t call the Galápagos a “tropical paradise.” From July to December the islands look dry and even desolate (and until you get up close, it’s hard to believe much lives on them at all). Some of the islands, such as Española and Santa Fe, are low, rounded, and nondescript. But others, like Isabela and Fernandina, separated by a strait, are spectacular. High volcanoes slope to ragged cliffs; a hardened flow of black lava fills a crease down one side of Isabela. On our morning ride to these two islands, a small black-and-white bird keeps circling the panga; Daniel identifies it as an Elliott’s storm petrel (though the Auduboners already seem to know that). Then comes a call to the walkie-talkie of our panga driver, a wiry Ecuadorean named Chicken Wilson: a Bryde’s whale has been spotted. We zoom near enough to see its rough black back, maybe 12 feet long, as it breaches several times and blows spray into the air.

The cliffs are full of life; atop one bluff is a red-footed booby rookery. Around the corner from it are the wave-splashed nooks of fur seals and a flightless cormorant. Black marine iguanas a foot-and-a-half long abound; when one of them, fresh from a briny plunge, clears its nostrils, the mist reaches our boat. Heading back, we pass over a giant manta ray; Chicken tails it for several minutes as it flaps ethereally through the clear blue water.

Back on the Polaris, Emma announces just after lunch that the bridge has spied a pod of bottlenose dolphins dead ahead. A large pod. Enormous, it turns out—several hundred dolphins, the biggest group Emma says she’s ever seen. They shoot high out of the waters ahead of us and arc back in; the sea is boiling with them. What is riveting is not just their numbers but their seeming exuberance, the wastrel thrill of putting all that energy into a flight through the air when simply breaking the water’s surface would do.

We have seen more than a day’s worth of wonders and it’s only 2 p.m. Shortly after, Asa and I go out snorkeling together. The sun is high, the water shallow, and for once we aren’t cold. (Even with wet suits, most snorkelers are shivering by the end of an excursion—currents from the south keep the water temperature in the sixties and low seventies this time of year.) With him still new to snorkeling, we swim holding hands, our flippered feet doing most of the work. We trail a sea turtle until it notices us and veers away, but soon we see a ray, a penguin diving for a fish, and, looking up to the surface, a cormorant’s webbed feet pushing leisurely against the water. This is the ocean’s equivalent of an African watering hole. When the next sea turtle comes into view, Asa is on it in a flash, pulling me along, flippers churning the water like a paddleboat.

The following day, our fifth, is the most jarring: a visit to Santa Cruz, which has the islands’ main human settlement, and even a few hotels. After the amazements of places preserved by keeping people out, we are reminded of how forcefully our species asserts itself. Not that Santa Cruz is ugly—compared with most any Caribbean island, it is lightly populated and uncongested. The main street has the expected overabundance of open-air shops selling T-shirts and statuettes of turtles and boobies, but also a view of the water, with pelicans and fishing boats, both sleek and dilapidated.

Still, to see cars—and to have to get out of their way!—is like waking from a dream. Our guides (some of whom live here) act as though nothing is wrong and usher us into the Charles Darwin Research Centre, much of which is a kind of zoo. For years the discrete varieties of Galápagos giant tortoise have been preserved and bred here: leafy pens display them in many sizes, all with numbers painted on their backs. It’s a success story, except for one: Solitario Jorge (Lonesome George), a tortoise from Pinta Island, is the last of his line. He is thought to be 70 or 80 years old, and there is no remaining female for him to breed with. Goats, introduced to Pinta by fishermen years ago, ate the tortoises’ food and destroyed their nesting sites. When Lonesome George dies, the Pinta Island strain will be extinct.

Trying to lighten things up, our guides Lucho and Daniel trade gibes. “This sticky berry,” says Daniel loudly to my group as we pass a moyuyu shrub, “is used by the post office for stamps, and by Lucho for his hair.” Only a few minutes later, Lucho can be heard telling his group, “Steven Spielberg used the head of a tortoise as the model for the head of E.T., the extraterrestrial. And for the body, his model was Daniel.”

Our tour of the Darwin center over, members of the group throng to its gift shop, and the kids get their hands on gobs of candy; I’m antsy to return to the boat. But then I’d miss a visit to a highlands ranch where native tortoises cover the fields like so many bumper cars. Some are more than a century old. Apparently they’re a problem for farmers, since when they reach a fence line, they just push and dig with their massive bodies until they get underneath it. That makes me feel better.

Time is rushing by. On our last full day, my brother-in-law Ken, a former gymnast, decides to cap a glorious week by diving from the bow of the boat, anchored off the shore of Santiago Island. He plunges into the water like a booby in pursuit of a sardine. Told afterward by a crew member that this is very much against the rules, we wonder if there will be a repercussion at dinner—our clan has been invited to dine at the captain’s table.

But either he’s unaware of who committed the transgression or he’s a gentleman. Probably the latter, because Captain Eduardo Neira is, quite frankly, more than you could ever hope for in a ship captain. He is a romance novelist’s dream—fortyish, handsome, mustachioed, and dressed in a gleaming white uniform. And he is also an ecologist’s dream, a former Galápagos naturalist who had joined Ecuador’s merchant marine and seen the world before returning to the place he most loves. (When Neira spots boats fishing illegally within the 51,350-square-mile Galápagos Marine Reserve, he gets on the radio and reports them to the authorities.) And, finally, he is a New Ager’s dream: a vegetarian who doesn’t drink and practices yoga. (I know this because my sister saw him on the deck at dusk, meditating.) Not only that, but he sings and plays the guitar. One night in the lounge, we hear his quiet English and Spanish versions of “Feelin’ Groovy” and “Bésame Mucho.” My mother and wife sit on either side of him at dinner and gawk.

Despite all this, I have to admit that even I like Neira. He tells a great story of getting the boat’s 2,000-pound anchor stuck off Genovesa Island and diving down himself in scuba gear to try to dislodge it. (He was unsuccessful—so they cut it loose and had to buy another.) He spends a few weeks a year helping out at a school he founded near the village where he grew up. He is utterly unassuming. About the Galápagos, he says, “Whoever comes here gets to be happier than before.” And this, I think, is true, just as true as the other point about a Galápagos voyage: that whoever comes here has to consider, in a sobering way, the planet that existed before colonies of humans displaced so many other beings.

“Dad, can we come back?” Asa asks on our last day. Besides getting exceptionally close to countless cool animals, he has had a blast with his cousins and a new friend, Justin, whom they met on board. The members of their jolly band even have nicknames, which Emma Ridley, in an act of sublime indulgence, has embossed onto blue name badges just like Lindblad’s official ones. CHEESE BOY announces cousin Ian’s; SUNNY JIM says Justin’s. Asa’s reads MONKEY MAN (and he will wear it for weeks to come).

That afternoon I watch my daughter as she stands in waist-deep water, not far from her swimming mom, on Bartolomé Island. She’s moving her fingertips across the surface and then cocking her head, apparently trying to glimpse what is underneath. I ask her later what she was up to. “Looking for baby sea lions,” she explains—which, in fact, she’s done since our first day’s visit to Española Island, where we got near some overaged babies, three-year-olds that were cuddled next to their mothers, nursing.

And one evening back at home, there on the table is a new drawing by Nell of a girl in a swimsuit standing in the ocean, fingers extended below the surface. Only this time, you can see what’s underwater, and it’s enough to give me deep satisfaction: there’s a sea lion on either side of her, smiling.

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