by Liz Fleming

In the Galapagos Islands, the rules for visitors are clear: keep a six foot gap between you and the wildlife.Apparently, the wildlife didn't get that memo.

Galapagos_TurtlesPhoto Blue Ice/iStock

No matter how scrupulous you are about sticking to the well-marked pathways on the isolated Galapagos Islands, you'll be accosted by albatrosses, seduced by sea lions, and befriended by boobies (the feathered kind) at every turn. Incredibly, the beautiful creatures you've come so far to see are equally keen to see you.

Hundreds of miles off the coast of Ecuador, the islands enjoy UNESCO World Heritage Site status, hunting is banned, and there is no large-scale harvesting of anything aquatic, so even the underwater world is welcoming.  

Humans pose no threat - we're just peculiar fur-less, feather-less, scale-free things that are worth a good look. We stay obediently on the path, but the creatures go wherever they choose, making for the most incredible wildlife experience imaginable.

Silver GalapagosCourtesy of Silversea Cruises

A cruise to the Galapagos Islands had topped our bucket list for so many years that boarding the Silver Galapagos in Baltra had a serious pinch-me feeling to it. We were about to follow in Darwin's footsteps, seeing the natural world that inspired ‘On The Origin of Species’.

Darwin was certainly the best known visitor to these unique islands but he wasn't the first. It was in 1535 that Bishop Tomás de Berlanga, the first Bishop of Panama, stumbled upon the Galapagos Islands by chance, and was less than impressed. Though a few islands had lush vegetation, others were covered with black rivers of hardened lava - like the landscape of Hell, he reported - and still others were rocky, cactus-covered deserts. Worse yet - there were dragons!

Galapagos_IguanasFoto/Adobe Sotck

Bishop de Berlanga’s dragons were actually the fearsome-looking but benign land and marine iguanas that prowl the islands, basking on sunny rocks, rearing their brilliant scaly heads and stretching their long claws. They look like the stuff nightmares are made of, but those fierce jaws tackle nothing more than plants.

We'll forgive the Bishop for his less than rave review since his goal was to find riches to impress the Spanish royals who'd funded his travels. He'd sailed for months and I'm willing to bet his ship wasn't nearly as comfortable as ours.

Silver Galapagos_SuiteCourtesy of Silversea Cruises

The Silver Galapagos is an expedition ship, specially designed to navigate where larger vessels can't. Smaller than other Silversea ships, it nevertheless has all the amenities you need - a gracious dining room and a breezy grill on the top deck where a talented young chef creates - among other delectable goodies - a fresh and very different ceviche every day for a lunch appetizer. There's a hot tub, and a piano lounge where we had a couple of giddy nights of dancing with the crew. Our suite was well-appointed with a private balcony for basking in the sun, but we spent most of our onboard time in the Explorer's Lounge, listening as our wildlife guides prepped us for the adventures ahead.

A Galapagos cruise definitely isn't the time to catch up on your sleep. If you want to take advantage of the cooler morning hours, you're up at 5:30 am, eating breakfast at 6:30 am and off the ship by 7:30 am. Days begin with an island hike that lasts two to three hours. As you walk, you snap photo after amazing photo of preening boobies, sun-drunk sea lions, and love-sick male Frigate birds puffing out their chests like giant red balloons in hopes of luring a female. Your guide provides a wealth of information while joining whole-heartedly in the excitement of seeing each creature. Meanwhile, the sun cranks up the heat. Before long, you're a walking puddle, shirt and shorts soaked through - and you couldn't care less. Coming face to face with creatures you'll never see anywhere else is worth breaking a sweat.

Blue Footed BoobiesShalamov/iStock

Galapagos_frigate birdsShearman/iStock

Those early morning walks are followed by snorkeling or kayaking, surrounded, as always, by a mind-boggling array of wildlife. Think you've experienced snorkeling? Think again. At best, sea creatures in other locales might briefly tolerate your bubbly presence. In the Galapagos, however, fish swim to, not away from you. The first time it happened, I nearly swallowed my snorkel in surprise. Suddenly, I was surrounded by a school of Burrito Grunt fish, all wagging their brilliant yellow tails, swimming so close that their mouths and fins brushed against me. In that moment, I felt a part of them - more fish than human.

On other swims, we saw a leopard spotted stingray flapping her graceful wings, while two sea turtles paddled past. Hammerhead sharks swam below us and tiny, almost translucent baby puffer fish paddled in the shallow water at the beach. Each time, we stayed until the very last Zodiac call, coming reluctantly out of the water just before they came to drag us back to the ship.

While the fish and rays and turtles were fabulous, our hearts were stolen by the sea lions that swooped and dove all around us, like kids playing in the bath. At the shore, they splashed and wrestled with one another before collapsing in a neighborly pile of wet fur on the sand.  Flippers draped over one another, they fell into an instant sea lion stupor, punctuated only by the occasional barking of a pup or two in search of their mothers and their lunch.

Dinners were filled with laughter as we compared photos, told stories of the day's explorations and anticipated the fun we'd have the next day. With hikes and either kayaking or snorkeling each morning and a second afternoon hike to round out the day, we were tired and bedtime came early most nights.

Galapagos IslandsDC Columbia/iStock

It didn't take long for us to become as protective of these special islands as any local, and we were relieved to see the conservation programs in place as well as the breeding station that's ensuring there will always be Galapagos tortoises. Walking through the preserve where the tortoises grow from hatchlings into the magnificent lumbering centenarians for which the islands are best known, we felt privileged to see creatures hidden from the rest of the world.

From stunning wildlife experiences, to heart-stopping moments under the waves, fine dining and fascinating guides, a cruise on the Silver Galapagos has just one downside. It might just ruin you for anything that comes after.  

 Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Fall/Winter 2015 issue.

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