National Geographic Polaris
Note: This expedition now operates aboard the National Geographic Endeavour and National Geographic Islander.
The heat hugged my skin and invaded my nostrils with a sweet, sticky air as I descended the plane and walked the tarmac to the tiny, al-fresco airport. I felt the belly-turning excitement that always precedes my travels, and I knew this trip would be one of my most memorable experiences. My boyfriend, Michael, and I had just touched down in the Galapagos Islands, a place that promised unimaginable wildlife encounters and astounding landscapes. This was the first trip to South America for both of us and we were racked with anticipation for the journey that lay ahead.
Our newly-introduced naturalist guides assisted our group from airport to bus to Zodiac with an ease that can only come from experience. In no time we found ourselves clamoring onto the Polaris, the vessel that my shipmates and I would call home for the next week.
The exploring quickly commenced with a shore visit to North Seymour Island. Despite having seen countless photos of such encounters, it was impossible not to be awe-inspired by the lack of apprehension the land iguanas, frigate birds, and sea lions had to our group's presence. Despite the click-clicking of a dozen cameras, the wildlife seemed to be unconcerned at the least. While the iguanas and blue-footed boobies played indifference, the sea lions appeared to be as curious of us as we were of them. Crossing the beach on the last half of our hike, a few pups made the first gesture towards our crew, padding along awkwardly across the sand to get a closer look at their newly-arrived guests. We returned to the Polaris just as the sun was stretching its way to meet the waves brushing against the shore.
That first hike began our trip with a jump-start, but it had only scratched the surface of the adventures we would experience in the coming days. Every island looked amazingly different from the next and new sights were waiting to greet us as soon as our feet moved from Zodiac to land. On Fernandina Island, the mound of marine iguanas greeting us by the hundreds was other-worldly. Ocean water spit from their noses like tiny sea sprays erupting between rocks as each of us inched and tip-toed around the lazy reptiles basking in the afternoon heat. Posing for a photo in front of the mass of dragon look-alikes, the fearlessness of these animals felt incomprehensible to me.
The amazing wildlife encounters were not limited to solid ground. Snorkeling was almost a daily activity, and afforded us up-close views of brilliant fish, sea stars, turtles, and even sharks! Undoubtedly, swimming with sea lions was one of the most intimate wildlife experiences that I had in the Galapagos. Though we had already met these friendly creatures on land, seeing the sea lions in action underwater was a completely different encounter. On land, the sea lions slowly teetered about from side to side, sure-footed but awkward. In the water, they seemed truly at home- graceful, agile, and quick. On our snorkeling excursions, Michael and I would madly dive below the water's surface repeatedly, inviting them to play. And on each outing there would be a few sea lions up to the challenge. They would dart and dance around us, or even float upside down and meet us eye to eye, only inches from our faces.
Whether in the water, on shore, or on the ship, our days in the Galapagos were filled with non-stop activity. From early morning to late night, there always seemed to be some form of entertainment. If we were not hiking, snorkeling, or eating, there was a movie playing, a lecture to listen to, or just a drink to be enjoyed on deck. The staff and guides were wonderful hosts and it was clear that they genuinely wanted to share their time, knowledge, and culture with us.
One evening after dinner, Michael and I ambled up to the top deck to enjoy the warm, evening breeze. A few of our fellow shipmates had decided to entertain the same idea and one of our guides, Juan Carlos, held an impromptu star gazing session. Listening to the centuries-old stories about Greek gods taking refuge in the stars and feeling the embrace of the waves against the ship, I knew I would never forget that moment of peacefulness.
Our final shore visit will remain in my memory as my favorite hike of the trip. Puerto Egas on Santiago Island led from a small, sandy beach to a gorgeous expanse of hardened lava flows. With the waves rhythmically being tugged between rock and open ocean, our group explored the tide pools and said our farewells to the apathetic marine iguanas, mischievous sea lions, and watchful Galapagos doves. The rocky landscape reminded me of the rugged shoreline of my childhood playground of Maine, and I truly felt at home on that island, with people who were strangers only a week before.
In my everyday life, when I think about what I've done in the past week, I can barely remember what I ate for dinner two nights before. But the seven days that I enjoyed on the Polaris afforded me more lasting memories than I could count. From listening to Juan Carlos's childhood tales about growing up in the Galapagos, to watching an enormous tortoise slump his way to an abandoned coffee bag for an afternoon pick-me-up, the memories astound me with their delicacy and detail.
Retracing my steps on the tarmac to board the plane to mainland Ecuador at the end of our trip, I wished for all my days to be as vivid, meaningful, and eye-opening as the ones I had in the magical Galapagos Islands.