"Volcanic" and "marine" were descriptors our naturalist guides repeated often as we explored the Galapagos Islands. While those words certainly ring true for the famed archipelago's landscape and wildlife, they simply cannot begin to give you the feeling of what it's like to actually be there. It's like being on the moon...surrounded by fascinating and unique creatures! I felt a powerful connection with the elements in this rugged, remote paradise. Yet the highlight of our adventure was the privilege of observing the unusual wildlife -- many of the species are found only in this exotic outpost -- quite literally by our feet and under our noses.
By sea aboard a comfortable expedition ship and on land at a peaceful eco-lodge on one of the islands, my young daughter and I learned about the flora and fauna of Galapagos in a way that was infinitely more meaningful than a class or a Web site or even an excellently produced documentary could ever convey! Our excellent, friendly Ecuadorian guides gave us insight into the animals' behavior and biology and helped us understand the geological forces that continue to shape the islands. They led us in groups of no more than 16 along powdery beaches, rocky trails, and stark lava flows in our quest to observe the life found on these islands born of fire. And the creatures they introduced us to along the way -- the iconic giant Galapagos tortoises, comical blue-footed boobies, prehistoric marine iguanas, and so many more rare and intriguing animals -- were truly incredible! The wildlife was in no way "tame," yet they have never developed a fear of the humans that sometimes walk among them. With our guides' help, we observed the animals carefully and left them in peace.
Life is sustained by the sea, especially in the Enchanted Islands, so it was fitting that perhaps it was the sea that offered some of the most memorable moments. Snorkeling in Galapagos was just spectacular! Floating amongst a vibrant array of surgeonfish, puffers, parrotfish, damsels, angelfish, wrasses, and streams of silvery fish was such a treat. Rays dotted the sandy bottom and a reef shark cruised by (a comfortable distance away!). Right next to colorful Sally Lightfoot crabs there were penguins preening on the rocks at the waterline, and they would occasionally dart past snorkelers. My daughter and I were in complete awe as we watched ancient sea turtles glide peacefully past. The very best part of all, though, was when a curious juvenile sea lion came to play with us. On shore they reminded us of puppies -- sleeping and stretching and scuffling with their playmates -- but in the water they were like acrobats. Frolicking around us for several minutes, the sea lion would come right up and blow bubbles in our faces, just inches from our masks. What a thrill!
Galapagos is volcanic and marine -- but it is also surreal, wild, and brimming with life. The islands are an amazing laboratory for discovery, and my hope is that tourism evolves into a more sustainable model so that the wildlife remains just that...wild yet unafraid. I feel so privileged to have witnessed the raw beauty of such a precious wilderness. It honestly exceeded my expectations!