Cruisers have the chance to see giant tortoises in their natural habitat. // © 2017 Walt Denson
Feature image (above): Lindblad has been calling on the Galapagos for 50 years. // © 2017 Ralph Lee Hopkins
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Giant tortoises lumbered along the roadside as our bus headed up to the highlands of Santa Cruz Island. Grazing on scrub and roaming around the park, they have no fear of humans and allowed us to photograph and observe them freely.
This was just one of the amazing encounters I had while on a weeklong cruise with Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic in the Galapagos Islands. Located some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands is one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites, designated in 1978. And in 2017, Lindblad celebrates its 50th year exploring the islands.
Though the archipelago is well-known, our expedition ship, the 48-passenger National Geographic Islander, ensured that we would have an intimate experience with our surroundings. A combination of incredible close-up encounters with wildlife and Lindblad’s experience in the Galapagos helped my husband and me create lasting memories.
This cruise is all about exploration and discovery, and Lindblad’s naturalists and guides are true experts. Their knowledge about the islands, wildlife and history enhanced every outing and activity. Though at any given moment during our trip, I could point my camera and shoot some of the most marvelous subjects on the planet, a photography expert onboard offered daily instruction on how to better capture the special moments of our expedition.
Daily activities include walking, hiking, kayaking and snorkeling. We swam with playful sea lions, whitetip reef sharks, sea turtles and more. We walked on olivine and white coralline beaches, hiked on otherworldly lava flows and kayaked in crystalline waters among a bale of sea turtles. Some of our beach strolls were shared by sea lions and marine iguanas, while others featured nests of baby albatross and red-footed boobies.
Wetsuits, snorkels and fins were provided on day one and were ours to keep for the week. Hiking sticks were available for those who like to use them (and they came in handy on the rockier hikes). We could choose a single or double kayak; doubles worked best for my husband and me so that we could take photos.
Each island offered an entryway into the world of wildlife. On Espanola Island, we snorkeled among sea lions. And while hiking, we witnessed blue-footed and Nazca boobies, as well as albatross, performing mating dances.
Floreana Island brought us to nesting green turtles and sightings of Galapagos sharks and rays. Here, we also stopped at Post Office Bay, where a barrel is still used for an old mail swap tradition that dates back to whaling days.
On Santa Cruz Island, we visited the famous giant tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Our hearts melted when we spotted a big crate of baby tortoises en route to the wild.
We also made stops to South Plaza, Santa Fe, Sombrero Chino, Santiago and Genovesa, where we explored among the land iguanas, reef sharks, rays and birds.
There were also face-to-face interactions with another mammal species: local kids at Tomas de Berlanga School on Santa Cruz. Once we arrived at their hilltop jungle school, we chatted with the principal, took student-led tours and presented the children with books we had donated with assistance from Lindblad.
Life onboard Islander is intimate and friendly. Every room is an outside cabin with a window, and the eight cabins on the top level of the ship have private, glassed-in balconies. The lounge serves as the general meeting place and site of all briefings, photography lessons, talks and presentations, though the conversation continues during meals in the open-seating dining room.
Families and multigenerational groups sail during school holidays; however, the average age range on my cruise was 55 to 75 years old. For a lot of my fellow cruisers, this was a bucket-list trip, but I say: Don’t wait.