. Sailing the Galapagos with Lindblad Expeditions by Ben Lyons : ROAD & TRAVEL Magazine

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In Step with Charles Darwin: Sailing the Galapagos with Lindblad Expeditions Sailing the Galapagos with Lindblad Expeditions

By Benjamin S. Lyons

No matter how many National Geographic specials you've seen or how many stories you've heard, nothing prepares you for a visit to the Galapagos Islands. Whether swimming only inches away from sea lions or sidestepping hundreds of marine iguanas stretched out in the sun, these unique islands are best visited with a well-established expedition company that can offer insight and access. Amongst the many options sailing the Galapagos, there are none better than Lindblad Expeditions and the 80-passenger ms Polaris.

Sealion Slumber

Founded by Sven Olof Lindblad, the son of Lars-Eric Lindblad who pioneered expedition-style cruising, Lindblad Expeditions employs the best naturalists and provides them the best tools to create the most organized and educational cruise possible. Sailing everywhere from Antarctica to the Columbia River, Lindblad is deeply committed to environmental conservation and ecologically sensitive tourism and has formed strong partnerships with National Geographic and the World Wildlife Fund. Over the years they have built a large base of loyal passengers who, like the infinitely curious Charles Darwin who made these islands famous, want to see, do and learn as much as possible.

This mentality was evident from our first day, which had us embarking the Polaris by 10AM and going ashore for our first expedition only a few hours later. Striking off in a Zodiac, we explored a series of quiet lagoons where mangroves and cactus live side by side and we were delighted with shockingly close sightings of land iguanas, sea lions, herons, sharks and large sea turtles. Our naturalist, however, urged us not to take photographs since we would see more and get closer throughout the week.

He was proven right the next morning when we went ashore on Espanola. Covering our landing were numerous sea lions lethargically draped across our path, and as we stepped around them they looked at us with only a casual indifference. Just a few feet beyond, we were again blocked by a jumble of prehistoric-looking marine iguanas. It was immediately obvious that we were the ones who had to make way for the animals, as they were not going to move for us.

Wildlife On The Beach

Visiting nine islands in seven days, we saw a wide variety of landscapes and animals and against my expectations; I found the birds to be some of the most appealing creatures. Being able to walk up to and observe hundreds of them from close range made bird watching far more interesting than in other areas where it usually involves searching for one elusive feather hidden behind branches 200 feet away.

Most endearing were the comical blue footed boobies, and walking through a vast colony of them, we were surrounded by an amusing juxtaposition of sound and motion as they lifted one foot, bent their wings and whistled shrilly during their mating dance as if they were in a Monty Python skit.

Perhaps the highlight for me, however, was sharing a beach not with tourists but with sea lions. Curious babies occasionally waddled up to us and sniffed around our face before crawling onto our stomachs and lying down for a few moments. Sea lions were equally exhilarating in the water- streamlined and sleek; they suddenly appeared from nowhere and shot by us before coming back and twisting, turning and darting around us. Coming face to face with our snorkel mask, they would teasingly veer off when only inches away, and other times simply stare at us as if in an invitation to play. They seemed particular happy when we dove and, imitating their actions, blew bubbles for them to swim through.

Our days were often structured the same, with core activities of swimming, walking or going for a ride in the Zodiac repeated daily. What we saw each day would vary, however, and we kept busy from morning till night. Starting as early as 6AM with an optional wake-up call, days often began with a pre-breakfast hike or zodiac ride, with most passengers choosing to participate in the early morning revelry.

After breakfast, we climbed into the Zodiacs and started our morning excursion, perhaps looking for wild giant tortoises or snorkeling with a feeding sea turtle while sharks coolly swam past. Seeing the animals up close and in the wild brought us a simple joy and always left us exhilarated. This was not the distant nature that you find on Alaska but rather a close up, personal interaction that challenged your conventional ways of looking at human-animal relations.

Sealion Up-close

Because the islands are 97% national park, regulations mandated that we stay at all times with one of our six Lindblad naturalists. Despite hearing the same questions each week from a new set of passengers, their intense enthusiasm for the islands and the animals never waned, and they seemed as excited as we were to see the short eared owl or a pair of Bryde's whales. While each guide had a tremendous amount of general knowledge on the islands, they also had their own specialty. By having an ornithologist, a geologist, and an "Underwater Specialist" amongst other specialties onboard, we benefited from a greater knowledge base and heard each of them talk on their particular subject over the dinner table or in an afternoon lecture.

The naturalists were only part of the equation, however, as the Polaris was equipped with several tools for learning. Video microscopes projected microscopic images of brine to aid in a discussion of whales' feeding habits, and if any whales were seen, a hydrophone could be dropped in the water to broadcast their songs throughout the ship. The guides used an underwater camera and a splash cam to film sea lions or sharks during our swims and would show the footage that night. For going ashore, a fleet of sturdy but nimble Zodiacs was used, with the expedition leader briefing everyone whether it will be a wet landing on the beach or a dry landing on shore.

After lunch, and a brief but welcome siesta, it was time for our afternoon excursions. With a wide variety of ages onboard, Lindblad divided the excursions into different activity levels. When snorkeling, experienced swimmers went off the Zodiacs to deepwater sites, while those less confident went off the beach or used the glass bottomed boat to see the undersea world. Walks ashore were also divided into varying lengths, and for those who didn't want to walk at all; longer Zodiac rides surveying the coast were arranged. Two SCUBA dives were available for those who wished to see seahorses or hammerhead sharks, and a bike ride to a restaurant where Lindblad arranged lunch for us one day was offered to those passengers feeling particularly fit.

While most passengers tended to be age 50 and up, almost all were active and negotiated the occasionally tricky transfer between the ship and the Zodiac with ease. Lindblad encourages younger passengers as well, and on our sailings, in addition to a few 30 and 40 year olds, there were families onboard with their kids who never grew bored of the sea lions or the swimming. Special family sailings in the summer and in the holidays offer extra activities for kids, but they are welcomed year-round.

Our Room

Just before sunset we were all onboard in time to shower and grab a drink on the ship's teak deck before the nightly Lindblad tradition of "Recap." Gathering everyone in the lounge, the naturalists would talk about the day's experiences and then give a short presentation varying from the geological history of the islands to a guest speaker from the Charles Darwin Research Center. After dinner activities included videos or a gathering on a darkened deck to identify with a laser pointer the most constellations we'd ever seen. By 10PM most passengers went straight to bed tired but enthused.

Happily, there was enough time built into our schedule to recoup and enjoy the considerable comforts of the ship. After a 40-year career that included decades of worldwide cruising, the Polaris has settled in to year-round Galapagos sailings for the last phase of her career. Cozy and charming, she is well maintained and full of nautical character after her many years of exploring and the navigation bridge was always open for interested passengers. With a simple lounge, an intimate library and an attractive, wood paneled dining room, the atmosphere onboard was casual and never required any dressing up.

Average cabins are snug, as is common on expedition ships, but attractive and with ample storage. A masseuse tends to a small gym and spa and leads stretching at sunrise on the top deck. In typical Lindblad creativity, the spa offers a small anchored boat with a glass bottom, allowing you to be massaged outdoors while peering at the marine life below.

Equally delightful was the ship's memorable Ecuadorian dishes. 90% of the food came from either the islands or mainland Ecuador, ensuring the locally caught fish such as Galapagos Steamed Wahoo in Coconut Sauce or the showcased fruit and juice of the day would be fresh. A traditional Sunday Ecuadorian lunch consisted of a huge spread of Llapingachos (Potato Patties with cheese and peanut butter sauce), Mote Pillo (corn cooked in milk and eggs), Lechon Hornado (suckling pig roasted in beer and mustard) and Ceviche Mixto (seafood marinated in lemon and tomato juice).

The Polaris
The Polaris

While my general philosophy is the smaller the ship the better for expedition cruises, I found that Lindblad's resources, efficiency and comforts made it the best choice despite smaller vessels that carried as little as 14 passengers. The ship walked the line perfectly between offering comfort without being luxurious and still provided a sense of exploration and excitement.

By the end of the week, I had almost come to take the islands for granted until I was instantly reminded how removed I was from New York City. Overhearing a teenage passenger explaining to an Ecuadorian crew member, "They call this an I-Pod, " I knew that the inevitable march of time seemed to have softened in the Galapagos.

With prehistoric looking creatures all around, it didn't take much imagination to see Darwin climbing the volcanic peaks or studying the ancient marine iguanas stepping onto the rocks after swimming. Different eras have fused together in the islands, and no doubt Darwin would be happy to see this wonderful laboratory was still much the same. I also feel confident that if he was around today, he couldn't help but to choose to sail onboard the Polaris, no doubt as excited and enthralled as the rest of us.

If You Go:

Lindblad Expeditions operates six small ships that literally span the globe, and recently introduced the Islander, a smaller, more modern ship to compliment the Polaris in the Galapagos. Visit the company's extensive website at www.expeditions.com to search itineraries, read about the company's conservation efforts and view "Daily Expedition Reports" sent back each day from the fleet. For more information, call 1800-EXPEDITION.

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