The sun was settling into the Pacific, and they were dancing on the beach. Two blue-footed boobies. These are seabirds that can fold themselves into missiles and corkscrew into the ocean at 60 miles per hour. But right now, they were two yards away and slowly high-stepping toward each other on their outsize webbed, very blue feet. One, presumably the male, offered his sweetheart a twig.
“Did you see that?” I murmured. “Him giving her the twig?”
“Always works for me,” my wife, Kim, replied.
Shortly after touching down on Baltra Island, we boarded our cruise ship, the Celebrity Xperience, and had barely unpacked before sailing off to see the wildlife. At this first stop, the tiny island of North Seymour, we saw magnificent frigate birds — that’s their name, Fregata magnificens — soaring close overhead on black and angled wings eight feet across, like remnants of the age of pterodactyls. No sooner had I set foot on a trail inland than I had to step between a yellow land iguana and a seagull, and then around two sea lions. Each opened an eye, rubbed its back into the sand, and went back to sleep.
It was like walking through that painting by Henri Rousseau, The Dream — remember the nude in the forest with the lions and birds? The peace that reigned, the innocence. We hadn’t been in the Galápagos a day, and already this was the strangest and wildest place I’d ever seen.
An archipelago of volcanic islands and numerous tiny islets, the Galápagos are on almost every nature lover’s must-visit list for good reason: they have a higher concentration of endemic animals and plants than almost anywhere else on the planet. The islands’ short distance from the Ecuadoran coast allowed some species to be swept from the mainland and evolve in relative isolation. With very few land predators around, they adapted to be pretty fearless. To protect the wildlife, the Ecuadoran government has designated 97 percent of the archipelago a national park.
To really explore the Galápagos, go by sea. We chose to sail with Celebrity Cruises, which just added two retrofitted ships — the 48-passenger Xperience and the 16-passenger Xploration — to its Galápagos fleet. I’ll admit that I love cruises. The right kind of voyage, on a small expedition ship, gives access to wild places that can’t be reached any other way. The Xperience was outfitted for adventure, with snorkeling gear, kayaks, and inflatable Zodiacs for landings. And the itinerary was rigorous: we all did two excursions a day, either hikes or snorkels led by a registered Galápagos guide, with a break for lunch on the ship. Once in a while we saw another small expedition ship at anchor, but usually we were all alone.
It didn’t hurt that the cabins were smartly designed, the galley served delicious meals like grilled lobster and papaya salad, and there was a hot tub on the highest deck. But for us, the best part was getting off the ship and into the water.
On day four, as we sailed toward Floreana Island, the sea got rough. The Zodiac plowed through the swell while our lead naturalist, Gustavo Barva, told us the story of early settlers, a handful of eccentric Germans who disembarked in 1929. It was a story of love, betrayal, poison, and murder, and he had us on the edge of our bouncing seats.
Just off shore, the captain cut the engine, and Kim and I climbed into a double sea kayak. She set a strong pace, and we headed for a maze of rocky black islets, the spray hitting our faces. In the calmer sand shallows, the water was aquamarine. The swells surged through channels between outcroppings like a gushing stream, and we rode them, sluicing through the gaps. Bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttled on rocks the color of coal. Again, we got the sense of being in a painting where the colors, the wildness, could not be entirely real.
And then we saw the pair of sea lion pups. They broke from wrestling on a shallow bar and swam after us. They were so tenacious we laughed out loud. They stared at us with huge, dark, wet eyes, wondering why we were making a ruckus. They seemed to be begging us to get out of the stupid boat and play for real.
We did eventually get out of the boat, to snorkel in the waters of Post Office Bay. Kim tapped me as we floated along: a pair of green sea turtles were feeding along the bottom. She stretched out her arms, and the larger one rose to the surface just under her chest, nearly brushing her with its shell. I almost stopped breathing.
But I didn’t have much time to recover. A large Galápagos shark, seven or eight feet in length, with a scythe tail and a dead eye, cruised by us at something like 12 feet. It arced around us. My heart started to pound, and just as I began to wonder how this particular encounter might end, a brown blur glided between us and the predator: a huge female sea lion. As she passed, she looked right at us, and we thought we could read her expression: I’ve got this. She did. She circled us twice and chased off the shark.
The next day, we rose at 5:30 and ate a big breakfast of made-to-order omelettes and strong Ecuadoran coffee. The ship anchored off the largest island in the archipelago, Isabela, and we set out on Zodiacs for the sheltered waters of Elizabeth Bay. On the rocks, marine iguanas sunned themselves in a mass of sinuous tails and claws. This species — the only oceangoing iguana in the world — evolved from land iguanas that once lived in the forests of Ecuador. These iguanas dive for algae. Weird. Weirder still was the flightless cormorant whose wings evolved to stubs because there were no predators to fly away from.
It’s one reason we travel, I guess. To experience the wholly unfamiliar. And I have traveled a lot. But I have never been in a place that unfolded with such surprising juxtapositions: penguins next to iguanas, dancing boobies by nesting frigates, playful sea lions swimming past relaxed turtles. Our Zodiac pushed on and slipped slowly through narrow channels among the mangrove trees — who knew mangrove trees could be red, and grow to 30 feet tall? — and we saw a sea lion sleeping across a branch above the water like a leopard.
In our week of cruising from island to island, we would also be dazzled by high headlands covered in pink carpetweed where boobies with red feet sat on white eggs. And estuaries where pink flamingos moved to the slow cadences of the tide. And albatross that, during their mating dance, clacked their bills together like castanets.
In the Bolivar Channel, after an evening of seeing minke whales blow all around the ship, we climbed up to a railing forward of the bridge. The ship was headed straight toward a rising half-moon. Over the horizon on our left lay the Southern Cross. Above and to our right were the Big Dipper and the North Star — the northern and southern constellations were spread under one sky.
Of course: we were almost on the equator. Kim and I leaned shoulder to shoulder. On the wind, and in the sea, it seemed that beauty breathed all around us, and we stayed out until the moon dropped into the waves.