Darwin and Me – A Galapagos adventure

Darwin and Me – A Galapagos adventure

It all started with a ship. How else could it start when the destination is the Galapagos Archipelago? One hundred and twenty eight islands, most of them just slivers of sun-baked volcanic rock, sprinkled over 45,000 square kilometers (17,000 square miles) of Pacific Ocean, straddling the equator some 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) to the west of mainland Ecuador. Of the 21 large enough to deserve recognition as actual islands, only five are inhabited to varying degrees. So, as Charles Darwin had already figured out, there had to be a ship. For him, a young man fresh out of Christ’s College (University of Cambridge) in 1831, the choice was simple. It was a berth as the naturalist on the Beagle, a 27.5-meter (90 foot) sloop with a crew of 74 men on a survey expedition along the coasts of South America, or nothing. He chose the Beagle. His momentous visit to the Galapagos has captured the imagination of adventure tourists ever since.

Royal treatment

The M/Y Grace at anchor against the vivid backdrop of Bartolomé's red lava cliffs.

The M/Y Grace against the vivid red lava cliffs of Bartolomé’s.

My own visiting options were less obvious. There are literally hundreds of crafts plying the waters of what is now the Galapagos Marine Reserve, vying for the attention of more than 150,000 yearly visitors. A tedious process of elimination ensued. Ships that could accommodate up to 100 guests (the maximum allowed by park regulations)? No thank you. My enthusiasm for following in Darwin’s footsteps did not include embracing his crowded cruising conditions. A further look at said regulations revealed that access to some of the most prized islands such as Genovesa, the ultimate birdwatchers paradise, and Bartolomé with its iconic black lava rock spur Pinnacle Rock rising from a tranquil aquamarine sea, was restricted to much smaller ships.

Galapagos - M/Y Grace.

The upper deck lounge was a favorite spot to enjoy cooling sea breezes.

The list of desirable vessels was dwindling fast. Then I came across the M/Y Grace, a striking 44 meters (145 feet) classic yacht with a crew of ten, that could accommodate a maximum of 18 passengers in its nine luxurious staterooms Visions of exploring Darwin’s Enchanted Islands in relative solitude were dancing in my head. I had found my ship. I was on my way.

Galapagos - sea lion and pup.

A sea lion cow faned herself as she nursed her pup.

 

The elegantly streamlined silhouette of the Grace gave me an odd sense of déjà vu, a disconcerting thought since luxury yachts have never been part of my universe. Further research validated the flash back: throughout the spring of 1956, the yacht had been front-page news on all the French magazines and movies screens and in the fantasies of a generation of schoolgirls. It was named Deo Juvante then (Latin for with God’s help), the motto of the house of Grimaldi, and its owner was Prince Rainier III of Monaco. The yacht was a frequent backdrop in the celebrations of his wedding to American movie star Grace Kelly, and the couple’s floating honeymoon cottage for a seven-week cruise around the most romantic spots of the Mediterranean.

Galapagos -al fresco lunch.

Galapagos al fresco lunch on the stern deck.

Now this glamorous vessel, renamed M/Y Grace in homage to its most illustrious owner was the property of Quasar Galapagos Expeditions, and I too could call it home for a fabulous weeklong exploration of the Galapagos Archipelago, princely matrimony not required. And best of all, its current owner Eduardo Diez, a man with a passion for classic yachts, had undertaken a complete overhaul of the vessel to include such twenty-first century amenities as a state-of-the-art stabilizer system for smooth sailing, a hot tub on the sundeck and air conditioning throughout. Darwin never had it so good!

The rarest wildlife on the planet

Galapagos - Nazca booby.

On Genovesa, a nazca booby shades her eggs from the searing sun.

My Galapagos cruise delivered on all my Darwinian fantasies. It began just as his had, on San Cristobal Island (then Chatham Island). By some fortuitous happenstance, we were only seven lucky passengers to enjoy the unfailing pampering of the crew. Our outstanding naturalist guide, Rafael Pesantes, Rafa for short, ensured that we hardly ever encountered any other visitors during our shore excursions. A third generation native of the islands and an ornithology graduate from San Francisco University in Quito, Rafa coupled an encyclopedic knowledge of the fauna, flora and geology of the islands with the familiarity of one who has explored from an early age the crystal waters of its most secluded coves.

Galapagos-green turtle.

Galapagos green turtles were frequent companions during our snorkling expeditions.

Our daily land outings were filled with close encounters with some of the rarest wildlife on the planet. We wandered on white sand beaches festooned with colonies of sea lions and hiked along black lava rock paths to observe at close range the courtship ritual of Nazca boobies and waved albatross. We rode our panga to the edge of vertical cliffs teaming with blue-footed boobies and tiny Galapagos penguins, and watched frigate birds and brown pelicans nosedive for their breakfast. For me, however, the highpoint of the day was invariably our snorkeling expedition. Island after island, Rafa led us to a dizzying abundance of exotic marine life. A few minutes into our first swim, we sighted a hammerhead shark (that mercifully showed no interest in us). We swan surrounded by so many giant sea turtles that it was a challenge to keep out of their way.

On Isabela, the base of the cliffs were covered with bright coral formations.

On Isabela, the base of the cliffs were covered with bright coral formations.

Then there was the flightless cormorant that settled on my back, doubtless having mistaken the zipper pull of my wetsuit for a juicy eel, and expressed its disapproval by repeatedly pecking at my arm. Sharp beak!

Galapagos -Lonesome George.

Pinta Island giant tortoise Lonesome George was the last survival of its subspecies.

Toward the end of the week, I had blissfully lost tract of time by then, we stopped in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. With 15,000 inhabitants, it is the largest of the three cities in the archipelago and the home of the Charles Darwin Research Station where we paid a de rigueur visit to Lonesome George, considered to be the rarest creature on the planet. Believed to be over 100 years old, Lonesome George was the last known specimen of the Pinta Island giant tortoise subspecies. I was saddened to hear of his demise a few months after our visit.

Location, location, location!

Bartolome Island, Galapagos Island, Equador

Far off the cruising lanes of Alaska

Far off the cruising lanes of Alaska

I was less than enthusiastic when the opportunity for an Alaska cruise arose. Actually, I turned it down first the time around. Nothing against Alaska, which I understood to be a place of great natural splendors; I bristled at the idea of boarding a floating hotel in Seattle or Vancouver and being whisked at a vast rate of knots for a weeklong northbound marathon of coastal highlights. However, Alaska didn’t give up. One year later it came calling again, and this time it had an offer I couldn’t resist: The Island Spirit.

CATCHING THE ISLAND SPIRIT

Petersburg Alaska, fisherman's art.

Petersburg Alaska, fisherman’s art.

I board the Island Spirit in Peterburg, a small fishing port still solidly anchored to its Norwegian roots, wedged on the Northern tip of Mitkof Island, in the Alexander Archiplago of Southern Alaska. The unassuming blue vessel barely stands out among the jumble of working fishing boats in the tiny harbor. But the powerful 128 foot (39 meter) long ship, once a rugged oilrig supply vessel painstakingly repurposed by his owner and captain Jeff Behrens, is just the right size to squeeze its way into narrow fjords and idyllic anchorages inaccessible to larger vessels. On board, it’s all casual comfort and thoughtful amenities: viewing decks on both passenger levels plus a rooftop “terrace”, large sliding windows everywhere and good binoculars always within easy reach. And Captain Jeff is a man with a passion for the pristine wilderness of Southern Alaska. He and his enthusiastic crew of eight clearly can’t wait to share it with us, the 16 passengers on this early June voyage.

Alaska Frederick Sound.

Dusk on Frederick Sound

We leave Petersburg on the evening tide, sailing up Frederick Sound at a leisurely 10 knots per hour (that’s 11.5 mile or 18.5 kilometer for us landlubbers). Within minutes, any hint of human encroachment disappears. All that’s left is unspoiled Alaska immensity. Distant snowy peaks sparkle in the clear dusk light. Within two hours, we’ve reached Portage Bay, our anchorage for the night.

Alaska Inside Passage Cruise

Early morning whale sighting.

 

 

The next morning we get underway at 7:00 AM. I am still hovering at the edge of consciousness, lulled by the gentle rocking of the ship, when Captain Jeff’s announces over the ship’s public address system: “whales at eleven o’clock”. We all emerge from our cabins, most of us with anoraks hastily thrown over pajamas, to congregate just a few feet a way on the bow viewing deck.

 

WHAT’S WITH FORD’S TERROR?

Alaska Inside Passage Ford's Terror.

The Island Spirit anchors for the night in Ford’s Terror.

Today’s destination is Ford’s Terror, a cove protected from the outside world by a passage so narrow that the Island Spirit is said to be the only commercial passenger vessel in the area small enough to navigate it. Additionally, fierce currents make the canyon unmanageable at any time but slack tide (the moment when currents stand still while the tide turns). The cove is named for a late nineteenth century sailor who didn’t follow this wise procedure when he tried to row a dinghy through the twisting gorge and was trapped in its roiling waters for several harrowing hours. We wait in Tracy Arm, a narrow fjord framed by towering granite cliffs, for the timing to be just right before engaging into the passage.

Alaska Inside Passage Grizzly.

Alaska Grizzly in Ford’s Terror.

We emerge into an oblong cove rimmed with dramatic slopes of black pines forests streaked by thundering waterfalls. Above the tree line, snowy mountaintops gleam against the cloudless cerulean sky. As we finish our dinner, First Mate Andy announces that a grizzly bear is grazing at the water’s edge. We don our life vests and rush en masse toward the awaiting skiff.

The weather is still radiant the next morning and wildlife viewing stunning. A flush of colorful harlequin ducks take flight just in front of the skiff, a marten peers at us from behind a rock and a black bear sow and her three tiny cubs scamper as we approach while bald eagles soar above. I muse that, should Captain Jeff decide to remain in Ford’s Terror for a week, I would happily forgo the remainder of the itinerary. But we are off again on the afternoon slack tide.

A mile-long wall of ice

Alaska Inner Passage glacier calving;

Dawnes Glacier calving

The next morning is all gloom and mist. Ice floes get increasingly larger as we head up Endicott Arm to Dawes Glacier. Then the ship slows to a crawl and we are staring slack-jawed at an approaching mile-long wall of jagged ice about 20 stories high. Captain Jeff inches the ship forward to a mere 600 feet (200 meters) from the glacier. We spend the rest of the morning listening intently for the next gunshot sound of cracking ice, followed by huge slabs of ice sliding into the sea. Crew members hand out cups of hot cocoa to ward off the chill.

Pulling into Juneau that evening is a bit of a downer. The entire waterfront is lined with city block-sized cruise ships pouring throngs of tourists onto the streets of the state capital. Churlish of me I admit, but I opt to forgo joining them for an after dinner stroll. I am in a better mood the next morning, when I discover that most of the behemoths have vanished during the night.

Totem Poles and Icons

Alaska Inside Passage Tenakee Spring.

Tenakee Spring (Population 129)

The small Juneau State Museum with its superb collection of objects from Alaska’s many native populations is well worth a visit. Still, I am glad when we sail again toward Chichagof Island and anchor off Tenakee Springs (population 129) where Main Street is a stretch of gravel road lined with small wooden homes.

The next day we stop at the tiny settlement of Baranof Warm Springs (seasonal population 30). Here, Main Street is a simple boardwalk leading up a hill to hot spring pools located right where we enjoy a soak with a view next to a roaring waterfall.

Alaska Sitka Russian Orthodox Icons

Saint Michael’s Cathedral is a treasure trove of Russian Orthodox Icons

Our final destination is Sitka, a bustling fishing port with a varied cultural heritage as the home of the native Tlingit people for over 10,000 years as well as the nineteenth century capital of Russian America. This allows me to enjoy in the course my last Alaskan afternoon a striking open air display of Tlingit totem poles and, in the onion-domed Saint Michael’s cathedral, the richest collection of Russian orthodox icons I have ever seen.

Never did nine days in the slow lane flee so quickly.

GOOD TO KNOW

With comfortable accommodations for a maximum of 32 passengers, the Island Spirit offers an opportunity to explore at leisure the narrowest fjords of the Inside Passage of Alaska from May to September. Its small size enables it to sail in close proximity to glaciers, waterfalls and other natural wonders. Owner and captain Jeff Behrens adjusts the itinerary in real time to take full advantage of frequent wildlife sightings, including whales, porpoises and sea lions.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Petersburg, Alaska