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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.