The first time it happened, she floundered over to me in a panicked doggy paddle, clutching my arm so tightly I could feel the skin breaking through the puffy thickness of my neoprene wetsuit.
The second time it happened, my nine-year-old daughter took a few cautious backstrokes and marvelled breathlessly through her mask at what she was seeing.
By the third time, when our snorkel session in the Galapagos islands was interrupted by a family of inquisitive sea lions, we were both squealing with glee, spinning around and around, as we tried hopelessly to keep up with the darting fur-covered torpedoes zipping between our fins.
If ours was an experience of uncommonly good luck, it would still be a powerful sales pitch encouraging others to experience the incredible biodiversity of these magical islands. But the reality is that there was nothing unusual about our week—nearly one-thousand kilometers off the west coast of Ecuador—and that’s precisely what makes it all the more amazing. Day after day, hour after hour, my daughter and I had up-close and personal encounters with creatures that appeared to cross the line into mythology and legend. Bulky land iguanas slithered their orange masses across the equally orange dusty earth. Their smaller marine cousins clutched chunks of coral beneath the pounding surf, as they munched on sea algae, then clawed their way onto the black volcanic rocks to bask in the warm sun, while sneezing salt spray from their nostrils. We marvelled at the outlandish size of giant tortoises dragging their massive shells through the trails, and woke up one morning to a pod of two-hundred dolphins racing across the bow of our ship.
Ecuador can take great pride in its environmental stewardship of this remarkable planetary resource. Rather than exploiting the islands (an action the country has previously threatened to take in regards to its other incredible environmental gift—the Amazon), Ecuador has resisted the urge to despoil the park through over-fishing or tourist carpet-bombing. Ninety-seven percent of the Galapagos region is classified as a National Park and Marine Reserve, and thus subject to a host of regulations, including strict visitation limits and guest numbers for tourist operators. Every action is closely supervised by the park service and the watchful eyes of the Ecuadorian navy. The result, after years of painstaking care, is a flourishing Garden of Eden, where animals show none of the characteristic fear of humans that is considered ‘natural’ almost anywhere else in the world. I can think of no other place on earth where one can approach notoriously skittish wildlife, such as birds, fish, or lizards, and gape in amazement as the animals go about their lives with barely a passing interest in the human intrusion.
Any visit to the Galapagos is inevitably infused with discussions of Darwinian evolution and biological adaptations. It takes an animal species millions of years to adopt and incorporate minor incremental changes into its genetic code. The biggest thrill for me was watching my nine-year-old daughter evolve so dramatically in only a week. While adults often arrived at the breakfast table aboard our EcoVentura yacht looking a shade of green from the rhythmic rocking of the previous evening’s sail, she slid out of bed each morning, easily manoeuvering down the steep stairs to the dining mess, and wolfed down eggs, pastries, or French toast, before donning her life jacket ready to leap aboard the zodiac that would whisk us to the day’s adventure. Every logistical need, from air transfers to snorkel equipment (even in children’s sizes!), was taken care of by EcoVentura’s employees. With ships that handle a maximum of twenty passengers, but are staffed by a crew of eleven, individual attention is a given. Need customized meals accommodating diverse dietary restrictions? Not a problem. Favour kayaking over snorkelling? The crew will rig the ship’s two double kayaks for a leisurely paddle above the clear turquoise waters. Fancy a trip to the bridge? My daughter took a turn at the wheel!
At the heart of the experience is the ship’s naturalist. These guides are trained and certified by the park service, and bring an encyclopedic knowledge of every plant, seed, rock, and animal across any of the islands.
Few trips can combine a genuinely educational experience with an unforgettably good time. You can jimmy together a paper mache volcano or you can pick your way across the jagged obsidian shards of the real thing, on a lava flow, at Punta Moreno. You can watch a BBC documentary in your family room or you can help your child film her own documentary, rolling digital tape on a dizzying array of fantastical creatures. You can drop the kids off at swimming lessons again next Sunday or you can drop them in the nutrient-rich waters of the Humboldt current, with a family of sea lions.
I made my choice, and I encourage you to do the same.
Travel assistance provided by EcoVentura.
Read about our family trip to Amsterdam here.