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Galápagos, a natural selection for seeing all manner of wildlife

ECUADOR

The flimsy sink was positioned right over the bucket, a few tiny leaves thrown into the clear water to demonstrate as the man in khaki pulled the plug. The water, the leaves: straight down. He moved the bucket and sink 2 feet to the north of the line painted on concrete, repeated the experiment and the water swirled clockwise. A couple of feet south of the line and the water sucked the leaves counterclockwise down into the bucket.

I didn't anticipate animatedly discussing the Coriolis effect with a bunch of strangers, but standing on the equator north of Quito, Ecuador, the hashtag was seriously trending. A half-hour earlier we had stood on a similar line at the nearby Middle of the World park where more than 200 years ago the French Geodesic Mission determined they had reached 0 degrees latitude, 0 minutes, 0 seconds. Nice try, scientists. GPS, and those little leaves, reveal that the equator is hundreds of feet to the north.

It's Day One of our three-generational trip to the Galápagos, a celebration of my parents-in-law's golden anniversary. As can happen when Gen Xers travel with their boomer parents, we had been instructed to buy rash guards and underwater cameras and show up on the right day. They'd take care of the rest.

Tampa to Miami, Miami to Quito, a day of sightseeing (and hemisphere-straddling) in that historic city, another puddle-jump to the eastern island of Baltra and we boarded the M/V Santa Cruz, a well-preserved 90-person vessel built in 1979 and mostly kitted out with tiny twin-bed cabins.

We were rash guard-ready. Cheek to cheek on rubber panga boats, we ventured forth for our first wet landing in a white-sand lagoon of Las Bachas on Santa Cruz Island. Some of us were there for the blue-footed boobies and red-throated magnificent frigate birds, some for the Galápagos penguins and giant tortoises, still others were amped to glide by fur sea lions or sleek white-tipped reef sharks in chilly waters.

And in five days on six islands, we saw it all.

But here's the thing about the Galápagos. The first time you see a marine iguana resolutely climbing a rocky outcropping after snacking on underwater red algae, you freak out. I see one! Then an hour later you are nearly nonchalant as you happen upon a scrum of more than 100 marine iguanas preserving body warmth in the lengthening afternoon. You acclimate. The marine and bird life is so extravagantly dense, your access so unencumbered, that for few days it becomes the new normal. A normal that only 200,000 visitors each year are privileged enough to experience.

When and how

There are a few major decisions to make when visiting the Galápagos. High season is mid June through early September and from mid December through mid January, the latter period with warmer water and air, but rainy, the former period impacted by the Humboldt Current, which brings colder weather and lots of chilly, nutrient-rich water and the fish and birds that like that kind of thing.

There's no such thing as an impromptu trip to the archipelago of more than 100 volcanic islands and islets that proved inspiring to Charles Darwin. The national park coordinates ships' itineraries and limits the number of visitors to the islands, any onshore venturing overseen by official naturalists.

The other big decision is between a cruise and a land-based tour: Cruises will potentially take you to more remote islands — and thus front-row seats to cool animal sightings — but land-based travel allows you to scuba and such but still enjoy the comforts of a hotel. From most populated to least, Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Isabela and Floreana are all inhabited and offer hotel accommodations.

With cruising, price is often the guiding factor. There are four-day/three-night cruises all the way up to 14-night itineraries with no repeat landings. The shorter ones are pricey (our Tauck tour cost $4,890 per person, plus airfare) and the longer ones are really expensive. There are small yachts and sailboats that carry up to about 30 passengers, midsized cruisers (40 to 60 passengers) and small ships that carry fewer than 100 passengers. In ascending order of price and fanciness, some of these are the Santa Cruz and the Legend, the Galápagos Explorer II and National Geographic Endeavour (that's the big time). In all cases, you depart the ship each day in pangas with a naturalist and head off to hike or snorkel.

The right guide

Jorge Campoverde was our man. We realized quickly that of the on-ship naturalists, he was the one whose sensibility most closely matched our own. We stalked him, intent on spots on his excursion panga.

Hunched forward conspiratorially, he would intone, "Believe or don't believe," before telling us something frequently unbelievable about Galápagos animal life. Like Nazca boobies practice siblicide, the slightly older of two hatchlings pushing the younger out of the nest (they nest on the ground) to die of exposure or thirst while the mother bird looks on impassively. Seems like a bad system, right? Or that flamingos (yes, there are flamingos there, too) stand on one foot to thermoregulate. Or that the swallow-tailed gull is the only gull that feeds at night, its red-rimmed googly eyes equipped with special photoreceptor cells like night-vision goggles.

We got quick at zipping up our shorty wet suits and grabbing our mesh bags of snorkel gear. We learned useful things like if you dab toothpaste around the interior of your snorkel mask it stays clear (and you feel minty fresh) and if an Ecuadorian offers you a slice of tree tomato, politely decline (bitterest fruit ever). But mostly three cousins, two brothers and their wives, and a couple married back in 1964 enjoyed each other's company in a part of the world where awe slips back and forth with "aw."

On the red-sand beach of Rábida we saw young sea lions whiling away the morning in play as their moms went fishing; on Bartolomé we motored in our rubber boats past Pinnacle Rock to find a family of tiny banded penguins, drawn by the Cromwell Current and subsisting on schools of mullet and sardines; and on Genovesa Island we watched as thousands of boobies and frigates wheeled overhead, curious mockingbirds occasionally alighting on sneaker or shoulder.

Fellow travelers on the Santa Cruz, a subset of whom were on our Tauck tour, tended to self-select for cheery, outdoorsy folks with well-worn Keen water shoes and those travel vests with all the pockets. Like my in-laws, many of these people were avid travelers, trying to inculcate in their kids and grandkids an enthusiasm for the planet. It wasn't a tough sell.

The beds were comfy, the dining room food was pleasant continental with South American touches; there was a hot tub and a top-deck bar. But this wasn't a lie-in-the-sun-with-a-mai-tai kind of trip. Instead we learned about the five ocean currents that converge on the islands. We hefted lava rocks and heard lectures about volcanic hot spots responsible for the newest Galápagos islands, Isabela and Fernandina, still being formed just as the oldest ones, more than 4 million years old, are disappearing back into the sea. Late at night we gazed up at the Milky Way and then down into the water to see 14-foot sharks and sea lions gliding in search of dinner.

Those sharks lingered in my memory the next afternoon and messed up my snorkel mojo, so I contentedly sat in the panga and watched my family kick and dive while sea turtles ambled by and frigates, unrepentant kleptomaniacs, tried stealing boobies' fish overhead. I might not have noticed the different beak sizes and shapes of Darwin's little finches if I'd been a stowaway on the HMS Beagle, but it's easy to see how this remote archipelago of islands continues to be a mecca for naturalists and those in search of a stiff shot of awe.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

.If you go

Not for the impulsive

Plan ahead: Many vessels and tours fill up nearly a year in advance. You can embark from either Quito, Ecuador's colonial capital city, or the coastal city of Guayaquil. Quito is much richer historically and is worth a day of exploration, but its brand-new airport is inconveniently located in Tababela, 23 miles northeast. Many flights from North America arrive fairly late in the evening, so plan your dining accordingly, and you may want to hedge your bet in case of a delayed flight by allowing a full day in Ecuador before heading to the islands.

There are designated scuba tours as well as those that focus more on snorkeling, kayaking and hiking. The Galápagos is not a good beginner scuba destination, but if you want to tack on some diving at the beginning or end of a cruise, visit scubaiguana.com or galapagos-sub-aqua.com.

Here are some of the most established Ecuadorian and international tour operators specializing in Galápagos trips, but there are plenty of others.

Ecoventura (ecoventura.com) operates the 16-passenger dive boat M/Y Sky Dancer as well as the 20-passenger M/Y Eric, Flamingo I and Letty.

Klein Tours (kleintours.com) is one of the most established companies running tours on three ships: the 20-passenger M/Y Coral, the 26-passenger M/Y Coral II and the 110-passenger M/V Galápagos Legend.

Linblad Expeditions (expeditions.com) is a luxury tour agency that operates two cruise ships: the National Geographic Explorer and the National Geographic Islander. It also offers a Machu Picchu combination tour. The tours have really serious naturalists and an educational focus.

Metropolitan Touring (metropolitan-touring.com) also had a tour on the M/V Santa Cruz when we were on it, and they run tours on M/V La Pinta and M/V Isabela II.

Quasar Náutica (galapagosexpeditions.com) operates tours from a number of small ships, the M/V Evolution, the M/S Alta, the M/V Parranda and the M/V Grace.

Tauck (tauck.com) is a long-standing soft-adventure tour company catering to higher-end travelers. With a variety of itineraries and some that are family-focused, they tend to offer larger group tours and even charter entire cruise ships. Our Tauck director, Jean-Roch de Susanne, was charming, with tremendous passion and knowledge about the Galápagos and a knack for smoothing out travel's tiny bumps.

Galápagos, a natural selection for seeing all manner of wildlife 08/27/14 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2014 2:16pm]

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