It was less of a milestone than I thought it would be, arriving on the Galápagos for the first time. There were no trumpets in the distance, no blue shock wave emanating from my Converses when the plane touched down, signaling to all that a childhood dream was being fulfilled. Instead, light streamed through a window. The doors cracked and were pulled aside. Hot air flowed in. I walked down the stairs to the runway, feeling the steel of the handrail already beginning to bake in the tropical sun. And then I was there.
When I was eight, I dreamed that I would be the next Steve Irwin. I was going to have a television show called “Wild Things with Colin Heinrich,” and the theme song was going to be “Wild Thing” by the Troggs. I had been enamored of the Galápagos and their wildlife ever since seeing a National Geographic special on them, and so, more often than not, my hypothetical masterworks of cable programming took place on the islands and in the surrounding water.
There was a whole lot of filler between then and now, but during all that time, the Galápagos always had the same mystical aura for me. I wrote my eighth-grade essay about Charles Darwin. I dreamed of getting my scuba license just so I could look up from a league below the sea’s surface and not be able to see for all the hammerhead sharks. I’ve wanted to tell stories about things, stories about the Galápagos, my whole life.
The Galápagos are a slow-burn destination. They’re not like the Sistine Chapel and the Eiffel Tower, confronting travelers with their startling beauty. The Galápagos creep up on you. They lull you into a false sense of familiarity—here a cactus, there a seagull—and for a second, you wonder if all those years of anticipation were mistaken. The landscape, dry and gray, is not the wonderful alien world you expected, just an ordinary blanket of scrub. But that’s when the slow burn kicks in. Once you’ve acclimated to the landscape, you begin to see the subtle otherworldliness of the place.
The Galápagos’ uniqueness is first noticeable during the drive from the airport to the dock where you board your live-aboard boat. There might be a sea lion sleeping on a bench by the waterfront, unremarked by the locals walking past, or crabs so bright and uncamouflaged that they seem to defy the laws of natural selection, for which this archipelago is known. Once you get used to these small glitches in your perception of nature, the Galápagos really turns it on.
My time in the Galápagos was spent aboard the M/Y Grace by Quasar Expeditions, a refurbished yacht built in 1928 and used by Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier on their honeymoon cruise. She is 147 feet long with two levels, has blocky lines like those of a Mississippi steamboat and is less aerodynamic than a bumblebee. But she has the class of a 1920s lady, pearly white with mahogany interiors and the intimate feel of a yacht fit for a princess. She suited the wild environment far better than the large scientific boats in the harbor.
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My group and I were on the yacht for eight days, Saturday to Saturday, visiting most of the islands in the southern and central parts of the archipelago. During the trip, we saw the red cliffs of Rabida, swam with penguins off Sombrero Chino, walked with giant tortoises on Santa Cruz, hiked over the lava fields of Santiago and snorkeled with dolphins and sea lions. But even on that first day, by midafternoon any semblance of disappointment had disappeared like a reef shark into the deep.
On our first excursion, we sailed to the far side of San Cristobal, to a small rock jutting out of the water called Isla Lobos. We were far from any other boats now, alone with the salt breeze. A far cry from the built-up port we had left, San Cristobal lay in front of us untouched. Gray Palo Santo trees covered it from shore to summit like fur on a sleeping leviathan. The silence of nature was palpable in the atmosphere, broken only by the lapping of waves and the distinctive barks of sea lions basking on the rocks nearby.
The water wasn’t cold. Some of us entered with trepidation, a by-product, I think, of our uncertainty about what we would find below the surface. As we sank down, our snorkels filling with cloudy breath, an entire other world appeared. Turtles rested on the sandy floor while thousands of fish swam around us, steering wide of the sharks who gave brief chase before giving up and looking at other options, seemingly overwhelmed by the plethora of seafood available at any given time. We swam along the shoreline, watching baby sea lions dart about. Our guide, a sixty-year-old local who once showed David Attenborough through the archipelago, warned us to keep away. It was breeding season, he said, and the older males could toss you like a sack of potatoes if you got too close. We’d have a chance to get closer eventually. On another beach, on a different day, the sea lions came to bask in the sand near my feet, rolling into little corndogs before falling asleep without a care in the world. Oh, to be a sea lion.
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Soon the sun went down. It was faster than I expected, so conditioned was I to the bright lights of the big city and the gradual transition to orange reflected on the clouds above the skyscrapers. Here, the color in the sky faded like that of a wilting flower, from pink to purple to a black that enveloped the entire dome of what I could see, as if somebody had thrown a velvet curtain over my eyes. Stars appeared gradually, then quickly, racing the moon over the horizon until their shining white dust filled the sky like TV static. We were on the boat again, showered and clean and eating a dinner of ceviche and popcorn. Larger sharks circled the boat now, hunting the fish that congregated in its spotlights, and the quiet of death fell over everything.
It had been a long day, and yet, over the course of the following week, its adventures would be surpassed by others even my eight-year-old self would not have believed possible. I could never have anticipated snorkeling above a twenty-foot-wide manta ray as it drifted lazily below the surface, but sure enough, there I was. Nor could I have imagined that I’d swim with a school of sharks, watching as they snagged fish right out of the current. I never concocted an episode of “Wild Things with Colin Heinrich” that involved climbing through a lava tunnel and learning about the violent processes that created this land, but that, too, was an experience I packed into my weeklong trip.
That first day, I didn’t see a giant tortoise tuck itself into its shell, a marine iguana sneeze salt onto the rocks beyond it or a frigate bird inflate its pouch to twice the size of its body. But it contained enough to whet my appetite, enough to show me that these islands held every ounce of magic that I had hoped they would.
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