After a night of sailing, we awoke, stepped out on our balcony and gazed at the vast ring of rocky cliffs that surrounded our ship. The Silver Galapagos was in the middle of Darwin Bay, a volcanic crater in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Think Crater Lake, only engulfed by the endless sea.
Genovesa island is a collapsed caldera made of lava rocks. A treeless, greenless landscape for the most part. The small trees that were there had no leaves. The first deceptive impression is that what we were looking at was devoid of life, monochrome and barren. However, these Galapagos Islands and this ocean are anything but; they are thriving habitats with abundant life – a successful story of environmental recovery after 50 years of protection, conservation efforts and the natural world’s own intelligence.
The Galapagos Islands National Park and Marine Preserve are part of Ecuador. (The country deserves to be immensely proud). The archipelago consists of 13 major islands ranging in area from 5.4 square miles to 1,771 square miles (14 square kilometers to 4,588 square kilometers), six smaller islands, and countless islets and rocks scattered across the Equator, 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) west of mainland Ecuador. A marine preserve the size of Florida surrounds these islands.
We were on a seven-day voyage aboard the Silver Galapagos, sailing from Baltra to San Cristobal in September. Silversea alternates two seven-night Galápagos itineraries approved by the Galápagos National Park Service. The 100-guest, all-suite Silver Galapagos will operate both itineraries sailing Saturday to Saturday, with San Cristóbal as a new arrival or departure port for guests.
The north central itinerary which we travelled, departs Baltra for San Cristóbal with a newly added circumnavigation of Isla Daphne Grande (a.k.a. Daphne Major). The voyage also explores Bahía Darwin and El Barranco in Genovesa; Galapaguera Cerro Colorado and Punta Pitt in San Cristóbal; Bahía Gardner (a.k.a. Gardner Bay) and Punta Suarez in Española; El Edén, Fausto Llerena Breeding Center and Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz; as well as Bahía Sullivan, Seymour Norte, Rábida, and Plazas Sur.
The other itinerary, which we want to cruise next year, goes the other way round, departing from San Cristóbal and heading for Baltra. Silversea explains that this new western itinerary adds points of interest such as Cerro Dragón and Playa Las Bachas in Santa Cruz and a circumnavigation of Roca León Dormido (a.k.a. Kicker Rock). The itinerary also includes Punta Vicente Roca, Caleta Tagus and Bahía Elizabeth in Isabela; Post Office Bay, Islote Champion and Punta Cormorant in Floreana; Los Gemelos, Fausto Llerena Breeding Center and Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz; Bartolomé, Playa Espumilla, and Punta Espinoza.
I have no idea what any of these places are like. If the cruise we just experienced is anything to go by, I am sure it is just as spectacular. The expedition guides aboard Silver Galapagos encouraged us to make the time to sail this alternate itinerary as well, saying it was “incredible.”
On our Silversea cruise of the Galapagos Islands, there were several complimentary shore excursions every day, which were guided by an experienced expedition team. The expedition team are all naturalists and biologists. They participate in an intensive Naturalist Guide certification process required and implemented by the Galápagos National Park Service.
Ports of Call and Excursions
I had never been to the Galapagos Islands before this Silversea Expedition cruise. I had little experience of this region of the world, except for what I read in National Geographic articles back in the day. Galapagos Islands seemed fascinating and very much out of reach.
Prior to our Galapagos cruise, Silversea sent a survey to Venetian Society Members to rate our preferences on a scale of 1-10 what we anticipate in terms of ports of call on the itinerary. I did some internet research and gave my ratings to the 15 shore excursions listed on the survey.
In my research I learned how little I knew about the Galapagos. During the cruise I learned even more. The lessons are in geography, astronomy, marine ecology, biology, global ecology, anthropology, history, geology, to name a few. Every place we visited exceeded my expectations on the sliding scale.
I rated Baltra a 5 on the precruise survey because it was an island with an airport. We arrived on Baltra by plane from Quito and took a bus to the dock and then a zodiac to the ship. I would rate Baltra a 6 after our experience. When we arrived on the island it was as if we landed on another planet. The time spent on the dock waiting for our turn to take the zodiac to the ship was already exciting.
Right there at the dock, the wildlife was busy carrying on their business like we weren’t even there. Pelicans diving, frigate birds gliding, iguanas swimming and bright red crabs scurrying. The show had begun. Everyone had their cameras out, snapping endless pictures. On average I took about 400 photos per day.
El Barranco at Genovesa Island
Silversea offered four types of included excursions in one day around Genovesa Island. The expedition team split the excursion group in two separate groups. The Naturalists guided two different hikes and offered two snorkeling adventures. One group of snorkelers swam from the beach around rocky outcrops. The other group were taken to deeper waters and snorkeled from the zodiacs along the cliffs of the submerged crater rim.
Based on my internet research I gave El Barranco a pre cruise rating of 8. Having been there, I now give it a 10.
El Barranco is located in the southern part of Darwin Bay on Genovesa Island. There is a trail is on volcanic rock that has a length of 1.5 kilometers and the tour lasted a couple of hours. The youngest area of the island, from a geological point of view, lies in this area. The cliffs located in the south are composed of fragile lava. We arrived by zodiac for a dry landing to Prince Phillips Steps.
The natural erosion that has occurred in these lava flows has become the ideal place for nesting Storm Petrels that nest in cavities and holes in the lava. Multitudes of other creatures: red and blue footed boobies, sea lions, tropic seabirds, iguanas, finches, lizards, etc. ignored the group as we stuck together on trails and marveled. One of the islands main predators is the short-eared owl. The geology of the volcanic landscape was fascinating.
Darwin Bay at Genovesa Island
I gave Darwin Bay a pre-cruise rating of 10. After our day of two hikes and snorkeling I give it 10 +++++, off the charts. There were no other ships, no boat traffic, no development. We were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Sadly there are not many places on earth that can say that. The experience of remoteness and wildness is peak. The Galapagos National Park system and Marine Preserve manage and protect this jewel well. They are to be commended.
After a wet landing, we went for a short hike and a snorkel from this beach. We could barely walk because we had to stop every few feet to observe nature going about her business. Stingrays swimming through crystal clear shallow water. A mother sea lion nurturing her week old pup. Iguanas basking on lava rocks. Frigate birds feeding their young ones. Male Frigate birds trying to steal food right from the mouths of other frigate babes to feed their own nestlings. It was all captivating.
The snorkeling from the beach was spectacular. Silversea provides and maintains all the gear. The expedition team provides snorkeling instruction to newbies. They give inflatable swim vests to less confident swimmers. The Naturalist guides monitor the snorkelers from the zodiacs. They are strict with maintaining the parameters: do not approach wildlife: do not stand on the rocks: do not swim beyond the bounds set up by the team. The expedition team are protecting the environment as well as the guests.
The underwater world is magical. So many schools of colorful fish of all shapes and sizes too abundant and numerous to describe. Sandy colored stingrays gliding along the seabed. Out of nowhere, a sea lion startled me and almost made me choke on sea water. As soon as I composed myself was as soon as the sea lion was gone, in a flash. Paul, one of the Naturalist guides told me that the sea lions are curious and playful. I regretted my panic. My adrenaline was high. I told myself, “Next time, I will anticipate and embrace the moment a sea lion wants to have an encounter with me.” What an honor and a privilege. What a buzz.
Silversea offered two morning excursions at North Seymour. One excursion was a zodiac tour with a short walk. We opted for the “challenging” nature walk that was 2.5 hours in duration. One of the biggest challenges is protecting yourself from the sun. We wore long sleeve sun shirts, big brimmed hats with chin straps, neck gaiters, sunblock, lip balm, sun glasses. Even still, we ended up sunburnt. See Prepping For Galapagos; Tips For Packing For Any Adventure Cruise
I gave North Seymour a pre-cruise anticipation rating of 8 based on what I had read on the internet. I now give it a post-cruise rating of 10.
North Seymour had great views out to sea. Nesting Boobys everywhere. A mother sea lion had only just given birth to her newborn, probably the day before. They bleat like little lambs. Other sea lion pups were playing together in a group along the shore. All the sea birds hang glide above. Frigate birds strut their bright red balloon-like throat sacks or gular pouches to flex with impressiveness. Vibrant colored lizards scurry across the sand. Iguanas perch on lava rocks. Giant cacti with trunks as thick as trees. An exciting inhabitant is the Land Iguana
Sullivan Bay, Santiago
Silversea offered two afternoon excursions in Sullivan Bay at Santiago Island. Snorkeling from the beach or a lava nature walk. The lava fields of Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island are otherworldly, like the surface of the moon. The lava flows here are just over 100 years old and date back to 1897.
We opted for the snorkelling. I gave Santiago a pre cruise rating of 7. After our experience, I rate it a 10+++.
Our expedition guide Andres took us on a zodiac detour across the water to Bartholomew Island. From the zodiac we watched a rare sight. Three Galapagos penguins were swimming and hopping along the rocky coast. One of the things I appreciated about this cruise was the naturalist guides’ genuine enthusiasm and passion for the wildlife and natural world of this archipelago. Andres explained that these are the most Northern penguins on the planet.
We made our way to Sullivan Bay, at the edge of the 100-plus-year-old lava flow that had cooled. We snorkeled from the beach along the submerged lava rock. Scores of vibrantly colored reef fish surrounded us. We became a part of the school. It was quiet and the sea water rocked us back and forth. Brightly colored sea stars dazzled us. I could have stayed there forever.
We popped our heads above the surface of the water for a moment to get our bearings. Another guest surfaced and asked if we had seen the sea turtle? He guided us back under to show us. There was this magnificent creature camouflaged, almost soaring through the sea along the underwater cliffs. We were awestruck. See 7 Reasons To Cruise The Galapagos – With Silversea & 2020-2021 Antartica Itineraries
I gave Rabida a pre cruise rating of 8. Now I give it a 10+++ also. Silversea offered three kayaking sessions along the coast, and 1.5-hour nature walk and snorkeling excursion or free time on the beach with snorkeling. How do you choose? We chose free time and snorkeling. We wanted to do some video filming.
One of the guides, Paul, generously gave us a naturalist talk and short walk to see the flamingos. Guests are not permitted to just freely walk about the islands. Guests must stay within marked bounds and must be accompanied by guides. The guides are adamant about people staying off the dunes. This minimizes impacts, ensures that no trace is left and protects sea turtle nesting habitats. We didn’t mind; we had enough space and we were happy to respect this special place, as we do all special places. We learned that in 1971 the National Park Service successfully eradicated goats from Rábida and how this helped wildlife make a comeback. Paul explained how the flamingos came to be in the Galapagos from the Carribean. In addition to flamingos, their were sea lions, oystercatchers, pelicans, white-cheeked pintails, boobies, and reportedly nine species of finch.
After a walk on the red beach, we went snorkeling. We swam above and alongside whitetipped reef sharks, schools of colorful fish, and sea stars. My adrenaline peaked again. Although the six-foot sharks seemed to completely ignore us, I was anxious to get back to shore.
After a little break I decided to return to the underwater world. This was when I had one of the most memorable and unique experiences of my life. I brought the GoPro camera along again. This was when a sea lion approached me, and we had the most amazing encounter. Sea lion and I swam round and round each other in circles, upside down, popping our heads up for air, swimming along. I resisted the urge to reach out and touch it and enjoyed our closeness and water acrobatics. I felt were making a connection, a friendship. Sea lion and I made eye contact. I felt I was the luckiest person on the planet. It was beyond magic, buzz accomplished.
This article introduced my anticipations and first impressions of the Galapagos Islands National Park and Marine Preserve. Silversea offered 15 ports of call or shore landings on this expedition cruise itinerary. At each port of call the Naturalist guides provided multiple activities at differing levels of difficulty. This Part 1 article with its photos and videos are an attempt to give the reader a glimpse into the Galapagos Island and SilverSea expedition cruise experience for the first six excursions. Part 2 article will cover the other nine ports of call.