Silversea’s Galapagos Experience, Part Two: Ports of Call and Excursions

When I heard about the cruise ship that had run aground in the Galapagos Islands recently, I was aghast and very upset. My first concern and questions were “what harm, what environmental impacts did this cause to this beautiful archipelago? What did it do to the the clear, clean Pacific Ocean waters surrounding this National Park? What about the wildlife? What about my sea-lion friend I swam with? What about the mother Humpback whale that was swimming with her young one?”

Blue-Footed Booby Galapagos. © 2019 Ralph Grizzle
Blue-Footed Booby seen during our hike in the Galapagos. © 2019 Ralph Grizzle

Next came the Anger (not a typo) and disgust, “Here we go again, humans ruining a place just to make a dollar; we have trashed most of this planet and now the last few sacred natural places, etc.” My rant continued.

I also wondered, “ If the Galapagos Islands are trashed and cruise ships are banned or can’t sail there, then what will this mean for the future of the Galapagos National Park and the Marine Preserve? What will it mean for the natives and the inhabitants of the Galapagos and their way of life? What will it mean to Ecuador?”

It seems we live in a world of two choices with Wild Nature. If we cannot make tourist dollars with Nature, then we will choose to use destructive industries, development and exploitation to trash Nature for the sake of economics and to fuel our consumption. I am for Nature existing for Nature’s sake.

Fortunately, so far, the reports are, “ no environmental impact or damage” as a result of the cruise ship that ran aground. That is a relief; I want to believe that. I hope we don’t hear later that this is not the case. I know wherever us humans go, there is an impact. I hope the Galapagos can continue to thrive as a National Park and Marine Preserve. I hope that visitors and passengers on expedition cruises can continue to have a most amazing, peak lifetime experience as I had. I hope the Galapagos will always be a place to connect with Nature and lessons are learned from this accident and cruise lines are more cautious. The Galapagos Islands are worthy of being treated with kit gloves.

The reason this hits so close to home is that we were just on a Silversea expedition cruise of the Galapagos archipelago in September.

Silver Galapagos
Silver Galapagos anchored off North Seymour Island in the Galapagos. © 2019 Ralph Grizzle

A previous post and videos Silversea’s Galapagos Experience, Part One – Ports of Call & Excursions describes the first six ports of call during our Silversea expedition aboard the Silver Galapagos. This article covers the other nine.

Before sailing, Silversea surveyed Venetian Society Members ( Cruise Line Loyalty Programs 101: Crystal, Seabourn, Silversea, And Regent Seven Seas) asking us to rate on a scale of one to ten how we anticipated the 15 ports of call on the itinerary for this Galapagos cruise.

As mentioned in Part One, I had very little knowledge of the Galapagos Islands so I had to research on-line in order to give my pre-cruise anticipation rating. Here, I also give my post-cruise rating for the ports of call.

One of the things that stood out for me on the Silversea cruise of the Galapagos Islands was the feeling that we had this whole National Park and Marine Preserve to ourselves. Just us and all the critters. Our ship traveled 435 nautical miles and you could count on one hand how many other boats were out there during the entire seven days.

There was no boat traffic, no jet skis noisily bombing along to disrupt the serenity and beauty. There were no high rises, no buildings, no throngs and coach loads of tourists. No power boats blaring stereos, treating the waterways as highways and treating the shores as party islands. No ticky tacky tourist shops full of souvenirs made in China, trying to get your dollar.

Galapagos. © 2019 Ralph Grizzle
Silver Galapagos. © 2019 Ralph Grizzle

You step ashore off the Zodiac and back in time to the real world. The only sounds are the ocean waves lapping on the beach. Nature generously shared with us its peace, solitude and beauty. At the Equator we could see the stars of both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. In the North, the moon phases stand vertical, up and down. At the Equator, the moon phases lay horizontal from left to right. This lets you know you are somewhere different.

We were approximately 90 passengers aboard the Silver Galapagos. The expedition team arranged shore landings and excursions so that we were divided into small groups. We had space to breathe the sea air; to walk among and be mesmerized by life and to sit captivated in silent awe. We were mindful to give Nature respect and space to do its thing in its own way.

Galapagos Ports of Call and Excursions

El Eden

El Eden
El Eden. © 2019 Tamera Trexler

I gave El Eden a pre-cruise rating of nine based on my web search. After our Zodiac excursion I give it a rating of seven. El Eden was not a disappointment. Due to the high winds and the rougher seas, our Zodiac tour of the islets in this area was just not as spectacular as the other hard acts to follow.

Our Naturalist guide explained that this time of year in this area, conditions were a little more exhilarating due to the Humboldt current coming from Antarctica. The sea splash added to the adventure. We tucked our cameras under our waterproof layer to keep them dry. We admired the brave passengers who chose the challenging kayaking option.

Silversea kayaking
Silversea kayaking excursion. © 2019 Tamera Trexler

Zodiac tours are fun and make a nice change. In the Zodiac, the expedition team was able to take us around to little coves and inlets. Guests with limited mobility seemed to enjoy this outing as they could share the experience better. We floated quietly above a school of immature reef sharks. Pelicans and Boobys dove for fish. Sea turtles surfaced for a breath of air.

If there were to be a next time, I would opt out of this excursion if I felt I wanted some down time to enjoy staying on board, use the gym, soak in the hot tub, or catch up on some work.

sunset
Sunset in the Galapagos. © 2019 Tamera Trexler

La Galapaguera at Cerro Colorado, San Cristobal

I gave the San Cristobal Tortoise Breeding center a pre-cruise rating of seven. After our bus ride to and tour of the Tortoise Breeding Center I give it an eight. We had a dry landing to the little harbor town Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and boarded the rickety (almost comical) tour bus, which made it to the top of the mountain to the breeding center. If you go, don’t forget to tip your bus driver because this is quite some feat. The ride adds to the adventure.

The breeding center was great. We observed the giant Galapagos Tortoise in each stage of life. These ancient dinosaur creatures were free to roam. Feeding time was a spectacle.

After the excursion to the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center, we had some free time in the harbor town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. This little port provides an opportunity for some souvenir shopping and small-scale experience of civilization designed for tourists. Sea lions still rule, even here. They nap unfazed, where they please, and you must work around them.

Punta Pitt

I gave Punta Pitt a pre-cruise rating of ten because this excursion appealed to the hiker in me.  I now give this excursion a post-cruise rating of 10 +++, because, it appealed to the hiker in me.

Stepping ashore on this island was like stepping onto another planet. The hike was only a couple of miles but it was rugged, up high, through dry canyons. Surrounded by the vast empty ocean, Punta Pitt was reminiscent of hiking to the crater of Mount St. Helens or on the Isle of Skye toward the cliffs overlooking the sea. And of course, the wildlife was abundant. For guests that did not want to hike, the expedition team arranged for leisure time on and snorkeling from the beach.

Once we finished our hike, we were able to sit on the beach and watch the comedy and beauty of nature. We had left our mesh bags and packs on the beach while we went on our hike. We came back to find a large sea lion had decided make itself comfortable and use our stuff as bedding and a pillow.

We sat on the beach as the sun descended on the horizon. We listened as the snorkelers came out of the water and shared their reports of all the marine life just feet off shore below the veneer of the flat sea.

As we sat, another sea lion friend emerged from the water and clumsily inch-wormed its way toward us.  It would stop, perch itself up on its flippers and look at us as if to say, “Hey! Can I come join you?” And then it would continue to inch itself our way. We just sat still wondering, “How much closer will this sea lion get?” Other guests on the beach sat and watched. They said they wondered the same thing.

Silversea offered a really nice touch at the end of every water excursion. They had urns of luscious Ecuadorian hot chocolate and a spiced hot tea waiting for us on board as we cleaned and hung our beach and snorkeling gear. It was soothing and delicious, like being wrapped in a warm blanket.

Bahia Gardner, Espanola

I gave Bahia Gardner a pre-cruise rating of nine. I now give it a post-cruise rating of 10++.  There were many excursion options here. Snorkeling from the beach or deepwater snorkeling from the Zodiacs. Leisure time on the beach and kayaking were offered as well. I went prepared to snorkel from the beach but ended up enjoying a swim and a walk.

Bahia Gardner was the longest stretch of beach for us to walk, with lava rocks on one end and cliffs on the other. The island was like a tropical paradise with nearly white sugar sand and turquoise blue water. The weather was warm that day, no need for a wetsuit for swimming.

Bahia Gardner.
Bahia Gardner. © 2019 Tamera Trexler

The wildlife was abundant and entertaining. We saw the famous rare Galapagos Hawk, which is struggling to avoid extinction. Sea lions were sunbathing while their sea lion pups were chasing mocking birds on the beach. On the lava rocks, Darwin Finches were hunting between the crevices, and Marine Iguanas were basking in the sun.

A Giant Saddleback Galapagos Tortoise came out of the brush and to the edge of the dunes. We all stood in awe. The Tortoise casually munched on the vegetation for a while. Then it periscoped up its neck to take in the view and slowly lumbered back into the undergrowth and disappeared. We all felt we had witnessed something quite spectacular.

Punta Suarez

Punta Suarez is also on the island of Espanola. I gave it a pre-cruise rating of nine based on my internet search. I also give it a post-cruise rating of 10 +++. This is one of my favorite islands. We had a dry landing in a little cove. A small lava rock jetty was our runway from sea to land. Along the runway, Marine and Christmas Iguana lay soaking up the suns rays. You had to watch your step as there were quite a lot of them and they were not going to budge an inch.

On the sandy beach of the little cove it was Sea Lion pup “daycare” and Marine Iguana “Lido.” Newborn Sea Lion pups grouped together to play and compete for the top of the rocks. It was like watching children on a play ground. Some Sea Lion pups could be quite the bullies. The Silversea Naturalist guides ensured we kept a respectful distance. We were not to disrupt or alter any of the animals behavior. As tempting as it was to cuddle a new-born Sea Lion, we were told definitely not to touch or approach them as it could detrimentally disrupt the mother/baby bond.

Marine and Christmas Iguana would perch on rocks and look out to sea, like surfers watching the waves. Then they would scurry down and go for a dip. Christmas Iguana are the larger species and covered in red and green algae, hence their name.

We hiked among the vegetation, watching a variety of finches and Boobys go about their business. On this island we had the privilege of observing Albatross, a rare treat.

We all sat much longer than intended on the rocks atop the sea cliffs to watch two Galapagos Hawks hover and hunt. All the while out to sea, a mother Humpback whale and her calf swam along the coast, breaching over and over again. Albatross were hang-gliding overhead. We were mesmerized and sat still in a penetrating silence for ages. The only sounds were water and wind, “Am I really here?” It was magic.

We were hushed as we hiked back, the sky aglow with sunset. I did not want to leave. I could stay here forever.

Santa Cruz Island

This port of call was the morning of the last day of excursions on our Silversea Galapagos expedition cruise. I gave Santa Cruz a pre-cruise rating of seven, because it was an excursion on an island with “civilization.” For this reason, I chose not to go on and remained on board.  I regret this decision.

Silversea offered three different excursions this day starting at Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz. Option one was the “coffee walk” on a sustainable living coffee plantation with a coffee tasting. Another was to the Fausto Llerena Breeding and Interpretation center of the Galapagos National Park and Charles Darwin Research Station. The third excursion was free time to explore the town of Puerto Ayora.

If I were to have the opportunity again to cruise the Galapagos, I would visit the Charles Darwin Research Center and Breeding center. This is an educational center as well as a breeding center. All aspects of science are represented here. The work and research they do are critical for all the species of the Galapagos National Park and Marine Preserve. Other guests who visited the coffee plantation spoke highly of their experiences as well.

Plaza Sur

Our final excursion of the cruise was to Plaza Sur. I gave this a pre-cruise rating of eight. I now give it a post-cruise rating of nine. We took the longer of the two exploration walks offered. The wildlife was spectacular and amusing to watch.

An interesting highlight to Plaza Sur were the Cacti trees, yes trees. Lava cactus, Candelabra cactus and a species of Prickly Pear with their trunks as thick as trees and covered in what looked like bark.

I did not want the trip to end.

The Silversea Galapagos expedition cruise was a peak life experience for me.  I hope I conveyed how sacred and special  is the Galapagos Island National Park and Marine Preserve.

Notes on Preservation

I have demonstrated the reasons the news of the cruise ship running aground in the Galapagos Islands is of concern. It is a rare and special place. The experience, the place, and the wildlife have left their indelible mark in the memory and the heart.

The Silversea Naturalist Guides shared their knowledge, enthusiasm and passion for theses islands and the wildlife. On the excursions, the Guides were protective and strict on the boundaries and sticking to trails. They ensured we did not alter animal behavior or disrupt their natural world. The guides all live in the Galapagos.

I also appreciated that the majority of the crew on the Silver Galapagos were Ecuadorian and native Galapagians. This added to the cultural experience of the cruise. The crew and guides shared their food, their stories and their history. They expressed a love and pride for this special Archipelago. They voiced concern for species struggling to avoid extinction. They expressed their joy of seeing wildlife, like it is the first time they were seeing it too. They described the conservation efforts of the past 50 years and how many species are surviving, thriving and making a comeback.

Since our journey through the Galapagos Archipelago I learned about two initiatives that support the Galapagos Islands Conservancy and Charles Darwin Research Foundation.

Silversea Cruises has launched a dedicated fund that will preserve the natural wonders of the archipelago. “Established in partnership with Galapagos Conservancy—the only US-based organization focused exclusively on protecting the Galapagos’ unique ecosystems and biological integrity—the Silversea Fund for the Galapagos” See more here.

In addition, I encourage readers to check out this endearing story and charity. The Blue Feet Foundation, which was started by two school-aged youth who are concerned about the endangered Blue-Footed Booby, and they are making a difference in a fun way. They are an inspiration and I have ordered their socks for everyone on my winter gift list.

For details about the ship that ran aground, see this Newsweek article.

For further interest, here are some other articles, podcasts and videos about cruising in the Galapagos:

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