It’s not every day you get to snorkel with penguins in the wild.
But in the Galápagos Islands, it’s possible to swim right up to them and even take a selfie with them, perched on an ocean rock, as they gaze unperturbed at the humans in their realm.
On a recent trip to the Galápagos, I had the opportunity not only to get that close to these unique species of penguins — the only type found north of the equator — but also to study other unusual birds, iguanas, sea lions and giant tortoises that showed little or no fear of people from their remote location.
The island archipelago 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, which famously provided Charles Darwin with the inspiration for his revolutionary theory of evolution, is a natural laboratory.
Isolated, and with no humans or large mammals to threaten them, the wildlife evolved without the usual fight or flight instinct.
“Animals seem caught in a state of fearless innocence,” Darwin wrote after he visited the Galápagos in 1835 as a young man on his epic round-the-world voyage on the HMS Beagle.
The journey my wife and I took in late October was also by boat, but a modern 111-foot long ship, a five-day, four-night cruise to a half-dozen of the islands, most of them uninhabited and part of an Ecuadorian national park with strict regulations that require an accompanying guide.
With only 16 passengers on the “Natural Paradise,” the Galápagos newest small cruise ship, we were ferried ashore each day to hike, snorkel or kayak with our live-aboard guide pointing out the intriguing varieties of plant and animal life, in between strolling a pristine, empty red-sand beach, or clambering over a hardened black lava field. The small ship is one of about 80 that ply the waters around the Galápagos offering such excursions, a few with up to 100 passengers.
There are another dozen or so live-aboards that cater exclusively to scuba divers, to take in the rich underwater environment, including near guaranteed sighting of hammerhead sharks, rays and green turtles.
Our cruise didn’t offer scuba diving, but we stayed an extra few days afterward in an AirBnB in the pleasant town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, so we could arrange to go on a dive boat with one of several companies that provide half-day trips.
It was thrilling, not necessarily scary, to be underwater with several bizarre, prehistoric-looking Hammerhead sharks lazily circling only 25 feet from us. Our dive master insisted the hammerheads found in the Galápagos are not aggressive, basically because they have a good natural food supply and aren’t interested in us.
Fortunately he was right, and we survived to attest to fascinating sights both under and above water in these “eminently curious” Galápagos Islands, as Darwin described them.
The geologically young Galápagos islands are of volcanic origin, some with still-active lava flows. Composed of 13 larger islands, six smaller ones and over 40 islets straddling the equator, the highest island is 2,600 feet in elevation with different bands of microclimates, including conifers and lush vegetation in the higher spots where more rain falls.
But most of the islands are covered by semi-desert or desert vegetation, somewhat incongruous for a wildlife paradise. About 97 percent of the Galápagos is a protected area established by Ecuador in 1959, except for a few parts that were already colonized.