By Jeff Kinney
It's a gorgeous January day near Espanola Island, a 23-square-mile hunk of black volcanic rock in the south-east corner of the Galapagos Archipelago. No sooner have my wife Hilary and I dipped our paddles in the water than a smooth, whiskered brown head pops up five feet away and stares with liquid, fathomless eyes. It's a young sea lion, and he regards us and the strange plastic contraption we're sitting on with mild curiosity and, most notably, without fear. Like all the other animals here, he's learned that the humans who periodically appear out of nowhere on their big, noisy cruise ships mean him no harm. So he just bobs there in the waves, checking us out. Then he's gone in a blink, a brown streak fading into the depths under our sit-on-top.
I guess I always assumed that for me, the Galapagos would remain one of those exotic destinations confined to coffee table books. Yes, Darwin developed his theory of evolution there, and yes, the island chain was said to have some interesting flora and fauna. But somehow it remained slotted near the bottom of my travel list--until I started reading up on the place.
I learned that these largely barren volcanic rocks, which sprouted from the ocean five to 10 million years ago about 600 miles west of Ecuador, are one of the world's truly great places. Twenty three species of land reptiles and 50,000 sea lions live there, along with 1,600 species of insects and more than 500 varieties of fish. Many of these animals are found nowhere else on earth; indeed, some evolved exclusively on one particular island in the chain. The kicker: none has the slightest fear of, or even regard for, humans. Birds feed their young in nests three feet away. Scaly, prehistoric-looking iguanas lounge in piles to conserve body heat, forcing people to step over them. Female sea lions bask in the sun, peering at tourists with one half-open eye before rolling over for a snooze while their pups chug down high-calorie milk perfect for building up their fat stores. And thanks to heroic conservation efforts ever since the Galapagos became a national park in 1959, it's 95 percent the way it always was--the Garden of Eden, with a generous slathering of iguana poop.
Unfortunately, it's also constantly under siege from invasive species and other environmental threats. Hilary and I wanted to see it before global warming or some tiny critter tracked in by an unknowing tourist changed it forever.
So here we are on a short afternoon paddling excursion off this small chunk of land that's largely bereft of plant life, save for a few scrubby trees and patches of grass. At first glance, you wouldn't think anything could survive here. You'd be wrong. As we paddle along the coast, craggly cliffs stained white with avian excrement tower 100 feet over our heads, and swallow-tail gulls, finches, and an endemic Galapagos hawk wheel and swoop on the ocean breeze. We also notice several blue-footed boobies stretching their wings on the rocks near shore. With their strikingly bright-hued appendages and endearingly modest level of intelligence, they've become one of the area's iconic species. Perhaps inevitably, they've also inspired plenty of "I love boobies" t-shirts.
As we paddle the rugged coastline, keeping a prudent distance from the waves slamming into jagged black shoals left by ancient lava flows, we spot through our boat's Plexiglas bottom schools of multi-hued reef fish--blue and green parrotfish, black-and-yellow stripped sergeant majors, white-tail damselfish--darting this way and that. A short distance later, we hear a soft splash to our right and look over just in time to see a green sea turtle poking his head out of the water for a look at us. Named for the color of their body fat, these ancient reptiles are the only species of turtle that nests in the Galapagos. I'm thrilled to share the water with one.
We spend the rest of our little trip exploring nooks and crannies in the rocks and searching for wildlife. Along the way, we briefly paddle into a shallow cave and watch as the waves surge off the back wall. Then, too soon, our guide summons us back to the boat. They do keep you on a tight leash in the Galapagos. But that leash has kept this place unspoiled, magical, almost primal. In exchange for a world-class wildlife experience that you can't get anywhere else, I'm okay with it.
IF YOU GO
Because all activities in the Galapagos are strictly regulated to protect the fragile environment, paddling from cruise ships is limited to a few locations, and then only for short periods of time. That said, the paddling experience here is unlike any other in the world because of the unique flora and fauna, so it's worth the effort to find a cruise line that provides sit-on-top kayaks for guests to use where possible. The tour company we chose, Ecoventura (http://www.ecoventura.com/home.aspx / 305-262-6264), is well-run and ecologically sensitive with relatively small boats (a nice alternative to the cattle-car vibe of the larger ships) and knowledgeable guides who will show you the best paddling spots.
Another option is to rent a boat from Lonesome George Tours (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) near the harbor in the thriving beach town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, one of three inhabited Galapagos islands. From there, you can take a day trip along the coast, exploring beaches and mangrove thickets teaming with wildlife. Be sure to paddle past the town's unique outdoor seaside fish market, where sea lions and pelicans squabble with each other daily for scraps. While you're out, don a mask and snorkel and plunge into one of the most pristine underwater environments on earth, where you just might find yourself swimming face-to-flipper with a sea lion or a Galapagos penguin. It's a kayak-snorkeling experience like no other.