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Closer. Bigger. Bolder: Wildlife in the Galapagos


By Katie Johnson, as shared by guests Jolene Bader and Linda Cavanah.

Dozens of three-feet-long iguanas are piled high like sandbags. Watch your step. Wildlife in the Galapagos isn’t afraid to walk—or lie—around.  And because these animals don’t encounter predators, they’re not frightened of us. Iguanas plop down on pathways and tortoises are in no hurry to get out of the way. It’s up to us to look out for them. In fact, guides often give us a heads up of nearby wildlife with a “Don’t step to the left.”

This land belongs to the animals, and the islands honor that. We must travel in groups of 12 or fewer. Ecuadorian staff—some from the Galapagos—lead our small groups, spilling fascinating details of the flora and fauna that are second nature to them. To us it’s all incredible. Here are a few of my most memorable moments in the Galapagos:

On Isla Floreana I found a quiet spot to paddle board. Just me and the crystal clear water. Or so I thought until a pair of sea lions came swimming up right beside me. Then they crisscrossed in front of my paddle board—totally happy to share the water and play with me. I couldn’t capture the moment with my camera, but in the end I was glad of that. This experience is just one example of both the isolation and intimacy of the Galapagos. Remote but connected. I’ve never gotten this close to wildlife in my life.

Also on Isla Floreana, I was taking a stroll on the white sand beach when I saw tons of rays covering the ocean floor in water just inches deep. I could barely see the sand, only rays resting, relaxing, and shifting along the beach. Anytime I jumped in the cool water for a snorkel, there was even more to see: fish everywhere and lots of sea turtles. More than I’d seen anywhere else.

Speaking of sea turtles, Isla Santa Cruz’s Charles Darwin Research Center is an incredible place to learn more about these creatures. It’s like an expert zoo staffed by researchers from around the world who come to learn and share the history of Darwin’s discoveries. For example, staff collects tortoise eggs the size of chicken eggs from different islands to observe and track from the time they hatch and can fit in the palm of your hand to when they’re ready to be returned to their original island. The center pursues numerous other research projects on marine and shorebirds and sharks to preserve the unique ecosystem of the islands.

We encountered much of this wildlife on our skiff tours. I’m used to skiff tours in other UnCruise destinations where I have to be on the lookout for wildlife. In Mexico and Alaska there was always something to see, but you often had to search for it. The Galapagos was different. Guests and guides were always busy alerting each other to sightings on all sides of the skiff, not knowing where to look. We got up close to the sunken caves Isla Isabela and spied the flightless cormorants standing stoic and proud on cliffs. We watched tiny penguins—no bigger than the Blue-footed boobies beside them—scamper across the rocks. And when we weren’t laughing at the playful penguin dance, it seemed there was always a dolphin on the horizon or a pelican flying overhead.

That’s the Galapagos for you. Everything’s a little bolder and closer than you could have imagined. Have your camera ready or put it away and let the experiences sink in—those were my favorite moments. 

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