Paradise Found

Tracey Teo

On Ecuador’s Española Island, the southernmost of 19 volcanic isles that compose the Galapagos Islands, a male blue-footed booby tries to impress a female by puffing up his velvety-brown plumage. The female seabird turns away indifferently.

He tries a couple of other smooth moves that, to his frustration, are equally ineffective. Then he pulls out the oldest mating trick in the book. He gets his groove on, dancing with a waddling strut while flashing his sky-blue feet. Female blue-footed boobies have a foot fetish and are attracted to males with the bluest feet. She inches closer until the pair’s long, dagger-like beaks touch, and, suddenly, he has a dance partner. If he can rummage up some nesting materials as a gift, he’ll probably score.

This amusing ritual is observed by a group of curious onlookers sailing through the southern end of the archipelago on the 16-passenger Grand Queen Beatriz, a triple-deck custom built yacht operated by Club Adventures. The company specializes in small group adventure travel by land and sea.

The seven-day cruise sails round trip from Quito, Ecuador’s capital, and stops at the islands of Española, Baltra, Santa Fe and San Cristobal – rocky volcanic outposts dotting the Pacific Ocean that are celebrated for an abundance of rare wildlife. Most of the Galapagos islands, a UNESCO World Heritage site, remain unsettled by humans, so the animals are remarkably tame and seem to lack the basic instinct of fear.

It makes it easy for nature enthusiasts to snap photos destined for lots of “likes” on social media.

Loath to allow the blue-footed boobies to hog the limelight, the critically endangered waved albatross glides gracefully into view, displaying an impressive eight-foot wingspan. The largest bird in the Galapagos, it lands on a boulder, posing with its yellow beak silhouetted against an azure sky. A naturalist guide says the waved albatross is named for the wavy pattern formed by the bird’s brown feathers.

You don’t have to be a dedicated bird watcher to be enthralled by species few have ever seen.

Eventually, hunger sets in, and passengers start to wonder aloud about the culinary delights that await on the Grand Queen Beatriz.

The beauty of cruising on a state-of-the-art small vessel is it can sail to places large ships can’t, plus passengers avoid the long lines and chaos associated with big cruise lines that carry thousands. Who wants to elbow their way to the lunch buffet every day and be herded like cattle on shore excursions? It’s difficult to enjoy a bucket list destination when the hordes of visitors seem to outnumber the locals.

Club Adventures provides a stress-free immersive nature experience where the human footprint is kept to a minimum. There’s no competing with other passengers to get that perfect Insta photo. And with fewer people, there’s more time to talk about topics of interest with a guide.

The Galapagos is such an untouched ecological Shangri-la, it seems like a different planet. This archipelago is home to species found nowhere else on Earth, and it famously inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution following a visit in 1835.

 The marine iguana, the only ocean-swimming lizard in the world, is an example of a creature that evolved to adapt to a new environment. Many scientists believe land-dwelling iguanas in another part of South America drifted out to sea millions of years ago and landed in the Galapagos - accidental tourists you could say. Over time, the herbivores developed a flat tail that enabled them to swim to underwater food sources, such as algae and seaweed, and long claws for clinging to rocks in strong currents. They have white “hats” of excess salt that they expel from their flat snout.

In the Galapagos, you don’t have to be pretty to be popular. The endemic reptile is notoriously ugly with bumpy skin and a row of dorsal spikes running down its back. It wears a rather obtuse expression on a smashed-in face that only a mother could love. Darwin called them, “disgusting, clumsy lizards,” but as an example of a species that evolved to survive, they are a real beauty.

When the Grand Queen Beatriz arrives on Santa Fe Island, its wildlife-loving passengers are in for a rare treat – snorkeling with the Galapagos’ iconic sea lions. The wide-eyed marine mammals perform aquatic acrobatics in the pristine water, agilely somersaulting beneath the surf despite their weight, which can reach 550 pounds.

Passengers agree it’s far more satisfying to interact with marine life in a natural habitat than in an artificially created one at a marine park where the animals participate because they are rewarded with food. Here, the sea lions make the rules. They are playful, inquisitive creatures, so they usually bob up their heads to welcome visitors.

Rachel Jordan, associate marketing specialist for Club Adventures, said swimming with sea lions was a highlight of her journey.

 “There was one moment where a sea lion came at me so fast, I didn’t have time to react, then it abruptly flipped in front of me like it was showing off or asking to play,” Jordan said. “I’ll never forget looking directly in her eyes for that split second.”

Another fascinating sea creature is the endangered Galapagos green sea turtle that swims languidly beneath the waves nibbling on sea grass. The mammoth reptile is about five feet long and weighs around 300 pounds. Turtles aren’t known for their speed, but thanks to a light, streamlined shell, the green sea turtle can swim up the 35 mph.

It's the only species of sea turtle to breed and nest in the Galapagos. Females lay 50 to 200 eggs on the beach at night. From day one, the hatchlings are vulnerable to predators, and are often picked off by crabs and albatrosses. Only a few survive the short but treacherous trek to the sea, but for those who do, there’s a long life ahead. The turtles can live to be 80 years old.

Northwest of Cristobal Island stands Leon Dormido (Kicker Rock), an imposing, 500-foot-tall rock formation shaped like a sea lion. The ancient outcrop called a tuff cone was formed by a volcanic eruption. Over time, erosion bisected the formation, and today, small boats can sail between the two rocks.

Anyone who has experienced the magic of the Galapagos Islands will inevitably want to have a negligible impact on this delicate ecosystem, conserving it for future generations. Small group travel is one way to be a good steward of this bubble of evolution.

Club Adventures is the number one choice of AAA for small group travel. 1-844-205-6226,