The baby tortoises amble around in their corral, brightly colored labels with numbers affixed to their shells like football jerseys. But these little guys’ teams are the different Galapagos islands, and they’re color-coded according to where they ultimately belong. The Charles Darwin Research Center has long-standing protocols for egg labeling, artificial incubation and baby tortoise rearing that give these prehistoric reptiles a fighting chance. The center has a huge number of programs designed to understand, conserve and/or control dozens of Galapagos species, from sharks to invasive flies.
But as I stand outside the corral on a muggy Sunday morning, my first impression is how adorable the baby tortoises are. I’m not alone. People come from all over the world to “ooh” and “ah” over the babies and to learn about the fragile Galapagos ecosystem.
How to see the Galapagos
The Galapagos aren’t an easy place to visit. Located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, nobody winds up there because they’re just passing through. Only four of the 127 islands and rocks big enough to be named are inhabited, and 97% of the land is part of Galapagos National Park. And the law is that when you’re in the national park, a guide must accompany you. In short, a visit to the Galapagos requires pre-planning.
The two ways to see the islands are by land or by ship. You can fly into one of two airports in the Galapagos and then arrange some day tours once you get there. Or you can make life a lot easier and sign up for a cruise.
The Galapagos National Park limits cruise ships to 100 passengers, and land tours to 20 people per group. Tour boats plying these waters range from yachts with a capacity of under twenty to larger ships like Hurtigruten’s MS Santa Cruz II, which holds ninety. I joined a Hurtigruten Expeditions cruise for the company’s new western Galapagos itinerary.
Hurtigruten works and sells hard on its green initiatives. The Norway-based brand started as a local transportation company in 1893. Now it’s especially known for expedition cruises in cold places like Antarctica and Alaska.
In 2009, Hurtigruten banned heavy fuel oil from all its ships. This viscous marine fuel is commonly used, but emits way more nasty pollutants than other types of fuel, accelerates global warming and breaks down especially slowly in cold regions like the arctic.
Hurtigruten started working on adding battery-powered hybrid electric cruise vessels to its fleet in 2016. Its ship the MS Fridtjof Nansen, with its large battery packs and a range of green technology onboard has been called “the safest and most sustainable cruise ship in the world.” Its first zero-emission cruise ship should be ready in 2030.
Fleet-wide, Hurtigruten plans to achieve carbon-neutral operations by 2040 and zero emissions by 2050. Hurtigruten Group CEO Daniel Skjeldam wants his company to survive by being the greenest.
“In his pioneering study, Darwin stated that species survive not based on how strong or intelligent they are, but how adaptable they are to change,” Skjeldam said in a statement. “In a way, the same applies to businesses operating in the travel industry, an industry that undoubtedly has negative impacts on the environment.”
Itinerary, islands and wildlife
Knowing that I was making the greenest cruising choice possible, it was time to enjoy the activities. Most Galapagos activities center on wildlife. Our first stop was Cerro Dragon, or Dragon Hill, on Santa Cruz Island. The area is a big nesting site for land iguanas, and also has a brackish lagoon popular with flamingos. It’s a slow walk on Dragon Hill as we stop to take photos and listen to our Hurtigruten guide Daniel Moreano explain lizard life. We were in the male iguana territory during the wet season, a time when male land iguanas eat yellow flowers to brighten their coloration and attract mates.
The big lizards look pretty passive, but Moreano weaves tales of violence and intrigue. “They are very aggressive,” he said. “When they’re not in the mating season, males and females are really territorial. You’re going to see how they are fighting and sometimes they draw blood.” We visited in February, one of the only months that “the males behave very gently with the female,” Moreano told us. For obvious reasons, the scaly cads.
Wildlife viewing from Zodiac boats also features prominently in the itinerary. At Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela Island, we saw iconic animals like Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, sea turtles, sea lions and fur seals, all within a few minutes. Later that day, we had a chance to snorkel in the same spot and swim amongst the sea turtles and sea lions. Other cruise activities, depending on the place, included kayaking, paddle boarding, biking and rides in a glass bottom boat.
The Galapagos animals are famously unafraid of humans. But despite the national park controlling most human activities nowadays, people have managed to mess up the ecosystem in the past, with effects still felt today. Pirates — not known for their conservation ethics — roamed the Galapagos starting in the 1500s. They quickly realized that giant tortoises were the perfect meat source, as they could be kept alive on ships for many months without food and water. In the 1800s, whalers introduced goats to the islands as a food source. Now they’re a major problem, causing erosion, destroying land iguana nesting sites and generally threatening the survival of rare flora and fauna. Rats, cats, dogs and pigs have also ravaged the islands.
Life onboard the Santa Cruz II
Life onboard the Hurtigruten expedition ship is extremely comfortable. My cabin had a king-size bed, plenty of storage space, a shower with reliably hot water and a big window to watch the changing land and seascape. Though the meals were multi-course and rather fancy, there was no dress code. Nobody commented if I showed up for dinner barefoot. There’s a whole vegan menu featuring dishes like risotto with asparagus and vegan cheese or farmer’s stew, and lunch always had a good salad bar. The chef quickly realized I was vegan, and would sometimes make me special things like quinoa waffles.
My only regret was that the four-night itinerary seemed too short. When it came time to leave the ship, I envied passengers with the sense to combine two short itineraries so they could stay on longer and see more of the islands’ fascinating wildlife.
Photography by Teresa Bergen