I'd heard all the stories about the wildlife of the Galapagos, and the complete lack of fear of humans. But it's one thing to hear about, another to experience. The birds stared intently at us, as though we were the first people they had ever encountered. We were able to crouch next to them, observe them closely, take their pictures, examine their nests, even catch glimpses of their eggs when they stood up to stretch.
"This is incredible," I kept repeating.
When our group of friends first boarded the Letty, we were, figuratively speaking, the boobies of the boat. And by that I mean objects of curiosity. Sure, we were there primarily to experience all the scenery and the wildlife the Galapagos had to offer. But hey, we were celebrating our 40th birthdays. We wanted to make every moment count.
"Please pick these up for the cruise," Marcus wrote in an e-mail before we left. "Have a nice trip: Me - gin; Sean - Cognac; Jamie - Scotch; Jon - Champagne; Michael - margarita mix." Never mind we were only going to be gone for about a week.
The ship's passengers were a motley crew: Our group of five Canadians, two women from Japan, a couple from New Zealand and 10 Americans, including a young couple on their honeymoon and a woman who had visited the Galapagos Islands 25 years earlier and was returning to see how it had changed.
The answer? A lot.
Our first night on board, the captain of the Letty, Pablo, introduced his crew and welcomed everyone. We were going to be in close proximity to each other for an entire week. "We're hoping you'll all go to sleep every night after dinner," he said optimistically.
His plea didn't quite pan out. We behaved ourselves, but we also made the most of our vacation, including several evenings on what was supposed to be the "sun" deck, and a few late-night dinghy trips to the towns we occasionally stopped at along our route. Who could resist an evening at a bar called Iguana Rock? Well, as it turned out, all the passengers except us.
Eventually we got a chance to swim with the sea lions. They're rather lazy creatures on land, lounging on rocks or beaches, practically oblivious to your presence. When they hit the water, everything changes. Suddenly they're playful, animated and remarkably graceful.
There's nothing quite like snorkelling in the ocean, watching rays "float" below you, while you're surrounded by schools of angelfish and parrotfish, when out of nowhere, a sea lion swims toward you and stares you down, face to face mask.
I was expecting some intense experiences on land, but I ended up looking forward to our daily snorkelling sessions more than the hikes.
The most spectacular swim of the trip took place off the shore of Isabela Island on Day 3, when within a one-hour period we saw sea turtles, sea horses, sea lions, bull-headed sharks, chocolate-chip starfish (yellow with black spots) and cormorants and Galapagos penguins taking a dip. To top the day off, as we sailed toward Santiago Island, the sun was setting in spectacular fashion as a school of minke whales broke the surface next to the ship.
It was a week of daily wonders: barren, beautiful landscapes; stunning vistas; naturally formed lava tunnels; blowholes spraying water 15 metres into the air; marine iguanas, often in packs of hundreds, spitting out excess salt; red crabs scampering along rocky shorelines; white-tipped reef sharks; huge marble stingrays and albatrosses performing their mating rituals.
The list seems endless. It was everything I expected from a visit to the Galapagos, and more.
One of our favourite finds, which wasn't part of our itinerary, was a hike to isolated Tortuga Bay beach, on Santa Cruz Island. That particular day began with low expectations. Santa Cruz is one of the inhabited islands, and it's home to research centres and a tortoise reserve: We braced ourselves for a more traditional tourist experience. We'd been spoiled.
But it turned out to be the perfect way to round out the trip. After a 45-minute walk outside town, along a brick path through fields of cactus, the vegetation suddenly opened up to a pristine beach straight out of a movie. Two kilometres of perfection. Surf, silky white sand, no hotels and hardly any people. We dove into the ocean and body-surfed for what seemed like hours.
Happy 40th, boys. Couldn't have scripted it any better.