National Geographic Endeavour – Galapagos – 17 to 27 October 2014

A Galapagos Adventure

A trip with Lindblad Expeditions is unlike any other cruise you can take – it’s a geography lesson, safari, adventure holiday, photography workshop and conservation project all rolled into one. It’s the chance to explore some of the world’s most extraordinary landscapes in the company of 70 expert staff and fewer than 100 guests, who are all equally excited to share this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I sailed on the National Geographic Endeavour seven night itinerary from Baltra to San Cristobal, and was lucky enough to see everything you would hope for on a Galapagos expedition. From blue footed boobies to lava lizards, sea lions to sharks, the endemic wildlife was all around us as we hiked and snorkelled around the volcanic islands. Each day could be as action packed or relaxed as you like, with a range of activities on offer, and the seven naturalists were always on hand to explain the features of the unique ecosystem to us. Lindblad Expeditions is a pioneer of eco-tourism and their experience in the region was evident.

Day 1
After a long flight from Amsterdam to Guayaquil, the comfort of the Hilton Hotel was extremely welcome. We received an information pack detailing tomorrow’s schedule, along with vouchers for drinks and breakfast. Lindblad have been using the hotel every Saturday for several years, so the arrival process runs extremely smoothly whether or not you have booked the recommended group flights from the United States. If you wanted to spend an extra night in Guayaquil, the hotel has a beautiful pool area, spa, numerous restaurants and links with guides who run very good city tours on request.

Day 2
The 6.45am wake-up call was relatively late by expedition standards, and after a delicious breakfast buffet we all assembled in the lobby to await the buses to the airport. Our luggage had already been collected from the room and expedited to the ship. Once at the airport, there was a Lindblad representative on hand at all times to answer any queries and ensure we all received tickets for the National Park on arrival in the Galapagos. The domestic flight took about one and a half hours and as we landed at Baltra we were greeted by an unusual sight…an iguana casually making its way across the runway! Lindblad had arranged a VIP lounge and refreshments while we waited for everyone to clear immigration, and then it was back on the bus for a short journey to the docks. I was slightly apprehensive about travelling by Zodiac for the first time but it felt very secure and I soon got used to jumping out for the wet landings. Once on board the ship we were shown to our cabins before going to the lounge for the welcome meeting. Our expedition leader, Carlos, was absolutely wonderful – very entertaining but also an excellent coordinator and pre-empted the majority of our questions about the activities.

The cabin itself (Category 4) was very comfortable and much more spacious than it looked in the brochure photos. There were twin beds, plenty of storage space, a writing desk, an armchair and the bathroom was small but perfectly formed, as on most ships. Lindblad has an unusual policy in that although there is a secure drawer for valuables, the door to your room remains unlocked. While this felt slightly unnerving at first, after a couple of days we appreciated that carrying around a key could be quite impractical given the nature of the activities.

That afternoon we had our first excursion to Las Bachas beach on Santa Cruz island. This was a fantastic taster of what we might see during the rest of the week – frigate birds circling above us, Sally Lightfoot crabs on the rocks and even a flamingo in the lagoon. The National Park regulations state that there must be no more than 16 visitors per naturalist, and the small group size means you receive a very personalised tour, giving you the chance to ask as many questions as you want.

As the sun set we returned to the ship for a welcome cocktail with the Captain and officers, and were introduced to the other naturalist guides. Dinner was a buffet, however on most other nights it was waiter service (in order to reduce waste, guests are asked to pre-select their main course). The bar in the lounge was open every evening but never became very busy except for the nights when there was entertainment. It did however offer a wide range of cocktails, local beers and South American wines – impressive considering our remote location.

Lindblad is proud of its Open Bridge policy so we tested this out on the first night. It was fascinating to see the many navigations controls and charts, and the officers were more than happy to give us a tour.

Day 3
Today we explored North Seymour island which is the nesting ground for many blue footed boobies and frigate birds. There is no bad time to visit the Galapagos, but October did seem to be a very good time, as in this transitional season you can see a lot of chicks and courting pairs, as well as new-born sea lion pups. The weather in the islands is reliably warm and the only really change is the rainy or dry seasons, but the guides assured us that tropical rains have never stopped a tour yet.

Back on the ship, we received the briefing about snorkelling and kayaking, and everyone was kitted out with their own wetsuit and snorkel gear. The ship carries a huge range of equipment so there is no need to bring your own. After lunch we attended a presentation about the oceanography of the islands, delivered by the underwater specialist Cindy. During the week, her main job was to collect video footage of the marine world, as well as water samples to examine under the microscope, and she gave very interesting talks during the Recap sessions.

In the afternoon we visited the red sands of Rabida beach to test out our snorkelling skills and get to know perhaps the cutest Galapagos inhabitants…the sea lions! There was a small colony of mothers and nursing youngsters, as well as the male “beach master”. It was amazing to see them twisting and turning alongside us in the water, treating us as just another animal on the beach.

After dinner there was a lecture from Christian, our photography specialist. As I (along with many other guests) had bought a new camera for the trip, this was a great opportunity to learn about all the different settings and how to make the most of the camera. He also held a clinic every afternoon so that people could show him their photos and receive advice about how to improve or edit them. This emphasis on photography is influenced by Lindblad’s connection with National Geographic and was definitely an attraction for many guests…everyone wanted to capture some perfect shots to show off back home!

Day 4
A very exciting wake-up call today as whales had been spotted nearby! We all rushed out on deck in our pyjamas and were fortunate to see not one but two pods of pilot whales, accompanied by dolphins. The ship turned back so we could observe the whales for a good 30 minutes in near silence as there were no other vessels in the area. It was a truly special experience and we thought it would be the highlight of the day, but we were soon proved wrong! Visiting Fernandina island that morning we were suddenly alerted to a distinctive fin in water – it was a killer whale hunting a sea lion just a few hundred metres away. This island was also home to tens of thousands of marine iguanas, basking on the black lava rocks and sneezing out salt water.

Today’s lecture was about the geology of the islands, which all started to make sense as we approached the impressive cliff faces of Isabela island. Some people spent the afternoon deep water snorkelling, but we took a Zodiac ride along the coast and spotted our first Galapagos penguins. We spent the evening on deck for an “Equator party”, enjoying the complimentary glass of wine and doing the limbo as the ship crossed the 0° line.

Day 5
As I was getting used to the early starts by now, I attended the pre-breakfast stretching class on deck. The ship had a dedicated Wellness specialist who organised daily classes as well as running the small spa. In addition to standard treatments, the Endeavour has an extra special facility in the form of its floating spa. This is a glass-bottomed platform that allows you to enjoy a massage in natural tranquillity, while simultaneously watching the tropical fish below.

This morning we hiked around Urbina Bay on Isabela island, part of which was uplifted from the ocean as recently as 1954. It was interesting to see a completely different landscape to the previous islands, with much more vegetation, and also spot our first Giant Tortoise. We had the chance to relax on the beach and swim for a while before heading back to the ship for a special Ecuadorian themed buffet lunch. The kitchen staff had really pulled out all the stops, with ceviche, suckling pig, cassava bread, fish in coconut sauce and a multitude of desserts and tropical fruit. It was all delicious and interesting to see what the chef could achieve with a relatively limited range of seasonal and local ingredients.

We spent the afternoon kayaking around Tagus Cove, which was easier than expected and a very relaxing way to enjoy the scenery. Then we went for an invigorating, uphill hike in order to enjoy the panoramic views over the volcano at sunset.

Day 6
We arrived at Santiago island and the choice for the pre-breakfast activity was either a hike through the mangrove forests or a beach walk with a focus on photography skills. After devouring the breakfast buffet, we headed out again to Buccaneer Bay in the glass-bottomed boat and the great visibility meant we could see the schools of fish and sea stars as clearly as if we were actually underwater. This was followed by another go at kayaking (we perfected the steering technique this time). For these sorts of activities, sign-up was required to ensure everyone had the opportunity to participate at least once.

Today’s talk focussed on Charles Darwin and his own expedition, in preparation for our visit to the research centre the following day. Later in the afternoon we were offered a further choice of activity – a nature walk or time to relax on the beach at Puerto Egas.

The evening Recap included a preview of the video chronicle. Every Lindblad expedition has a videographer who records the excursions and edits the footage into a lovely souvenir DVD that is available to buy for $50 and ready to take home of the final day of your trip.

Tonight’s dinner was a barbecue on deck and it was great to eat outdoors under the stars. Some of the multi-talented staff then entertained us with singing and piano in the lounge.

Day 7
Today we had something of a culture shock as we arrived back into civilization in Puerto Ayora, the largest town on Santa Cruz. We started with a really interesting tour of the Charles Darwin Research Station and learned all about its breeding program for Giant Tortoises. Apart from Lonesome George, the program has had huge success at boosting the numbers of the different sub-species. Then we had some free time to wander around the town’s souvenir shops and cafes. We particularly enjoyed the fish market where a few brazen pelicans and sea lions were hanging out and begging scraps from the fish sellers.

The options for the second half of the morning were a visit to a local school that Lindblad supports, a bike ride or a tour of a traditional sugar cane and coffee farm. We learned about the production methods and were able to try some of the fiery moonshine. Lunch was at a beautiful restaurant in the highlands, followed by our visit to the natural habitat of the Giant Tortoises.

That evening we were treated to a presentation by one of the local scientists about his research, and after dinner a band of traditional musicians and dancers came on board to perform, which was a great way to experience the local culture.

Day 8
We spent out last full day on San Cristobal island, taking in three different locations. The morning was spent hiking to try to catch a glimpse of the red footed booby and mockingbirds, plus we had our last chance to swim and enjoy the beach. The ship moved during lunch to be closer to Leon Dormido, a very striking rock formation that gave snorkelers their best opportunity to see sharks.

We also had the disembarkation debrief, so that everyone would be ready to go the following day and the ship could achieve its tight turnaround for the next group of explorers.

There was a champagne farewell party as we circumnavigated Leon Dormido, followed by a slideshow of favourite photos submitted by guests. This was a lovely idea that added a personal touch to the expedition –I think everyone felt part of a little community who had shared a lot of special moments together.

After dinner we had the chance to go into Puerto Baquerizo Moreno to experience the Galapagueño nightlife…last Zodiac home at 11pm. Even in the towns you can’t escape the wildlife, and we saw a large number of sea lions sleeping against the kerb or in the playground.

Day 9
Sadly it was time to leave the Endeavour and our new friends, and return to real life. Everyone caught the same flight to Guayaquil and was transferred back to the Hilton, where we could relax or explore the city further before catching the international flight home. As with the entire trip, everything ran seamlessly once we arrived on the mainland and there was another guide at the hotel to ensure everybody knew their departure schedule.

The staff’s dedication to the conservation of the Galapagos is especially impressive and visitors cannot fail to be inspired by Lindblad’s initiatives in this area, which is another thing setting them apart from other tour operators. Upon departure we were given the option to donate to the company’s conservation fund and in return, receive an equivalent discount voucher on a future expedition.

The enthusiasm of all the staff (naturalists and crew) combined with the unspoiled beauty of the islands made this an unforgettable trip, and I am so grateful to have had this opportunity!

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