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A Mother-Daughter Journey

Natural selection... and other lessons learned about life from cruising in the Galapagos Islands

Go There
Family Galapagos itineraries with a

children’s activity coordinator and
child-friendly programming on the
M/V Eclipse
can be booked
through Abercrombie & Kent.
In 2013, they are available June

21-30, July 5-14, July 12-21,
August 2-11, and December 20-29.
Seven-night cruises are also available
year-round by Ocean Adventures,
and can be booked through Sanctuary
Retreats, part of the Abercrombie
& Kent group.
:: abercrombiekent.com
:: sanctuaryretreats.com

Late July is dry season in the waters surrounding the Galapagos Islands, and the M/V Eclipse is rocking its way towards North Seymour Island. “Bloody fantastic,” says a 12-year-old boy from England as our panga, the motorized dinghy that ferries passengers from the ship to dry and wet landing points, pulls up next to a giant marine iguana. My 11-year-old daughter is thrilled, as families from Russia, Austria, England, and the United States, many with tweens and teens, join us on the shores of this island rich with iguanas, sea lions, Blue-footed boobies, and frigatebirds.

The children watch with fascination as the downy-feathered baby boobies, named from the Spanish word for stupid, “bobo” (which early settlers thought described them when they viewed them on land with their strange, strutting dance), peck at the beaks of their mothers, practically forcing their entire heads into their mouths until they regurgitate lunch. But more fascinating are their feet. I hear one of the younger children ask one of the always-patient guides if they are painted. She explains that the feet are naturally turquoise blue to attract females, and they stomp them around in a dance to impress. The females and males both are attracted to the brightest, bluest feet, we learn, because the brighter the feet, the more intake of fish there has been, the duller the color, the more deprived of nutrients. I see my daughter’s mind whirling, and then she says it. “When a boy eats fish, I think he has bad breath.” Clearly, she is not a booby.

Lesson: Sometimes the most desirable mates are the ones who have caught the most fish.

When I decided to bring my daughter to the Galapagos Islands, the archipelago some 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador made mythic by Charles Darwin’s visit and later publication of The Origin of the Species, I wanted her to understand that what is remarkable about this place is not Darwin’s declaration that a species must evolve, or change, in order to exist. I wanted her to see that what these islands and islets offer to teach is a profound lesson about our relationships with each other.

For seven days, our home is a tony yacht operated by Ocean Adventures with a group from the luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent that includes local naturalists and guides, the ship’s crew, and our cruise director, Ricardo Sevilla, who has spent 20 years navigating these waters and four years on this yacht. The ship accommodates 48 passengers in 26 air-conditioned staterooms with double or twin beds, bedside tables, writing desks and a chair, closet space, an al fresco dining deck, formal dining room, a lounge and bar for nightly briefings, an outdoor bar, a sun deck with Jacuzzi and loungers, a library and video room with DVDs, games and playing cards, and enough kayaks, masks, snorkels, fins and wet suits for all. We eat our meals together in one of the ship’s dining rooms, share rocky panga rides to the islands that often leave us bouncing into each others laps, have to cooperate during sign ups for kayaking and snorkeling so that everyone gets their turn, and yes, borrow a sleeping pill or two to get through the nights on high seas. A common space is shared for relaxation on the deck and the children, at least eight of them, pile into the hot tub together, share a table for meals, enjoy activities with special guides who educate them about these islands and its wildlife, and duck into each others rooms for card games and videos. By the end of the week, my daughter knows that Dr Pepper was invented in Texas, that the first word spoken from the moon was “Houston,” and that “ya’ll” can be pretty darn cute when it’s coming from the mouth of a blonde, 12-year-old boy. She also discovers that the British really do love tea, and that an English accent can make any boy seem exotic. Most interesting, all of us learn that when attending a ball in Vienna (and of course we are now invited by the Austrian family on board), a man only makes a motion to kiss a woman’s hand, never do they touch lips to flesh.

Lesson: When you’re the only girl over seven on the boat, chances are you’re going to have a lot of boyfriends.

The Galapagos itineraries are strictly controlled by the Galapagos National Park Service, which regulates all visitor activities within the park’s 3,100-square-mile boundary (13 major islands, six smaller islands, 40 islets, and some 200 rocks). Visits within national park sites and the marine reserve are led exclusively by trained multilingual guides and naturalists who not only make sure visitors stay on trails and do not feed or disturb wildlife, but educate travelers about the fragile ecosystem and diverse land and marine species they will encounter. The guides are the ones who answer perhaps the greatest mystery of the Galapagos, asked by children and adults alike: Why is it that you can walk right up to a bird or a sea lion or a giant iguana or tortoise and they show no signs of fear from the presence of humans? It turns out that despite the 160,000 visitors a year that walk the paths of the national park, because the park is so controlled, the wildlife has never experienced man as predator (except for tortoises in the 1800s whose meat and shells were too much of a temptation for explorers at that time). They coexist with many other species because they have almost no aggression between or among their own species, except for the hawk, which weekly will pick off a small iguana who has strayed from the group, and they have no fear, because a fear reaction utilizes energy that wildlife with an uncomplicated food web does not need to expend.

Lesson: If everyone on the planet could peacefully coexist (and share our food), there would be no need to expend energy on fear.

On South Plaza Island, the Opunita cacti forest is home to land iguanas and one of the largest sea lion colonies in the central region of the archipelago. Here, land iguanas rest at the base of the cactus trees waiting to feed and we watch as their very human like tongues extend from their mouths to gobble up the succulent flowers and paddles that fall to the ground. A bright red carpet of scarlet ice plant spreads across the island filled with Nazca boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, sea lions and finches. We see a mother Nazca booby with her adolescent child, and next to them, a dead sibling. One of the kids asks if this is what they mean by “survival of the fittest.” The naturalist says, “not exactly,” and goes on to explain the phenomenon of Siblicide: basically the killing of one sibling by the other, usually the younger sibling by the older sibling, mostly observed in birds. In Nazca and other boobies, this occurs when resources, specifically food sources, are scarce.  It is also advantageous to parents because the surviving offspring most likely have the strongest genes. By allowing one sibling to kill the other, it saves the parents time and energy that would be wasted on feeding one that would not survive anyway. My daughter looks at the dead bird and then looks at me and says, “I’m glad I’m not a bird, because my brother is a lot bigger than me.” I hug her and tell her that even if she were a bird, I would protect her always.

Lesson: Even though she is not a bird, she should probably be nicer to her brother so he stops threatening Siblicide.

On Floreana, the Galapagos’ southernmost island, we find Post Office Bay. Here you are invited to leave a post card in a wooden barrel and pick up any mail from your home area, a tradition that was begun by pirates and buccaneers in the 18th century. We find letters left to people in Corona del Mar, and excitedly take them home for delivery. The letters have to be hand delivered, not mailed, which makes for some interesting conversations at the doorsteps and at home.

Something like this:
“Honey, this is a letter. Something we used to do before e-mail and texting was available.”
“Oh, snail mail,” she says.
“See how much fun it is to write, read and deliver a letter?
“We would never have met these people if it weren’t for this letter.”
Eyeball roll.

After an al fresco lunch and cozy nap on board when the ship is moored in calm waters and it’s easy to snooze on the spacious sun deck, we snorkel at Champion islet and then head out to a brackish lagoon that is home to a large population of flamingos, who spend seven hours a day eating little shrimp from the bottom of the lagoon.

Lesson: Texting is not always the best way to meet new people.

Santa Cruz Island, one of the few inhabited islands of the Galapagos, is home to the Charles Darwin Research Center. Here, most of the endangered populations of Galapagos tortoises have been brought back from the edge of extinction through their breeding, rearing and repatriation program. Afterwards, we board a bus to the lush highlands of Santa Cruz to visit a tortoise reserve, where we search for giant tortoises in their natural environment. Visitors are awed by the massive creatures that slowly lumber through the grass, barely noticing the squeals of excitement from children who creep closely to their aged shells. Later in the afternoon, my daughter and I and one of the boys from England break from the expedition in the town of Puerto Ayora to visit a friend at Finch Bay Hotel, a family-friendly property which hugs a private beach across the bay. One of the only land-based operations in Galapagos, Finch Bay offers all-inclusive three-, four-, or seven-night programs that allow families to explore the islands by foot or boat by day and return to the comforts of land by night. Not one to want to miss a shopping experience, my daughter convinces me to head back into town “for just an hour,” accessible by a short ferry from Finch Bay. She manages to find a pair of hand-painted tennis shoes, two “I Love Boobies” T-shirts for her brother and his friend, and a Panama hat for her father. We learn here that the Panama hat is really a product from Ecuador, made popular by miners of the California Gold Rush who frequently traveled to California via the Isthmus of Panama where the hats were often shipped, and by President Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1904 visited the construction site of the Panama Canal and was photographed wearing the hat.

Lesson: When traveling with girls, there is no way, even on deserted islands, that we aren’t going to find somewhere to shop.

After a rough night at sea, where thankfully bowls of seasickness pills are available at the front desk to get us through the night of rolling swells, we get to our southernmost destination, Espanola Island, where we wade through the waters off the Panga onto Gardner Bay. Espanola is one of the most isolated islands in Galapagos with a high proportion of endemic fauna. This exquisite beach and bay is dotted with sea lions and the morning is spent swimming, snorkeling, kayaking and relaxing in the sun. Here we witness colonies of sea lions basking in the sun, their pups diving and chasing the kids who eagerly jump about the surf with them, under the watchful eye of both human and sea lion mothers. We are reminded by guides of the two-yard rule – we cannot touch the wildlife but the wildlife can touch us. The pups brush their whiskers along the children’s legs and loop around them. My daughter spots two pups lounging in the wet belly of their mother, nursing, then sleeping, then nursing again. They are contorted into all sorts of sea lion-like poses and she crawls closer than two yards away from them in her wetsuit to observe. A male bull is nearby, protecting his brood, and lets out a large bark, a warning that she is too close. She backs off and crawls into my lap. We see we are not so unlike these sea lions at all.

Lesson: Good parents will always give their children space, but protect them when they need to.

The afternoon takes us to Punta Suarez, where marine iguanas bask in the sun and a challenging trail takes us past Galapagos doves, finches, Masked and Blue-footed boobies nesting along the trail. We hike to the top of a cliff where we see the island’s natural blowhole, the island’s famous waved albatrosses, endemic to this island specifically. Some 15,000-17,000 pairs are the entire population of the species on the planet and this is the only spot in the world where they reproduce, mating for life. The islands steep cliffs serve as perfect runways for these birds, which take off for their feeding grounds near the mainland of Ecuador and Peru, abandoning the island between January and March. In April, the males return, followed by females. The young albatross do not return until their fourth or fifth year, when they come back to seek a mate. In August, the chicks have already hatched, so we miss the mating spectacle. But we are at the end of the line of hikers when one of the guides stops us when she notices the mating dance of the Blue-footed booby is taking place. We start our video cameras to capture it on film as the spectacular stomping begins. The male sidles over to pick up a rock and delivers it to his intended mate, who picks it up to determine if it can be used in a nest, and drops it. He goes back and brings her another one and this time, she lifts her feathers and starts a series of whistles and calls. He then points his head and bill up to the sky with his wings and tail raised, his brilliant blue feet on display, and hops on her back and the mating is complete. The guide counts down, “one, two, three – that’s it,” and he climbs down. Soon she will lay two-three eggs, and within 45 days, the chicks will be born. Both parents will take turns incubating them under their feet. “Did they just do what I think they did?” my daughter asks, giggling with the other children.

Lesson: Sometimes that talk about the birds and bees is just that.

On our final day, we decide to stay on the ship to spend more time relaxing with our new friends and learning a little bit more about M/V Eclipse’s efforts to support sustainable tourism in the Galapagos. The ship is one of the first in the islands to be Smart Voyager-certified within the Rainforest Alliance program. Special filters in the engines, a sewage treatment plant, an on-board desalinization plant, treatment of organic waste, biodegradable cleaning materials and refillable water bottle stations ensure that the ship’s impact on this fragile ecosystem is kept to a minimum. Before we depart, and move on to another week exploring the city of Quito and its environs, we exchange addresses with just about everyone, convinced we will meet again in Vienna, London, Austin, Texas. My daughter tells me this is the most incredible experience she has ever had in her life.

A few weeks later, I hear a familiar twang coming from her room. She is face-timing with the boy from Texas, showing him her room, her house, her view from our living room. “It’s his birthday,” she tells me, “and he is home sick.”

“Ya’ll have a nice view,” he says through the phone screen. “Are those roosters?”
Across the hillside, the roosters on a nearby farm are crowing, chickens are clucking, hummingbirds are humming, and finches are chirping.

“We have a lot of birds here,” my daughter tells him. “And sea lions, too. But they have fear. They run away if you get near them.”  

Lesson: Mankind has a lot of evolving to do still, but it is the children who can change the world.

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