A UNESCO World Heritage site that straddles the Equator in the Pacific, the Galapagos is an incredible biosphere that it kept vibrant and unique (97% of their territory is protected). It is one of the most famous and sought-after natural preserves in the world with 693,700 hectares of volcanic land and clear water. The waters of the Pacific cooled flowing lava and magna to create an amazing landscape carved and shaped by waves and wind.
Because the Galapagos is so remote, the islands have had few visitors. One of the islands’ famous visitors was, of course, Charles Darwin, who arrived in the Galapagos in 1835 aboard The Beagle. His name still looms large on the islands where the Charles Darwin Foundation does research on endemic species. Ecuador made the Galapagos its first national park in 1959 (a century after the publication of Darwin’s groundbreaking treatise on evolution, On the Origin of Species).
The national park service regulates visitors to the islands. As a result, while you will always see other boats there, shore visits or dive sites will seldom be crowded. With few permanent residents (and few lights), the sky here is the way everyone should see it, an inky dark vault strewn with stars. The only thing that competes with the night sky is the ocean after dark. Tiny crustacean create a bioluminescence that is like fireworks going off upon contact.
The Galapagos is a “Hotel California” of sorts. At the confluent of strong currents and with the winds blowing away from the South American continent, the animals that make it there can never leave. The islands have the only colony of penguins to live on the Equator and swimming iguanas that feed on small fish. Where else can you spend the day swimming with sea lions, dodging darting penguins as you snorkel or come nearly nose to beak with frigates or blue-footed boobies? Oh, and there are tortoise too; the Galapagos tortoise are the largest of their kind found anywhere in the world (some of them weight more than 400 kilos).
With few predators around, the animals aren’t fearful. It’s an unsettling but unforgettable experience to step onto a beach and get inches from birds and mammals that do not fear man, although man can encounter animals that they fear. Gracefully plying the underwater world are many species of sharks, from docile white-tip reef sharks to hammerheads, as well as their cousins the rays.
Up to now, unless you have your own yacht, cruising around the Galapagos has only been possible by renting a cabin aboard one of several local boats. There have been few luxury charter yachts available year round in the Galapagos. A few months ago, however, entered a new player, the 38-meter yacht Stella Maris. Formerly known as Talon, the yacht, built in in 1986, underwent a massive refit in Quayaquil in 2014. The interior was gutted and rebuilt to comfortably accommodate 12 guests in its luxury charter mode and 14 crewmembers.
A few months ago two experienced crew members from the yachting world, South African Matt Hindmarch and Dominique Deacon, temporarily joined the yacht’s Ecuadorian crew as first mate and chief stew with the goal of adding all the details that set a luxury yacht charter apart from a mere boat expedition. Aromatic fresh towel upon returning from a snorkelling excursion? Check. Welcome drink. Check. A new table setting for every meal, inspired perhaps by the day’s excursion and landscape? Check. Turn down service. Check. Check. Check. The yacht’s experienced captain is a native of San Cristobal and has been navigating the waters since 1977.
A chef and sous-chef cater to discriminating palettes and an ever-increasing panel of dietary requirements using wonderful local ingredients, including freshly caught lobster and fish (although highly regulated, some fishing is allowed), but also locally grown beef and fragrant fruit. The Galapagos oranges are small and full of seeds but make delectable juice.
National Park rules require that a trained guide accompany all excursions, be they on shore or in the water. It’s advisable. The density of animals is such that you could actually step on a sea lion while walking along a beach. It’s also very helpful. The guides are a seemingly endless source of information about everything from the birth cycles of blue-footed boobies to the courtship of frigates. Too much information? it’s easy to pull back a little and just admire the fascinating landscapes above water or have an absolute ball swimming with penguins or sea lion pups.
Stella Maris, like any other yacht there, needs to follow the national park’s schedule. It’s not possible to take off and go somewhere at whim. But the yacht’s well-honed program offers a good balance of land and water activities. Most of the discoveries require a good dose of energy but the rewards are endless. Just remember to put your camera down once in a while and take it all in.