The Galapagos Islands are unique in their ability to inspire awe and wonder no less today than they did 500 years ago, when they first were visited by explorers.
This is due to their remoteness 600 miles off the equatorial coast of South America as well as to the vigilance of the Ecuadorian government which, despite limited resources, has zealously guarded and managed the archipelago for the benefit of future generations.
Although they are best experienced from the deck of a large yacht, there are none available for charter in the Galapagos because of the government's wish to protect the business of local tour boat owners. At the same time, the sheer distance of the Galapagos Islands from typical yachting watering holes makes cruising there extremely time and fuel-consuming, so few yachts visit.
Besides encounters with sharks, sea lions, penguins, sea turtles, salt-water iguanas, giant tortoises, nesting albatrosses and blue-footed boobies, the Galapagos offered unique experiences for Big Fish's passengers
But in the case of Big Fish, a 45m motor yacht from Aquos Yachts, the Galapagos lay between her birthplace of Auckland, New Zealand, and her first public showing during 2010's Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.
For owner Richard Beattie, a visit aboard his yacht to the islands made famous by Charles Darwin in his epochal book On the Origin of Species was essential. Thus, less than three months and more than 5,000 miles into the life of his yacht, Beattie gathered some of his closest friends and business associates for a once-in-a-lifetime visit to the Galapagos.
It was a spectacular trip for us,' says Beattie, a businessman based in Hong Kong who owns Aquos Yachts. 'I had been to the Galapagos before, but it was very, very special to be there on my own yacht with people I love and admire. It was especially wonderful because exploring and enjoying the sea is why I built _Big Fish.
Enjoying snorkelling and diving from our fantastic tender and feeling connected to the magnificent scenery thanks to our floor-to-ceiling windows made the entire week absolutely magical.'
Besides encounters with sharks, sea lions, penguins, sea turtles, salt-water iguanas, giant tortoises, nesting albatrosses and blue-footed boobies, the Galapagos offered unique experiences for Big Fish's passengers. It was also the first equator crossing for some.
King Neptune (Captain Winston Joyce-Clarke) appeared from the galley carrying large vats of a concoction consisting of cereal, coffee grinds, orange juice, whipped cream, oils, spices and spaghetti.
Beattie and his guests were roused from their sleep in the wee hours by the sounds of the crew banging pots and pans, pounding on their doors and setting off air horns. They were ordered to report to the bow deck in their oldest clothes. Here they were unceremoniously tied up and ordered to drink shots of rum.
When sufficiently prepared for their ordeal, King Neptune (Captain Winston Joyce-Clarke) appeared from the galley carrying large vats of a concoction consisting of cereal, coffee grinds, orange juice, whipped cream, oils, spices and spaghetti. The guests were soused and plied with more ceremonial rum, before being subjected to a thorough cleansing courtesy of Big Fish's MCA fire hose.
Beattie was among the crew's victims, and he won high marks for valour by eating the spaghetti draped over his head. Some of the crew were also experiencing their first equator crossing, which resulted in a reverse ceremony. Fortunately, there was enough spaghetti concoction and rum left over.
A close encounter
Besides the frivolity of King Neptune's ceremony, the cruise provided other milestone experiences for _Big Fish'_'s guests. Rob Chapplehow, Beattie's friend, says he would never forget his first scuba diving experience, which included a night dive with sharks.
'I was both terrified and awestruck,' he says. 'It's an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life.'
Another guest was Greg Marshall, _Big Fish'_'s designer, who not only cherished the ecological and historical aspects of the cruise, but was also able to evaluate first hand the way the yacht achieved its design objectives.
'It's always theoretical until you actually see how people use and enjoy a yacht,' he says. 'People are in constant motion, diving, snorkelling, getting on and off the tender, moving from here to there to watch the scenery it's amazing how much you can learn just by watching how people use and enjoy a boat.'
Marshall says the Aquos team was deciding whether to include_ Big Fish's_ ample main saloon windowsill seats on Star Fish, a new 50m yacht that he is also designing.
That's where everyone wanted to sit inside when the boat was under way. It was the perfect place to relax after a dive or excursion and still feel connected to these magical islands.'
The pace of a Galapagos cruise is dictated by the islands' relationships to one another. They are mostly uninhabited and many require an overnight cruise to reach. Most days on this cruise begin in a new anchorage. Breakfast is followed by a snorkel or dive trip followed by some on-shore exploration. Lunch is eaten at anchor or on the way to the next moorage and to a new set of adventures.
Just as in Darwin's day, each island and moorage still offers an entirely different set of wildlife, historical or geographic experiences
Ecuador's National Park Service provides an itinerary for each vessel private or commercial to ensure no location is overrun by visitors, which benefits both the fragile ecology and the overall quality of each visitor's experience. Every vessel is required to carry a certified naturalist and guide, whose job includes protecting the region and sharing their knowledge of this unique part of the world. _Big Fish'_s guide, Sani Anibal, drew praise from all quarters for his insight and passion for the Galapagos Islands.
Not all the islands are noted for their wildlife. On Bartolomé Island, for example, visitors walk over vast recent lava flows from the island's shield volcano, where the sea gurgles underfoot, forming saltwater lakes as much as a kilometre inland.
Another highlight was Post Office Bay on Floreana Island, which since the whaling days, more than 300 years ago, has been used as a letter exchange point. As in the past, mariners place their letters or postcards into an old barrel, now colourfully decorated. Incoming visitors sort through the accumulated mail and select pieces to carry home to their intended recipients.
Susie Sunshine, Big Fish's divemaster, dropped off a letter for her mother back in Wisconsin and was surprised by how well the system still works. Five days later, even before Big Fis__h had left the Galapagos, she called home to find her letter without a stamp had already been received, hand-carried by her postman who wanted to make sure this curious piece of mail was safely delivered.
Just as in Darwin's day, each island and moorage still offers an entirely different set of wildlife, historical or geographic experiences. It was, after all, Darwin's keen observation that the finches on the Galapagos were entirely different from island to island that formed the initial basis for his theory of evolution. This extraordinary diversity is the archipelago's enduring legacy and the simply unequalled range of sights and experiences keeps visitors returning to the islands.
Everyone on Big Fish, as with all who visit the Galapagos, departed with a rich treasure trove of memories and a deeper appreciation of the beauty and complexity of life on earth.
Originally published: August 2011.
Photography courtesy of Aquos Yachts