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Galapagos – Aboard the Coral I

¿Quien es mas macho?

27 wetsuits and one Speedo

The 118-foot Coral I is one of the dozen or so motor yachts that ply the Galapagos – the ship carves a figure-8 around the airport at Baltra and offers 4-, 5- and 9-day itineraries. We opted for the 5-day trip, with the bookend days in Quito extending our time in Ecuador to a full week.

The Galapagos archipelago is much larger than I imagined – it covers an area about the size of West Virginia and the islands themselves are pretty big. I had pictured broken rock and little else, but there’s plenty of dirt out there. Outside of the rainy season the air is hot and dusty, and the sparse trees provide little shade.

Our days on the tour typically featured two activities, mainly beach or dock landings (‘dry’ or ‘wet’) though once or twice we snorkeled without landing.

The Coral I sails with two naturalists on board who guide the zodiac landings and trail hikes:

Hernan’s boat

A bronze island of testosterone in a sea of pasty holidaymakers, Hernan shared his wealth of knowledge, coaxed unique animals from their homes, hit on our women and barely concealed his contempt for our tourist blunders on the trail. A dive master by trade, he spent afternoons lifting weights on the aft deck and favored Speedo over wetsuit on the snorkel outings.

Early on we found ourselves on Hernan’s boat most of the time – it always seemed to have just enough room for us before casting off for shore.

Every guide has a cache of stock topics for idle times during an excursion. Hernan’s topics focused on the mating habits of the local wildlife, in particular those with “awkward morphologies” – the crabs and iguanas with multiple penises. Usually this was the first subject he’d discuss up upon pulling into shore.

He was also adept at locating animals in heat.

For those who’ve seen the lyrical Antarctic mating scene in March of the Penguins: it ain’t like that at the equator. It looks more like one fat bird stomping another fat bird.

On Fernandina our group stopped to time a pair of marine iguanas caught in the act. I wandered off, wandered back. Hernan’s stopwatch read six minutes, thirty seconds.

Toward the end of the trip Hernan asked Melanie and Cindy if they were travelling alone. Bewildered, they pointed to me and Eric and made some mention of being married.

After that point Hernan’s boat would peel away on each excursion without hesitation, leaving the four of us to ride with George.

George’s boat

Now George is a really nice guy, but he’s not the most ambitious guide we’ve met. He rarely stopped to explain what we were looking at… come to think of it nothing much really happened on the boat or trail with George.

We found ourselves sidling up to Hernan’s group on the islands when we wanted to get any kind of details or find out what just happened between those thrashing iguanas.

After a particularly languid drift along the mangrove stands of Black Turtle Cove the group from Hernan’s boat asked us if we’d seen the turtles mating in the water.


Back in Quito we coined the phrase “Must have been on George’s boat” for situations where we’re oblivious to what’s going on or totally missed somebody’s point.

The excursions

The Galapagos islands have emerged one at a time over the ages, products of sporadic volcanic activity. Each island has a distinct personality:

Day 1 – afternoon: Santa Cruz, Dragon Hill

Dry and dusty, it’s home to both marine and land iguanas. Hernan talked one of the land iguanas into licking a Canadian’s sneakers.

Famous for its red sand, this little island provided us with our first snorkeling opportunity.

Day 2 – afternoon: Santiago, Puerta Egas

The old black lava coastline is home to iguanas and Sally Lightfoot crabs, along with birds like the oystercatcher and night heron.

Day 3 – morning: Fernandina

We found a lot of ropy black lava, flightless cormorants and murderous boobies.

Day 3 – afternoon: Isabela

We never set foot here but we did get in some good snorkeling at Punta Vicente.

This is the island where the land scenes for Master and Commander were filmed.

At mid-day we got in some great snorkeling around Pinnacle Rock.

Day 4 – afternoon: Santa Cruz, Black Turtle Cove

Here we took a slow ride on George’s boat looking for sea turtles. I think we ran one over by accident.

Day 5 – morning: Santa Cruz, Darwin Research Station

Our last stop before boarding the bus for the airport, this is where we spent some time with the giant tortoises.

Access to the islands is tightly controlled – to balance popularity with protection the trails are narrow and bustle with clumps of tourists. As much as we wanted the beaches and animals to ourselves, it’s just too busy a scene.

Eric wrestles control of the ship

The Coral crew runs a tight ship. Immediately on arrival purser Ricardo lay down the law: Shoes off on board. Do what the guides say. Flush nothing. Briefings at 6 PM sharp. You have five minutes from the PA announcement to make ready.

Eric bristled. “This is summer camp all over again.”

After our rocky start Eric slowly began to charm the crew. I’m guessing scotch was involved. By the middle of the trip he was organizing impromptu snorkeling expeditions that the zodiac drivers were happy to facilitate.

We crossed the equator on the afternoon of the third day after one of those snorkel excursions. Ricardo gathered Eric for some kind of sit-down talk. Maybe he’d gone too far.

Eric had in fact gone just far enough, and was selected to play an irate King Neptune in the traditional crossing-the-equator pirate skit. He put in a bravura performance, going so far as to ransom the captain at knifepoint (after some stalling by the pirates/crew) and forcing passengers to sacrifice the dignity of the ship by imitating sea animals. Finally he did go too far, as his royal command to “tear up the bar tab for room 7!” fell on deaf ears.

One other tradition on these cruises is to tip the crew – in cash – at the end of the trip. We were a little short on bills at this point, and Eric brokered a deal to get us onto a zodiac full of crewmen heading into port on Santa Cruz island. It felt like a scene out of a James Bond film: the little zodiac slipping through the darkness between the giant cruise liners, the floodlights from the big boats adding to the movie set vibe. With no running lights of our own the captain stood tall at the stern and snapped a flashlight on and off above his head until we reached the town dock.

A stack of U.S. twenties and one round of capirinhas later we hopped back into the zodiac for our last night on the Coral.

On the final morning we gathered our bags for transfer to the airport and said our goodbyes. About half the passengers stayed behind, with most of the rest of us joining George for a tour of the Darwin land tortoise research center. The handful that had already visited Darwin followed Hernan to search for turtles in the wild.

Guess which group saw land turtles mating.