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Close Encounters in the Galápagos

A sail through one of the world’s wildest places to see blue-footed boobies, penguins, and sea lions wrestle starfish.



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I CAME TO the Galápagos Islands for one reason: to mingle with animals in one of the most remote ecosystems on earth. This made experiencing the archipelago’s 13 major islands by boat the obvious choice, and I was lucky enough to do so aboard Aqua Mare, the newest addition to the Aqua Expeditions fleet of luxury vessels. The first superyacht to set sail in the Galápagos, Aqua Mare boasts a one-to-one crew-to-guest ratio and seven spacious guest cabins filled with five-star amenities, a sundeck with a hot tub, several indoor and outdoor dining options, and a panoramic lounge. The result is a boutique cruising experience that is a surprising blend of nature and opulence — in part because Aqua Expeditions works with some of the most experienced naturalists on the islands.

Yvonne Mortola, my guide for the week, has lived in the Galápagos for nearly four decades and raised both her children on the island of Santa Cruz. “I came, I saw, and I fell in love with this place,” she recalled. “I feel I am a very lucky person, and I have found my niche.”



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As we traveled across five of the islands — Genovesa, Santiago, Santa Cruz, Española, and Santa Fe — a throughline became clear: Because they have few predators, the animals we encounter are unafraid of humans. These unfettered wildlife encounters never got old. “You can never see too many baby sea lions or blue-footed boobies,” declared Mortola. And she’s right. Immediately after we touched down at Seymour Airport on the island of Baltra, an iguana resembling a miniature dinosaur casually crossed in front of our van, almost seeming to pose for our cameras. On the human-inhabited islands, such as Baltra and Santa Cruz, wildlife and humans intermingle. I caught a sea lion napping on a bench beside a local man scrolling on his phone.

But much of the interspecies drama here is unfolding below the surface. Aqua Mare takes snorkeling very seriously, since the Galápagos are in a protected marine reserve. We swam with penguins and watched sea lions wrestle starfish. One afternoon after snorkeling, a member of the crew radioed Mortola about a family of humpback whales. For an hour, we followed the mom and her baby in the tender, an unforgettable experience that was made even more special watching the expression on Mortola’s face. “What nature gives us makes up for any bad moment that we might be having with it,” she said.


Toward the end of our trip, around 100 dolphins rode alongside the bow of our tender. “I have seen a lot of animals,” said Mortola of the dolphins. “There are some species that a normal person can not get enough of. Every now and then you get to see some things that don’t happen too often, or I have never seen before — things that aren’t necessarily in the book.”


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Our Contributors

Elissa Polls Writer

Elissa Polls is the head of production for Departures. A producer who typically stays behind the scenes, she has worked with creatives from around the world, helping bring their ideas to life. Polls has over 15 years of production experience and lives in Berkeley, California.

Stebs Schinnerer Photographer

Stebs Schinnerer is a Bay Area director and director of photography. He specializes in documentary storytelling for commercial and editorial clients around the world.


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