The next morning on Bartolome Island, we walk on a trail along centuries-old ropey magma, accompanied by a host of mammals and birds along the narrow path. On the shores, marine iguanas bask in the sun and swagger over to peer at us, their tongues flicking back and forth. Inland, hundreds of blue- and red-footed boobies, some with bodies bowing, others with bills pointed skywards, honk at each other in playful courtship rituals. Overhead, brown terns and red-billed tropic birds fly in circles—all curious about the human strangers. The animals show little or no fear of us, as curious about us as we are about them. This island is a photographer’s dream. The cameras click constantly.
Late afternoon snorkeling in the bay reveals a forest of corals as the plethora of fish swim in and around it. The parrotfish are leading in numbers by far. In my mind, I thank the Otavaleño vendor at Poncho Plaza for refusing to buy my snorkel mask when I lost my silver daypack.
On the third day, Carlos heads towards Isla Isabella, the largest island in the archipelago. More dolphins show up to escort our chugging trawler. I happen to look at my watch: it is eight in the morning. When we anchor at Isabella near a shallow cove, we come upon a colony of sea lions; some perched on rocks, others rolling in the sand, and a few frolicking in the water. In a shallow pool, six of us swim near sea lion pups swooshing around us
Cuidado con los machos. “Careful of the males,” Carlos warns, opting to keep an eye out for them instead of swimming with us.
The lords-of-the-manor males are perched on the rocks, watching our every move. Their occasional bellowing, with forelegs slapping together, is a threatening reminder that we shouldn’t get too close to their babies.
In the afternoon, on the strenuous inland walk to Volcan Alcedo, we catch our first sightings of the black frigate birds. One of the males puts on a show of puffing up his red pouch below his neck, like an inflated balloon, to attract female partners. Unfortunately there are no takers today. The seven-kilometer hike up to the caldera, with its steaming fumaroles spouting vapor, is steep and rocky. We need gulps of water every hour or so. The Brits stay behind, unable to make the climb. At the top, scores of giant tortoises laze about in wet pools. The view in front of us stretches for miles: blue ocean dotted with islands, each with its own volcanic basalt, turquoise coves, and white surf breaking on the shores.
The days are going by fast—morning hikes at new sites followed by afternoon swims in turquoise coves, and seafood dinners at night before exhaustion gives way to deep, deep sleep.
The morning of the fourth day, as we head to Fernandina Island, the dolphins are back for their morning escort. Once again, I check the time. It is eight sharp. They obviously don’t need a watch to be punctual. I ask Carlos if this happens every time he’s out at sea. He shakes his head and says once in a while, but not every day at the same time.
On Fernandina, we come across four small penguins, all alone and lined up in a row on a rocky ledge facing the evening sun. As the golden ball slides behind the horizon, slivers of pink and purple shoot across the sky, and the penguins waddle off to their nesting grounds for the night.
The fifth morning, it is time to head back towards Santa Cruz. Over breakfast, I remind Carlos that we have yet to spot the flightless cormorant, the object of my alleged research for the trip. We make our way past the southern tip of Isabella Island. Over the next forty-eight hours, at two more stops, even though we come across numerous other birds—pelicans, swallow-tailed gulls, and more frigate birds—we never see the flightless cormorant at all. Fortunately, I don’t have to make a report to my fake professor at UCI on this rare Galapagos bird.
On the final seventh morning, as we approach Puerto Ayora, the dolphins are nowhere to be seen. On land, wobbly legged from seven days at sea, we all chip in for a big tip for Carlos for all his hard work, cooking, and calm demeanor. Amid goodbyes and hugs, the British geologist sums up the trip: “This is a pristine paradise. Certainly hope it stays that way forever.” Then, turning to me, he says, “Thanks ever so much for approaching us at the lava tubes.”