By Tracy Schuh, Junior Front-End Website Developer at Natural Habitat Adventures
First, let me tell you that being immersed in nature is my happy place, especially if water is involved. I am a Cancer, you see, and my existence is aligned with my aquatic crab sign. I had an amazing opportunity to journey around the Galapagos Islands aboard a stunning ship with Natural Habitat Adventures.
Our voyage began on Baltra, where we met our first land iguana, which was not bothered by us at all!
We boarded the M/C Petrel anchored in clear, turquoise water, and my soul sang with joy and delight as we started on what would become a life-changing experience.
Majestic frigatebirds soared overhead as we motored to our first destination on North Seymour, where we traversed a winding trail among nesting blue-footed boobies and frigatebirds.
There were so many birds—adults and juveniles—and we were lucky to catch a pair engaged in a ritual courtship dance! Again, I was struck by our new animal friends’ lack of fear toward us. It was otherworldly. They graciously allowed us to exist with them, and it was magical.
Our walk continued toward the coastline, where we spotted sea lions, and my 10-year-old self emerged as I announced in glee, “Sally Lightfoot crabs!” I am quite fond of these creatures that carry their home on their back, walk sideways in the cutest way, and live where the world is a splashy wonderland! I had anticipated seeing these beautiful, bright orange/red/yellow crustaceans; little did I know I would be seeing them on every coast we visited in the Galapagos! I named them all Sally.
Back aboard the Petrel that evening, we were welcomed by our guides and crew with a Champagne toast. It was the beginning of a lovely and hospitable stay, and they took excellent care of us. My heart was happy, and I had a sense of belonging that one only feels when participating in something that feeds the soul and gives purpose to life. And this was day ONE!
We embarked on new journeys each day, traveling from island to island. Our fantastic guides kept us busy and planned several daily outings: snorkeling, hiking, panga rides, kayaking and trail walks along shores and inland. Each of these options immersed us in wild habitats where we had the opportunity to join wildlife in their daily life. We respected their space, and in turn, they were not threatened by us, thus allowing us to observe, learn and fall in love with them.
In addition to the vast number of species we saw, the diversity and uniqueness of habitats stood out for me, a collection of desert and coastal ecosystems atop lava.
We spied pilot whales on our journey to Fernandina, their short dorsal fins surfacing and puffs of air expelling from their blowholes. They hung out with us for a while until the captain reminded us we needed to get back on track to our destination!
We donned wetsuits and snorkel gear and ventured into the delightful underwater world where time stands still in a distinctly quiet, peaceful way that simply does not exist on land. As we floated on the surface of the water with our eyes gazing beneath us, we were joined by sea turtles gliding gracefully through the water, just slow enough to join them for a bit, and penguins darting by so fast it was hard to capture them on video!
We swam with curious sea lions playfully twisting and turning around us and then dashing off into the distance. We watched marine iguanas paddle by after jumping in from their sunning rock, rays floating effortlessly along their aquatic road, and large schools of fish swiftly shifting direction with the current. Cormorants, blue-footed boobies and pelicans dove into the water around us to snag a fish and then popped back up to the surface to finish their meal. The sea was a flurry of activity, and we were right in the middle of it!
Our land-based adventures were equally spectacular. In addition to the huge colony of nesting birds we joined on our first adventure, we spent time with marine iguanas soaking up the sun, their dark bodies nicely camouflaged against their lava resting pads. We shared beaches with sea lions talking up a storm while their fur dried out after a good swim.
Mockingbirds, curious and friendly, joined us on walks and hikes. We found Darwin’s finches and yellow warblers singing, feeding and flitting around as small, joyful birds do.
Although the entire trip was continuously enchanting for me, the time we spent on Santa Cruz Island had the most significant impact. We visited the Charles Darwin Research Center and learned what tortoise conservation encompasses. The efforts of a team composed largely of volunteers have ensured reproductive success for giant tortoise populations on almost all of the Galapagos Islands. Given my degree in Ecology, Behavior and Evolution and the fact that my original career goal was to obtain a job in a conservation-related capacity, this visit resonated with me to the core of my soul. It was an ‘aha’ moment, and I immediately wanted to move to Santa Cruz and volunteer at this Center. We then had the opportunity to walk and shop through the town of Puerto Ayora; the town was gorgeous, and I could see myself living in such a place.
What followed was what sealed the deal for me. We ascended into the highlands for an overnight stay at Nat Hab’s Tortoise Camp, where giant tortoises thrive and wander at leisure through the camp. The landscape is made up of native tortoise habitat and offers a view of the ocean, with raised tents and treehouses to accommodate a small number of guests.
A comfortable lodge nestled among a grove of teak trees provided a lovely gathering place for our group, where we enjoyed engaging in conversation with people who had started to become friends. An older male tortoise set up camp for the night in a deep burrow below the deck where we sat. The guides estimated his age to be around 100 years old. One hundred years old!
Time fell away. Stress was gone. I felt only joy and gratitude. I was acutely present in that moment in a way that is challenging to describe with words. It was as if my soul’s journey had just aligned with its original purpose. It was extraordinary.
This special place in the Pacific Ocean with coordinates around 0°0°0° beamed with a flourishing ecosystem, delighted my soul in a profoundly epic way and reminded me what is possible if we make choices that protect these wild places on our beautiful planet. To quote Charles Darwin, “The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.”
Keep a weather eye on the horizon, Sally. I will be returning to the islands soon, I hope! Journey well, friends.