As the plane descended to land, I noticed that the majority of the islands have a low silhouette but that several include a high central plateau. One or more volcanic cones rise from most of the islands and some are quite formidable. The cone on Isabela Island, for example, peaks at more than 5,000 feet above sea level.
After landing, it took only a few minutes to reach the gangway of the newly remodeled white and dark-blue Santa Cruz on which I would sail among the islands.
I soon learned that my shipmates included an East Indian tycoon, an Oxford surgeon, an Israeli computer scientist, a Japanese bond trader, and a honeymooning couple from China. There were also Germans, Ecuadorians, a few Danes, and a dozen or more North Americans. I didn't actually see Charles Darwin board the Santa Cruz but he was certainly there in spirit.
Each day aboard the ship got underway with a bountiful buffet breakfast topped off with ripe mangos, cantaloupes, watermelons, and other succulent fruits.
After breakfast, we climbed into a Zodiac rubber inflatable raft, known in the Galapagos as a "panga," for a quick trip to shore. Some landings were "wet," which required a short slosh from boat to beach; some were "dry," which meant stepping directly onto a rock platform.
These platforms, by the way, were often already occupied by several sea lions lazily sunning on the warm lava rock. Hearing the panga approach, they might open an eye for a quick look—then drop back into a nap.
The day's adventure sometimes began with an hour of snorkelingin water that ranged from comfortable to goose bumpy. Colorful exotic fish flashed by me at close range. More memorable were sightings of hammerhead sharks and manta rays. Fortunately, none of them took the slightest interest in me.
Best of all were visits from sea lions. Some circled slowly as if to satisfy their curiosity. Others came and went as a 500-pound, bullet-shape blur, flicking me with their wake to let me know just whose ocean I was in.
Next might come a walk of a mile or two across shards of broken lava. It's easy to stroll, without giving alarm, within a few feet of dozens of masked boobies lying in their ground nests. After a glance, they return to feeding, courting, or anything else they felt more interesting.
The fearlessness of most of the islands' mammals, reptiles, and birds has become a trademark of the Galapagos, one that amazes and enchants every visitor. That fearlessness is rooted in the near-absence of predators many, many generations ago.
Given their sad experience with mankind, however, these animals will eventually show more caution. That is, after all, how survival of the fittest works.
I often paused to watch graceful black frigate birds launch themselves off a cliff into air currents made visible to us only by their effortless flight. A puffed-up crimson chest pouch identified a male letting a female know of his amorous intentions.
Even in the Galapagos some things never change.
Then it was back to the ship for a hearty lunch, followed by relaxing with a book on the sundeck or talking with other international travelers. During the midday break, the Santa Cruz got underway for another island full of its own surprises.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication