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Wake up calls were often between 6 and 7 am, and each day was packed with early morning and evening hikes and a variety of afternoon water activities, including deep-water snorkelling, kayaking and spying the underwater world from a glass-bottom boat. Participation in any of the above was voluntary, sign-up sheets were in pencil and cancellation fees were non-existent – even for the massage treatments. But with each activity, passengers were increasingly unlikely to skip the next. Checking email and getting sleep could wait.

This spring expedition began with a 2km hike over lava boulders and muddy terrain on North Seymour Island, a nesting site for swallow-tailed gulls, blue-footed boobies and both magnificent and great frigate birds. Because of the season, many of the seabird species were courting each other – the blue-footed boobies were dancing, honking and whistling, and the male frigate birds were displaying balloon-like red pouches with pride, shaking them back and forth when a female passed.

In comparison, the next island, Rabida, was incredibly understated. While hundreds of massive sea birds glided in the warm air above North Seymour and arrogantly posed for photos, the tiny land birds that hid in Rabida’s dense vegetation were almost impossible to see, let alone photograph. But what Rabida lacked in bird life it more than made up for in unusual terrain, with jagged green peaks contrasted against dark red sands made from high iron oxide lava.

Rabida is also famous for being the focus of a large-scale eradication campaign, where destructive, introduced species such as rats are being strategically exterminated from the island to restore the original balanced ecosystem. Its success has been an example for similar projects around the archipelago.

On Fernandina, the youngest and most pristine island in the Galápagos, the terrain again shifted dramatically, with innumerable black lava flows flanking the island’s imposing 1,520m volcano, one of the most active in the world.

Along the shoreline, thousands of endemic marine iguanas were basking in the sun, their black skin making them nearly indistinguishable from the dark lava they lay on. Even more swam stealthily in the lagoon-like waters nearby. When just their heads popped above the surface, crowned at times with grey, crusty-looking spikes, it was clear why Darwin called them “imps of darkness”.

Throughout the trip we were reminded that keeping a healthy distance from the wildlife (the park rules say at least 2m) means there is little to fear. In the turquoise shallows off the coast of Santa Cruz, a large Galápagos shark swam away from us faster than we could follow it. In the dark blue waters near Fernandina, a baby sea lion spun circles around us, blowing bubbles and barrel rolling, torpedoing towards our snorkel masks and careening sideways just before impact. Pacific green sea tortoises, which can grow to be 84cm long, floated past us in slow motion and 30cm-tall penguins (the third smallest in the world and the only ones in the northern hemisphere) sped through the water like bullets. On land, massive reddish-yellow land iguanas lounged like tiny dragons across the path and the islands’ famous giant tortoises lumbered ever so slowly toward the group, welcoming us to their home. Before we even boarded the ship for the first time, we were greeted by giant sea lions lounging beneath the dock near the airport on Baltra Island. The wildlife was so abundant and so close that it almost felt staged, as through a director was standing in the wings, radioing directions to cue the flamingos’ entrance.

In late June, Lonesome George, a giant tortoise believed to be the last of his Pinta Island subspecies, passed away, shining an international spotlight on the need for continued conservation of the Galápagos Islands – an idea that reverberated in every hike, every snorkel and every conversation of our trip.

In an open letter, the International Union for Conservation of Nature wrote, ”More than just a symbol for the Galápagos, Lonesome George was a symbol of our global never-ending struggle to preserve the richness and diversity and beauty of the planet we inherited."

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