Fall/Winter Cruising: Galapagos

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2003

Our motored dinghy sped past its intended target, a snorkel spot at a submerged volcano off the rugged island of Floreana in the Galapagos Islands.

Scrunched in wet suits, we were in hot pursuit of a whale spout, a narrow spray of ocean water shooting out of the dark blue waves. We couldn't see the whale, but we knew from the spout that it had to be out there somewhere.

We were packed tightly in the little rubber-sided boat -- 11 cruise passengers, a naturalist guide and a sailor. As we desperately tried to pick up speed, we clutched our swim masks to our faces to protect our eyes from the spray of the bouncing seas.

"There, over there," someone shouted, and the dinghy swung to the right, following the elusive whale out to sea.

We spent eight days together in those waters, strangers on a 112-foot brigantine schooner touring the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Every night, before the boat pitched and rocked us to sleep -- or to sleeplessness -- we were stuck with only one another for company, take it or leave it, and leave it would have been a long swim home.

And yet the afternoon we returned to the mainland after the cruise ended, we hatched a plan to meet in a bar later that night in the capital city of Quito. A few hours later we were back together, drinking English beers and listening to Julia, a 30-year-old graphic designer from San Francisco, recount the telephone conversation she'd had with her sister earlier that evening.

Julia had tried to describe the dolphins we had seen two nights before, as our boat, the Diamante, sailed to the equator. Thousands of slick bodies leapt around us, following the setting sun into the orange glow of the horizon. Our vessel cut through their path, a graceful, purposeful dance of jumping and diving. It was an amazing sight, dolphins as far and as wide as we could see.

"My sister just didn't believe me," Julia told us. "She couldn't imagine it. She said there must have only been hundreds."

But there had been thousands, and our whole day, the Day of the Dolphins, had been like that, defying our collective imagination.

That morning we had stumbled across a giant tortoise on the west coast of Isabella Island. Flat on my stomach in the hot sand, I had watched breathlessly as the tortoise -- five times my size in weight -- moved toward me, coming so close I could almost smell its breath. Snap. I took its picture. It didn't even flinch, its long neck stretched toward a black lava rock like a submarine periscope. Later we snorkeled off the beach, swimming with penguins and dodging pelicans and blue-footed boobies who were dive-bombing for their fish breakfast.

Back on the boat, we decided to jump ship, literally, dropping into the water from the bow. We fell like dominoes, Homo sapiens in various stages of flight. The water came cold and hard, filling our nostrils with the sea. We jumped in again and again.

In the afternoon, we were off to Fernandina, one of the least-visited islands in the Galapagos. Black marine iguanas, the largest colony in the islands, covered the rocks like drunken ants on an urban sidewalk, appearing everywhere and yet going nowhere, their faces turned to the sun to warm their bodies. And that evening, as we set sail for Santiago, the dolphins escorted us into dusk.

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