Where Sea Lions are King: Touring the Galapagos Islands

Where Sea Lions are King: Touring the Galapagos Islands

It's only April, but it has been quite a year for travelers Neville and Catherine Hockley.

They've seen Panama and transited the famed canal. They've set out into the Pacific Ocean for the first open-water leg of their around-the-world journey. The latest stop on their sailboat "Dream Time"? An exploration of the isolated Galapagos Islands.

Read the latest excerpts from the Hockleys' adventure below and visit the boat's Web site to learn more about their journey.

March 24, 2009. Day 663: Galapagos Islands

Neville Hockley wrote: As it turns out, 2009 is a very special year for the Galapagos. So much, in fact, that the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, graced the islands with their royal presence just a few days ago, participating in the celebration of the birthday of Charles Darwin, who was born 200 years ago. To add to the excitement, it is also the 150th anniversary of Darwin's masterpiece "The Origin of Species" (much of his research and theories were greatly influenced by the unique animals found in the Galapagos) and it is also the island's 50th anniversary in becoming a national park. So, not wanting to miss out on all the fun and festivities, Catherine and I took a special two-day excursion over to Santa Cruz Island to celebrate the anniversaries and to visit the Charles Darwin Foundation Headquarters for ourselves.

About 40 miles from San Cristobal, Santa Cruz Island has the main port of entry for the Galapagos and is home to approximately 10,000 residents -- the majority of people living on the islands.

The most famous resident of all is Lonesome George. Lonesome George, sadly, is the last surviving tortoise of his particular kind and when he's gone, his variety of tortoise, which could only be found on Pinta Island, will be gone from the world, forever! Poor George, from what I understand, is only 85 years old, barely middle aged. So in an effort to try and save this tortoise from extinction, the Darwin Foundation has introduced two hottie tortoises from Wolf Volcano (on a neighboring island) that are genetically closely related to George, and have been given instructions to seduce the lonely fellow in an effort to create lots of new little Georges. Unfortunately, their efforts, thus far, have failed. Perhaps it's the stress of performing under pressure or, more than likely, George's solitary existence. Whatever it is, Lonesome George isn't interested.

The signage next to George's corral hinted, as a last resort, that George might have to be cloned. Even though it's a very costly procedure and the odds of a successful clone are extremely slim, the Darwin Foundation is, nevertheless, considering the option. I wonder what old Mr. Darwin would make of that?

Pondering George's potential cloning and Darwin's theories of evolution, Catherine and I spent the afternoon discussing the sad irony of the situation on Tortuga Bay Beach, the largest beach in the Galapagos. Practically deserted except for a handful of die-hard surfers, the stunning bay of beautiful floury white sand, gentle breaking surf, marine Iguanas and pelicans, I suspect, looks much the same today as it did when Darwin first stepped foot on the islands in 1835. However, so many things in the world have changed in only the last 170 years. We've evolved, for sure, and made remarkable advancements, but seeing a plastic bottle washed-up on the beach and another cruise ship trailing black diesel smoke across the horizon, you have to wonder, are we evolving in entirely the right direction?

Learn more about the Charles Darwin Foundation and its conservation programs at http://www.DarwinFoundation.org.

Balancing Nature and the Curious Tourist

March 20, 2009. Day 659: San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands

Catherine Hockley wrote: After a few restorative nights sleep and a little exploring, we are getting better acquainted with our little island named after the patron saint of sailors, San Cristobal, here in the Galapagos. We have already been on a "land tour" which took us from the top of a dormant volcano to the beaches below and everything in between. We were introduced to giant tortoises and marine iguanas and more, and so far it's everything I hoped for but nothing like I imagined.

For a start, there are a lot more boats here than I thought there would be. There are about 30 other sail boats in the harbor and when you add all the tour and fishing boats, plus the multitudes of underwater marine life traffic, it's quite a busy little patch of water. The town itself is small but very well organized and beautifully maintained, there is a discreet but visible police presence and, every now and again, a flurry of tourists bustle through in safari gear and snorkels getting ice cream on their way to their next expedition.

I had imagined more of the "Master and Commander" version of the Galapagos here on the most eastern of all the islands. But despite all the activity, there does seem to be a pretty good balance between nature and the curious tourist, and it appears to be working. For instance, the sea lions wander around with an air of ownership and they dominate the beach in huge numbers. They play and swim around the boats in the harbor and take any unattended swim platform or transom steps as their own. Dinghys seem to be especially popular as they make a comfy alternative to the usual rocky sleeping spots, and even the kayak proves to be an entertaining diversion for the young ones. The integration appears to be comfortable for everyone. Creatures of every kind seem quite at ease with one another here but it does seem a somewhat delicate balance that will need careful managing if it is to be preserved.

After a long mellow walk on a deserted beach, we sit down and relax in the sun, gazing out to sea on the warm, black lava boulders alongside dozens of marine iguanas doing the same thing. Or we sit in the cockpit in the evening, watching countless sea lions dash around and about the boat fishing, playing, fighting and, from time to time, hopping in, out and over our dinghy and kayak. And we have giant green turtles glide by on their way to here or there, and this is Galapagos, lovely!

Read more about the Hockleys' winter adventures in Panama.

Read more about the Hockleys' preparations for the open Pacific Ocean.

March 16th 2009. Day 655: Galapagos Islands

Catherine Hockley wrote: We made it. ... We are in the Galapagos!

After nine days in the Pacific, with wind and current in our favor to help push us along and a pit stop at the Equator for an afternoon of equatorial festivities, we have made it safe and sound to Isla San Cristobal in the Galapagos. We are both a bit tired, and we have some sleep to catch up on, but we have already scheduled an island tour for Wednesday and are looking into four-to-five-day tours where we hope to get the whole Darwin experience. Even here, right where we're anchored in the ominously named Wreck Bay, we have huge turtles and inquisitive seals swimming around us. It's already worth every sleep-deprived moment of the sail here.