Galapagos Islands tour review and advice

Having spent 8 days sailing around the Galapagos Islands recently, on board the Athala catamaran, I thought I’d share some of my experiences and offer some advice for anyone interested in booking a cruise around the Galapagos.

There are currently 88 boats operating in the region, broadly speaking starting from 16 berths and going up to a 100 or so. Around 170,000 people visit the islands annually, though that is about to be restricted to 100,000. At an average tour length of 6 days, say, that means around 1,500 visitors per day across the islands.

The islands are close enough to each other to have identical meteorological conditions, and are composed of fairly similar rock from volcanic processes. In Darwin’s words:

I had never dreamed that islands, about 50 or 60 miles apart, and most of them in sight of each other, formed of precisely the same rocks, placed under a quite similar climate, rising to a nearly equal height, would have been differently tenanted

My expectation was that I would in some way follow in Darwin’s footsteps and see contrasting phenomena between islands that could be pieced together in a narrative that was consistent with the process of natural selection. This didn’t really happen and I’ve been told that the guides have a tendency to tone down the extent to which they mention evolution in order to avoid upsetting any sensitive souls in the American contingent on these trips.

I’m familiar enough with evolution and natural selection, and the history of the science, to know that it’s reported that the beaks of finches vary between islands according to the available vegetation, and that the shells of tortoises should also differ around the neck depending on how the animal feeds.

The difference in beaks is not huge though – are you really going to notice the difference between a sample of 5 birds you saw flying past on yesterday’s island from a distribution of mean = 12mm, st dev 3mm, and the one you’re seeing now randomly selected from a population which has a mean beak length of 8mm on this island? I didn’t, in spite of how close you can get to the birds here.

In fact, I was reading through Darwin’s notes of his voyage and it was only later, when comparing dead samples side by side, that he first became aware there might be something interesting going on:

My attention was first thoroughly aroused by comparing together the numerous specimens, shot by myself and several other parties on board, of the mocking-thrushes, when, to my astonishment, I discovered that all those from Charles Island belonged to one species, all from Albermarle Island to [another] … Unfortunately most of the species of the finch tribe were mingled together, but I have strong reasons to suspect that some of the species are … confined to separate islands … and as a probable consequence of the numbers, the perfectly graduated series in the size of their beaks.

The story with the tortoises is different: there just aren’t that many of them. From a population of 300,000+ back in the day they’re now down to a few thousand, mostly in a sanctuary on one island. And anyway, Mr Darwin missed the shell thing himself at first:

I have not as yet noticed by far the most remarkable feature in the natural history of this archipelago; it is, that the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beings. My attention was first called to this by the Vice-Governor, Mr Lawson, declaring that the tortoises differed from the different islands, and that he could with certainty tell from which island any one was brought. I did not for some time pay sufficient attention to this statement, and I had already partially mingled together the collections from the two islands … Captain Porter has described those from Charles Island … as having their shells in front thick and turned up like a Spanish Saddle, whilst the tortoises from James Island are rounder, blacker, and have a better taste when cooked.

The main boat travels to a new location each night. The itinerary is dictated by the government and allows for 15 day intervals between landings to any one place by the tour operators. Small speed boats are used to transfer passengers to the islands/make a tour around the waters of on an island two times per day. On a 16-berth boat there is normally one guide and two transfer boats, so if you don’t get into the one with the guide then you miss out a little on that tour’s commentary. That wasn’t too terrible though.

There are some landing spots that are out-of-bounds to the larger cruise ships, and the cut-off kicks in once you get past the 32-passenger size of boat. Therefore in terms of what you would get to see, the 16 and 32 passenger ships are equivalent. I might have preferred the larger size to have more varied company, and again would have traded off having a cabin half the size that I did (it was ridiculously big!) for a lower price.

It wasn’t uncommon to find the same boat’s tours offered via multiple agencies. I found $1,000+ differences for the same boat from different people at the same company (using different email addresses that didn’t have my full name when asking for quotes, cheeky!). Taking advantage of what I suspect is weakened demand right now I opted for a well sourced, high-end, spacious 16-berth boat. In retrospect I wouldn’t have minded one with a smaller space per passenger ratio and with fewer services, e.g., having my cabin cleaned 3 times a day is something I might have trimmed from the offering if I had my management consulting value engineering hat on.

If you want to drink, consider taking some alcohol with you. It’s not prohibitively expensive on board, but hardly cheap either. Surprisingly, there are no vending machines on ocean-going catamarans: I wish I’d taken more chocolate bars with me – far too much fruit and healthy stuff like that was served up…

For sea-sickness problems whilst sailing around the Galapagos I would recommend actual medicine, you know, the kind based on compounds with scientifically plausible modes of action, with proven benefits as shown by the results of a placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized trial. If you want to try herbal remedies or Chinese acupuncture wrist bands then expect to be sick.

In summary then, the best expectation to have is that you’re going to get surprisingly close to wildlife, can expect to swim with sea lions, see manta rays and dolphins/whales/sharks jumping out of the ocean, etc. It’s better than a safari.