BieneMaja

Galapagos Islands: trip report of a magical 15 days cruise

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In May this year, I took a magical two week cruise in the Galapagos Islands, one of my two favorite holidays I have ever done so far. I loved every second of the trip and did not want to leave - what could be a better reason for writing a trip report and sharing my experiences with you?

 

Imagine snorkelling with lots of turtles in a completely tranquil "amphitheater", diving with playful sea lions, seeing sharks and rays up close, witnessing courtship of albatrosses and blue footed boobies, watching all kinds of animals from close by and just forgetting time, walking through amazing scenery, great conversations with fellow passengers & crew, Pisco Sours on the deck while looking out for whales & dolphins,...

 

A few photos to wet your appetite:

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Logistics, itinerary and activities:

 

In order to get to the Galapagos Islands, you have to fly into Ecuador first. From either Quito or Guayaquil, there are daily flights to the Galapagos Islands. If you are looking to go on a cruise, chose a cruise first before booking flights, as all boats have different itineraries leaving on different days and they recommend (or even book for you) a specific flight from the mainland that they will meet and wait for if the flight is delayed. Delays happen rather frequently, so it is much better to be on that specific flight than to be delayed and miss the whole cruise...

 

I was part of a small group of people who were all booked on a charter of the Samba, a small boat that can accommodate max. 14 passengers plus crew. All ships in the Galapagos Islands have two week itineraries that are approved by the Galapagos National Park in order to restrict the number of people on landing sites. This makes sure that one boat can only visit a given landing site every two weeks. Boats in general offer trips lasting between 4 days / 3 nights up to 15 days / 14 nights - so within two weeks you will visit all the sites the boat is allowed to go to, within a couple of days you'll see a specific part of them depending on the itinerary booked. Not all boats offer the same itineraries, landing sites and hence visits to specific islands, so it is important to know what you want to see before booking. Some boats have itineraries that go back to the main harbour in Puerto Ayora several times within those 14 days, usually to unload and pick up passengers so that shorter cruises can be offered, but if you book for example a cruise of 7 or 8 days that goes back to Puerto Ayora mid-trip (i.e. a combination of two 4 day itineraries) you probably won't get to see much of the remote islands which are most interesting. So for me, it was important to not have unnecessary time spent in ports and instead a great itinerary visiting many different landing sites on different (remote) islands, offering maximum time in the field and a guide that is excellent.

 

The Samba only offers one week (NW or SE) or two week (combination of the two) itineraries, our whole group was on the boat for the full 15 days. After arrival at Baltra airport, we had our first landing the same afternoon at Mosquera Islet. The following days, we went to Genovesa, Marchena, Isabela, Fernandina, Isabela again, Floreana, Santa Cruz, Floreana again, Espanola, San Cristobal, Santa Fe, South Plaza, Sombrero Chino, Bartolome, Santiago, Rabida and North Seymour before disembarking for the flight back to mainland Ecuador from Baltra. The map below provides a better overview of the landing sites visited:

 

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We always woke up early (between 4:30am and 6am) and headed ashore right after an early breakfast - or if the morning activity was just a short one, we had breakfast afterwards. The early landings when wildlife was at its best behaviour and the light was still soft were great. On all but one occasions (where we aimed to see land iguanas who need the heat to become active) we were the first group to land on an island. I loved the maximum time in the field and the large number of landings, snorkeling and kayaking activities. We did many more landings and activities than other boats, usually 2-3 landings and/or panga rides a day, 1-2x snorkeling and sometimes we also had the possibility to kayak. High quality snorkeling gear including full length wetsuits, kayaks and paddleboards were provided free of charge. Even navigations were fun and everybody always looked out for dolphins and whales.

 

In the evenings, the guides did briefings for the next day which were very helpful and all necessary information was included. There was usually more than one option available for landings to accommodate everybody's fitness levels and preference for the duration of the activity (e.g. short and long walk options). The schedule was always flexible. One day we started snorkeling an hour early to spend more time with sea lion pups. When we saw dolphins, we spent as much time as possible with them. If participants wanted to stay longer ashore or to return to the Samba earlier, everything could be arranged.

 

There was always a good number of staff with us when snorkeling, usually one staff member for 1-2 guests, and we used a "buddy system" to make sure everybody was looked after. People that were a little insecure could even hold hands with a staff member the whole time in order to feel safe. Hikes were never really long, max. 2 miles, and were done slowly in order to always watch wildlife, receive information and have enough time to take photos. In some locations we walked across lava rocks and on two occasions uphill, but it was never really streneous. The guides always took extra care and reminded us to stay on the paths and not step on any plants or potential iguana egg nests. You may not approach wildlife in the Galapagos Islands too close (less than 2m / 7ft), but often wildlife came towards us if we just stayed for a bit. I never had the feeling that we intruded wildlife or destroyed nature.

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Day 1: arrival at Baltra Island and Mosquera

 

The flight from Guayaquil to Baltra (the main airport on Santa Cruz Island) was really nice. As I had a window seat and the weather was good, I was able to see a few islands from above including Mosquera which we were planning to visit later during the day. After arriving at Baltra airport, we were warmly welcomed by the crew and went on a 3 minute transfer to the harbor. That's where the excitement already started: we saw (and heard) sea lions, there were sally lightfooted crabs, and the colour of the water seemed to be too good to be true. This would be our home for the next two weeks:

 

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We were transferred to the Samba on the zodiacs, our luggage was taken care of. We had a little bit of time to enjoy the view, unpack our things in our cabins and were then served lunch. That's when we saw the first turtle! What a sight. It was floating in the water.

 

Then after lunch, off to Mosquera, our first landing of the day. Mosquera is a tiny sand islands, maybe 600m long and not very wide. We went ashore to see more sea lions, sally crabs - and our first marine iguanas! We just wandered around along the beach. There was nobody apart from us, so great to enjoy the company of those amazing animals in solitude. There was also a skeleton of a whale. But I think most time was spent watching the playful sea lions. They were surfing the waves, swimming and jumping, coming out of the water and going back in. At some point they found a branch in the water and started to play with it - about ten sea lions at once. When we just sat down and watched the animals, some of them were even curious and came towards us. It was absolutely fabulous. We were able to witness a fabulous colorful sunset and on the way back to the pangas (zodiacs) we even saw our first brown pelican. What a great start to the trip!

 

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Back on the Samba, dinner was served and we discussed about our first day in the enchanted islands. After dinner, we were briefed about the next day. As we would navigate to one of the more remote islands further up North during the night, we were advised to rather go to sleep early in order to hopefully be asleep before we got on our way (noise from the enging, rather unusual movement of the boat at that point of the trip). That's what we did - and I slept very well!

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Wow! I knew I shouldn't read a new trip report when I already have such a long list of destinations I want to visit. I love the detail you go into and your enthusiasm. I'm sitting here smiling as I read.

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Thank you for doing this trip report.  I've been working on a trip to the Galapagos and the choices are overwhelming.

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@BieneMajawhat a wonderful Gallapagos itinerary, you certainly visited a lot of islands. I like the look of the Samba, perfect for a small boat Galapagos cruise. Sounds like the crew were well prepared for a range of different levels of snorkelling experiences.

 

Your photos of the skies, seals and iguanas bring back wonderful memories.

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@BieneMaja...thanks for the trip report and the great photos.  You did it right by taking a longer trip so to get to the outer islands.  We did it when I was still taking photos with film....a long time ago.  Love those Sally Lightfoot Crabs!

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Posted (edited)

Gorgeous shots.  Underwater too.  I've gone twice and would return for a third time in a heartbeat.  I agree with @margThat's great you did the long trip and really got a feel for all the "enchanted islands" have to offer.  Wonderful photos.  That first marine iguana pic is the money shot!  What was your other fav holiday.  It had better be somewhere in Africa! ^_^

Edited by Atravelynn
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Posted (edited)

@MeezersUK I know exactly what you are talking about. The same happens to me - after my first trip to South Africa, I joined Safaritalk and since then so many destinations have made their way on my travel bucket list. I'll go to Zakouma NP next year, not sure if I would have discovered that  place this soon otherwise, I doubt it. I am indeed very enthusiastic about the trip, always had a big smile on my face because every day was just absolutely fabulous and sometime felt like a kid in a candy store :) I can highly recommend to go to the Galapagos Islands, it's an amazing place to see and very different from anything else I have seen so far. Thank you for letting me know about your joy reading my report!

 

@Pamshelton3932 The choice of cruises is indeed overwhelming, so many boats and itineraries on offer. If you are planning to go to Galapagos, let me know and I can try to help you to find something that fits your requirements. If a trip on the Samba is of interest for you, I can also give you more detailed information and/or put you in touch with the owner if you like.

 

@Treepol Thank you for your comment! When have you been to the Galapagos Islands and what is your favorite memory? The Samba is a really nice, well maintained small boat and the owners have put a lot of thought in some details to make everything as comfortable as possible. I am not a big fan of large vessels or luxury cruises, but wanted to be on a small, nice, practical ship which is exactly what I got. I'll add more detailed information about the Samba some time later in this trip report.

 

@marg I agree, the full two week itinerary was perfect. It takes some time to get there and a lot of money for flights, national park entry fee etc., so I think it is best to make the most of the time you have. And it would be very hard for me to chose which part of the itinerary I would do if I only had a week - everything was very diverse, some animals can only be found on certain islands, and the landscapes can't be compared. So it was great to see so many places.

 

@Atravelynn I couldn't agree more! I am already in the planning stage for a return trip to Galapagos because I loved it so much. And I am sure I would want to go a third and fourth time as well ;) When I went I thought it would be a trip of a lifetime - but no...

My other favorite holiday was indeed in Africa - in Kenya. I haven't done a trip report yet, but have been last September / October and visited the Maasai Mara, Mara North, Laikipia area (Sosian) and Meru. Plus a visit to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to see our foster elephants, very touching!

Edited by BieneMaja
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Day 2: Genovesa Island

 

We woke up in a completely different place, anchoring at Genovesa Island in the North of the archipelago. After a very early breakfast, we went into the pangas and did a wet landing on Genovesa in daylight, but before the sun came up. We were again the only ones on the island. Much later when we were already slowly making our way back to the landing beach, another group arrived.

 

There were so many birds sitting on rocks, in mangroves, on the ground. I am not a birder but was indeed fascinated and impressed by all the birds we saw there. Male great frigate birds tried to attract females by inflating their bright red gulag sacks. When a female flew by, they spread their wings, flapping slightly, made a noise and tried the best to show off their sacks. Very impressive. We were able to witness a few females landing next to some of the males, checking them out - and then either taking off again or mating.

 

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The light was perfect, at first the birds were still in the shade and we could take great photos of flying birds, then the sun came up higher and it was just great.

 

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We walked around the island, seeing many other birds there. There were red footed boobies sitting in trees, partly nesting, and flying around. A couple of boobies and frigate birds were on the ground fighting for nesting material which was fun to watch. We also saw Nasca boobies - one of them sitting on top of a tiny baby that we shortly were able to see, very cute!

 

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We also saw our first tropic bird sitting in a rock cavity. They have very pretty tail feathers that look even more special when they fly.

 

Also, there were some Galapagos seals relaxing on the beach. As I had no idea what the difference between seals, sea lions and other types of animals in a similar shape are and how you can identify them, I asked our extremely knowledgeable naturalist guide Juan that questions. Which was answered in much detail comprising different species types and their relationships, descriptions of their shapes and movements and even a display of their movement! Just one example of the quality of information and in depth knowledge, I also learned so much about all the birds that I have never seen before.

 

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After lunch, some of us went snorkeling for the first time in the Galapagos Islands. We had an orientation first, tried on snorkeling gear (mask, snorkel, fins, wetsuit) and then kept what fit us the best for the rest of the trip. Both equipment and bags for "our" equipment with the cabin numbers stitched on them were provided. You could swim without a wetsuit, but in some places it was really cold and I was very happy to have the wetsuit. Only in one place where the water was quite shallow (on day 3) I did not wear the wetsuit. Snorkeling sessions usually lasted for about an hour, so you might get cold eventually even if the water temperature seems fine at the beginning. We saw a lot of tropical fish, but I didn't have my underwater camera with me so can't show you any photos. Btw - I purchased a compact camera (Sony RX100) and an underwater case for it especially for this trip and it was so worth it! Apart from one day we went snorkeling every day once or twice so spent a lot of time in the water. And on one trip with the panga, I also got great shots of rays and a turtle swimming past us by just putting the camera into the water from the panga.

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@BieneMajaI went to the Galapagos in 2010 and sailed on the MV Eric. There were just 14 of us aboard which made the landings very quick. My favourite memory would have to be the orca sighting, followed closely by stepping over all the seals in Puerto Ayora (I think), Blue-footed boobies and of course those amazing Waved Albatross.

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The Magnificent Frigates had pouches fully inflated for you.  May is a good time for that.  Later in the year they do less inflating.  Lovely shots! How often can you get a BIF with a giant red inflatable pouch?

The photo of your guide in the sand is also a good depiction of what it takes for some of those classic shots.  Sometimes you have to get a little sandy for the perfect photo. 

The case worked well for you underwater.  That's good. Did you try it out at home first, submerging it?  Did they mention any water temps to you?  Very brave to do a snorkel without a wet suit.  Brrr.

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@Treepol Wow, orcas! We didn't see any of those. But I can't complain either, there were so many highlights so it's really difficult for me to decide which is the number one.

And I agree about the 14 passenger boat - our landings were also always very quick. We were transferred in two pangas and everybody was ready on time, no going back and forth to shuttle everybody ashore necessary.

 

@Atravelynn We saw the frigate birds flying a couple of times. On Genovesa there were most, but on other occasions we saw a few of them.

Getting sandy for the perfect photo: absolutely! I can't even count how many times I went to lie on sand or lava rocks to take photos ;)

I unfortunately didn't have time at home to try the underwater case first as it just arrived before I left, but I did a trial run with the case before going snorkeling with it. First I submerged the case without a camera in a bucket filled with water, next the case with the camera. Then while snorkeling I had it in the water for a couple of minutes floating and then the assistant guide who is a passionate free diver dove down with it as it's supposed to be waterproof until a depth of 40m. And after that I thought it is safe to assume the case works.

Water temperatures varied a lot. Especially at the West Coast of Isabela it was really cold, whereas the water was very pleasant in the protected cove at Marchena. I don't know the temperatures exactly but would guess roughly 20 degrees Celsius? So it was not unbearably cold, but not hot tub temperature either. The 3mm wetsuit worked perfectly.

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In the afternoon, we went on a panga ride along the cliffs of Genovesa island. There were many birds to see - frigate birds flying, nazca boobies, several tropic birds showing off their tail feathers while flying fast. It was fun to see some tropic birds land as they nest on the steep cliffs and therefore have to slow down fast before hitting the rocks.

 

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We also watched the first blue footed boobies diving for food. They fly around, at some point turn down, accelerate very much, streamline, dive into the water at high speed and hopefully catch some fish.

 

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After climbing the Prince Philip's steps to the top of the cliff, we walked around for quite a while. The first sight: nazca boobies in courtship!

 

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Walking around longer, we saw a lot of red footed boobies and more nazca boobies, some of them with eggs or chicks._DSC8568.thumb.jpg.485de2345580e3e07f6d2b8fac87bffb.jpg

 

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Then we came to a flat area where a lot of birds fly around, but owls are regularly seen. Juan, our guide, asked us if we were up to play a game: "who spots the owl first". So all 14 passengers and the assistant guide teamed up to look for an owl against him - and the winner would receive a bottle of wine. It took some time as it was really hard to spot owls, but eventually one of my fellow shipmates spotted an owl. So we had some wine for dinner and Juan didn't just give us one, but two bottles so everybody could have a glass together with him. It was actually so hard to see the owl that after looking away at something else, it took quite a bit of effort to identify it again. This is the owl - taken at 500mm on a full frame camera and still heavily cropped.

 

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We then spotted two more owls - one in a similar location to the first one, so quite far away, but at the end of the path there was an owl that is regularly seen there posing nicely for us at a rather close distance.

 

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On the way back towards the landing site, we saw many more birds - and in the setting sun, the light was just amazing. At some point I got tired of changing lenses so just enjoyed the sights without taking photos, but in addition to the next photo you just have to imagine all kinds of silhouettes against the yellow-orange-red sky. This was actually the first day during which I thoght it would be nice to have a second body - let me tell you already now that after coming back home I did eventually get one. Got a great deal on ebay (I use a Nikon D700 so the only way to get an identical body is purchasing a used one) and went for it! It has already been put into practice since then and I like it a lot.

 

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Great report, I've often thought about Galapagos but have never really figured out how to best do it, your report is immensely helpful. And some really fantastic photos!

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Thank you, @michael-ibk! Glad to have you among the followers of the trip report.

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Red pouches, red feet!

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Day 3: Marchena

 

From Genovesa, all other boats go South again, the Samba is the only one going West-Northwest to Marchena as it is the only boat having permission from the Galapagos National Park Service to visit Marchena to snorkel, kayak and do panga rides. After another overnight journey, we arrived to see a beautiful sunrise at Marchena.

 

Early in the morning when the light was still soft but the sun was not up yet, we had the choice to go kayaking or join a panga ride from the Samba along the coast to a more sheltered piece of coast. As the area we were heading to would be the same for the kayakers and panga riders, the kayakers left earlier in order to meet up there. I went for the kayaking which was absolutely amazing. Tranquility, no noise apart from our paddling and sometimes talking, it was very special. We saw so many turtles on the way I can't even count them any more - 50, 100? They came up to breathe, some even swam right below or kayaks, we saw them to the left and to the right. In the protected area we then saw flightless cormorants for the first time. Again of course iguanas and sally crabs as well. And sea lions playing around us! In the water we also saw the skeleton of a tuna which has probably been caught and eaten by the sea lions. Some of us also saw a black tipped reef shark there, but I didn't. On the way back to the Samba, we saw a couple of mobula (small size manta rays) jumping out of the water, sommersaulting again and again, and start right again from the beginning. It was so much fun to watch! They were in a bit of a distance, so we paddled a bit closer before going back to the Samba for breakfast. Unfortunately, I don't have any photos of this trip as I was in a kayak and hence didn't have any camera equipment with me.

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After breakfast, Juan shouted "Dolphins, dolphins!" and let us know through the intercom that there is something great happening on deck so even people who might have gone back to their cabin would know about it - and I immediately ran outside. There were hundreds of dolphins! I had only seen dolphins once before, in the North of New Zealand, and there were maybe 30 or 35, so this was beyond amazing for me. The dolphins jumped, crossed from left to right, from right to left again, absolutely amazing.

 

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Next up: snorkeling! Galapagos shark! Hammerhead shark! A school of golden rays! Another hammerhead shark! Lots of beautiful fish! Turtles! What a great spot to jump into the water to see the marine life. Punta Mejía is a great place for that, the water was calm and of deep blue color, stunning.

 

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Wow!  I've been to the Galapagos Islands twice but never to Marchena!  Spectacular photos; looks like May is the time to visit!  (Although there's something great to see year round.)  I don't think we saw a single dolphin and KNOW we didn't see a hammerhead shark.  The owl is spectacular; there's only so far you can go to get near to them!!  

 

Your guide can make or break your trip; looks like you had a great guide!!

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Posted (edited)

@AmyT Marchena is really spectacular, I loved the snorkeling there. It is also the only place where we saw hammerhead sharks. Apparently there are many hammerheads further up North at Darwin and Wolf Islands, but you can only visit those island on a dive liveaboard cruise and it's advanced diving there. And we did see dolphins a second time - in the last evening before our departure, this time pretty close to Santa Cruz Island.

 

Weather & climate in general:

 

Any time is really great in the Galapagos Islands, so I wouldn't say you have to visit in May to see everything that we saw. Due to the location at the equator, there is not a "best" or "worst" season to visit. Only if you want to see certain species like the albatrosses you have to be around between April and mid December. In general, there are two seasons, the hot season from December to May and the garua season from June to November. The high season in the Galapagos Islands does not depend on the seasons of nature, but on the holiday season in the Northern hemisphere - so Christmas, Easter and summer holidays are considered to be high season.

 

Weather & clothing on my trip:

 

We were very lucky with the weather, sun and blue sky every day, just one morning it was overcast. It got hot quite early (another good reason for early landings) and the sun was strong, so if you decide to go to Galapagos, definitely bring a hat, long sleeved shirts and sunscreen. A refillable water bottle for landings is useful. You do not need fancy clothes, but rather practical and quick dry clothing. Laundry could be arranged midway through the trip, otherwise one could bring biodegradable washing liquid if required and you can do a bit of laundry in the sink (clothes line is provided on the top deck). Bring closed shoes (hiking boots for extra ankle support or sneakers if you are sure footed for the lava rock hikes) as well as water shoes (e.g. Keens) or flip flops for wet landings and flat walks. I did not have water shoes with me but used flip flops for wet landings or did them barefoot and was fine with that. Shoes were stored outside in a dry shoes box and a wet shoes box and soles cleaned in salt water after every landing in order to not bring remainings from one island to the next landing.

Edited by BieneMaja
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@AmyT I absolutely agree with your statement about the guide making or breaking your trip. I made the same experience during my trips to Africa and also in the Galapagos Islands. So maybe this is a good time to write about...

 

The guides & crew:

 

The cruise was led by Juan Manuel Salcedo as the principal naturalist guide (he and his family also own the Samba) and Xavier Romero as the assistant guide.

 

I cannot imagine a better tour guide for this trip than Juan, he did a marvelous job. He combines a vast knowledge about wildlife, conservation, geology and history of the Galapagos Islands with great communication skills, passion for environmental teaching, enthusiasm and compassion. His command of English is excellent. Juan always had a clear story in mind about what to tell the participants of the trip where and when which made it very easy to soak up the information. Any questions (and we asked many) were thoroughly answered. Lectures in the evening e.g. about geology and photography were very informative and helpful. While being ashore, I could also listen to other guides' commentary which was not even close to Juan's standards. Juan was always approachable, I was impressed by the enthusiasm and the energy he showed throughout the trip. He always had a big smile on his face and strived to make everybody's experience the best possible. Juan's openness and humor contributed to everybody's good mood.

 

Xavier loves diving and is very knowledgeable about marine animals, wildlife and plants of the Galapagos Islands. He took part in nearly all of the snorkeling activities, enjoyed taking photos and talking photography with interested passengers and was always there to answer any questions. Xavier was always laughing a lot and is just a fun person to be around. His knowledge of English was very good.

 

Also the rest of the crew was amazing. Everybody seemed to get along very well and the crew was very cheerful. They made all go smoothly and were extremely helpful with everything. José, the captain, even took the time to show interested passengers how to navigate the Samba. While snorkeling, he showed us the only sea horse we have seen and dove down to look below every rock for sharks to show to the participants.

 

Juan and the Samba are also personally involved in conservation and participate e.g. in the turtle reintroduction programme, the goat extinction programme, community involvement through trips for locals and crew's families offered on the Samba,…

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In the afternoon, we went snorkeling again at Playa Negra (still at Marchena Island). @Atravelynn this was the only time I went snorkeling without the wetsuit. Playa Negra is a sheltered part of the sea, quite shallow, so it was pleasantly warm. There were lots of beautiful fishes. When we were about to leave, we saw two sea lion pups that were curious! So instead of leaving, we stayed for another hour. I think both the pups and we had so much fun together, diving, turning around, and so on. There was a little grotto inside a lava rock formation where the pups sometimes swam through and came out on the other side.

 

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