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  • Writer's pictureKirsten Gardner

Exploring the Galapagos Islands with the Integrity Yacht

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

“Pool’s Open!” came the familiar cry, followed by multiple splashes as neoprene-clad snorkelers slipped out of the panga and plunged into the Pacific Ocean. Greg Estes, naturalist guide for the Integrity, checked his GoPro, adjusted his mask and rolled backwards. It was the third day of our week-long exploration of the Eastern Galapagos Islands and our entire group of 17 (16 guests + Greg) was in the water, pulled along by a moderate current through the deep channel that splits Kicker Rock.

Also known as Leon Dormida, Kicker Rock is a striking ancient volcanic upheaval, a split hunk of rock towering 500’ above the waves offshore of San Cristobal Island. The chasm between the pillars is one of the best snorkeling sites in the Galapagos. Beneath the surface, Galapagos Green Sea Turtles floated up out of the deep by the dozens, flanked by feeder fish. Schools of spotted pufferfish hovered like mylar balloons. The rock walls glittered with cup corals and sponges in shades of purple, yellow and red with a vibrancy that I usually associate for more tropical waters. Vivid wrasse darted between the hiding spaces in the rock. Below us, the dark shadows of hammerheads and white tip reef sharks undulated slowly. The abundance and diversity of life beneath the waves was mesmerizing. And this was just one incredible underwater excursion during a week that was packed full of them.

Kicker Rock from the coast of San Cristobal Island

Our home base for the late January/early February week was the Integrity, an elegant 16-passenger yacht with an impeccable record on safety, maintenance and reliability. Since she began touring in the Galapagos in 2005, the Integrity has never been taken out of service for maintenance issues, a fairly remarkable feat for any boat. Her interiors are a notch down from the modern luxury category when compared to some of the new luxe vessels on the water, but onboard is supremely comfortable. The boat has eight staterooms and one suite, all with en suite bathrooms, king or twin beds, polished wood interiors and large picture windows. A small jacuzzi and couches were spread beneath the sunshade on the top deck, but aside from a quick pre-dinner soak, we stayed too on-the-go to take advantage of much down time. Rarely did folks linger in the lounge after dinner beyond Greg's naturalist discussion and video recap of the day's discoveries. The wake-up calls over the ship's intercom sometimes came before 6 am and it wasn't uncommon to knock out three or four activities (Kayaking, hiking, snorkeling, distance swimming) before lunch time!

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We followed the Eastern Islands route (you can view the itinerary here), one of two trips offered by the Integrity to comply with the Galapagos National Park's mandate that no vessel can revisit the same site within fourteen days. To me, this trip and particular route has three outstanding features; excellent snorkeling opportunities, great birding (especially for bird photographers) and a top tier naturalist guide who keeps you active, informed and engaged.

First, we had incredible marine encounters every day accompanied by very good visibility. This is typical for the "warm season" - December through May when ocean conditions are more likely to be calm and the water clear. But it was also testament to the Integrity's itinerary planning to ensure that we had access to the premier snorkel spots. The National Park tightly controls access to each landing and snorkel site and permit applications are submitted years in advance. Even Greg, who has been guiding in the Galapagos since 1982 and whose research credentials and professorial knowledge of natural history keep him in high demand by groups from the Smithsonian, Stanford, the New York Audubon Society and more, seemed genuinely giddy and overjoyed by the marine life that we saw. A talented free diver, he captured hours of underwater footage which he edited and showed onboard each evening. From shy octopus to moray eels, massive schools of surgeon fish, sea lion pups who mimicked your under water somersaults to a Galapagos penguin that actually fin-slapped my husband in his snorkel mask, each day and snorkel site (usually two per day) was delightful and different. If you love the water, then a Galapagos itinerary that visits the Eastern Islands is for you.

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Second, our itinerary included two hotspots for birders - Española Island in the south and Genovesa Island in the north. And even if you aren't a birder, the birdlife on the Galapagos is so charismatic and highly visible that you can't help but get a little into it. Española, also known as Hood Island, is the nesting ground of the waved albatross. While the largest bird in the Galapagos typically is not present on the island from January-March, we did spot several young adults which had yet to leave the nest. Facing rising temperatures they were gathered with wings spread, close to a cliff where a blow hole offered a cooling sea spray. It was hard to observe these beautiful and critically endangered birds, clearly in distress and not likely to make it off the island.

A young waved albatross tries to cool itself

Nazca boobie on Española

Genovesa, by contrast, felt like we stepped into Busy Town, populated entirely by birds. Red-footed boobies, nazca boobies, great frigatebirds and several species gulls hopped, flapped, squawked and squabbled all over the place, in an abundance and proximity that was almost unnerving. But the close range meant that the photographic opportunities were outstanding. Even the hard-to-spot Galapagos shorteared owl posed for us in the perfect evening light, pausing between snacking on storm petrels.

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Lastly, we had the good fortune of being among a very active group, led by Greg who seemed that he might be capable of running a barefoot ultra marathon across a desert at a moment's notice. Activity level and feeling "bored" on a Galapagos yacht trip is a legitimate concern, especially for families and younger travelers as the typical boater demographic skews older. But that was not the case for our group or this trip. In addition to the daily snorkel sessions, we kayaked multiple times, enjoyed numerous short hikes each day and even had opportunities to long distance swim back to the boat on several occasions, logging over a mile on our first day! The tradeoff for these long active days was more cruising to reposition at night, but between the stabilizers and seasonally calmer oceans, the movement of the ship after dark was a welcome rock to sleep.

Blue footed boobie with a newly hatched chick

Hiking through a canyon on San Cristobal

A colorful Sally Lightfoot Crab

2023 rates for an 8-day/7-night trip aboard the Integrity range from $7595-$9595 per person based on double occupancy and full-boat private charters begin at $111,000. Flights, national park, transit fees and arrangements in mainland Ecuador are additional.

Deciding on how to visit Galapagos Islands can be an imposing task. For most it is a considerable investment and a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so you want to choose wisely. Should you consider a land-based trip or to go by boat? There are dozens of vessels of various sizes, offering multiple itineraries ranging from 3-14 nights that feature different islands and landing sites. Then there are questions of vessel comfort, guide & crew quality, how active will the group be, are families welcome? It's a lot to consider, but with our years of working with the best-in-class lodges and boats in the Galapagos + regular trips to experience the product for ourselves, we're well positioned to help you make the best choice for your trip, whether that be as a solo traveler, active couple or family or for a multi-generational group seeking a private charter. Contact Kirsten - to discuss your goals and options further.

For just a taste of what mainland Ecuador has to offer to add-on to a Galapagos trip, see Journey Notes from Ecuador's Mainland.

Stepping out from behind the camera. Perfect sunset light at Bartolome.

All photos in this post are my own, shot during our January/February trip with a Sony Alpha 6400. Please give credit to Outlier Journeys if reusing or sharing.

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