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Snorkelling with Sea Lions

Marina Fogle and her family enjoyed a holiday of a lifetime in the Galapagos.

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As a family we are always on the go. My husband, Ben, returns from discovering the world with an appetite for more, so every year we do something different, an adventure that’s unlike anything we’ve done before. This time we were bound for the islands that inspired Darwin’s revolutionary ideas on evolution, somewhere so remote that they are one of the few places on earth not ruined by man.

Sitting in the Pacific, off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are off the beaten track, certainly for those for whom comfort and good food were important. Historically, you could spend the week aboard a catamaran and while what you saw astonished you, your food and accommodation were basic. It took until last year for that to be really challenged. Celebrity Flora is uniquely designed with the Galapagos in mind. With electric engines and a dynamic positioning system, meaning there’s no need for a sea bed-destroying anchor to be deployed, its eco credentials are outstanding, while huge, openable glass windows mean that even from your cabin can you watch, with eyes on stalks, the scenery you’re cruising through.

sea lions galapagos

For the Galapagos are truly eye-opening. A series of volcanic islands emerging abruptly from the middle of the Pacific, each one is different and teeming with life. We visited white beaches which from afar looked like they were littered with hundreds of black boulders.  It wasn’t until we got nearer that we realised that these were actually sea lions, basking lazily on the sand, grunting with contentment while their pups played in the shallow sea.

There are extremely strict regulations prioritising the welfare and protection of the wildlife over tourism. Shore excursions are in small groups of ten aboard an inflatable zodiac with a local naturalist whose inexhaustible knowledge is a delight. Guests are instructed to stay at least two metres away from the animals, something that tourists want to respect. The problem was that it wasn’t that easy. Sitting on the sand watching a couple of sea lion pups jostling with each other, we had to leap up to get out of their way.

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On another island, we gingerly picked our way over statuesque marine iguanas who watched us comedically, their horned crests encrusted by salt excretions. Because humans have so rarely ventured on these islands, the animals do not see humans as a threat; birds would land an arm’s length from us, curiously observing us. While snorkelling, giant turtles cruised around us, grazing on green algae, unbothered by our clumsy presence in their watery world and curious sea lion pups darted around us, desperate for us to join in their energetic games. We watched penguins dive into the sea from their rocky perches, eagles circle craggy cliffs, vast manta rays baring their brilliant white bellies as they flipped in the briny water. 

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Every day we marvelled at what we’d witnessed, eating locally-sourced fish on the top deck, the breeze keeping us cool, fregate birds gliding in the lea of the ship above our heads. We devoured facts, became experts at identifying blue-footed boobies and understanding the difference between a land and marine iguana. At the end of the day we’d nip into the ship’s laboratory to examine under a microscope samples collected by the naturalists from the islands we’d visited. Our final night was the most magnificent, camping on the top deck in cabanas converted into supremely comfortable beds after star spotting with a naturalist.

celebrity cruises galapagos

We couldn’t leave South America without spending a few days exploring Quito and its surroundings. We climbed to 4,200m on Cotopaxi, past foreboding evacuation signs, the smoking crater reminding us of the fragility of humans. We explored the fabled market at Otavolo, visiting a local family who continued to weave intricate textiles in a way unchanged for centuries. With tired legs and empty tummies, we sought refuge in a Hacienda whose foundations had been laid by the Incas and devoured potato soup, avocados and rich chocolate mousse. We explored the cobbled streets of Quito, whispering as we marvelled at the intricate ceilings its cathedrals. Just before we boarded our flight home, the children watched in horror as Ben experienced a ‘limpia’, a traditional treatment involving being whipped with stinging nettles by an wizened old lady clad in vibrant textiles as they sat in her tiny shop stuffed with bottles promising cures for everything from lack of libido to insolvency. 

south america weaving family

Our short time in South America was an experiential overload but we returned hungry for more, impassioned with the need to protect our extraordinary planet. And while the carbon footprint of a trans-Atlantic flight is hard to justify, there’s nothing more galvanising than seeing our world at its best to truly fuel a desire to protect it.

marina family celebrity cruises

Marina and her family travelled with Celebrity Cruises.