YV&C Recommended Yacht Charter Links
Yacht charter in Darwin's animal paradise
By: Kim Kavin
Apr. 14, 2004 12:00 AM
Local charter yachts lead you to awe-inspiring encounters with friendly animals.
From what scientists say, it probably happened something like this:
Hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, a bunch of tortoises found themselves floating off the coast of their native southern Chile. The Pacific Ocean's swirls and swells carried them more than 1,000 miles, and they made landfall on a chain of islands about 600 miles west of what is today known as Ecuador.
By the time the Bishop of Panama sailed off course and found these islands in 1535, some of the tortoises had grown to more than 500 pounds. In his estimation, each one had a shell larger than a saddle, or galapago. He and his crew - as many more captains and crew would do over the years to come - packed as many of the tortoises as they could into their ship's hold. The creatures were tasty, could live for a year without food or water, and were easy to stack when deckhands turned them upside down.
Today, almost a half-century later, the Galápagos Islands continue to draw visitors, only now they come by the tens of thousands to marvel at - not destroy or eat - the giant tortoises and their homeland. Very few tourists arrive by boat (Ecuador's laws make it all but unfeasible for foreign vessels to cruise there), but many venture to Galápagos to explore the islands from the water, aboard charter sailboats and powerboats with local guides. One of the finest - Parranda, a 125ft motoryacht that is part of the fleet owned by Miami-based Quasar Nautica - served as my platform for adventure in Darwin's paradise.
Yacht charter, by definition, is a unique experience each time you do it, and a week aboard Parranda is no exception. Galápagos is a wild place full of islands with no roads, no buildings, often not even a dock, and Parranda is a vessel in tune with her environment. Instead of marble foyers and rosy-cheeked Australian stewardesses, guests will find dinghies strong enough to sustain a bump by a whale and first mates who are Spanish-speaking locals. The crew focuses on providing plenty of bottled water and fresh fruit - an exceptional achievement in such a distant location - and on keeping guests safe as they hike on lava trails amid 250-pound sea lions.
Built in the USA and cruising the Galápagos since 1996, Parranda is an attractive, spacious, and comfortable motoryacht. Most of her cabins have two lower berths, a few with double beds, and all have a private bath with hot shower.
The yacht is a perfect platform in Galápagos, which, as one of Quasar Nautica's spokespeople so aptly put it, "isn't a spot for a guy with a deal pending who needs to get in touch with his office. It's a spot for the guy who needs to get away and doesn't want his office to be able to find him."
It's also a spot for anyone wishing to experience awe-inspiring encounters with animals that have never known predators, and are therefore unafraid of humans. I stood inches from a blue-footed booby keeping its newborns warm under its wing (I didn't even have to sneak up on it; I stepped over it as it sat in the middle of a trail). I had the thrill of watching a giant tortoise meander to within a few feet of my face, and I walked along beaches positively littered with sea lions. The adults didn't let me disrupt their sunbathing, but the babies cocked their heads in playful, inquisitive stares when I so much as said, "Hello there, little guy."
During one sunny afternoon's hike, our guide led us to a field full of male frigate birds. They have black bodies with bright red pouches that blow up like balloons on the undersides of their necks. The rest of Parranda's 16 guests and I watched these frigates for a solid hour, each bird squawking and tipping its beak back farther and farther, trying to make its red pouch look bigger than the next frigate bird's. The females circled overhead, making their choices for a mate. Even in Galápagos, it seems, size does matter.
A charter broker friend once told me the thing she likes best about Galápagos is that it's one of the few places on earth where the natural order is still, well, in order. I'm not sure whether females circling in the sky are indicative of that sentiment, but I can say that I left Galápagos feeling a lot less superior to Mother Nature than when I arrived.
It is humbling, to say the least, to stand atop what used to be sheets of boiling lava watching a bird cuddle with its hatchling and listening to sea lions belch like a chorus as unpolluted waves crash upon the rocky shoreline. To see an iguana collecting sunlight like battery power before diving into the Pacific for food is to understand how simple every creature's needs really are, as long as safety is not an issue. The structure of Galápagos is primal, yet oh so effective. I left there very aware of my humanity, and of how I impose it upon the planet's delicate natural systems wherever I set foot.
My guess is the Bishop of Panama didn't share those sentiments during his visit, but then again, we are two people traveling through two very different spheres of time. I wish I could be around to see what folks think of the place another half-century from now. I wonder what will have floated ashore come then.
"Pahoehoe" Means No "Ah-Ah"
In Galápagos, what used to be 30-foot-wide rivers of the deadly stuff are now some of the most glorious hiking trails on earth. Cooled lava isn't a killer, of course, but certain kinds can be deadly for even the best-constructed hiking boots.
The kind of lava known as "pahoehoe" dries in ropy patterns, like big sheets of batter being poured into a hot cake pan. While the indents and cracks within it can be big enough to knock a hiker off balance, the surface itself is smooth.
By contrast, the kind of lava known as aa (pronounced "ah-ah") dries in rough patches, like gravel on a road surface before it's been steamrolled. In some spots, jagged pieces shoot in multiple directions. On occasion, they feel like they're poking right through your sole and into your feet.
My advice, if you plan to hike the black lava trails and don't want to shred your shoes, is to remember this one thing: Pahoehoe means no ah-ah.
"I Love Boobies"
Travelers who frequent northern climes know these birds as "gannets," but in the tropics and subtropics they're called "boobies." In Galápagos, tourists can stand within inches of several varieties: the blue-footed, the red-footed, and the masked (with a black rim around its eyes). There are big boobies, baby boobies - all doing things usually reserved for more private milieus.
Take the mating ritual. The males stand a few feet away from their favored gal, arch their backs, and flap their wings like entertainer Morris Day doing "The Bird" in the movie "Purple Rain." If the male wins approval, he leaps onto the female's back. The times I saw this happen, the females looked rather indifferent to the whole event. One pecked at her suitor, who relented and wandered away.
It must be disheartening for the male, I thought, to be shunned like the class geek at a high-school dance. If I were him, I'd probably think about venting my anger, perhaps on an unsuspecting tourist.
A few hours later, a booby dropped a bomb on me from about 30 feet overhead. Nailed me square in the eye. All I could think to say as I wiped the goo away was, "gotta love those boobies." -K.K.
At least it seemed that way as I came eyelash-to-whisker with a 250-pound sea lion while walking along one of Galápagos' many trails. To protect the environment, visitors must stay within the boundaries when exploring - not an easy task when a creature weighing more than a refrigerator blocks the route.
"Shoo!" I cooed, flapping my hands to coax it away.
It didn't even acknowledge my presence.
"Out of the way!" I hollered sternly, as if dealing with my beagle back home.
It turned its face up for a better angle of sunbathing.
I was talking myself out of the suicide-laden option of throwing a lava rock toward the behemoth when my guide, Bolivar Sanchez, sidled up beside me.
"Want to know how to get a sea lion out of your way?" he asked with a glimmer in his eye. "Thank him for being here."
Boly clapped. It was nothing special, the kind of applause one might give after a so-so one-man show on Avenue C.
The sea lion grunted and waddled away, I suppose to prepare for its next performance. -K.K.
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