Galapagos Islands: Back to Basics

Because the Galapagos Islands tops every nature-loving, adventure-seeking traveler’s wish list, we members of the travel industry know a lot about a place that, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, puts on one of the greatest natural shows on earth.

Because of the success of Galapagos Islands cruising, we may be surprised to find we actually have learned on site or by osmosis some unusual tidbits about a special ecosystem populated by unique wildlife that makes itself at home on magical islands.

For example, the Antarctic fur seals and penguins live right on the equator; the blue-footed booby is the Galapagos icon, although there are also red-footed and masked boobies; the Galapagos cormorant swims but no longer flies; and a giant tortoise named George lives at the Charles Darwin Research Station (still a bachelor, he is a dropout contributor to the preservation of the species).

What everyone selling cruises to the “enchanted islands” is learning anew is all about big changes in Galapagos cruising come 2012. New itineraries are the result of the Galapagos National Park’s new regulations, whose purpose is to reduce the total number of daily visitors at terrestrial and marine sites and reverse visitor negative impact on the soil, the plants and the wildlife. The new regulations do not establish new sites—presently 145 within the park—but rather seek to ease the environmental pressures at the 14 most popular visiting sites and redistribute excursions to other existing but under-utilized sites. To achieve this, the new National Park law mandates that:

  • No cruise vessel may visit the same island or marine site more than one time in any consecutive 2-week period. (Presently, vessels can visit the same site once every seven days.)
  • No boat may offer more than three itineraries in a 15-day period.
  • All vessels may now use both Baltra and San Cristobal as departure/arrival airports.
  • All cruise vessels must implement the changes by Feb. 1, 2012.

“Readjusting our operations to conform to the new National Park regulations has been a lot of work for all of us offering cruises in the islands, including re-educating our agent clients on the changes,” says Doris Welsh, marketing director for Ecoventura, whose environmentally friendly fleet of small expedition vessels—the 20-passenger Eric, Flamingo and Letty—will alternate two 7-night itineraries. However, she adds, “The new law should make a difference in the wear and tear on the 14 most visited island sites. On all our vessels, we are offering two itineraries equally exceptional and covering most of the islands and species of the former routings. The exception is that on no one 7-night cruise can any passenger see both iconic bird species: the flightless cormorants on Tower (Genovesa) and the waived albatross on Hood (Espanola)—in residence April-November.”

Welsh points out that there are travelers who want to see everything, and already Ecoventura has some bookings for the 2-week combination, which is priced for a 5 percent discount for the second week. However, she also says it’s the 7-night cruise that works for the company’s Family departures—some tailored to children ages 7-12 only, others to Teen departures for ages 12-17. New for 2012 is a Family Graduation sailing (ages 17-21), scheduled for May 27-June 3. All 7-night cruise costs start at $3,350 pp dbl per week, with special discounts for kids of all ages on all family sailings.

“Obviously, itinerary changes will affect how, where and for what duration travelers experience specific islands by boat,” says Todd Smith, founder and president of AdventureSmith Explorations, whose programs offer cruise choices aboard close to 80 percent of the small ships cruising in Galapagos waters. “Travelers can no longer assume that a week-long cruise will include every one of the highlights the Galapagos has to offer. Those ‘let’s-see-everything’ itineraries are now going to run nine or 10 nights. However, our island experts are geared up to help in choosing the itinerary that reaches as many of the top sites as a client’s time permits.”

International Expeditions is offering a simplified Galapagos Islands program, a 7-night cruise aboard the 30-passenger MV Evolution, a deluxe mega-yacht the company incorporates into a 9-night Galapagos Islands Expedition that begins monthly departures Jan. 20, 2012. The journey will cover the islands of Bartolome, Isabela, Fernandina, Santa Cruz, Floreana, North Seymour and Espanola. Including accommodations coming and going in Guayaquil, the cruise costs start at $5,098, pp sharing.