Cruising the Galapagos Islands on Silversea's Silver Origin
By Jeannine Williamson | 26 May 2022
What could be better than cruising through the Galapagos Islands? Seeing it in style on ultra-luxury line Silversea Cruises’ latest ship, Silver Origin, which was purpose-built to sail in this protected region. Jeannine Williamson embarks on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure
As I gaze down at the kaleidoscope of neon-bright yellowtail surgeonfish, I’m aware of a sudden movement to my right. The only thing that stops me gasping aloud is the snorkel mouthpiece clamped firmly between my teeth.
A sleek Galapagos sea lion has dived into the water right next to me and with its head cocked to one side, the creature observes its inept and infinitely less streamlined swim buddy with a pair of quizzical, large brown eyes.
Having seen enough, it twists effortlessly away and heads through the clear depths towards the reef below. Three more follow and as one brushes past a fellow snorkeller, it’s evident that our strict rule of keeping at least six feet away from animals doesn’t apply in reverse.
We pop our heads back above the surface, and our guide Marco explains that the most frequently seen marine mammal in the Galapagos is both playful and inquisitive, particularly the juveniles in the colony that we’ve just encountered.
Like all creatures in this wildlife wonderland, sea lions are not threatened by humans so they have no fear. It’s a win-win situation for all concerned.
We clamber into the waiting Zodiac and as we speed back to our ship, Silversea’s new purpose-built vessel Silver Origin, there’s excited chatter about the latest extraordinary encounter, one of many during our week-long expedition voyage.
The Galapagos is known as a bucket-list destination for good reason, because it really is like nowhere else on Earth.
What to expect on a Galapagos cruise
While it first gained global attention when Spanish sailors visited in 1535, the archipelago of 127 islands, islets and rocks has been carved and shaped over some five million years by volcanic eruptions – which continue today – and this vast geological timescale means each one is completely different.
One day we marvel at beaches the colour of cocoa powder, the next we walk on snow-white sand. Soaring cliffs topped by greenery rub shoulders with flat, black lava landscapes dotted with improbably bright flowers that cling to the stark terrain.
It was English naturalist Charles Darwin who brought the Galapagos Islands to prominence when he visited aboard the scientific exploration vessel HMS Beagle. In 1835 he spent six weeks studying birds and animals on the islands scattered 600 miles off the Ecuadorian coastline and in 1859 published his revolutionary book On the Origin of Species.
Challenging commonly held beliefs with his ‘survival of the fittest’ theory, Darwin’s new understanding of evolution showed how the species that are most adaptable are the ones that stand the test of time.
His ideas were graphically illustrated on every step of our round-trip voyage from San Cristóbal. There are 19 large islands in the Galapagos, of which only four are inhabited, namely San Cristobal, Isabela, Floreana and Santa Cruz.
In 1959 the region was declared a national park and, aside from the quartet of populated islands, the joy is in seeing completely unchanged landscapes and seascapes through Darwin’s eyes.
What wildlife can you see in the Galapagos Islands?
Landings by passengers on cruise ships and day-trip boats are stringently controlled, with only one allowed at a time, and they are all led by naturalist guides. Additionally, we went ashore from Silver Origin in very small groups, so even though the ship carries up to 100 guests, we never felt rushed or crowded.
Over our week-long sailing to the western isles, we made seven landings for walking tours and visited the same number of sites on Zodiac, kayaking and snorkelling trips (with a beginner or refresher snorkelling lesson from the beach so everyone could participate).
We could even take home the masks, though unless I go back to the Galapagos, I will never use it for anything that comes close to my unforgettable outings in those warm, wildlife-rich waters. Of the 9,000 species of flora and fauna on the islands, many are unique to the land and sea of the archipelago and some are as strange as they are astonishing.
On our first sea snorkel off the rugged Vicente Roca Point, dotted with sea caves, there is the incongruous sight of a penguin that dives arrow-straight into the water in search of small fish. Originally swept over from Antarctica on the Humboldt Current, like many birds and animals that arrived by prevailing ocean streams and winds, it turned out to be a one-way ticket.
With no means of getting back, the penguins had to acclimatise to a dramatically different home. They have less plumage then their cold-weather forebears and adopt a leaning-forward stance to protect their feet from the sun, as well as holding out their wings to further reduce their body temperature.
As our Zodiac hugs the coastline, a flock of one of the archipelago’s most instantly recognisable feathered residents comes into view. Like all the birds we see throughout the week, the blue-footed boobies pose on the rocks oblivious to the floating paparazzi clicking just a few feet away.
Their dazzling webbed feet are a result of pigments from their diet and are eye-catching in more ways than one. During the courtship ritual, males impress females with an extravagant high-stepping display that shows off their feet to the best advantage. The brighter their feet, the more chance they have of attracting a mate.
Further on is another quirk of Mother Nature’s grand design for survival. The flightless cormorants look ungainly hopping from rock to rock and extending their stumpy wings for balance to reach the water.
Endemic to the Galapagos and with few predators, they no longer need to fly so have metamorphosed into sleek diving machines hunting at up to 25 feet below the surface of the water for more than a minute at a time.
Land hikes, usually early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day, reveal more marvels. Hundreds of dragon-like marine iguanas bask on Espinoza Point, Fernandina, where their soporific stupor is occasionally broken by females digging nests in the sand.
At Cerro Dragon, on Santa Cruz, we get to see their spectacular golden land-based counterparts. It’s hard to pick a single highlight, but my big moment, in every sense, is meeting the giant tortoises on Santa Cruz. Once almost hunted to extinction by 19th-century sailors as a food source that could be kept alive on ships for months without any food or water, they now lumber along unhindered and can look forward to slow-motion lifespans of more than 100 years.
What is it like on Silversea’s Silver Origin?
Back on Silver Origin, we have plenty of our own creature comforts. The new vessel is Silversea Cruises’ first-ever destination-specific ship. Designed to sail year-round in the Galapagos, it has been created to fit the destination and provide guests with an unforgettable experience.
There’s a big marina platform to facilitate getting on and off the eight Zodiacs with ease. Unlike regular cruise ships, Silver Origin never moors in any ports and all its fuel, food, supplies – and passengers – arrive by sea. So although there are always crew members to lend a hand, you do need a reasonable degree of fitness to make the most of the trip.
Wetsuits, flippers and other water sports equipment are provided and I appreciated the advance list with tips on what to pack. Unlike traditional cruises you don’t need to bring any dressy clothes because despite being a luxury ship, the onboard vibe is relaxed and casual.
A central hub is Basecamp with a big LED screen showing informative footage about the Galapagos. Here you can also chat to members of the expedition team, all of whom are passionate about the islands and have an encyclopaedic knowledge.
Indeed, all crew members are Ecuadorian and more than 50% of the food is sourced from the islands, with local specialities showcased on the menu. This makes it even more of an authentic experience.
As we reluctantly disembark in San Cristobal, we gaze at yet another example of how wildlife has adapted. Snoozing sea lions lounge on public benches, blissfully unaware of us as we walk past. This really is another world.
How to book a Silver Origin cruise with Silversea
Silversea Cruises offers year-round, seven-day alternating round-trip San Cristóbal cruises to the western and north-central Galapagos Islands, including home-to-airport transfers (up to 50 miles), flights, drinks, excursions, onboard gratuities and Wi-Fi. A sailing departing September 3 starts from £9,300 per person, also available cruise-only from £6,450. For more information or to book, visit silversea.com