Jeannine Williamson follows in the footsteps of Charles Darwin on Silversea Cruises’ new expedition ship
Zodiac driver Freddy cuts the engine and our rubber inflatable boat drifts silently into the mangroves. The only sound is the paddle dipping in and out of the water as expedition guide Paul takes over the steering. We stop in front of a dense thicket and I am confronted with the incongruous sight of a pair of sea lions asleep on a branch.
It’s an extraordinary sight, but after just a couple of days in the Galapagos Islands I already know that expecting the unexpected is the norm. I’m following in the wake of naturalist Charles Darwin, whose visit in 1835 enabled him to develop his theory of evolution by natural selection, culminating in his ground-breaking book On The Origin of Species.
At the age of just 22 Darwin set out on the voyage aboard HMS Beagle, encountering species he had never seen before and observing how species survive by adapting – often in the most incredible circumstances – to their environments. Paul explains that the pair of sea lions, the smallest of the sea lion species yet the biggest mammals in the Galapagos, are young males. Too small to take on the dominant males who preside over beachside territories, they live in a ‘bachelor pad’ where they can relax and grow before challenging the larger bulls at the next stage of their development and getting access to the females to begin the next circle of life.
Our seafaring journey began in San Cristobel, one only four inhabited islands in the volcanic archipelago that lies 600 miles off the Ecuadorian coastline. A National Park since 1959 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site from 1978, the most exceptional thing is that the protected wild animals are completely oblivious to the carefully controlled human presence that, thankfully, no longer holds any threat. With these fearless animals it makes for the most amazing experience, and it’s impossible to return home without the most fantastic photos of this bucket list trip.
Unlike the workmanlike British naval vessel that transported Darwin, I’m aboard Silver Origin, the latest ship to join the Silversea Cruises’ fleet. It’s unique as the line’s first-ever ship that’s been purpose-built for a destination. The 100-passenger vessel, the most luxurious in the region, will never sail anywhere else but the Galapagos and has been designed with this in mind. There is Basecamp, which showcases the largest LED screen in the Galapagos and provides interactive information on the places being visited. The all-suite vessel features Silversea’s all-new Horizon Balcony cabins to make the most of all-year cruising in the Galapagos. At the touch of a button panoramic windows slide down to create an innovative ‘veranda’ which can be sectioned off from the rest of the stateroom by a curtain.
There is a main indoor restaurant and The Grill, high up on the top deck, which can both accommodate all passengers in a single seating. The latter can switch from al fresco to indoor dining through large sliding windows. Other public areas include a bubbling hot tub, cosy outdoor fire pit, gym, spa and stargazing platform to observe the night skies that straddle both the northern and southern hemispheres.
Silver Origin provides an ultra-comfortable base to explore the ever-changing surroundings on our round-trip sailing from San Cristobal. Each day brings a packed programme of activities – all previewed in detail at the nightly cocktail hour and with options for different fitness levels, from leisurely walks to guided jogs, lazing on beaches, snorkelling or kayaking; with all the necessary equipment provided. Whichever you choose you won’t miss out as the wildlife is, quite literally, everywhere.
On Santa Cruz, the most inhabited of the islands, unconcerned sea lions snooze on public benches. This island is the gateway to see another giant of the Galapagos; the tortoises that are found nowhere else in the world. In fact, the name of the islands derives from the saddle-back shape of the shell that reminded the16th century colonising Spaniards of the shape of a horse riding saddle known as a galapago. The archipelago also has a fascinating history connected to the pirates and whalers who found food, water and shelter in the islands.
At Post Office Bay, on the island of Floriana, English and American whalers would spend weeks resting on the island. Often away from home for years at a time they developed what is believed to be one of the oldest postal systems in South America.
Homesick sailors left letters to their families in a barrel and other passing seamen, heading towards their home towns, would pick up mail to deliver. Today’s visitors can write postcards home and hope that future passengers will collect them and send them on their way in the spirit of the original barrel post box set up in the 18th century (left).
If you decide to post one, this incredible journey will certainly provide you with plenty to write home about.
Find out more
Silver Origin sails year-round on two alternating seven-night expedition cruises in the Galapagos Islands. All-inclusive fares start from £9,700 and include door-to-door transfers, flights, full-board accommodation with drinks, Wi-Fi, watersports equipment and tips.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Silversea Cruises.