Our dinghy sped past its intended target, a snorkel spot at a submerged volcano off the rugged island of Floreana in the Galapagos Islands. Scrunched in wetsuits, we were in hot...

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Our dinghy sped past its intended target, a snorkel spot at a submerged volcano off the rugged island of Floreana in the Galapagos Islands.

Scrunched in wetsuits, we were in hot pursuit of a whale spout, a narrow spray of ocean water shooting out of the dark blue waves. We couldn’t see the whale, but we knew from the spout that it had to be out there somewhere.

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We were packed tightly in the little rubber-sided, motorized boat — 11 cruise passengers, a naturalist guide and a sailor. As we desperately tried to pick up speed, we clutched our swim masks to our faces to protect our eyes from the spray of the bouncing seas.

“There, over there,” someone shouted, and the dinghy swung to the right, following the elusive whale out to sea.

We spent eight days together in those waters, strangers on a 112-foot brigantine schooner touring the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.

And every night, before the boat pitched and rocked us to sleep — or to sleeplessness — we were stuck with only one another for company. And yet the afternoon we returned to the mainland after the cruise ended, we hatched a plan to meet in a bar later that night in the capital city of Quito. A few hours later we were back together, drinking beers and listening to Julia, a 30-year-old graphic designer from San Francisco, recount the telephone conversation she’d had with her sister earlier that evening.

Dolphins by the thousands

Julia had tried to describe the dolphins we had seen two nights before, as our boat, the Diamante, sailed to the equator. Thousands of slick bodies leapt around us, following the setting sun into the orange glow of the horizon. Our vessel cut through their path, a graceful, purposeful dance of jumping and diving. It was an extraordinary sight, dolphins as far and as wide as we could see.

“My sister just didn’t believe me,” Julia told us. “She couldn’t imagine it. She said there must have only been hundreds.”

But there had been thousands, and our whole day, the Day of the Dolphins, had been like that, defying our collective imagination.

That morning we had stumbled across a giant tortoise on the west coast of Isabella Island. Flat on my stomach in the hot sand, I had watched breathlessly as the tortoise — five times my weight — moved toward me, coming so close I could almost smell its breath. Its long neck stretched toward a black lava rock like a submarine periscope.

On a 112-foot brigantine schooner touring Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, the author saw such creatures as brown pelicans, tortoises, sea lions and marine iguanas.

Later we snorkeled off the beach, swimming with penguins and dodging pelicans and blue-footed boobies who were dive-bombing for their fish breakfast.

Back on the boat, we decided to jump ship, literally, dropping into the water from the bow. We fell like dominoes, Homo sapiens in various stages of flight. The water came cold and hard, filling our nostrils with the sea. We jumped in again and again.

In the afternoon, we were off to Fernandina, one of the least-visited islands in the Galapagos. Black marine iguanas, the largest colony in the islands, covered the rocks like drunken ants on an urban sidewalk, appearing everywhere and yet going nowhere, their faces turned to the sun to warm their bodies. And that evening, as we set sail for Santiago, the dolphins escorted us into dusk.

Our experience in the Galapagos had given us the ability to conjure a scene, a scent, a feeling, with one word. “The penguins,” someone would say, and it was all that needed to be said. It took us back to the waters off a black sand beach, watching the penguins swim within inches of our masks.

In the dark pub in Quito, we had one more night together to share the magic of the Galapagos Islands. And then, we would need to figure out how to tell the story to everyone else.

Enchanting islands

The Galapagos Islands are a remote collection of 13 major and 17 smaller islands covering 3,100 square miles in the Pacific Ocean off South America.

Melissa Castro
Guests aboard the Diamante break from viewing wildlife to swim in the Galapagos waters.

A Spanish explorer came upon the islands by accident in 1535, when a wayward current led him there. Subsequent explorers aptly dubbed the chain of volcanic formations the Enchanted Islands for their pristine beauty and strange allure. But the name Galapagos comes from one of its most famous inhabitants, the giant tortoises — Galapagos in Spanish.

During the late 1600s, the Galapagos became a base for English pirates who attacked Spanish ships returning to Europe from the New World. Whalers replaced the pirates in the 1700s and 1800s.

Ecuador claimed the islands in 1832, and in 1833 granted a Frenchman permission to establish the first settlement in the Galapagos on the island of Floreana. European and American settlers began arriving in the early 1900s, captivated by William Beebe’s 1924 book, “Galapagos: World’s End.”

The islands still have that world-end feel. They are not easy to reach, or cheap. Visitors must first fly to the Ecuadorian mainland, then catch a flight to one of two islands with an airstrip. The flights to the islands are heavily regulated, and foreigners pay about $400 for a round trip. Visitors also must pony up a $100 entrance fee, in cash, once they land on the islands. Add to that the cost of the cruise — anywhere from $800 to more than $4,000, depending on the boat, time of year and length of voyage.

Is it worth it? Many times over. This is the adventure of a lifetime.

You cannot help but be taken in by the raw images of nature pulsating in the soaring flight of the frigate bird, the courtship dance of the waved albatross, the playful dips of sea lion pups greeting you underwater for a swim, in their territory, not yours. Think of the Galapagos Islands as a giant open-air zoo in which the animals invite you into a space naturally bounded by water and rock.

In their space, the creatures are largely unafraid of humans. Frigate birds nest right on the walking trails. Sea lions sprawl wherever they please. And the iguanas do not even bother turning when your feet pass gingerly within inches of their crusty lizard heads. There is so much wildlife that you really do have to be careful not to step on a marine iguana’s tail, a boobie nest or a sea lion nursing her pup.

A web of rules

The islands are controlled and regulated by the Galapagos National Park Service under authority granted by the Ecuadorean government. The park service maintains 54 landing sites and trains the naturalist guides who lead the island tours in mandated groups of 16 passengers or fewer. Visitors are not allowed on shore without a guide.

The park service also controls the number of licensed boats that can tour the islands and approves the ship itineraries. Because the cruise vessels are not allowed to dock at the islands themselves, we had to commute each day in our dinghy. Sometimes the landings were wet and we had to wade through ankle- to knee-deep surf.

The islands’ most famous visitor was undoubtedly Charles Darwin, whose five-week trip in 1835 led to the development of his theory of evolution. A hero of science, Darwin was no real friend of wildlife. He heartily ate giant tortoise meat, and in one experiment, as he recounted in “The Voyage of the Beagle,” he picked up a marine iguana by its tail, swung it around and hurled it into the sea to see if it would swim back. It did, again and again. Park regulations today prohibit visitors from touching, petting and most certainly hurling animals into the sea.

The Galapagos are unique because of the large number of plant, animal and marine species endemic to the islands, meaning they’re found nowhere else in the world. Some of the most famous of these endemic species are the Galapagos tortoises, the flightless cormorant and the Galapagos sea lion. Other creatures were brought to the islands by chance, currents or shifting lands.

During our eight-day cruise, we saw blue-footed and masked boobies, frigates, marine and land iguanas, sea lions, flamingoes, lava lizards, sea stars and pencil sea urchins.

The Galapagos Islands also have human inhabitants, residents who live in small settlements on Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabella and Floreana. These are the only islands where visitors are allowed to spend the night. The settlements have a small collection of hotels and resorts and even Internet cafes in the town of Puerto Ayora, where the Charles Darwin Research Station is based.

In 1959, the Ecuadorian government set aside 90 percent of the Galapagos Islands as national parkland, leaving out only the already established settlement areas.

Cruise companions

On our cruise, the passengers consisted of four British travelers, six Americans and an Australian.

Cruise ships and larger yachts that carry between 20 and 50 passengers do operate in the Galapagos Islands, providing more of a typical cruise experience, with entertainment, bow-tied waiters and a swimming pool on large ships such as the Galapagos Explorer II and the Ambassador I, which each carry 100 passengers.

On our small sailing ship, we entertained ourselves with nightly card games, afternoon siestas and singing. And the ocean was our swimming pool.

Days on the cruise started early. We typically had breakfast by 7:30 before heading out to our first island hike a little after 8. Consequently, we tended to drift to bed no later than 9, maybe 10 or 11 if someone was kind enough to pass around a bottle of rum during the card game.

Although the island hikes were not terribly difficult, the Galapagos is not a trip for couch potatoes or people who can’t remain upright walking over unsteady, jagged piles of lava rocks that crunch like broken dinner plates. We also snorkeled every day, no matter how cold the water was.

Because we were on a smaller boat, we tended to feel the waves more than someone would on a larger vessel.

Dramamine was our candy, shared generously among the fallen, who quickly figured out that the best to place to ride out the rough seas was in your cabin below, flat on your back with your eyes closed.

The problem was that you didn’t want to go below or close your eyes; you might miss a passing Minke whale or a school of tuna jumping out of the water. You might miss the universe breathing.