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Galapagos Islands Aboard the M/S Polaris

August 2003

by Jodie & Dale Wendel

A week in the fabled Galapagos Islands aboard a small cruise ship, what could be better? How about making it a family cruise where the presence of children is strongly encouraged. Lindblad
Expeditions offers exactly that on their ship, M/S Polaris. This was a perfect choice for our annual family trip. Our family consists of two grandparents, our son and his family (son, daughter-in-law,16 year-old son, 10 year-old daughter), and our daughter and part of her family (daughter, son-in-law, 3 year-old son.) The six California Wendels flew from LAX to San Jose, Costa Rica to
Guayaquil, Equador. The Denver Fergusons took a more divisive route. Randall flew a day earlier
through Houston to Monroe, LA to deliver 1 year-old Weston to his other grandmother for the week.
Beth and Ryan left a day later, met Randall in Houston and then flew on the Guayaquil, arriving a
day before the California travelers.
Our luggage was limited to one 30 pound checked through piece and one 12 pound carry-on per
person. These restrictions were imposed by TAME, the airline that flies between Guayaquil and the
Galapagos Islands. Although they use a full sized 727, much of the weight capacity is consumed by
freight being taken to the islands. The return flight has no weight restrictions so there is no need to restrict your souvenir acquisitional urges.

8/9/03. The heightened security currently in vogue required that the Los Angeles contingent arrive at LAX around 10 pm for our schedules departure of 1:05 am. The check-in at the LASCA airline counter was confusing at best. (Many of the directional signs were for TACA which seems to own LASCA. Our flight home was on a TACA airplane.) For some unknown reason the C. D. Wendels' seat assignments were lost because we checked in separately before they did. This was eventually resolved and they got their previously assigned seats. We then received the bad news that they have no business lounge at LAX, although there was one at the San Jose airport.

When we passed through security it was announced that it was not required to take off our shoes, although leaving them on would slow us down. Since there are no chairs to facilitate taking off your shoes, and since I knew that I would not trigger the magnetic detector, I chose not to take off my shoes. In spite of the metal detector not beeping I was required to be fully wanded, I assume as punishment.

The seats on the Airbus were wide but not too comfortable. Since ours were in the third and last row of business they were close to the rear wall and wouldn't recline. In addition there were no foot or leg rests. (The leg rests had been removed from the seats so that they could be squeezed closer together.) A meal was served in a haphazard manner around 2:30 am, accompanied by a meager glass of wine. Our breakfast, served shortly before landing, consisted of coffee and a piece of pound cake. We ignored it since we planned to eat in the promised business lounge while we waited for the next leg of our journey to Guayaquil.

We arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica, pretty much on schedule. We asked about the promised
business lounge there and were told there wasn't one, because of construction, so we spent the four-hour wait at the gate. Finally we boarded and took off. We were served a lunch consisting of little sandwiches.

We passed through Ecuadorian customs and immigration in Guayaquil in fairly short order. All of
our luggage and carry on items were x-rayed before we were admitted to the country. A $10 van ride brought us to the Hilton Colon Hotel. We found the Fergusons, who had arrived very late the
previous night, having lunch by the pool. We verified that they had fulfilled their assignment of
procuring wine for happy hour. Later in the afternoon we had that happy hour in our room then went to dinner at one of the hotel dining rooms.

Wake-up the next morning was 6 am and bags out at 6:30. After a buffet breakfast we boarded the buses which departed at 8 am. Boarding the flight to Baltra, the location of the Galapagos Islands airport, was chaotic. There were no seat assignments. Each boarding pass bore a number. Being at the end of the alphabet meant that our numbers boarded last. Such niceties as boarding according to boarding pass numbers seem lost on the locals. When early boarding of passengers with small children was offered, all the locals stormed the gate. When Jodie and I boarded last it seemed that there were no seats. Finally two were found scattered about the cabin. We passed on the offered lunch since we would have lunch after boarding the Polaris.

The plane that brought us to Baltra took the departing passengers back. This means a very short
interval for the ship crew to prepare the ship for the new passengers. We later learned that the dining room staff assisted the cabin stewards.

Although the Galapagos Islands are part of Equador the procedures at the Baltra Island airport made it seem that we were entering another country. We first had to present ourselves to a representative of the National Park. (Almost 95% of the islands are in the national park.) By prominently displaying our Lindblad name tags we avoided paying the $100 entry fee. It had been paid by Lindblad. We were given a colorful little tag indicating that our fee had been paid. The next stop was at a desk manned by two apparently military people who laboriously copied the information from our passports by hand onto a large sheet of paper. Then we were free to shop the many souvenir shops across the street from the terminal building.

A short bus ride brought us to the harbor. A short zodiac ride brought us to the ship. The Expedition Leader, Emma Ridley, greeted us in the zodiac at the ship. She described the approved (safe) method for debarking the zodiac. Our luggage followed later, also by zodiac. We were welcomed on board with some fruit punch and killer ginger snaps.

As soon as all were on board, the ship departed and we had lunch. Our course was along the
northwest coast of Santa Cruz Island to Cerro Dragon on the islets of Venecia. So at about 4 pm we boarded zodiacs and cruised among the mangrove swamps bordering the island. The most
spectacular part of this cruise was the aerial performance provided by the feeding blue-footed
boobies and pelicans. The flocks of boobies were repeatedly diving into the water and emerging
with their meal, then diving again. Their dive is an elegant thing to see. As they near the water they fold their wings back along their bodies and enter the water like streamlined torpedoes. Contrast this to the pelicans who seem to crash into the water with maximum splash. The end result is the same, however, a tasty fish.

This evening was the Captain's welcome cocktail and dinner. The cocktail consisted of one rather
weak glass of rum punch. However the entire family ate at the captain's table. He, however, was
not there. Since it was the only table large enough for 9 we were able to claim it and have used it for most meals. On those occasions when the captain used his table we ate elsewhere.

Dinner was usually served at 7:30 pm. Since this was a family trip, an early children's dinner, with
appropriate meal selections, was offered several nights at 6:30.

8/10. Española Island. The first activity of the day was a hike on Punta Saurez. We were escorted
to shore by Galapagos sea lions. There were also quite a number on shore, most with adorable pups.  Almost as soon as we left the beach we encountered a mass of colored marine iguanas. On this island they are a mottled red and black with some yellow. Since it was a cloudy day they were huddled together trying to maintain body temperature. The hike was over volcanic rubble of varying size, requiring you to hop from boulder to boulder most of the time. During the hike we encountered nesting blue footed boobies and boobie chicks, Nazca boobies, nesting waved albatrosses, swallow-tailed gulls, Galapagos mocking birds, and Darwin's finches. In addition to the masses of marine iguanas there were lava lizards all over. We eventually reached a blow hole. It is rumored that occasionally a marine iguana gets caught in the hole and is blown skyward. We also watched an albatross waddle to the edge of the cliff and with the aid of the wind, rise into the sky.

In the afternoon we snorkeled from a zodiac along Tortuga Island. When we entered the water we met a parade of hundreds of yellow-tailed surgeon fish. There were great numbers of other fish.  We entered one small, shallow bay that was filled with thousands of small silver fish with some red cardinale fish intermixed. We also saw a large flounder. All in all, the fish were spectacular however the water was extremely cold, in spite of our shortie wet suits provided by the ship. We were thoroughly chilled in a little less than an hour in the water here on the Equator. After the snorkel everyone headed for a hot shower, but the later bathers had a cool, refreshing experience.

8/11. Floriena Is. This is the location of a Post Office Barrel that was used by the early seamen
visiting the islands, (e.g. whalers, fishermen, etc.) The original barrel is of course no longer there however it has been recreated. We went ashore and followed the traditions. The contents were taken out and the addresses of the letters were read. Passengers took those that were near them to deliver by hand, no fair using the mail system. Then we placed our mail in the barrel.

After our visit to the barrel we rode along the shore line, watching the Galapagos sea lions and the bird life. Eventually a couple of younger sea lions began swimming alongside the zodiac, very
obviously, deliberately splashing us to their obvious amusement. Then we went back to the ship for breakfast.

During breakfast the ship repositioned to Champion Islet. Again we opted for the drift snorkel and saw an incredible number of brilliantly colored fish. We were also entertained by several Galapagos sea lions who gave a very close demonstration of their graceful underwater ballet. Again the fish were great however the water was cold and a bit rough. When we got out of the water a zodiac came by passing out hot chocolate, most welcome except to those who became a bit upset by the pitching of the zodiac.

For lunch we had a spread of typical Ecuadorian food. It started with an excellent ceviche made with raw fish, calamari, and octopus. One of the more interesting dishes was a soup served with pop corn. One of the desserts was a 3-milk cake, made with evaporated, sweetened condensed, and whipped cream. It was excessively sweet.

Later in the afternoon we hiked across Punta Cormorant. We landed on olivine sand and walked
across to a second beach of white crystalline sand. Along the way we passed a brackish lagoon
populated by lovely pink flamingos. The air was perfumed by the faint terpentine-like odor of the incense tree. Although the trees are drought deciduous, the bare branches sported a decoration of dyers' moss, a lichen that was once used to make a purple die.

8/12. Isabella and Fernandina. We woke up somewhat early to view the passage up the east side of the island. Eventually we crossed the Equator where it bisects the Ecuadorian volcano. After
breakfast we went for a zodiac ride with the original intent of a close-up view of the coast line which is the wall of a collapsed caldera. When we started, however, we set off instead in pursuit of a Bryde whale. We had several good views of its back. This was interrupted when a very large Sun fish or mola mola swam by. It has a dorsal fin that projects above the water, resembling a shark. We followed it around, eventually getting a fine view of it as it turned onto its side a bit.

After all this we went off to the caldera wall. The top is the largest nesting area for blue-footed
boobies in the world. There were white fluffy chicks everywhere. We also saw flightless
cormorants, black marine iguanas, and noddy terns. One of the highlights was a low cave eroded
into the wall.

When we got on board the ship we started off to Fernandina however whales were spotted so we went off to look at them. Then hundreds of common dolphins showed up so we cruised among them. After a few circles among the dolphins we resumed our course.

We snorkeled in the afternoon in cloudy water at Fernandina. This was followed by a zodiac ride
into small bays created by long, flat fingers of lava that had issued out from the shore. We saw a
pelican feeding a chick while ignoring its younger chick. The younger one will eventually die.
There were also many penguins and some flightless cormorants. The penguins are the second
smallest species. Also saw a Galapagos hawk feeding on a pelican chick carcass.

8/13. Santa Cruz. Back to civilization. The major, perhaps only, town in the islands is Puerto
Ayora on Santa Cruz. We landed at the National Park Service docks which are reached through a
maze of lava fingers and very shallow water. A short stroll brought us to the Charles Darwin
Research Station. About all there is to see there are the giant tortoises that are part of the captive breeding program Some were the sole remainder of their population on their home island.
Introduced goats and/or pigs have destroyed their habitat and destroy their eggs. Hawks take the
young. The park service has cleared some islands of the introduced destructive animals which
allows repopulation by tortoises. They are hatched in incubators and then reared at the station in a protective environment until large enough to be released, around the age of 4 years.

The Darwin center also has an insect research facility. An extremely harmful scale insect was
introduced into the islands recently. Lady bugs are the natural control for them however their impact on the local, natural insect population was unknown. The facility allowed the entomologists to determine that the lady bugs would die off after eliminating the scale insect. They were released into the environment and succeeded. Since other introduced pests are feared, the facility is kept is readiness. It has a water moat around it.

After the visit to the Darwin Center we ran a 1.5 mile gauntlet through souvenir stores to reach the buses that would take us to the highlands. We had a very delicious lunch at the Altar Restaurant.  We were greeted with a fruit punch. Most of the kids swam in the pool although the cool air and water temperatures discouraged much swimming. Lunch consisted of pleasantly seasoned chicken grilled over wood coals, mashed potatoes, and a broccoli-carrot-onion casserole.

Following lunch we visited a forest of daisy plants that have become tall trees with pencil-straight trunks. Within the forest there are two collapsed magma chambers, called Los Gemelos. We were hoping to see vermilion flycatchers or some of the finches however the birds were absent. On the way back down we stopped at a farm pasture where tortoises spend the dry season. The highlands frequently experience clouds and light mist which allows the vegetation to grow. In the wet season the mist turns to rain and the vegetation becomes too thick for the tortoises so they migrate to the lowlands. We saw many solitary tortoises scattered about the landscape. We also saw one beautiful vermilion flycatcher that posed for us quite patiently before flitting off in search of more flies.

Then we returned to town for one last shopping session and then back to the ship.

8/14. Genovesa Is. Genovesa is what remains of a volcano. One side of the caldera has collapsed
allowing entrance by ships. As we approached the narrow entrance channel the depth rose steadily until it reached approximately 4 m, then dropped suddenly as we passed over the wall. The trace on the fathometer was a very dramatic curve, tracing the shape of the caldera.

We went ashore and walked among the sea birds nesting on the beach and in the mangroves. We
saw swallow-tailed gulls, endangered lava gulls, red-footed boobies (both brown and the white
variant), the ever present frigate birds, and some very territorial yellow-tailed damsel fish in a pool.  The long hike led up over some flat lava plates to the range markers for the entrance channel. There was a lava gull feeding a chick there. After lunch we did a drift snorkel along the caldera wall. Sea lions and parrot fish were abundant. There was also a large hog fish - and the water was a relatively pleasant 75o, the warmest of the trip!

In the afternoon we climbed the Duke of Edinburgh steps to the plateau. We hiked through the palo santo forest where we were surrounded by nesting birds. We even saw a short eared owl. They hunt the storm petrels that are prolific in the area. We also saw quite a few red-beaked tropic birds during a zodiac cruise along the cliffs.

8/15. Bartolome & Santiago. Our last full day on the ship. Bartolome is a tiny dry island. There
was an early morning hike to its 340 foot "peak." After breakfast swimming, hiking across the
island, snorkeling from the beach, and glass-bottomed boat tours were offered. The early morning hike was mostly on a boardwalk and stairs. Since it is a tuff cone, constant foot traffic would wear it down so the national park service has built the board walk.

Santiago Island was once the location of a salt harvesting industry. The importation of salt was
heavily taxed making local production profitable. When the tax was lifted, the owner abandoned the operation, leaving the workers unpaid and on the island. Swimming and snorkeling from the beach were offered, in addition to a hike along the shore. The hike was a loop inland then along the shore.
There was little of interest on the inland part however the shore was fascinating. We encountered many Galapagos sea lions and fur seals (actually another variety of sea lion), nesting herons, and lava arches. One sea lion pup was quite friendly and readily approached several individuals.

It is also the location of Darwin's toilet. It is a pool in the lava open to the ocean through an
archway. It fills and drains with a sound similar to a flushing toilet. Several sea lions were in the

8/16. Our week aboard the ship ends. On the way back to Baltra Island and the airport we
circumnavigated Daphne Major Island where the Grants did the finch field research described in the book "The Beak of the Finch." We didn't see them (the Grants or the finches.) The island is a quite barren tuff cone. We watched an interesting video about them to fill the time between the mandatory vacating of our cabins and getting off of the ship. They spent 8 weeks each winter for several years doing their research. They still return periodically.

The zodiacs took us to shore; our luggage followed. Buses took us to the airport where we first
stood in a long line to receive our boarding passes, this time with seat assignments! We then stood in another very slow security line. Eventually the tired old TAME 727 arrived and we boarded.

The Metropolitan Travel people met us in Guayaquil and immediately loaded us on buses. A short
5-minute ride brought us back to the Hilton where a light lunch awaited us. At 3 pm we set off on
a bus tour of the city which included two stops. The first was at a park in the center of town that was the home of countless green iguanas. They are not captive but stay there since they are fed. The second stop was for a walk along the Guyas river water front. The river walk has been nicely embellished. There are four monuments to the four forces of nature, fire, water, Earth, and wind, quite similar to the ancients' definition of the four basic elements. La Rotunda, a monument to the South American liberators, Simón Bolívar and Josè de San Martín, is also located along the water front. It features the flags of the countries they liberated. Both men are depicted as being the same height. One of them was actually quite a bit shorter than the other.

Our last event of the tour was the opportunity to shop at a rather nice native crafts store. Entrance was through an iron gate, guarded by a man with a sawed-off double barreled shot gun. The door to the store also had an electric latch. There were obvious armed guards outside many businesses.  Most nice houses were surrounded by high iron or barbed wire fences. Some fences were even electrified.

We had a late dinner at the hotel and then bid good bye to the Fergusons who left for the airport at 10:30 pm. We left for the airport at 12:30 pm the next day. A security guard rode with us in the hotel van although he did not escort us into the terminal. We wadded through the hordes surrounding the entrance and, after showing our tickets to the armed guards, were allowed into the ticketing area. After giving us our boarding passes for both stages of our flight home the ticket agent gave us invitations to the VIP lounge then led us to a man who escorted us through the various stages of leaving. We first went through a security check, then immigration where our passports were examined and our entry documents collected. He then led us to the lounge.

There is a $20 exit fee required by Equador. Lindblad had paid that. We had been given the stamps by the Metropolitan Travel representative at the hotel. As we passed through the various stages of our exit I kept waiting for someone to collect them. They were finally collected at the very last stage, at the gate.

Boarding the Airbus 320 was another disorganized scramble. On the flight to San Jose we were fed a light lunch of very tasty little sandwiches and good Chilean wine.

In spite of leaving Guayaquil late we arrived on time in San Jose. At the end of our two-hour wait we were again treated to a chaotic boarding process. Service on the flight back to LA was quite good.

It isn't a very original observation to say that the Galapagos are unique! The great variety of wildlife would be enough for a marvelous experience but their tolerance of close human presence makes your visit an incomparable adventure. A photographer is torn between the desire to record everything of just look and enjoy. Be sure to take plenty of film, or, now that we are in the digital age, plenty of memory cards.

The Lindblad M/S Polaris was an excellent way to see the Galapagos Islands. Jodie and I had a
previous visit 7 years ago on a very small ship or large yacht, called the Eric. The larger Polaris has the speed to enable it to cover much more of the archipelago than the smaller ships (boats) operating there. It is also much more roomy and comfortable. There was, in addition, a large and capable staff of naturalists. Lindblad took care of everything on the trip including park entry fees and Ecuadorian exit fees. There were no hidden or last minute added cost items as we have often encountered from other tour operators, such as Zegrahm.

Attire on the ship is quite casual. It is acceptable to wear the same thing to dinner that you have been wearing throughout the day. Given the 30-pound luggage limit, it would be difficult to bring extra dress-up clothing. The ship also provides shortie wet suits and all required snorkel gear, perhaps also in recognition of the weight limit.

Meals on the ship were adequate. Breakfast and lunch were buffet-style; dinner was served. The
dinner menu was posted at the dining room entrance at breakfast and usually offered three main
course selections, meat, fish, and vegetarian. Passengers were requested to indicate their preference so that the proper number of meals would be available.


The M/S Polaris was built in 1961 in Aalbord, Denmark and christened M/S Oresund. She was
placed into service between Copenhagen and Malmo, Sweden carrying 1,200 passengers and 40 cars.  Her purpose was primarily to sell duty free booze and cigarettes. She was purchased in 1981 by Salen Lines, retrofitted as a cruise ship, and leased to Lars Eric Lindblad in 1982. Lindblad Travel renamed her M/S Lindblad Polaris. Salen sold her in 1985. Sven Olaf Lindblad bought her in 1986 and renamed her M/S Polaris. She was upgraded to expedition travel in Oscarshamn. She came to the Galapagos in 1997 where she will probably live out her days.

Metropolitan Tourism, the company that provided all the services in Guayaquil, manages the ship
in the Galapagos (i.e., provides all crew, etc.) According to notices posted in the ship, the owner or operator is Empressa Turistica Internacional C.A. (ETICA). The ship's capacity is 80 passengers with 56 crew. There are 76 passengers on this trip.

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