Galapagos Islands Aboard the M/S Polaris
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
There were also many penguins and some flightless cormorants. The penguins are
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
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
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
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
Then we returned to town for one last shopping session and then back to the
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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