ISABELA ISLAND, Galapagos Islands — Hundreds of blue-footed boobies form a swirling mass in the air just offshore. They circle, they climb, they dip.
Then, as if on cue, they plunge en masse, crashing into the ocean. Some surface with a fishy reward. Some come up empty-beaked.
This is Day 5 of a tour of these fabled islands that straddle the equator, 600 miles off the west coast of South America. The tour, offered by ROW Adventures, is itself unique.
Most Galapagos trips are based on a ship or yacht, with forays ashore by zodiac. During our trip we've camped two nights on the islands (ROW is the only company allowed to do this) and have been lodged the other nights on small hotels on the islands.
Our days have been filled with kayaking in the Pacific, snorkeling among sharks and sea turtles, and hiking. Plus our group is minuscule — just seven of us. Oh, and our terrific guide, Eduardo, who makes good on his vow to give us a trip "more like some friends getting together."
Any good travel experience is about being adaptable and not locked into a fixed itinerary, and so it is with our trip. After flying from Guayaquil, Ecuador, to San Cristobal Island in early May, we go by small boat to our campsite, which has been moved to an area called Manglecito, on the north-central coast, because of heavy beach erosion to the original camp area caused by the tsunami that devastated Japan.
No matter. From this area we're still able to explore both in and on the water. The boat, operated by fishermen turned tour guides, takes us to our first snorkeling outing. For an hour or more we snorkel in our own private "aquarium," spying yellow-tailed surgeonfish and striped sergeant majors, and seeing our first marine iguana, the world's only seagoing lizard.
Later, after some brief orientation for the novice kayakers among us, we head offshore in two-person kayaks. Within 15 minutes our group is spread out over an extended area, at least half a mile from shore, as the stronger paddlers forge ahead. But not to worry. A motorboat always brings up the rear to pick up any travelers who decide they've had enough paddling.
Snorkeling the next day adds a twist as we head out a few miles from shore to Kicker Rock, a lofty chunk of rock a few hundred yards long with a channel running through it. The boat drops us off on the side of the cleft where we can take advantage of the current, and we lazily flipper through the channel. Twenty to 30 feet below us we see several dark forms — sharks, lying on the bottom. But again, not to worry. Eduardo has assured us these sharks aren't dangerous.
On the other side of Kicker Rock comes an unexpected delight. Sea turtles, some as large as 3 or 4 feet in diameter, glide into view, and for several minutes they're our swim buddies. Cool.
A few days later, we're on Isabela Island, the largest of the Galapagos, which were (and are) formed by volcanic activity. Donning hiking boots, we head for the rim of the Sierra Negra volcano, then pick our way through a barren yet beautiful landscape of lava and cactus on the way to the Chico Volcano.
In places, heat and steam rise from holes in the ground, making it clear that these volcanoes are indeed still alive. We come across an area that clearly marks two eruptions. On the left, reddish orange lava is from an eruption in 1932. On the right is black and dark brown lava from an eruption in 1979. The color difference is because the iron in the older lava has oxidized. Also cool.
On another day and island — Santa Cruz — we drive to the highlands and get an up-close and personal look at Galapagos tortoises.
Some are huge, weighing as much as 500 pounds. The largest may be more than 100 years old.
Our final day before departure finds us picking our way along the lava shoreline of Santa Cruz's La Fe bay. All around us Galapagos sea lions sleep and bark and bicker.
No wonder Darwin set the scientific world on its head with his "On the Origin of Species" after visiting this wonderland.
If you go
Getting there: Guayaquil, Ecuador, is a common starting point. American, Delta and LAN are among airlines flying there from the U.S.
In Guayaquil: Before and after the trip in the Galapagos, you'll stay at the Hilton Colon Guayaquil. tinyurl.com/clojzxz
The tour: ROW Adventures runs the trip I took — Galapagos Unbound — year-round. For 2012, pricing is $4,090 per person, double occupancy, for 10-12 people or $4,290 for six to nine people. There's also a $380 charge for the round-trip flight from Guayaquil to the islands, and $260 for flights between the islands. In May, September or October you don't have to pay the $380 charge because that's a slack tourism period.
ROW offers other Galapagos trips and adventures elsewhere. 800-451-6034; rowadventures.com