GALAPAGOS ISLANDS -- By the last day here, another close encounter with a sea lion mother and her pup normally wouldn't induce much excitement. But this time, there were stains of blood in the sand around them and an umbilical cord still attached to the pup's belly.
According to our naturalist guide, the pup had probably been born within the last 12 hours.
The Galapagos is once-in-a-lifetime trip, and while I'd been there years before, there have been no fewer moments of awe this time around.
Guests on a Zodiac excursion in the Galapagos. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill
This cruise was also my first Lindblad National Geographic expedition, and the experience shows why Lindblad is a leader and pioneer in expedition cruising. This weeklong Wild Galapagos Escape itinerary in the archipelago is a reminder of what an expedition cruise should be.
Expedition cruising is growing exponentially, fueled in large part by the luxe-expedition segment. This Lindblad sailing showed that even with all the bells and whistles, and Lindblad certainly offers some, expedition cruising is about the expedition.
The schedule is
chockablock on this Lindblad sailing, and the passengers wouldn't want it any
other way. The day's activities begin at 6 a.m., when coffee, fruit and pastries are served for the early risers. On offer this week have been 6:20 a.m. beach yoga, hikes, and kayaking or paddleboarding.
All guests are back onboard for a hearty breakfast buffet at 8 a.m. before the second morning activity of snorkeling, hiking, kayaking or Zodiac exploration. Lunch is always followed by a lecture -- on topics ranging from Darwin, humans in the Galapagos and climate change -- before another round of hiking, snorkeling or the Zodiacs.
I thought the vigorous early morning activities might only attract the most fit and eager cruisers. On this cruise, it seemed almost everyone fit that bill and didn't want to miss a thing.
There are, of course, varied offerings. Along with the most challenging hikes and snorkeling excursions, there are shorter versions offered or a Zodiac ride in its place. With only 36 people onboard, excursion groups were small and the naturalist guides could tailor the pace to the participants, whose ages varied from one child to several 20-somethings traveling with their parents to quite a few people in the 30s and 40s and older. All were active people.
The onboard naturalists, almost all born and raised on the islands, were a highlight of the experience. They were extremely knowledgeable, down to knowing every plant species and rock type on the islands. Whether on land, in the water or on the ship, all took time to point out and explain the local wildlife and geology while sharing their own stories about life on the islands.
Lindblad offers three Galapagos itineraries, and while I can't speak for the other two, this one enables guests to check off many of the creatures one hopes to see here: giant tortoises, sea turtles, sharks, the Galapagos penguin, three different species of boobies (including the less-known red-footed variety) and the wandering albatross.
Lindblad guests visit the giant tortoises in their natural habitat in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill
Like on many small-ship expeditions, our captain was flexible. When pods of dolphins showed up during lunchtime, he turned around the ship so that we could watch them diving and playing as we dined.
A fellow cruiser who has been on several larger ships around the world said she'll only be sailing with Lindblad going forward, citing the active itinerary and the number of activities.
The Galapagos is a place where going with an experienced operator makes a complicated trip much easier. As part of the Lindblad package, the company takes care of permits to get on the island, park fees, all transfers and the group flight to the island from Ecuador. There was even someone in the outbound flight gate in Miami to be sure everyone was there. At every point along the way, there was someone wearing the familiar blue-and-black Lindblad name tag.