"If a sea lion barks at you, don't bark back," instructed Lourdes, one of our expert naturalist guides on my recent Quasar Expeditions Galapagos cruise aboard the Evolution. "Remember, they can play with you, but you can't play with them."
Her talk was one of the nightly nature lectures designed not only to educate passengers about the local flora, fauna and history of the islands but also to instruct us on how to be respectful and responsible tourists during our weeklong cruise.
Probably everyone who yearns to visit the Galapagos has his or her own bucket list attractions they are hoping to see. For birders, it's likely the blue-footed boobies or Darwin's famous species of finch. For others, it's the marine life, for this is one of the few places in the world where tropical- and cold-water animals swim together in nonchalant harmony.
For me, not just seeing sea lions up close and in abundance but swimming nose to nose with them was at the very top of my list.
In fact, we were able to do just that during one of our daily snorkel expeditions, which also involved swimming with Galapagos penguins, hammerhead sharks, rays, sea turtles and eels, while from the deck, sharp-eyed passengers spotted dolphins, whales and whale sharks.
A frigate bird with its throat pouch inflated puts on a show.
On our walks, we picked our way along beaches studded with snoozing sea lions; strolled amid hundreds of frigate birds, their red throat pouches inflated in hopes of attracting a mate; and hiked past a salt lagoon teeming with bright pink flamingos.
We also saw prehistoric-looking land and marine iguanas and hundreds of flame-orange crabs scuttling across the black rocks.
With these kinds of attractions, it's no surprise that the cruise is a magnet for families with children, including grandparents sailing with their grandchildren, leaving busy parents at home.
Children are welcome anytime, but most family cruises take place during June, July and August, and most travelers with children choose the 32-passenger Evolution yacht because of its size and amenities.
The company's other vessel, the Grace, is an 18-passenger yacht that once belonged to Princess Grace of Monaco, and both ships retain a vintage feel with polished woods, brass fixtures and old-fashioned portholes.
Quasar Expeditions’ 32-passenger Evolution.
The Evolution also features indoor and alfresco dining areas, an indoor lounge where we gathered for our nightly talks or to just hang out, an open-sided bar on the top deck where drinks and snacks are served after the last outing of the day and a small shop where hats, swim gear, souvenirs and other items are for sale. The cruise line supplies wetsuits and snorkeling equipment.
There also is a sun deck with a Jacuzzi that proved to be a popular spot after snorkeling excursions.
Staterooms are located on three decks and are generally cozy, ranging from 263 square feet on the A deck to 172 square feet on the D deck. Each features an en suite bathroom, and some offer twin beds that can be converted into kings.
While we enjoyed our nightly talks, which usually imparted in-depth information about the animals and islands we were going to visit the next day, kids typically have their own briefings at the alfresco lounge. Here, one of the guides offers a more interactive explanation of upcoming activities and reviews photos and videos from that day on a projector.
After dinner, there is usually a stargazing session on evenings when the skies are clear, and one night the sea below us glowed with bioluminescence stirred up by the movement of the ship.
When young passengers are aboard, Quasar staffs the ship with guides who are experienced at dealing with children; and most of them are parents themselves.
As to physical requirements, a normal level of fitness is ideal both for excursions and for the onboard experience, although we saw a few senior passengers on our trip who walked with canes. Most were still able to participate in many of the activities, and guides were careful to explain whether any upcoming walks would be challenging and whether landings would be "dry" -- that is, made from the dinghy (or panga in Quasar speak) to a dock -- or "wet," from the panga into shallow water.
Occasionally, a few passengers would pass on an activity and choose to hang out at the bar or in the lounge, chatting with one another and the onboard crew. It's worth noting, however, that moving from one deck to another requires navigating fairly steep stairs, so passengers would need to be able to handle that level of activity.
For that same reason, Quasar recommends that children be about 8 to 10 years old or older to fully enjoy and participate in the experience.
A Quasar Expeditions walking excursion on Fernandina Island.
Since a huge part of the appeal of the cruises lies in the excursions, Quasar's staff is skilled at handling any disparity in fitness and energy level on the family cruises.
On land excursions, for example, children usually have limited patience for the detailed talks the guides give adults during the island walks. The company often handles this by breaking passengers into two groups, with children walking together with their own guide, moving at a faster pace than the adults and enjoying extra time at the beach or swimming in the ocean while waiting for the adults to catch up.
The cruises include a snorkel outing nearly every day, and for most passengers, these are the highlights of the cruise. Because children typically want to stay longer in the water playing with sea lions or looking for fish, Quasar enlists a second guide to stay with them. The doctors on the Evolution also accompany children in the water on the family cruises for added safety.
Floatation devices are available on the pangas for anyone, including adults, who may be insecure about their swimming skills, and on our cruise several adults used them daily. I was particularly struck by the experience of one elderly passenger who was reluctant to snorkel at all, presumably because she was an inexperienced swimmer, but one of the guides coaxed her into the water, had her hang on to a life preserver and basically swam for her, pulling her along and pointing out marine life below. To say that the passenger was euphoric when she came out of the water is an understatement.
Because cruise itineraries are strictly enforced by Galapagos National Park, cruise ships are not able to vary their itineraries too much or add new destinations, but Quasar does offer two versions of the seven-night cruise: Footsteps Back in Time from San Cristobal Island to Baltra Island and the reverse itinerary, In the Steps of Pirates and Darwin, which focus on the central and southern islands and the central, western and southern islands, respectively.
Our one full day on land included a visit to Santa Cruz to explore the Charles Darwin Research Station and to the Highlands to see the giant tortoises at the Tortoise Reserve as well as some free time to poke around the shops in town.
For our trip, we flew into Guayaquil on Copa Airlines for a tour and overnight and then onto San Cristobal via Avianca.
Rates on the Evolution for 2020 range from $6,450 to $8,200 per person, not including alcoholic drinks, airport transfers and the Galapagos National Park fee of $100 for adults, $50 for children. There is a 15% discount on cruise rates for up to three children per family who are 15 years old and younger.