We nudge the kayaks through the waves off a remote cove in the Galapagos when a pair of mating sea turtles bob to the surface, drifting close enough to reveal gray tongues hanging languidly from green knuckle-like heads. Just a few hours ago, a 2m-long shark ducked beneath the bow in a fizz of purple bubbles. And a few hours before that, curious sea lions popped up next to my paddle strokes to flash such sweet faces that I almost jumped in to play. Almost.
It can be tough deciding which wildlife encounters are worthy of pause after only a few days in the Galapagos -- those South American islands of evolution cauterized by sun and magma. Nearly any tour that cruises this isolated yet popular chain, 965km west of Ecuador, comes packaged with extreme closeups of washer-size tortoises, swimming lizards and crabs the color of rainbows.
But this is not one of those tours.
It's late November, and Peter Grubb, a sunburned rafting guide from Idaho, is leading a small group of guides, naturalists and reporters on a weeklong "exploratory" sea kayaking trip -- a test run that commercial outfitters often organize to fine-tune a new itinerary. It's a new adventure for all: No one, including Grubb, has done what we're doing.
When Grubb's Galapagos sea kayaking trips open to the public for the first time in February, a dozen adventurous clients at a time will experience these islands and wildlife in an enticing new way: by paddling to deserted beaches and camping overnight in sand that bears few five-toe footprints.
Trips to the Galapagos archipelago -- nearly all of which is a national park -- typically unfold aboard one of about 80 commercial yachts that ply the waters here. From four to 100 passengers at a time are whisked around on tightly choreo-graphed schedules between islands. While convenient and comfortable, wildlife encounters are often limited, since passengers must sleep on the boats and
disembark only at strictly controlled wildlife viewing sites for short periods.
Unlike yacht-based trips that may offer some kayaking, Grubb's excursion is all about melding into the sea and letting the landscape slide by under blue-footed-booby skies. Come evening, paddlers run the kayaks into the sand, pitch tents on the beach and wait for birds to scream in the dawn. The combination is spectacular. Not only do paddlers have the thrill of being among the first tourists to camp in these locations, but along the way, they also nuzzle bow to beak with so much kooky wildlife that stumbling upon sea turtles in the act becomes, well, normal.
"It's such a different experience from being on a yacht," said Julian Smith, author of the Moon Handbooks guide to Ecuador, who has made three trips to the islands since 1997. He said kayaking at your own pace and camping on the scene was like visiting Versailles and being able to "play on the beds or put on the armor."
Not everyone thinks that's best for an island chain already showing warts from relatively recent human interaction.
Tourism is big business in the Galapagos, pouring at least US$100 million into the Ecuadorean economy each year, and drawing increasing numbers of workers from the mainland, according to Micki Stewart, an economist at the University of California, Davis, who is studying the islands.
By some estimates, the tourist town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island has nearly doubled in population to 15,000 people in about five years. In 1973, 14 years after the creation of the Galapagos National Park, officials estimated that 12,000 people a year could tour the Galapagos with little impact. About 109,000 visited in 2004, but authorities had already increased the allowed capa-city to 150,000 tourists a year, said Ramiro Tomala, a naturalist with the park.