When I was a child, my grandparents always gave me an Airfix model for Christmas. Most years it was a ship. I remember painstakingly gluing the big guns on the Bismarck and lining up miniature planes on the flight deck of the Ark Royal.
But there was one Christmas – I must have been about 10 (the age of my own children now) – when I unwrapped not a warship, but an expedition vessel.
It was the first time I had ever seen, or heard of, Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso, but few other toys fired my imagination more than that little plastic replica of the famous mariner’s research boat. I can picture it now: the helipad and deep-sea submersibles; the diving gear, winches, cranes… The Calypso positively quivered with the prospect of travel and adventure. I sailed her into the uncharted territory of rucked-up rugs and into dangerous bathwater strewn with ‘sponge bergs’ and clockwork penguins.
Thirty-something years later and it all flashes back to me.
We are in the Galápagos Islands and the Isabela II is our very own Calypso. Or near enough. She has the same elegant bows and proudly jutting bridge. And although there’s no onboard helicopter or submarine, the 40-passenger ship bristles with sea kayaks, zodiacs, snorkelling gear, glass-bottom-boat and a big open deck for spotting whales and seabirds – everything you need for the ultimate wildlife voyage.
For me this is a childhood dream come true. But what would our 10-year-old twins, Joe and Ellie, make of Darwin’s Enchanted Isles? After all, the great naturalist was not exactly bowled over by its wildlife. He described the marine iguana as ‘a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid, and sluggish in its movements’.
Admittedly, Darwin’s cruise wasn’t as pampered as ours – he was cramped with 70 other crew on board the 27m-long Beagle, and suffered badly from seasickness. He would no doubt have appreciated the stable bearing of the Isabela II, her comfortable library and lounge, spacious cabins, fine dining and little extras like the jacuzzi and sun deck.
For families, it’s the perfect ship: comfortable, yet not overly luxurious or exclusive. There was no chance of Joe and Ellie springing a mutiny on this cruise. As far as the wildlife is concerned, you couldn’t dream up a cast of creatures with more child appeal. And that includes marine iguanas. I mean, they snort water from their nostrils – how cool is that!
Then there are the other Galápagos icons: flightless cormorants preening stubby wings; male frigatebirds shaking bright red, party-balloon throat pouches in courtship frenzies; and, of course, the high-stepping, head-bowing courtship dances of blue-footed boobies; and it’s all there, happening right at your feet. It doesn’t matter if you are a 10-year-old first-timer or a 70-year-old cruise veteran – Galápagos wildlife holds you quietly rapt, with an irresistible smile on your face.
A family comes face to face with a marine Iguana (Shutterstock.com)
And just when you think the islands have exhausted their cache of surprises, someone suggests you go snorkelling. During an hour’s drift along the coast of Targus Bay on Isabela Island, we count 26 green turtles, grazing on algae or drifting in watery space. Anywhere else in the world, this would be exceptional, but turtles are so common here they almost become part of the background. Sea lions steal the show in surging swim-pasts; penguins zip along at the surface like overwound bath toys, and flightless cormorants dive alongside you, their plumage wrapped in silver cocoons of trapped air.
Climbing into the zodiac and heading back to ship, I watch Joe and Ellie excitedly comparing turtle tallies. Was it 26 or 27?
I can’t help but wonder whether the cruise will end in anticlimax, but no sooner have we climbed back on board the Isabela II than Joe is hopping around, pointing emphatically at the sea. There, cruising off the ship’s stern, is an enormous manta ray.
I don’t think the twins will ever forget this week sailing in the Galápagos Islands. But to make sure, I really need to find a model of the Isabela II to give them this Christmas …
Main image: Young girls gets close to seals on the Galápagos Islands (Shutterstock.com)
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