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Sailing the Galapagos Islands in style

By Frances and Michael Howorth for SuperYachtWorld
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Galapagos Islands are renowned as on of the world's must-see natural wonders
  • Two SuperYachtWorld journalists tell CNN what it's like from the deck of a luxury yacht
  • Snoring Sea Lions, lonely tortoises and dancing Blue-footed Boobies among highlights of journey

(CNN) -- With its Giant Tortoises, fearless Sea Lions, colorful crabs and endless other vivid and unusual species, the Galapagos Islands maintain an almost mythical status among the world's must-see natural wonders.

And if you're fortunate enough to find yourself in this remote archipelago in the east Pacific, then experiencing it from the deck of a yacht is almost certainly the best way to go.

It is not, however, an easy destination for yachts to reach, given its isolation far off the coast of Ecuador, and the stiff regulations with which visiting boats, crew and guests must comply.

With this in mind we ventured forth on the "Queen of the Galapagos" -- a purpose-built catamaran specifically designed for the region, with all the necessary equipment and tenders to make exploring the islands easy.

The vessel also comes with a naturalist guide supplied by the National Park, who is required to accompany guests ashore at all times.

Itineraries have to be agreed with National Park authorities before the yacht begins her voyage, so no island has too many visitors at any one time. This may seem draconian, but the benefits of managing the situation are today reflected in the fact that UNESCO has taken the Galapagos Islands off its world heritage "under threat" list.

There, sleeping like a Labrador at his master's feet, lay a sea-lion basking in the sun, snoring with his eyes closed
--Frances Howorth
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Arriving on the small island of Baltra, we're immediately won over by the sheer animal magic of the place.

Enjoying a welcome drink on a patio overlooking the sea, we were interrupted by the arrival of a pelican who ambled over towards us as if in greeting.

He posed for a photograph and then waddled off to where an American family were having a drink. There, sleeping like a Labrador at his master's feet, lay a Sea Lion basking in the sun, snoring with his eyes closed.

Our next stop was the Rancho Primica, situated amidst the island's wetlands and home to a wild colony of giant tortoises wallowing in the abundant muddy water, hoping to rid themselves of irritating parasites.

These particular tortoises are unique to Santa Cruz and have been able to evolve to such large proportions due to an absence of natural predators.

We moved on to explore deep inside a lava tube -- a huge subterranean tunnel left behind when molten lava flowed underground from a crater -- and then headed towards the Charles Darwin Research Station, where 200 or so scientists from all around the world study the unique environment.

Perhaps the most famous activity of the station is the breeding of tortoises. National Park Rangers gather up freshly laid eggs from surrounding islands and bring them to the station rather than leaving them in the wild where survival rates are pitifully low.

Hatching takes place in specifically adapted incubators and controlled temperatures ensure a high number of females are born. Pampered for five years, the babies grow rapidly and securely before being returned to the wild.

One program is devoted to the most famous tortoise of all. Lonesome George is thought to be the very last of his kind from the island of Pinta. Now he lives with two female tortoises in the hope that they will breed to preserve something of the Pinta line.

The next day we are anchored off North Seymour Island, home to a stunning variety of wildlife. We find ourselves surrounded by Sea Lions of every size, as well as Marine Iguanas by the score. Scuttling across the rocks, brightly colored Sally Lightfoot crabs liven up the otherwise drab colors.

We sail on to Bartolome, possibly the most photographed landscape in the whole of the Galapagos. The island may be barren, but the waters around it are teaming with sea life and we are quickly rewarded when we spot our first Galapagos penguin, the smallest in the world.

It seems bizarre that here on the equator is a species of this flightless bird synonymous with the Antarctic and cold weather. We land on the rocks and begin our trek to the island's peak, on top of which is a small lighthouse.

Our final port of call is Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of the Galapagos. It is prettier and less hectic than the larger Peurto Ayado on Santa Cruz where we spent our first night.

Back on land we're left to wonder: How long can these amazing little islands stand the onslaught of tourists or indeed the islanders themselves?

Commercialism is creeping in quickly and there are some unsettling signs -- plastic bottles float where sea lions play, while island homes have no mains sewerage and some irresponsible yacht operators pump their chemically treated effluent directly into the sea.

Despite our worries, the destination is one of the modern wonders of the world, without doubt best viewed from the deck of a luxury yacht.

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