Today we visit Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, site of the Charles Darwin Foundation, which was founded in 1959 and has been doing sterling work restoring the population of Galapagos tortoises since 1962.
Chief naturalist Jason is our guide today. Friendly and knowledgeable, he shows us the tortoise hatcheries and explains how the creatures are bred (the eggs kept warm simply but effectively with wall-mounted hairdryers!) before being released to their native islands. Then comes the highlight of our morning -- our encounter with Lonesome George, the last surviving member of the Pinta Island race of tortoises, whose forebears have been ruthlessly hunted down for their meat and oil. With two smaller females in the pen with him for company, gigantic George doesn't look too lonesome -- and he's not shy about extending his wrinkled neck and peering at us curiously through tiny eyes.
But he is unable to breed with other tortoise strains and his plight is a sad indictment of man's rapacity.
Our walk back to the Zodiac pier takes us through prosperous Puerto Ayora, past pretty courtyard restaurants and fairly sophisticated shops selling cuddly stuffed-toy versions of the local wildlife, wood carvings and unusual jewelry. The Galapagos Islands are not a destination you'd associate with shopping, but if you can't face a week away without exercising your credit card, this is the place to do it.
Back onboard in the afternoon, I grab my snorkeling gear and head off for an advanced-level snorkel off the side of a Zodiac -- not without trepidation, as cold currents chill the waters surrounding the islands. Celebrity Xpedition comes equipped with high-quality snorkel gear for passenger use, and wetsuits will also be provided but this being the inaugural cruise -- they have not yet arrived, so there's nothing but a bathing suit between me and the navy blue sea.
At first plunge, the 70 degree water is gaspingly cold but once in, I soon adapt and the exquisite coral formations lining the underwater cliff face make a bit of discomfort worthwhile. I manage to spot a distant sea lion and a shoal of giant angel fish before I return to the Zodiac, cursing my short sightedness when Don -- the aforementioned fellow water baby from Virginia -- tells me he spotted an inky blue octopus lurking in a rock crevice.
With another swim (from Bachas Beach) scheduled for the next morning, I decide a prescription snorkel mask is definitely going to the top of my shopping list when I get home!