As I duck my head under the turquoise water, I’m surrounded by a technicolour blur of neon fish. They dance in a shimmering, synchronized wave, then quickly dart out of view to reveal the marbled green and brown shell of a giant sea turtle. Gentle and graceful, he lets me drift alongside him for several minutes.

I surface and lift my snorkel mask to gain a better view. An inflatable Zodiac boat knifes through the waves toward me, approaching to whisk me back onto the Ecoventura Theory, the 20-person expedition ship that has brought me to a corner of the world unlike anywhere else: the Galapagos Islands.

The Ecuadorian province’s wildlife has long drawn travellers (most famously, Charles Darwin), and it’s managed to preserve 95 per cent of its endemic species, including the diverse marine creatures I see while snorkeling. This is thanks in part to tour operators like Ecoventura, which are committed to small-scale, low-impact trips in this sensitive ecosystem.

Sea lions, basking on a sugary-white sand beach, on Espanola Island in the Galapagos.

While cruising often conjures images of megaships, a growing number of travellers are rethinking how they take to the water. More than 200 tour operators surveyed this year by the Adventure Travel Trade Association listed small expedition cruising in their top 10 trending activities, based on consumer bookings. A similar 2020 report ranked demand for sustainable, low-impact trips number two on a list of trending itineraries.

Back on the Theory, a fiery sunset turns the sleek, wood-clad rooftop deck golden as I grab a seat at the bar for a post-snorkel mojito. Frigate birds circle and swoop overhead, hitching a ride on the wind and escorting the ship to the bay where we’ll dock for the evening. While this may be the most stylish way to sail the Galapagos, the Theory’s thoughtful design goes beyond the deck’s luxurious, nautical-inspired daybeds.

“Our boats are built with conservation front of mind,” says Santiago Dunn, CEO at Ecoventura. In 2000, the company became one of the first recipients of SmartVoyager status, a UNESCO-recognized certification for sustainable tourism in South America, granted to ships that meet high conservation standards. Take each boat’s curved bow, which helps cut through waves more efficiently to allow for smoother sailing and less drag, reducing fuel consumption.

All Ecoventura boats also produce their own drinking water through a reverse-osmosis desalination system, eliminating the need for bottled water in single-use plastic. There’s also a plan in place to prevent graywater (such as drainage from dishwater, showers and laundry) from polluting the ocean: the boats filter up to 10,000 litres of graywater per day and hold it for safe disposal.

The sundeck aboard the Ecoventura Theory.

While greener design is an important part of what makes many small expedition ships more ecoconscious, the itineraries are also often geared to helping people experience their destination in a responsible way. “Part of what allows for a more meaningful trip is that these ships bring on cultural and educational experiences that help you connect with where you are,” says Ross Klein, a professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland and a cruise industry expert.

On board the Theory, there are two naturalist guides, one for each group of 10 people. Over the course of my weeklong journey, the guides enlighten us on everything from Darwinian history to the rules of ethical wildlife watching (always observe from a distance, for one). We’re also reminded to leave the lightest footprint possible when hiking or snorkeling, staying on marked trails and away from delicate marine plants.

“We have a controlled and careful approach to exploring our protected islands,” says Dunn. To further these efforts, Ecoventura worked with the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park to establish the Galapagos Biodiversity and Education for Sustainability Fund, which supports research and conservation projects.

Although the Galapagos Islands are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and part of a protected national park and surrounding marine reserve, increased tourism still poses one of the main threats to the future of the islands.

In the 1980s, the archipelago saw about 18,000 visitors annually; in 2019, that number exceeded 271,230 people. “There are a few islands that are fragile and have been affected a lot by land erosion, not only by cruise boats, but by lots of day trippers,” says my naturalist guide, Cecibel Guerrero.

Bartolom� Island, an unpopulated volcanic islet in the Galapagos known for its spectacular views.

“If you’re thinking about the environment, expedition ships are probably the only choice because the impact of a hundred people is considerably less than a ship that’s 20 times larger than that. It’s simple math,” says Klein. While expedition ships cost significantly more upfront, they encourage slow travel — investing more but travelling less, and for longer — which is crucial to developing sustainable tourism globally.

The most responsible tour operators also make a point of supporting local communities. I get a glimpse of this one afternoon on the sun-baked island of Santa Cruz, touring the town with a group of local schoolchildren who were part of the non-profit Ecology Project International (EPI). Ecoventura donates at least one per cent of its cruise revenue to environmental organizations, including EPI, which works with youth on leadership, habitat conservation and scientific research.

Far from the floating amusement parks that I’d once imagined cruises to be, my experience on the small expedition ship enabled me to get closer to nature than I’d ever felt before. I can still picture the red Sally Lightfoot crabs dancing on black volcanic rock, a sea lion and her pup nestling into sugary-white sand, and the sweeping view of the pristine archipelago from the summit of rugged Bartolomé Island. Most of all, I left with a powerful reminder of what’s at stake if we don’t rethink how we see the world.

Writer Chloe Berge travelled as a guest of Ecoventura, which did not review or approve this article. Travellers are reminded to check on public health restrictions that could affect their plans.

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