MY FURRY VALENTINE
by Judith Fein
photos by Paul Ross
As the holiday of hearts approaches, you’re probably thinking long-stemmed roses served on a breakfast tray in a 5-star hotel. Then, hmmm….snuggling, doing the love thang, champagne, chocolate, doing the love thang again, bundling up for a hand-holding stroll, dinner, a show and home again. The odds are slim that your amorous thoughts turn to things that creep and crawl and fly. But what if Cupid inspired you to do just that-think of animals for Valentine’s Day? One equatorial word immediately leaps to the lips: Galapagos.
So how, you wonder, can blue-footed boobies compete with bubbly and sinking your fork into a one-pound crustacean swimming in garlic butter on your plate?
The great Galapagean secret is that it’s no longer an either-or proposition. The entire crew of a ship can pamper you and your honey while you float toward the remote islands that young Charles Darwin visited in 1835. It’s no wonder it took him five years to collect his thoughts and formulate his theory of Evolution and survival of the fittest. Poor Charley had to recover from his years on board the Beagle, where he suffered continually from the agony of sea-sickness. Although your cruise may not result in a great scientific breakthrough, your ship will be stabilized, you will not be tossing your petit fours, and you will be in the mood for unusual forms of aquatic and terrestrial love.
My husband, who is a thoroughbred romantic, booked us in a deluxe room on the l00-passenger Explorer II. I had visions of walking single-file down a dark, narrow, creaking corridor and ducking into a stateroom with a metal floor and a Murphy bed. Ah, how little I trusted my Valentine. The corridors were broader than some state roads, and the doors all shone with mahogany finishes. Our room was carpeted, had real drapery, a huge bed, a video console, chocolates on our pillows, and-was I dreaming?-the room steward made up the room at least three times a day. Before bed, he twisted our yellow beach towels into the shapes of different Galapagos animals. I think my fave was the turtle with mints for eyes.
I’ll concede that it’s not love-inducing to get up at 6:45 a.m. every morning, but you have to take a ponga (a motorized skiff) to shore to greet the fauna before they go food-hunting. The upside is that there are several breaks during the day when you can slip off into your stateroom for a quickie, and everyone is too busy talking about the animals they’ve just seen to notice.
Human love-birds will have to learn about wet landings and dry landings as the ship sails within dinghy-range of the various islands. Dry means your rubber ponga will deposit you onto rocks or a dock. Wet means you will be wading through 77-degree Pacific waters to arrive on shore. It also means that after visiting the winged and four-footed ones, you will have a chance to snorkel.
Mask. No air. The idea of finning my way among the fishes almost felled me with panic. But my fearless Valentine took care of that. He proposed a hand-holding snorkel-a-deux so I wouldn’t feel alone. Flippers on, mask adjusted, he hugged me and pulled me under the ocean’s surface. I clutched his thumb as we floated over the finned ones and gawked at sea urchins clutching onto rocks. Within ten minutes, we were blowing each other underwater kisses as a sea lion swam underneath our buoyant bodies.
The second day, my husband came down with a dreadful cold which he swore was from microbe-rich airplane air. Would I snuggle with him on the white sandy beaches, or snorkel by myself? Whispering in my ear that he loved me and was confident of seeing me alive again, my Valentine gave me the courage to brave the underwater world alone. I was rewarded with the sight of a sea turtle and then…a shark. Of course I heard the ominous Hollywood film theme music in my plugged-up ears. Of course I could visualize my blood ribboning through the azure waters. But tell me, what’s more romantic-discussing the housing, stock and food markets with your mate or having your lover praise you for your bravery in starring in your own version of Jaws?
Now what about the land and sea sightings of animals? I would describe the entire sport as soft, cuddly adventure. First, a disclaimer. I am not an animal person. I once had a goldfish, but everyone in my family was allergic to beasts with hair. I don’t whimper over cute cats and doting dogs. But only W.C. Fields could resist the charms of the original Galapagos residents. My husband and I were glued together in a state of awe as we shared special moments with our bestial brothers and sisters.
Most people think the extraordinary thing about the island fauna is how exotic they are. The fabulous truth is that it’s their proximity and fearlessness that are breathtaking. Masked boobies and land iguanas that look like mini-dinosaurs walk right up to you. “Hi, big nose,” they seem to say. Finches and giant tortoises would probably wish you a happy Valentine’s Day, if they could speak. Dolphins leap out of the water next to your boat, waving their fins at you. Birds land on your water bottle. Sea lions frolic on the beach and bark a greeting as you walk by. You are welcomed visitors on their home turf. Each encounter is so intimate that it makes a sort of ménage-a-trois between you, your mate, and the participating animal. My husband and I exchanged upwards of fifty squeezes and hugs and kisses along the nature path every day. Add to that nods and winks and you see how romantic this can be.
Our shore excursions added another dimension to the love trip: they provided old-fashioned chivalry potential. Some of the islands are formed of glistening, black, newly-formed lava chunks. This also means crevasses and schisms and my husband had many chances to extend his strong arm to help me leap across the lava to safety. Sigh. My hero.
One of the most meaningful moments my beloved and I shared was on the island of San Cristobel. On the white sands, patrolled by the barking male sea lion known as the Beach Master, a baby sea lion expired in front of us. His mother, who knew there was something wrong but didn’t realize he was dead, became frantic with distress. She chased humans away and tried to clear a space for her pup. Flies began to circle around the baby. The mother swatted them, hugged her little one, but got no response. Panicked, she rolled over onto her back, exposing her teats to the child who would never again suckle. The mother sea lion was beside herself. In a desperate last attempt, she pulled the baby with her mouth towards the water. But still he didn’t move. Then she lifted a flipper to her eye. Was she crying? I sure was. The mother began to howl, but none of the other sea lions paid any attention. My husband and I hugged each other, aching with a deep connection to a despairing mother.
“It’s nature,” said a nearby naturalist. “She’ll have another baby soon.”
My husband and I didn’t say anything, but we both knew that a mother sea lion can only give birth once every 8-9 months, and this was her tender baby. It made my Valentine and me realize how precious love is, whether it’s between animals or bipeds.
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