When I think of the Galapagos, I have a vision of a sea lion wearing a diamond stud earring.

When I met the sea lion in question, he came so close, I could feel his body heat. He wasn’t wearing jewelry at the time, of course. Through my snorkel mask, his big brown eyes met mine. We both waved, me a hand, he a flipper, and then he was gone.

It’s a happy memory, but my vision is also tinged with guilt. When I surfaced and flipped off my mask, I dropped an earring into the pristine, protected waters. In my imagination, it now adorns my new marine mammal friend. I hope it did no harm.

Eight years ago, on my first cruise in Ecuador’s Galapagos National Park, I was living in Boston, stressed-out managing a news operation remotely while seriously dating a man from Ohio. Already qualified for AARP membership, I needed to start thinking about next steps, such as whether I should persuade myself to move to a red-ish state. I had brought a girlfriend along on the venture, and over Ecuadorian pilsner and rum drinks, we plotted out my life. (Eventually, I moved to Cleveland and married the guy.)

Decisions come easy in a place where you can ignore human civilization for a while. Between naturalist-led excursions that explored uninhabited islands of various volcanic hues, through scrubland, in the water, and across sandy beaches, there is a lot of downtime.

What will draw me back, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, is that wandering among animals in this raw and wild place, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, I had never felt so in tune with nature—and alive.

Imagine you’re walking in the middle of nowhere and hear a rustling. Suddenly a huge black and red iguana runs through your legs. Maybe a tortoise cocks its head at you, or a blue-footed booby waddles over to check you out. The animals of the Galapagos are fearless, viewing you as a curiosity, much as you view them.

It’s both scary and exhilarating on this land-based Noah’s Ark, where you are just one of the critters. An adrenaline rush comes from realizing you are part of something that’s bigger than yourself, bigger than humankind. And there are lessons to be learned. In his darkly satirical book, Galápagos, writer Kurt Vonnegut imagines a world in the midst of both a global economic crisis and a virus that is making humans sterile. A few travelers head off on a nature cruise, shipwreck on the islands and up being the only propagating humans on earth. Over a million years, their species evolves to resemble sea lions—complete with fur and flippers for hands.

I was hoping to return to the Galapagos in fall 2020 during the dry season, when temperatures are in the 70sF. That’s when the waved albatross, with eight-foot wingspans, and whale sharks hang around. I don’t see that happening this year, as much as I want to support the local economy.

Ecuador, a country of more than 17 million, is among the worst-hit by the coronavirus pandemic in Latin America. While Galapagos is far from the mainland and has been closed to visitors since March 16, a few dozen residents on the four populated islands are among those who have tested positive, as have 50 crew members of Royal Caribbean International’s Galapagos-based, 100-passenger Celebrity Flora.

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