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The types of vessels allowed to sail through the Galapagos Islands are technically expedition vessels. Though you sometimes hear folks refer to them as “cruise ships”, this is a sort of false impression. Here, we expand on what makes expedition vessels different from much larger ships that are more commonly thought of as “cruises”.
There are eight categories of ships that correspond to various size measurements. These go as follows:
Organizations like Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and Cruise Critic have adopted these categories, which are determined by a concept of measurement called gross registered tonnage (GRT). This is basically the total volume within a marine transport vessel. Each registered ton is equal to 100 ft3 (2.83 m3).
Folks who live in the Galapagos, as well as those who are just visiting, mostly get around by ship. These vessels come in several different sizes, but none of them are as big as what we tend to think of when we hear the phrase “cruise ship”. They are limited in size and carefully regulated in order to protect the very fragile ecosystems in this region.
For context, the Galapagos Islands are an amazing place comprised of numerous islands, islets, and rocks, with a total land area of 3,040 mi2 (7,880 km2). They are located along the equator, about 670 mi (1,000 km) off the coast of their home nation Ecuador. 97% of the archipelago is part of the Galapagos National Park and Marine Reserve. It is protected and monitored by this governmental authority established in 1959.
Given all the restrictions on visiting the Galapagos National Park, it’s clear that most ships won’t be able to sail the waters in the archipelago, let alone bring people to shore. The ones that can visit the islands are often called expedition vessels, which include two categories of ships eligible to sail through the Galapagos Islands. These are Intimate Ships, and Extra Small Ships. (And, if you’re lucky, you’ll find that the ship you select for your voyage will include an onboard medical officer, available 24/7.)
Capacity: Approximately 100 passengers
Average GRT: Approximately 3,000
These ships are capable of housing one hundred passengers and a full crew. Extra Small Ships offer the “best of both worlds” in terms of personal space, amenities, and the necessary speed to travel between islands during a five- to seven-day itinerary. Like intimate ships, these, too, are agile, but their GRT is closer to 3,000. What’s nice about traveling aboard a slightly larger ship like this one is having access to numerous ample spaces and multiple certified naturalist guides.
Capacity: Approximately 40 guests
Average GRT: Approximately 1,000
Intimate ships are agile and capable of guaranteeing comfort in far-off, inaccessible regions. These tend to carry around 40 passengers plus a relatively small crew. Their GRT is under 1,000 and they can still accommodate multiple spaces and all the necessary equipment used to explore and experience the islands. The nice thing about this size vessel is that it is just big enough to feature exclusive site visits to various places within the GNP.
Now that you know what the ideal size for ships is in order to not disturb the one-of-a-kind creatures inhabiting this peculiar archipelago, let’s have a look at those which are not allowed to sail through the tranquil waters of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Here are some examples of ships that are not allowed to sail in the Galapagos National Park:
Capacity: Approximately 5,000 guests.
Average GRT: Approximately 140,000.
What you’ll never, ever see in the Galapagos: those large cruise line ships so common in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. These gargantuan vessels dwarf even the Large Ship category, reaching high up with anywhere up to eighteen decks! The largest of these cruise ships is longer than a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and boasts a capacity of around 5,000 passengers. Though, some even carry 6,800 passengers!
Capacity: Approximately 3,000 guests.
Average GRT: Approximately 60,000.
The next category of ship that is NOT permitted to travel through the Galapagos is the Large Ship. These vessels tend to carry around 3,000 guests. Their GRT is upwards of 60,000 – more than 20 times that of the largest vessels in the archipelago. Large ships are those that you typically see in ads for cruises to destinations in the Caribbean. They tend to stick to major cities and ports.
Capacity: Approximately 450 guests.
Average GRT: Approximately 30,000.
First up: Medium Ships. The name might sound like they won’t do much harm, but these are the kind that sail through places with extreme weather, meaning they need a bigger and stronger build. Their GRT is 10 times that of the smallest vessels sailing in Galapagos! You often find them in very remote destinations like Antarctica, carrying approximately 450 guests.
The Galapagos Islands are home to a fascinating niche of extraordinary wildlife featuring species so unique, you may not see them anywhere else. What’s the purpose of boarding a ship to traverse a destination like this one, if not to explore it? Why would you want to remain inside a ship, playing cards or watching a movie, when you’re surrounded by a cluster of remote and well-preserved islands, safe from the hustle and bustle of your everyday coastal vacation spot, just beckoning to be explored?
One thing that makes the Galapagos National Park and Marine Reserve so special is that they are ideal for research and exploration. Continual efforts to preserve and protect the archipelago are funded by tourism, which is carefully regulated, and adheres to the policies and rules of the GNP. Thanks to this important component, the visitor experience is filled with the stuff of true expeditioners’ dreams. In the company of certified naturalist guides, you’re free to explore to your heart’s content, and to do so safely.
Such uniquely diverse and fragile ecosystems thrive when they are undisturbed and well protected. The GNP’s hard limit on ship size inside the archipelago enables us to appreciate these islands free of massive tourism. By allowing a maximum of 100 guests per vessel, restricting the number of ships allowed in the archipelago, and keeping the size of expedition groups down to at most 16 explorers, the policies of the GNP help ensure the future of this remarkable place. Choose an expedition vessel and you will not only see the exquisite Enchanted Isles: you will connect to this paradise so deeply that you will have truly lived it.