A Truly WILD Honeymoon – Galápagos 2017

2017 was a big year. I graduated from grad school (Go Bulls!), held down two internships, got married, and TRAVELED TO THE GALÁPAGOS on honeymoon. What. a. whirlwind.

I say “I”, but of course the marriage and honeymoon was actually a “we” thing, and boy oh boy did WE have fun in The Galápagos! We started the trip with a flight to Guayaquil, Ecuador where we crashed for the night before meeting up with our National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions tour group the next morning. After a quick flight from Guayaquil to The Galápagos Islands, we were in one of the most picturesque places in the world.

Get on Board!

We were quickly whisked away to the National Geographic Islander, the boat that we would call home and provide transportation overnight as we went island hopping for one incredible week.

We visited the islands of: San Cristobol, Española, Floreana, Santa Cruz, South Plaza, Santiago, Genovesa, and Baltra. Each one of them had its own special characteristics that made them unique.

Like most visitors to the Galápagos, I was VERY interested in getting as many photos as possible of the wildlife. From the sea lions, to the boobies, to the marine iguanas…I wanted to see it ALL! And in fact, we did! Even flamingos! (The one animal we didn’t see that was on my list was the flightless cormorant, but that’s because we didn’t visit the islands they are endemic to.)

Back on Land

But wildlife wasn’t the ONLY thing to see in the Galápagos! We visited a coffee farm, “Post Office Point”, and a local school. We also walked through a lava tunnel!

After all of the incredible experiences on the National Geographic Islander, we decided to stay a few extra days on Santa Cruz in the city of Puerto Ayora.

Dive, Dive, Dive

These extra days on Santa Cruz were so we could go DIVING! Where better to dive than the Galápagos, I ask you?!

We went diving with SCUBA Iguana at Gordon Rocks in hopes of finding hammerhead sharks! While we didn’t see any hammerheads, we DID have the most incredible dives. There is nothing that can compare with the feeling of being surrounded by what feels like a wall of fish.

After a day of off-gassing on the island, re-visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station for the—oh, I don’t know—millionth? time, we packed up our gear and started the journey back home.

Time to go Home

Eventually we made our way back to the States. This trip to the Galápagos was one of those that takes your brain a few days to register, but provides a lifetime full of memories. From the barking sound of the sea lions, to the tenacity of the boobies, to the immersive underwater world, I can honestly say that our lives were changed by this trip—in the best possible way.

If you’re looking for more dive stories, be sure to check out this post about the Great Barrier Reef and our trip with Spirit of Freedom.

The Elephant Cafe: A Wildlife Encounter Review

One year ago I had the pleasure of visiting The Elephant Cafe in Livingstone, Zambia. You can watch my YouTube video review or read about my experience here on this blog.

Both the video and the blog post include 5 tips on sourcing out reputable wildlife tourism spots, like The Elephant Cafe. The sixth bonus tip: TRUST YOUR GUT!

As you might expect, The Elephant Cafe is struggling at this time due to COVID-19. You can donate to their cause, for both elephants and the trainers, here.

“Thank you for your donation!”

Elephant Cafe – Zambia

I recently had the pleasure of visiting The Elephant Cafe in Zambia. Advertised as “A 5 star Livingstone Restaurant Providing the Ultimate Dining Experience on the banks of the Zambezi”, this spot is so much more than just a culinary experience. There’s no doubt the food was fantastic, but you don’t exactly go to a place called The ELEPHANT Cafe because you’re hoping for some stellar risotto. You go for the elephants.

Before you get to the elephants, however, you have the option to be transported from your accommodation to the Cafe by boat, allowing you to see incredible wildlife from a very special vantage point. The captain of our boat was fantastic and allowed for many stops along the way. Two of these stops ended up providing some of my favorite sights from the whole trip: seeing nesting Maribou stork and watching a giraffe get seemingly lightheaded from standing up too quickly after drinking from the Zambezi River. Once I was finished taking a ridiculous amount of pictures of all those other animals, it was time to see the elephants!

Nesting Maribou Stork

Pulling up to the Cafe, I could hardly control my excitement. I had read everything there was to possibly read about this experience, seen photos & videos from friends who had done it first-hand, and was READY. Elephants have always been my favorite animal (ask me that when I’m staring at a manatee and you may get a different answer- but, ok, we’ll call it a draw) and now I was getting the chance to meet a herd up-close and feed them some snacks.

After meeting the staff and going over the rules, it was time. I was given a bag full of snacks, and chose the elephant I would like to meet first. Each elephant had a dedicated trainer who told us the best way to interact with the individual. It was incredible. I got to feel an elephant’s trunk. I got to put food in its trunk and watch the transfer to its mouth. I got to feel the different personalities of each elephant through their trunks (sounds bizarre, I know!) and how they received their food. The baby (calf) was all over the place, the mature female was very calm and patient, and the bull “Bop” was an insatiable vacuum.

Once the food had run dry (I’m looking at you, Bop) and the sun was going down, it was time for the elephants to go into their barn. Like a well-choreographed ballet, the elephants followed each other into the barn, with a wild hippo as the caboose. (This one hippo apparently comes out of the water each night to join the elephants in their barn, on his own free will). In fact, all of the elephants enter on their own free will, as well.

The Elephant Cafe has trained their elephants using positive reinforcement techniques. This means that if they do what the trainer has asked, the elephant gets a reward. Most often this is in the form of food (because, let’s be real, who isn’t food motivated?!) but can also be in the form of verbal or tactile praise (scratches, anyone?) The elephants never get punished for not doing what the trainer has asked.

Positive reinforcement training is arguably the best way to form a relationship with an animal (think about how you trained your dog – you likely gave a “good boy/girl”, a treat, and pat on the head as they did what you asked.) By using this technique there is a strong sense of trust between the elephant and the trainer, and the results are incredible. All the trainer had to do was ask the elephants to head into the barn and off they went. No physical contact was needed, and the strong bond between trainer and elephant remained.

In a world where photo-sharing apps reign supreme and the phrase “do it for the gram” is all-too-real, it can be hard to wade through all of the different experiences in the tourism industry. There are, unfortunately, some places that do exploit animals to make money in order to provide guests with the “perfect photo”. This is problematic for two reasons: 1- the obvious: exploiting animals. 2- the companies doing it right (without mistreating animals) get lumped into the same category and getting pushed out of existence when perhaps they’re needed the most.

If there is one piece of advice I can give to tourists (and even those discovering new opportunities in the places they call home) it’s: do your research. How do you know you’re visiting a responsible wildlife tourism spot?

  1. Determine if the company uses positive reinforcement training.
  2. Check out any accreditations the company may have.
  3. Read about others’ experiences at the place you’d like to go.
  4. Figure out how many people are allowed to do the interaction a day – generally speaking, the fewer people the better.
  5. Proceed with caution when you see animal interactions advertised as offering the “perfect shot” or “Instagram-worthy”.

I truly believe that positive animal interaction experiences, such as those at The Elephant Cafe, can inspire people to take action to protect species such as the African elephant. If you were wishy-washy about elephants before, didn’t much care for them or know much about them, I have no doubt you’d leave this experience with a new found respect. And where there’s respect there’s potential to protect. And as we journey through this Anthropocene, we’re going to need as many voices as possible for the creatures that have called this planet home for 55 million years.