Mark Muckenfuss follows in the footsteps of Darwin by travelling to the most plentiful and lush marine species environment on Earth.

Penguins are awfully quick in the water. They may look awkward as they toddle about on land but underwater they flash by you, slightly bobbing as they go.

Swimming with a penguin was pretty much at the top of my list when I went to the Galapagos Islands. After all, outside of venturing to the southern end of South America, when else would I get the chance?

Like much of the Galapagos wildlife, the penguins here are an anomaly, the only population of the flightless aquatic birds north of the equator. Along with blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, giant tortoises, albatrosses and a host of unique finches, it's one of the animals people venture west of the Ecuadorian coast to see.

And like many of these animals, the penguins seem pretty much unperturbed by the presence of humans. The one I saw didn't swim close enough to be touched, but it did whip by just beyond arm's reach. Similarly, on visits to other islands, boobies and frigatebirds sat comfortably in their nesting areas while we snapped photos a few feet away. Iguanas lounged around like they owned the place while sea lions draped themselves on beaches and rested on walkways like stray dogs.

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Finding wildlife is not a problem.

However, each of the archipelago's many islands - 13 to 18 major islands, a handful of smaller islands and just over 100 rocks and islets - has its own unique environs, attracting its own combination of the area's animals and frequently, a collection of flora not found anywhere else.

The Galapagos have been voted the best islands in the world. Photo / Thinkstock
The Galapagos have been voted the best islands in the world. Photo / Thinkstock

The biggest decisions to make when planning a trip are; what combination of islands offers the items you want to see and whether or not to take a cruise. Most cruise boats are small, with space from 16 to 20 passengers, with larger ones accommodating as many as 100.

Cruising is one of the most popular strategies for visitors but you can also stay on four of the islands, either staying put to enjoy the sights there or venturing out on day trips to nearby islands. There are advantages to both.

Most cruises offer the all-inclusive, pre-planned experience that allows you to sit back and let someone else worry about the logistics. There are also a number of places which cruise boats, such as Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic's two expedition vessels (48-guest Islander and the 96-guest Endeavour), can access that are unavailable to day tour operators.

National Geographic Endeavour's expedition equipment includes a glass bottom boat and both vessels host kayaks, snorkelling gear, underwater video cameras and small and nimble Zodiacs for exploring the islands.

Each voyage is led by a veteran expedition leader and carries a team of naturalists and a National Geographic-certified photo instructor.

On Santa Cruz, the walkable downtown area of Puerto Ayora is a small strip of hotels, restaurants, tour companies and gift shops. One of its best features can be found after dark, when the kiosks (small open cafes) along Bordados El Alquimista fill the street with tables and chairs, creating a festive open-air restaurant where the fresh catches of the day are the featured fare. The local style is to cook the fish well done. But most people don't come here to eat the fish. They come to swim with them - as well as with the sea turtles, giant rays and the rest of the rich aquatic life the islands have to offer. And the best way to do that is to book a tour.

The entire Galapagos archipelago is a national park. Every tour, whether it's an eight-day cruise or a half-day hike, is required to be led by one of the park's 500 guides.

Maria Belen Egas is the head of volunteer programs for Galapagos National Park, headquartered in Puerto Ayora. She said guides have to take two months of courses through university extension programs in such subjects as science, environmental studies and English. To keep current guides have to periodically update their certificates with two months of refresher courses.

A recent law added one additional requirement: "Guides have to be from the Galapagos," Egas said.

She said the national park, which is celebrating its 55th year, works with the adjacent Darwin Research Centre, local institutions and NGOs to identify threats to the indigenous plants and animals, work on restoration projects and educate the public, especially residents.

Galapagos the Lindblad Way

Experience matters

In 1967, Lars Eric Lindblad led the first non-scientific expedition to the Galapagos Islands. His team has travelled there ever since and has more experience than any other operator.

Knowledgeable, experienced naturalists
A core group of naturalists work exclusively for Lindblad-National Geographic, providing in depth knowledge and one of the best naturalist-to-guest ratios.

Flexibility, choices
Guests are never "herded": they are offered options. Swim, snorkel and kayak almost every day. Walk, hike. Take advantage of the photo instructor. Zodiacs cruise the islands' fascinating shores.

Conservation
Since 1997, Lindblad-National Geographic has worked with its guests to raise more than $5.5 million for conservation projects such as fostering the restoration of native plants and tracking giant tortoises.

Year-round departures
Ships operate year-round with National Geographic Endeavour departing every Friday and National Geographic Islander departing every Saturday.

Technological tools
Video microscopes, plasma screens, undersea specialists, hydrophones, video chroniclers, splash cams and daily expedition reports add to the Galapagos experience.

Cool tools
Both ships carry snorkelling gear; a specialist brings underwater Galapagos to life through onboard video presentations. National Geographic Endeavour is equipped with a remotely-operated underwater vehicle for deeper ocean views and a glass-bottom boat for dry undersea exploring.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: It's easiest to travel to Ecuador's capital Quito. Three Ecuadorian airlines - LAN, TAME and Aerogal - service Baltra/Santa Cruz and San Cristobal islands. Flights out of Quito stop in Guayaquil on the way.

For more information: Visit unitedtravel.co.nz/UniqueExperiences; ph 0800 666 888.

- AAP