Trip report: Galapagos: Endemics Cruise (Nov 2011)

Guided by Sam Woods. This was a set departure tour.

“The natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves our attention.” (Charles Darwin 1845)

The Galápagos Islands lie in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles (965km) off the coast of Ecuador, but are a world away from anywhere. This trip holds wide appeal: for the avid world lister it is a must for the thirty or so endemic bird species that can only be found there, for wildlife photographers and nature lovers it offers some unrivaled close-ups with birds, mammals, and reptiles like almost nowhere else, and for biologists and those interested in natural history, the link back to Darwin’s landmark expedition there is inescapable and absorbing. And that is just above the water. Below water a myriad of tropical marine life awaits too. We experienced all of this, time and again, on our eight day cruise of the islands. We managed to “clean up” on all of the possible endemic birds due to a specially-arranged itinerary that allowed us to visit all of the six islands that need to be visited in order to see them all. We landed on nine different islands in total during the cruise, arriving first at the airport on Baltra, before moving to North Seymour Island, just to the north of there. A full day was spent on the island of Santa Cruz exploring both the finch-filled highlands, and the coastal zone that holds the Charles Darwin Research Station and the last remaining Galápagos Giant Tortoise from Pinta Island, the famous, (and tragic), Lonesome George. We then moved east to check out some of the oldest islands in the archipelago: Española and San Cristóbal that offered an endemic mockingbird each, and plenty more besides. From there we sailed west, and spent a great day on one of the southernmost islands, Floreana, another island offering more endemics and steeped in history, (being the site of the first major settlements of westerners on the Galápagos). After sun set on Floreana, (and following a barbecue feast on the beach while watching the sun sink down below the horizon), we set sail west for the largest island in the archipelago: Isabela. We spent two days there, covering both the north and south of this seahorse-shaped island, in one of the most volcanically active parts of the archipelago. After walking the lava fields on Isabela, and swimming with Flightless Cormorants, penguins, and many, many turtles, we had the longest crossing of all, but it was well worth it. Our final full day was spent on the island of Genovesa, the gem of the archipelago, where millions of seabirds are crammed onto this low flat island that stands just 249feet (76m) high, and covers an area of only 5.5 square miles (14 square kilometers). After this treasured day spent walking among Red-footed Boobies, weaving our way past tetchy Nazca Boobies, and watching tropicbirds hanging on the wind over the cliff edges, while masses of storm-petrels fluttered nervously around the rocky sides, we finally had to head south again towards Baltra for departure. We had time on our final day for a short stop on the tiny islet of Mosquera, for some final farewells with the ever friendly, (and ever approachable) Galápagos Sea Lions before we headed back to Ecuador’s capital Quito, set in the heart of the Andes.

Through visiting all of these islands we managed to see each and every endemic, including all 14 species of “Darwin’s” Finches, including the mega-rare Mangrove Finch, and all the four endemic species of mockingbirds in the archipelago, which included another critically endangered species, the Floreana Mockingbird which we encountered on the tiny islet of Champion. In between bagging endemics and breeding endemics such as Galápagos Rail and Galápagos Petrel, we enjoyed extreme close-ups with Swallow-tailed and Lava Gulls, were able to watch frigatebirds displaying at arm’s length, and enjoy the largest bird in the Galápagos , the Waved Albatross drifting effortlessly by, from the comfort of our luxurious boat. Aside from the birds, the reptiles were a big hit too, for the Galápagos has also been referred to as the “Land of Reptiles”, with one particular beach on Floreana littered with red-dappled Marine Iguanas being a clear highlight, as were the enormous and very approachable Galápagos Giant Tortoises on Santa Cruz. The group was also keen to see the marine life of the Galápagos too, and so snorkeling sessions were undertaken on most days and brought us masses of colorful tropical fish, from Moorish Idols to Technicolor damselfish and fluorescent parrotfish, in addition to allowing us to swim with sharks, turtles, rays, sea lions, penguins, and even Flightless Cormorants in the process!

All in all, we enjoyed a great cruise on a very comfortable vessel, with a great local guide, that led us to yield a healthy bird list, sample a good selection of the marine life of the islands, and allowed us to take in some truly great experiences such as a barbecue with the orange glow of a Galápagos sunset as a backdrop!

It was certainly a trip none of us will forget in a hurry…

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