Trip report: Galapagos Cruise (Oct-Nov 2014)

Guided by Pablo Cervantes D.

On this wonderful cruise, on a small yacht, hired for the exclusive use of our group, we visited 11 different islands and multiple varied locations in this fascinating archipelago. These ranged from the Galapagos’s largest island, the seahorse-shaped Isabela, to a tiny islet too, barely a pinprick on the map, like Daphne Major, barely as big as four football pitches. The variety of landscapes in Galapagos are frequently underestimated and under-appreciated in the coffee-table book images of the islands. We walked in wet, green areas in the humid highlands of the archipelago, while also taking in the better-known dry, arid coastal zones too, even in the same day. In contrast to the well vegetated highlands, we also visited barren looking lava fields too, which illustrated up close the volcanic nature of the islands; where barely a plant survives, save for pioneer cactus species poking through the crusty black ground. On this tour, like all cruises that have gone before, reactions of surprise were provided as much by the variety of landscapes as well as the well advertised boldness of the birds and other animal life. The islands are located 600 miles/960 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador, meaning that many of the group who joined this trip, were also able to enjoy the mainland too, through the various adjoining tours that linked with the cruise.

After a night in Ecuador’s capital Quito, to recover from flights in, we flew to the Galapagos, entering via one of two main airports in the islands, located on the tiny island of Baltra, where our crew and boat awaited us. We stopped there only briefly (to admire our first endemics that included Swallow-tailed Gull right off the bat); we soon sailed south the short distance to the “main” island of Santa Cruz (where the majority of Galapageños reside). After making our first landfall on Santa Cruz, (and getting a great early find in the form of the oft-difficult Galapagos Martin), we finished the first day of the cruise with a passby of Daphne Major, our third island of the day, which revealed our first Nazca Boobies and Common Cactus-Finches. A long crossing was then undertaken overnight to bring us to “Bird Island”, formerly known as Genovesa, an island so packed with birds that it quickly staked its claim for favorite island of the cruise. After admiring the Red-footed Boobies and Short-eared Owls on that island, we moved on to Isabela, in the west of the archipelago the next day, which afforded us one of the strangest of all Galapagos birds, the Flightless Cormorant.

After picking up this odd bird, and spending the day around Isabela, the next day we visited two remarkably different islands, Bartolome and Santiago. Penguins were the highlight of that day, along with marvelous views of Galapagos Petrels at sea, and some great snorkeling to boot. The following day we docked on yet another island, this time one of the oldest in the group, San Cristobal, where a mockingbird bearing the island’s name was our successful target for the day. Next up was a trip to two different areas of Espanola in the far south of the islands, where a visit to the principal nesting colony of the Waved Albatross was a serious highlight too. Getting adults and large chicks of these giant seafarers up close was a major highpoint of the cruise. We remained in the south of the islands for the start of the following day, where we picked up another endemic finch on Floreana, before making the crossing back to Santa Cruz in the center of the Galapagos, to spend an afternoon targeting yet more endemic finches and the tortoises that lend the islands its name. Finally, on the last day of the cruise we visited the tiny islet of North Seymour, where displaying frigatebirds took center stage, before we returned to the airport on Baltra, where it all began, and flew back to Quito for a final night before some flew back home, and others moved on to enjoy the substantial fruits of mainland Ecuador.

We enjoyed a great trip, with plentiful endemics picked up along the way. While the many endemic finches are always a fascination for fans of evolutionary biology; the finches were overshadowed by more popular birds like the impressive Waved Albatross; the graceful Red-billed Tropicbird, the comical Galapagos Penguin, and just plain strange Flightless Cormorant. Of course the Galapagos is a lot more than just a collection of endemic birds, as there are other animals that impress too, with the abundant Marine Iguanas being a particular favorite; and, of course, we could not possibly leave the islands without seeing the animal that gave them their name, the enormous Galapagos Giant Tortoise…

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