ABA Ecuador 2020 – Galapagos Cruise

This tour is designed to be taken together with the ABA Ecuador Birding Bash.

This cruise works well for both birders and photographers. While we do try to see all the endemics possible based on our itinerary, we also usually have plenty of time with each species, and the pace is quite relaxed. Most of the wildlife has little or no fear of people and can be observed and photographed at close range, even without expensive gear. Along with the birds, we will also devote some time watching and photographing other wildlife including reptiles and fish. A checklist of birds and other animals will be provided, and the tour leader will go through list every day.

The Galapagos Islands lie 1000km/625m off of the coast of Ecuador in South America. The destination had become one of the quintessential bucket list places to visit, and it is easy to see why. The wildlife of the islands is famously tame, and so appeals to people from all walks of life and allows anyone to walk away with more than merely decent photographs of them. To a birder, these islands have greater appeal still. In addition to the lure that they have for others, the islands are home to a discrete set of endemic bird species (more than twenty by current taxonomy, but ever increasing), many of which are easily found by taking a very comfortable cruise of this nature around some of the key islands. If ever there was a birding trip that you could feel totally comfortable inviting a non-birding partner on, this is it. Simply put, everybody likes the Galapagos, as it is a totally unique nature experience that is satiating to people from all walks of life.

Among the specialties we shall be seeking include Galapagos Penguin, Galapagos Shearwater, Waved Albatross, Galapagos Rail, Lava Gull, Espanola and Galapagos Mockingbirds, and a host of finches, including the tool-using Woodpecker Finch. Aside from these so-called specialties, there are other birds that arguably are as high on the list of priorities like seeing frigatebirds displaying spectacularly at close range, tropicbirds effortlessly hanging in the wind offshore, and Blue-footed Boobies dancing mere inches away onshore. Of course, even the most focused birders are likely to find other distractions for their binoculars and cameras, like enormous Giant Tortoises, unique aquatic Marine Iguanas, and the absurdly confiding Galapagos Sea-Lions. We will be traveling around the islands on the Beluga, a 16-passenger Superior First Class Yacht, with ten crew to look after our every need. There will also be optional snorkeling during the cruise too, for those who wish to do so.


 

Note: this itinerary is subject to change based on National Park policies and regulations, and we may substitute other sites or do them in a different order than listed.

Day 1: Arrival in Quito. Most flights arrive in the evening. You will be met at the airport and transferred to a hotel in Quito for the night.

Day 2: Quito to the Galapagos Islands (Santa Cruz).In the morning, we will take a flight from the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, to the island of Baltra in the Galapagos (exact details of this flight are not yet known, but will be passed on to you before the tour begins), the main entry point into the islands. After going through entry procedures, we will take a short bus ride (10 minutes or so), to the dock, where we will connect with our yacht, which will be our base for the next eight nights. We are likely to see our first endemics right by the airport, as Small and Medium Ground-Finches, and Galapagos Doves can often be seen around there. Once we reach the harbor of the bay on Baltra, where the yacht will be waiting for us, we may also see Lava Gull, Brown Noddy, or Elliot’s Storm-Petrel hanging around in the bay. As we get orientated on the ship, we’ll make a short navigation (30 minutes or so), to the island of Santa Cruz, where, after lunch, we’ll step foot on that island for the first time, with a visit to Dragon Hill.

Lava Gull, one of the world's rarest gulls and endemic to the Galapagos
Lava Gull, one of the world's rarest gulls and endemic to the Galapagos (Nick Athanas)

The beach visit is likely to see us come into contact with further endemics, with the tame Galapagos Flycatcher, friendly Galapagos Mockingbird and up to three ground-finches all possible. While rare, Galapagos Martin is also possible, so we should keep an eye on the skies overhead too. However, the Galapagos is more than just a collection of endemic birds, we are also likely to experience some of the most approachable Yellow Warblers on the planet, and also offers some good shorebird habitat, where we could see our first Wandering Tattlers, Least Sandpipers, or Black-necked Stilts. At night we will set sail for the island of Santa Fe.

Galapagos Mockingbird is the most widespread of the quartet of endemic mockingbirds
Galapagos Mockingbird is the most widespread of the quartet of endemic mockingbirds (Pablo Cervantes)

Day 3: Santa Fé and South Plazas. These two islands will provide some striking scenery together with fascinating wildlife. It is sometimes said that the Galapagos Islands could be referred to as the “Islands of Reptiles”, as many of the most striking residents are indeed reptilian. In the morning, our island visit to Santa Fe will involve a walk within a forest of giant Opuntia cacti. This is where one of the most local island residents can be found, the endemic Santa Fé Land Iguana. In the afternoon, we will get to complete the set with the other species of Land Iguana on South Plazas. Sandwiched in between there will be the opportunity for more snorkeling off Santa Fé, which boasts a diverse underwater wildlife. The afternoon visit to South Plazas will also see us observe cliffs where breeding seabirds like Swallow-tailed Gulls and Red-billed Tropicbirds can be found. In the evening we will start steaming towards San Cristóbal.

A colorful Land Iguana
A colorful Land Iguana (Nick Athanas)

Day 4: San Cristóbal. This island offers one endemic species that occurs nowhere else, the aptly named San Cristóbal Mockingbird. This is not usually tough to find, as it is locally common. We will visit some interesting visitor sites like Witch Hill and Kicker Rock. Today’s likely highlights will not only be birds but marine life too, as there is excellent snorkeling to be had where rays, turtles, and small sharks can often be found. We’ll also be on the lookout on the cliffs for the rarer Galapagos Fur-Seal hiding out among the much more abundant Galapagos Sea-Lions. This will allow us to walk among arguably the most famous bird in the islands, the incomparable Blue-footed Booby. In the evening we will set sail for another island, this time the southeastern island of Española.

Marine life is also a big draw in the Galapagos as this Eagle Ray proves
Marine life is also a big draw in the Galapagos as this Eagle Ray proves (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Española Island. The whole day will be spent on this wonderful island, where the single largest colony of Waved Albatrosses is located. Nearly the entire population nests at this location with just a few pairs also nesting on another offshore island in Ecuador. This island is also home to the super-curious Española Mockingbird, a bird so tame that it will sometimes land right on people. If, by this stage, we have not yet seen a Galapagos Hawk well, then we have great chances here too. Gray Warbler-Finch is also regular on the scrub near the beach and the newly minted Española Ground-Finch is normally found bounding around at close range nearby. We will navigate overnight towards the eastern island of San Cristobal.

A visit to the largest colony of Waved Albatrosses is always a highlight
A visit to the largest colony of Waved Albatrosses is always a highlight (Pablo Cervantes)

Day 6: Santa Cruz Island. We’ll start the day with a visit to the highlands of Santa Cruz where many target bird species are located. The drive and walk up into the highlands will be in marked contrast; here the habitat changes to wet, and verdant Scalesia forest. This is very different from the picture postcard images of dry coastal Galapagos, studded with cacti. These higher elevations are home to an array of endemic species, and is particularly rich in Darwin’s Finches; we will especially be on the lookout for Large Tree-Finch, Woodpecker Finch, Vegetarian Finch, and Green Warbler-Finch. Our other key target, in the area of Media Luna, will be the shy and retiring Galapagos Rail. This day will also represent our best chance at the enormous animal after which the islands were named, the Santa Cruz Giant Tortoise. There is also a small chance of the increasingly rare, local form of Vermilion Flycatcher split already by some taxonomies as Darwin’s Flycatcher, due to vocal differences, and striking plumage differences in the female birds from the mainland forms. Unfortunately, this soon to become species has declined dramatically in recent years, due to persecution by the local ani population, and so the species is ever harder to find. We will also have a visit to the the Charles Darwin Station, which has a giant tortoise and land iguana breeding program and an interpretation center. In the evening we cruise towards Santiago Island.

A Giant Tortoise on Santa Cruz
A Giant Tortoise on Santa Cruz (Iain Campbell)

Day 7: Santiago Island. We’ll start the day at a small islet called Sombrero Chino (Chinese Hat, named after its shape) where we may have the best chances for the famed Galápagos Penguin so far, in fact here you may have the chance to snorkel together with these playful birds and with some (harmless) White-ripped Reef-Sharks as well. Galápagos Hawk is also present here and if we did not see it already. Later we will head over to Sullivan Bay, famous for its extraordinary volcanic features. This is one of the sideshows that make a trip to the Galapagos so appealing; it is not just the birds, iguanas, seals, sea-lions, and abundant marine life that lend to the overall spectacle, it is also the markedly different landscapes on the different islands. Birds will not be absent either, as this area also hosts the rarest gull in the world – Lava Gull, in addition to Lava Herons, which mimic their volcanic surrounds. Tonight we have a rather long crossing has we head northeast to Genovesa Island.

Galapagos Penguin, the only penguin resident in tropical waters
Galapagos Penguin, the only penguin resident in tropical waters (Nick Athanas)

Day 8: Genovesa. Also known as “Bird Island”, Genovesa is literally packed with nesting birds. In the morning, you will make a wet landing at Darwin Bay, a horseshoe-shaped bay at the southern end of the island; in the afternoon another landing will be made at Prince Phillip’s Steps on the southeastern tip of the bay. Tens of thousands of birds nest on the island, which holds, among other things, the largest single colony of Red-footed Boobies in the world. Unlike their more famous cousins, the Blue-footed Booby, this species nests in trees dotted across Genovesa, which make for great eye level views and photo opps. Some of the other birds that you can expect to see, include Swallow-tailed Gull, Magnificent Frigatebird, Red-billed Tropicbird, Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, and Galapagos Mockingbird. The island also offers the only shot at Genovesa Cactus-Finch for the cruise, a recently split species.

Red-footed Booby is the scarcest of the boobies in the islands
Red-footed Booby is the scarcest of the boobies in the islands (Pablo Cervantes)

There may be other opportunities to snorkel here, which can yield close encounters with a myriad tropical fish, as well as turtles and harmless reef-sharks. There will be a morning and afternoon session on the island, broken up with a break on board the yacht for lunch. While all of the islands visited offer excellent photo opportunities, Genovesa is the one where people often find that they have not prepared enough memory cards for. It is easy to take thousands of photos on this fantastic island! After we have finished up on “Bird Island”, we shall set sail for two other islands far to the southwest of this one. We’ll steam back to Santa Cruz through the night.

Genovesa Ground-Finch, a local endemic only found on that island
Genovesa Ground-Finch, a local endemic only found on that island (Pablo Cervantes)

Day 9: Santa Cruz to Quito. There should be time to visit Black Turtle Cove before our cruise comes to a close. It is a red mangrove lagoon that is a nursery for many sharks and rays. It’s also a great location to observe mating turtles around this time of year. We should see large groups of resting White-tip Reef Sharks, schools of Golden Rays and Spotted Eagle Rays, and possibly Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks and Black-Tip Sharks. We’ll then transfer to Baltra airport for our flight back to Quito, where we will begin the main ABA event.

Quintessential Galapagos: Frigatebirds displaying
Quintessential Galapagos: Frigatebirds displaying (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Relaxed. Landings are strictly controlled by the National Park and we are only allowed a few hours at each site. We will relax on the yacht as we transfer between each day’s landing areas, and there will be chances for optional snorkeling.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. The walking is mostly easy, and relatively flat, though some of the walks are on lava with very uneven surfaces. It is necessary to transfer from our larger yacht to a smaller boat (“panga”) to visit many of the sites, and some involve wet landings (no dock), which requires you to wade ashore from the smaller boat. The daytime journeys on the boats are not long, as all the longer voyages are undertaken at night.

CLIMATE: Cool to warm and often overcast. Air temperatures range from about 66-80°F (19-27 °C), and can feel considerably cooler on the boat deck. Water temperature this time of year is a rather cool 70°F (21°C); if you intend to snorkel, you want to bring a wetsuit or rent one from the yacht. Rain is unlikely (except for some light mist)

ACCOMMODATION: On the arrival night, we’ll use a nice hotel in Quito. For seven nights in the Galapagos we will be on board a 16-passenger Superior First Class Yacht, the Beluga. The Beluga is a fully air-conditioned, spacious and comfortable motor yacht. There are 2 double and 6 twin cabins, each with private bath, hot/cold water showers and security safe. The salon area is equipped with flat screen TV and DVD systems.

PHOTOGRAPHY: The wildlife and bird photography on the Galapagos is amazing, with many photographs expected on this tour, with any type of camera, as the birds and animals are very approachable. In particular, there are good chances to photograph a variety of endemic finches, nesting frigatebirds, displaying boobies, storm-petrels, tropicbirds, and shearwaters in flight, nesting albatrosses, and foraging Yellow Warblers; Marine Iguanas, Galapagos Sea-Lions, and Giant Tortoises are also regularly photographed on this photo friendly cruise.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and all European countries. Visas are currently only required of a few nationalities, mostly in Asia, Africa, and the middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

For the Galapagos itself, there is no special entry requirements, although a $100 entry fee needs to be paid on arrival at the airport in the Galapagos, as well as a further $20 airport transit fee. Please bring cash for this.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 8; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 9; safe drinking water throughout (sometimes juice is also provided during meals on board the Galapagos yacht); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 9; ground and boat transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 9; one arrival airport transfer per person; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Tips; flights (Tropical Birding will book your roundtrip flight from Quito to Galapagos and add the coast to your final invoice); snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras such as snorkel rental, wetsuit rental, laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.