Galapagos: Birding and Nature Photography Cruise

The Galapagos is the quintessential bucket list venue. This group of islands, lying 600miles (1000km) off of the Ecuadorian coast, are a dream destination for a combination of reasons. Although it is home to more than 20 bird species found nowhere else, it is for another reason that most people go there; the Galapagos experience, which is utterly unique. The birds, scenery, and viewing are like nowhere else. The birds and animals have evolved in long isolation from humans, so that they still retain their infectious curiosity for us, and are completely unafraid of human approach, making this a great trip for not only birders, looking for birds and experiences found nowhere else, but also nature photographers, where excellent viewing of the wildlife coupled with great lighting conditions, make for an idyllic photo destination. Picture postcard images of displaying frigatebirds, ultra tame Blue-footed Boobies, hulking Waved Albatrosses lumbering around the largest breeding colony on the islands; and the only penguin in the tropics and northern hemisphere, Galapagos Penguin, are all expected on this wonderful cruise that covers twelve different islands and islets, in this diverse, volcanic archipelago.

Day 1: Arrival in Quito (Ecuador). After an evening arrival in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, you will be transferred to a comfortable airport hotel for the night.

Those famous, and comical, feet
Those famous, and comical, feet (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Quito to the Galapagos (Baltra and Santa Cruz). In the morning, we shall take a 3½hour flight to the tiny island of Baltra, a gateway island to the Galapagos, located in the center of the archipelago. Endemic birds, like Medium and Small Ground-Finches are likely to be waiting on the tarmac for us!

Before we board our yacht for the cruise, we’ll spend our first day on the Galapagos exploring the neighboring island of Santa Cruz. Having arrived on the dry, arid coastal plain on Baltra islet, our drive and walk up into the highlands of Santa Cruz 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 the Galapagos. 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, a widely touted split due to vocal differences, and striking plumage differences in the female birds from the mainland forms.

Marine Iguanas are common in the islands, and especially colorful on Floreana and Espanola
Marine Iguanas are common in the islands, and especially colorful on Floreana and Espanola (Sam Woods)

In the afternoon we shall drop back down to the coastal plain, visiting the world famous Charles Darwin Research Station on the edge of the town of Puerto Ayora. Here cacti grow, in sharp contrast to the highland areas visited earlier in the day, and we’ll keep an eye out for Common Cactus-Finch around the center, while also learning about the successful conservation projects involving among others, Giant Tortoises, which are now thriving in the islands. Late in the day, we shall board our comfortable yacht, the Reina Silvia, our home for the next 7 nights. In the evening we will set sail for our next destination, the island of Espanola, in the far southeast of the archipelago.

Like many Galapagos species, the Espanola Mockingbird is remarkably tame
Like many Galapagos species, the Espanola Mockingbird is remarkably tame (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Española. All of our day’s activities on this day will be on this island; we will visit idyllic Gardener Bay in the morning, and then visit the Waved Albatross colony at Punta Suarez in the afternoon, after a break for lunch on board our yacht in between. Gardner Bay is located on the north of the island, and comprises a pristine white sand beach that borders this beautiful bay. On the beach itself, tame Galapagos Sea Lions often rest, and one of the most curious birds in all of the Galapagos can be found, the Española Mockingbird, that is known to use ‘scopes and even people as perches on occasion. The Large Cactus-Finches that also frequent the bay are only marginally less approachable, while on the scrub-covered hillside behind the beach, Gray Warbler-Finch, Galapagos Dove, and Galapagos Hawk can often be found.

Punta Suarez is situated on the southern end of the island, and is the location of one of only two breeding sites for the Waved Albatross. The island hosts 25,000-30,000 albatrosses each year, representing almost the entire world population of the species. Your visit to the colony is likely to be one of the highlights of the whole cruise, as we get to walk past these ocean giants at close quarters, and perhaps too, see their breeding dance, (the latter is not guaranteed!). Overnight, we will set off for our next island, and destination, the easternmost, and oldest of the Galapagos Islands, 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 4: San Cristóbal. This island offers one new endemic species that only occurs there, the aptly named San Cristóbal Mockingbird. This is not usually tough to find, as it is locally common, and so today will see us visit some other interesting visitor sites like Isla Lobos, Kicker Rock, and Punta Pitta. Today’s likely highlights will not only be birds but marine life too, as there is excellent snorkeling to be had off the dramatic Kicker Rock, 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.

Punta Pitta is unique within the islands for hosting both species of frigatebirds (Magnificent and Great), and all three nesting species of boobies (Red-footed, Blue-footed and Nazca). This will allow us to walk among arguably the most famous bird in the islands, the incomparable Blue-footed Booby. In the evening, once again, we will set sail for another island, this time the tiny island of Santa Fé.

Eye level views of tropicbirds are expected!
Eye level views of tropicbirds are expected! (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 5: Santa Fé and South Plazas. These two islands will provide some striking scenery together with yet more 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 reptiles. We will see this firsthand during this day. 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. This night we will undergo one of the longest sea voyages, as we head to northernmost island of Genovesa…

A close up with one of the rarest gulls in the world (Swallow-tailed)
A close up with one of the rarest gulls in the world (Swallow-tailed) (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 6: Genovesa. This island is simply fantastic, often nicknamed “Bird Island”, as it is literally carpeted with seabirds from shore to shore. Unsurprisingly, then this island is often the favorite among visiting birders and bird photographers. Our day will begin in Darwin Beach, which was formed by the rim of a sunken crater, belying the intense volcanic activity of the recent geological past. The colonies of seabirds here are incredible; we will get to walk among nesting Red-footed Boobies, Great Frigatebirds, and Swallow-tailed Gulls, usually within just a few feet of us. This is also an excellent site for Yellow-crowned Night-Herons that sometimes gather to hunt in great numbers in the shallows.

Our afternoon visit, to the other visitor site on Genovesa, Prince Philip’s Steps will be no less dramatic, as we walk among Nazca Boobies, and walk along cliffs that are home to breeding Red-billed Tropicbird, while the surrounding scrub is home to Large Ground-Finch, Short-beaked Ground-Finch, and Large-Cactus Finch. The long-billed island subspecies of Large Ground-Finch in particular is of importance, as it is a possible future split. Another bird of interest is the local, dark subspecies of Short-eared Owls, which are often found hiding among the blackish volcanic rocks, lying in wait for the local storm-petrels. In the evening, we will set off south, this time for the island of Santiago…

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

Day 7: Santiago and Bartolomé. Our morning visit to Sullivan Bay will be a display of the extraordinary volcanic features of the island of Santiago. We’ll visit a lava flow, where little wildlife is evident, on the solid black lava underfoot. This is one of the sideshows that make a birding and bird photography 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. While the scenery will take center stage, 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.

In the afternoon, there will be two main attractions on Bartolomé – the most obvious of these will be the impressive Pinnacle Rock, one of the most famous, and most photographed geological features of the islands. Coupled with this will be the chance to swim and snorkel with Galapagos Penguins, which are unique among penguins in being the only species that extends into the northern Hemisphere, and the only penguin to occur in the tropics. Like so much in these islands, they are at once odd, exceptional, and utterly fascinating.

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

Day 8: Rábida and Chinese Hat. Rábida Island, located off the coast of Santiago, is unique because of the red color of the rocks and sand. A short walk takes us to a coastal lagoon behind the beach, where there is often American Flamingos and White-cheeked Pintails, along with other songbirds like the endemic Galapagos Mockingbird, Galapagos Dove, and Common Cactus-Finch; as well as Blue-footed Booby, and Magnificent Frigatebird. The beach is often full of sea lions, and there are good snorkeling opportunities too.

PLEASE NOTE: On this day we have requested a change to the official national park itinerary, to visit the north of Isabela, instead of Rábida; this will give us a chance of seeing Flightless Cormorant. This is something we have requested, and been granted, on previous cruises. However, permission/denial for this request will not be given until 2 weeks before the cruise. Therefore, it will not be known whether we can visit an area for the cormorant until this time.

A Pacific Green Turtle practices PADI hand signals!
A Pacific Green Turtle practices PADI hand signals! (Pablo Cervantes)

The tiny islet of “Chinese Hat”, off of the coast of the larger island of Santiago, is little visited, and only accessible using smaller boats to get ashore. The beautiful waters surrounding this island are home to Galapagos Penguins, and an abundance of marine life too. Taking a ride in a “panga”, a smaller type of boat, is likely to reveal penguins, sharks, rays and seals, and this will be followed by another chance to snorkel in the marine-life rich seas of the Galapagos. While the sea itself will provide plentiful wildlife to look at, we’ll also land on a pristine white sand beach, and walk among the famed Marine Iguanas of the Galapagos, an endemic, that is the only aquatic reptile on Earth. This will also be a good opportunity to take in the striking volcanic landscapes of this tiny island, where several types of lava can be observed. We will return to our now familiar vessel, the very comfortable Reina Silvia, for one final night, and dinner, before setting sail for our final destination, Baltra in the morning…

The volcanic landscapes are stark, but flamingoes bring striking color to these
The volcanic landscapes are stark, but flamingoes bring striking color to these (Pablo Cervantes)

Day 9: Galapagos (Baltra) to Quito. After seven nights at sea, we will leave our boat, and walk back onto the small island of Baltra, where we will return to the airport and take a flight back into the Andes, and to the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, for the final night of the tour. Over dinner there are sure to be discussions of our favorite birds, mammals, and reptiles, of the tour, having visited a corner of the planet that is truly unique, and a set of islands that are far more varied than people realize from their pre-tour planning.

Day 10: Departure from Quito. After breakfast (unless your flight leaves very early), we will transfer you to Quito airport for international departures.

The massive animal afterwhich the islands were named: Giant Tortoise
The massive animal afterwhich the islands were named: Giant Tortoise (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Easy. Generally the island visits are restricted to a maximum of 4 hours per visit; and so with visiting 2 sites per day, this will be up to 8 hours, absolute maximum on land each day.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. The walking is mostly easy, with only very slight gradients involved anywhere, and the distances covered short. There is the need to transfer from our larger yacht to a smaller boat (“Panga”) to visit many of the islands, and some of the visitor sites involve wet landings, with no dock at which to land, but the need 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: Warm and overcast, occasionally sunny and hot. The air temperature averages 70-80°F (21-27 °C) in this season, but it can cool down at night, and can feel considerably cooler on the boat deck. So while the temperature implies only summer clothes are needed; you will likely need a jacket/fleece too. Water temperature can be surprisingly cool during this season; if you intend to snorkel, then it is a good idea to bring an insulating layer to do this with, to not only protect your body from the hot tropical sun, but also to insulate against the cooler currents.

ACCOMMODATION: On the arrival night and the night before departure a good standard business type hotel will be used in Quito. For seven nights in the Galapagos we will be on board a boat, the Reina Silvia. For boat specifications, please see here: Reina Silvia

Cabins are small but comfortable and have A/C, 24-hour electricity, and en-suite bathrooms. There are 6 staterooms, which can be used as either twins or doubles, with a maximum of 12 people. Although there is an option to have a bunk bed in 4 of these rooms, to make them into 3-person rooms, this is not going to be used. Thus, the limit of people coming on this tour is 11 participants with 1 Tropical Birding guide.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is both a birding tour and photography cruise; few places in the world can this be combined so well. There is excellent photography throughout, and the largest photography challenge will be to have enough storage space and memory cards to cope with the never-ending photo opportunities. Most people vastly underestimate the amount of photos they end up taking when in the Galapagos, so extra storage and memory cards needs to be planned for ahead of time. There will be excellent opportunities to photograph birds like Red-footed, Blue-footed, and Nazca Boobies, Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds, Red-billed Tropicbirds, a variety of “Galapagos” Finch species, Santa Cruz Giant Tortoise, Galapagos Sea Lion, Marine and Land Iguanas, and many other birds and animals. Not only will there be opportunities to photograph them all, there will be high chances to photograph them all well, at close quarters. Please be aware: national park rules do not permit the use of flash around the wildlife.

WHEN TO GO: Galapagos, being situated on the equator can be visited year round. There are subtle changes in weather, with October, when this cruise is planned, a little cooler than earlier in the year (but still warm). October is considered a good month for breeding activity, when boobies are usually breeding, the Waved Albatross colony is occupied, and the marine life is very active. However, the islands are good year round, as most of the birdlife breeds on and off all year. The Waved Albatross is typically out to sea, and absent from the islands, when not breeding, during the months of January to March. The October timing of this cruise is also good for combining with our other mainland Ecuador tours, which often run at this time.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is needed for entry to Ecuador; 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.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 9, (nights of day 1 and day 9 will be in a Quito hotel, nights of days 2-8 will be on board the boat the Reina Silvia); meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive late), to breakfast on day 10 (unless you leave very early); safe drinking water throughout; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio playback gear from the morning of day 2 to the evening of day 9; limited free snorkeling gear to use while on board the Reina Silvia; tips for included meals, and for boat staff and Galapagos National Park guide; a printed and bound bird 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?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for luggage porters in hotels (where available and if you require their services); international flights; roundtrip domestic flight between Quito and the Galapagos (around US$550); snacks; additional drinks apart from water; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; excess baggage charges; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included; PLEASE NOTE: Galapagos National Park tourist entrance fee and Ingala of $120 per person, is NOT included in the tour fee. This needs to be paid, in cash (exact money only), on arrival in the Galapagos. Please bring the exact change for this on the tour with you.