Galapagos Cruise Jul 06—17, 2006
Posted by Tony Nunnery
The Andes Mountains, lush tropical forest, snow-covered volcanoes, and the Galapagos Islands, along with Ecuador’s dazzling diversity, are some of its greatest attractions. And although this cruise was designed to explore, enjoy, and try to understand the unique environment of the most celebrated wildlife laboratory on the planet, we also had two-and-a-not-so-half days (our half-day was shortened due to an erupting volcano) to visit the mainland in order to experience some of the vivid diversity the small country of Ecuador has to offer.
Our adventure began driving along the valley of volcanoes as we made our way out of Quito, crossing the equator at four different locations and making our way down the west slope of the Andes to explore the Tandayapa Valley. It was a beautiful clear morning with spectacular views of snow-covered volcanoes such as Cotopaxi and Antisana, as well as Illiniza, Pichincha, and Cayambe. The arid desert-like habitat of the inner Andean Valley quickly changed to lush green cloud forest as we drove down the western slope. We spent most of this day birding within the Tandayapa Valley where we saw Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Toucan Barbet, Sickle-winged Guan, Golden Tanager, Golden-naped Tanager, Beryl-spangled Tanager, Blue-capped Tanager, and Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, just to name a few. But the various species of hummingbirds seen in abundance from the elevated porch of my house were today’s highlights?such Choco endemics as Purple-bibbed Whitetip; Brown Inca; and Violet-tailed Sylph; alongside Collared Inca; Brown, Green, and Sparkling violet-ears; plus Andean Emerald; Western Emerald; and many others. A spectacular show to say the least, with extended views at both flowers and feeders.
Our second day found us high in the Andes at the base of Antisana Volcano?a stark contrast from the previous day of tropical cloud forest to the upper elevation habitat of the Paramo?all the while the snow-capped volcano of Antisana rising majestically on the horizon. Here we saw Andean Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, and Andean Ruddy Duck on the lake with Andean Coot and Andean Gull. Andean Lapwings were in abundance as they fed in the fields nearby alongside Carunculated Caracara. An Aplomado Falcon flew over and later a Cinereous Harrier was seen gliding on the wind over the fields. There were also good views of Variable Hawk and Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle as they took advantage of the heavy winds and early morning thermals. These, along with many other high Andean specialties, were accented by an authentic traditional Ecuadorian luncheon of “Locro de Papas and Tomatoes” that we enjoyed at hacienda Antisana as they skillfully sheared sheep in the farmyard, and Ecuadorian Hillstars fed at the feeders outside the window.
The next day we boarded a bus to drive to the Quito airport, boarded a plane to fly to San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos, and then boarded the MY Parranda chartered especially for us, and our home for the next seven days. Although it sounds like a full day of traveling, all this took place before we sat down to have lunch aboard the ship. And no sooner had we sat down to enjoy our meal were we tempted to get up again to see Galapagos Petrel, White-vented Storm-Petrel, and Brown Noddy feeding in the waters just around the ship. That afternoon we took a short Panga (Spanish for small boat) ride to Playa Ochoa to do more birding, and to practice snorkeling. Here we saw Chatman Mockingbird at our feet and Galapagos Flycatcher, and enjoyed our first look at one of Darwin’s finches, the Small Ground-Finch. After birding, some practiced their first attempt at snorkeling in the Galapagos, while marine iguanas and Galapagos turtles swam around them.
We woke up the next day at Tower Island, had an early breakfast, and then a dry landing to walk the one-mile lava trail starting at Prince Philip’s steps. No sooner had we climbed these steps to begin the walk were we met by a flock of Darwin finches. A pair of Large Ground-Finches sat and sang atop a leafless shrub, while a pair of Warbler Finches fed just below the singing pair. A few meters over in another shrub sat a Large Cactus-Finch. And then to top it all, a solitary Sharp-beaked Ground-Finch flew in and began to feed just a few feet away. Oh?the excitement of being at the Galapagos, the awesome view of the early morning mist on the sea from our perch atop Prince Philip’s steps, all these finches at our feet, and we haven’t even taken one step along the trail yet! But wait, there’s more! A pair of Galapagos Doves flew in to add to the excitement, and sat pretty as a picture for all to photograph as a Galapagos Mockingbird hopped around our feet. A pair of Swallow-tailed Gulls sat on the cliff edge as Great Frigatebirds flew just overhead to land in nearby nests, and Red-footed Boobies whistled and danced for one another.
And only “now” do we begin to take our first steps along the trail! We made our way along the trail where frigatebird and booby nests were present almost every step of the way. As we reached the other side of Tower Island we were amazed to see thousands of Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels flying just above the rocks, as a Short-eared Owl hid in the rocks waiting to feed on the abundant food source flying all around him; it was here that we found a Red-billed Tropicbird sitting on her nest.
After finishing our hike we boarded the Parranda once again to gear up for deep-water snorkeling. Fitted with flippers, masks, and wet suits, we gingerly slid into the water to experience the beauty of the undersea world of the Galapagos. The abundance of life below the sea is in great contrast to the fragile desert-like habitat and volcanic landscape back on the island. Here we swam in awe of the many different species of multicolored tropical fish, as Galapagos fur seals slid into the water from their rocky perches as if to see what these clumsy swimmers were doing paddling along the water’s edge. With our buoyant bodies floating just above the surface and our masks looking just below, we witnessed countless schools of Cortez rainbow wrasse along with numerous king angelfish, Moorish idol, blue-chinned parrotfish, barred snapper, and guinea fowl puffers, just to name a few. With our mouths full of snorkel and our eyes wide open we leisurely drifted along in slow motion and silence, enjoying the peaceful ballet of the many multicolored dancers swimming gracefully below.
If it all sounds like a dream, well, it’s because it was?a real, once-in-a-lifetime dream coming true right before our eyes. All the saving and the planning for this adventure go way beyond any expectation one could imagine. And I’ve only described the first morning’s activities! There were still a week’s worth of adventures and many more islands to explore. I won’t dare to give you a blow by blow of each day’s adventures; it is truly something one has to experience personally. I have only described the first morning to give you an idea of the overwhelming excitement and awesome experience each island and day’s outings have in store for the visitor to the Galapagos. Of course I could mention the rest of the finches we saw, the flightless cormorants, all the mockingbirds, the Galapagos Rail, the bottlenose dolphins swimming at the bow of the boat, a group of us snorkeling while sharks fed around us, and another time a Galapagos Penguin swam swiftly back and forth amongst the group. Yes, I could go into pages of details of the incredible sightings we had in such a short visit to this most famous and celebrated wildlife laboratory, but I’ll stop here.
I include a bird, reptile, fish, and mammal list of each island. And in closing I confirm that if you are saving and planning to go on a VENT tour of the Galapagos Islands, there is no amount of literature that can compare to the real life excitement of being there.