Galapagos Islands Cruise Nov 10—19, 2007

Posted by Paul Greenfield

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Paul Greenfield

Paul Greenfield grew up near New York City and became interested in birds as a child. He received his B.F.A. from Temple University where he was an art major at the Tyler S...

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It is truly difficult to describe the Galapagos Islands experience, partly because it is so very broad and varied, and in part because it is so intimate and personal for each individual visitor, whether it be coming face-to-face with a playful sea lion, a curious penguin, or a white-tipped shark under the ocean's surface; meeting up with a "Big Bird"-looking baby albatross, a prehistoric marine iguana, or a trouble-making Española Mockingbird right at your feet; or witnessing the red balloon display of a Great Frigatebird or the fancy footwork of a Blue-footed Booby. Our November Galapagos cruise aboard Lindblad's National Geographic Islander offered all these experiences and countless others, each day. At times it seemed like one of those action-thriller movies—never a dull moment, from the minute we landed at the airport on Baltra Island. We saw our first land iguana before even getting to the Customs desk, a pair of Galapagos sea lions napping on benches at the dock while we waited for our "pangas" to board ship for the first time, and White-vented Storm-Petrels dancing on the water's surface as we boarded—the experiences and emotions surely come fast and furiously on these Enchanted Islands.

Between wet and dry landings we came upon new life experiences at every turn: walking over ancient and even recent lava flows; stepping inside lava tubes and peering into sink craters; side-stepping piles of marine iguanas, sleeping fur seals, and sea lions; examining giant land tortoises in the wild; observing varying stages of seabird nesting behavior…right at our feet; spectacular Red-billed Tropicbirds; the extremely beautiful Swallow-tailed Gull; droll Nazca and Blue-footed boobies; and Waved Albatross. We scanned the horizon for pelagic species as we sailed along at sea, and were rewarded with wonderful views of leaping manta rays, pods of two species of dolphins, Galapagos Shearwater, Galapagos Petrel, and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel. Snorkelers pondered multicolored fish and sea-stars, and even swam with Flightless Cormorants! We pursued and scrutinized many a drab Darwin's finch, and worked hard to get most everyone to enjoy great looks at Woodpecker, Medium Tree, and Vegetarian finches, along with many more common species. We even recorded the island's first live Sora!

Our Woodpecker Finch hunt was particularly fun and even a bit frustrating; we knew we only had one or two opportunities to see this curious species, and our visit to the highlands of Santa Cruz was crucial. We searched for much of the afternoon along several trails at "El Chato" and "Los Gemelos," and one or two were spotted by some of us, but we really did not have that super-satisfying sighting we were all hoping for. Time was running out, as the afternoon crept to a close and we had to begin our return to Puerto Ayora to board the ship. So, wouldn't you know it, as we returned to the parking lot and were just about to board our buses…who should call, and show itself in plain view? Yep, our most sought-after Woodpecker Finch—affording fine looks for all of us.

Perhaps the most thrilling moments came on the morning we rounded the northern point of the archipelago's largest island, Isabela. We were exploring the rocky shoreline in our zodiacs/pangas, counting sea turtles, watching Brown Noddies and Galapagos Penguins, and observing our very first Flightless Cormorants—unique and bizarre birds with strangely atrophic wings—when a call came over the hand-radios, "Orca!" All the pangas headed out to sea in pursuit of these magnificent creatures; most of us had probably only seen these on nature channel programs, and just a mere glimpse would have made the day. As we got close, two orcas breached, one at a time—shining black and white, huge dorsal fins gleaming in the sun. They disappeared underwater and we moved along, carefully tracking a group of frigatebirds that seemed to be following something under the water's surface. The orcas came up a couple of more times when, finally, one lunged forward and remained visible for a few seconds…it had grabbed something right next to us! 

This same individual submerged and resurfaced again quickly, this time displaying a Pacific green sea turtle in its mouth, as if to satisfy our curiosity and show us just what it was up to. Finally, this absolutely stunning dolphin, long referred to as the "Killer Whale," submerged below and beneath our panga, its entire silhouette plain to see.

But it is not only experiences like these that make the Galapagos such an incredible and intriguing place. It has to do with its geological, biological, scientific, and human history. This was a favorite haunt of some of the world's most famous pirates, as well as the living laboratory for Darwin's theory on the origin of the species. It is a place where one can plainly see evidence of how continents could have been formed or how life on earth may have begun—and you can almost see the evolutionary process taking place before your eyes. It really can't be described; you have to experience it.