Galapagos Islands Cruise Aboard the M/V Evolution Jul 09—18, 2010

Posted by Michael O'Brien

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Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien is a freelance artist, author, and environmental consultant living in Cape May, New Jersey. He has a passionate interest in bird vocalizations and field ide...

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There are very few destinations where one can have as rich and complete a natural history experience as the Galápagos Islands. The rugged beauty of these volcanic islands is breathtaking, and the sheer abundance of wildlife is simply staggering, and ripe with photographic opportunity. But there is so much more to the Galápagos. Just the thought of walking in the footsteps of Darwin, on the very islands that shaped his theory of natural selection and had such a profound influence in the way scientists and naturalists view the world today, is a humbling experience. Our July 2010 cruise was equally a thought-provoking look at the natural world and a delightful vacation. At every opportunity, we pondered the various forces that shaped the islands themselves and the wildlife that lives there. Along the way, we had lots of laughs, fine food, and ample siesta time on a very comfortable ship, the MV Evolution. No, we did not leave the Galápagos disappointed!

Upon landing at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, we were quickly greeted by our first of "Darwin's finches," the Small Ground-Finch. Even though they behaved a bit like House Sparrows, it was a special feeling knowing we were seeing a species that is found nowhere else on earth. And this was only the first of many such endemic species. We also quickly saw firsthand one of the most unique aspects of the Galápagos wildlife—having evolved with no major land predators, they are all utterly unafraid of humans. At the dock where we waited for our panga ride to the Evolution, we were surrounded by Galápagos sea lions, not just in the water but also all over the dock. We had to step over them to get to the panga! And at every outing, similarly tame doves, hawks, boobies, and mockingbirds were literally at arm's-length.

marine iguana

marine iguana— Photo: Michael O'Brien

Bizarre and otherworldly scenes were commonplace on this amazing cruise: Flightless Cormorants perched on rocky promontories, ancient giant tortoises loafing in forest openings, dozens of marine iguanas perched stoically on lava rocks as waves crashed around them, brilliant red Sally Lightfoot crabs covering every tidal rock or pool, and thousands of Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels swarming over a field of lava rock. Also commonplace were interesting and elaborate courtship behaviors, like high-stepping Blue-footed Boobies, allopreening Waved Albatrosses, noisy tandem flights by Red-billed Tropicbirds, and frigatebirds with their flaming-red gular pouches inflated in full display. And it was simply amazing to see a pod of killer whales after they dispatched their prey (a sea lion, perhaps). The attending feeding frenzy of frigatebirds and shearwaters made this a real "Wild Kingdom" moment.

The diversity of life at the Galápagos was at least as rich underwater as it was above, and snorkelers had a field day on this trip. At every opportunity, some of us donned our masks and flippers and took to the water. Along with scores of dazzling reef fish, the snorkelers regularly had such interesting swimming companions as rays, sea turtles, Galápagos Penguins, playful sea lions, and even plunge-diving boobies. A post-swim dip in the Jacuzzi on deck was always accompanied by stories of close encounters with amazing marine life. (A big thanks to Paul Pisano for his assistance with the list of fish and other marine life encountered on this trip!)

For the more serious bird students, there were ample opportunities to delve into interesting identification challenges and even pioneering taxonomic questions. The finches as a whole were always interesting to study, both from an evolutionary standpoint and from an identification standpoint. With the recent split of the warbler-finches, it was fun to try and figure out which species we were looking at. They seemed to sort well by habitat and even island size, but the one at Darwin Station on Santa Cruz is still a mystery. The highly variable Medium Ground-Finch presented the biggest identification problems, and some intermediate birds may well have been hybrids. Just as interesting as finches were some of the seabirds. A close look at the abundant Galápagos Shearwater revealed two "types" that sort out by plumage pattern, molt timing, and distribution. Could these be undescribed subspecies, or even cryptic species, reproductively isolated by nest timing?

Every island we visited was unique in its own way, many with their own endemic species. And every single outing was filled with amazing sights and sounds, and new discoveries to be made. It was a pleasure to share these discoveries with such a fun and inquisitive group. A special thanks goes to our expedition leader, Boli Sanchez, and to all the staff of the Evolution for taking care of us and making sure our every need was met. Also to our extraordinary naturalists, Alex Cox and Kitty Coley, who eagerly shared their broad knowledge with us. Their professionalism and good nature ensured that we got the most out of our trip to this incredible place.