Galapagos Islands Cruise aboard Isabela II Jul 18—27, 2011

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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The Galápagos Islands are truly a naturalist's playground. A ruggedly beautiful environment with abundant and approachable wildlife, interesting geologic history, and delightful weather would be more than enough for a fabulous experience. But these islands are also one of those rare places that can clarify one's perspective on the natural world. The unique and unusual animals here showcase how evolution works in an isolated environment. Our visit to these otherworldly islands was fascinating, enchanting, and also a lot of fun!

Swallow-tailed Gull

Swallow-tailed Gull— Photo: Michael O'Brien

As soon as we arrived in Baltra we began seeing unique Galápagos wildlife. Small and Medium ground-finches at the airport were our first endemic species. Although the setting may not have seemed that exotic, it was a special feeling knowing we were seeing a species found nowhere else on earth. In our first few hours on the Galápagos we would see a number of other endemics such as Lava Gull, Galápagos Dove, and Galápagos sea lion. And we would also see firsthand, a trait that is common to virtually all Galápagos wildlife: having evolved with no major land predators, they have no fear of humans! On our first landing at North Seymour Island we had to just about step over Blue-footed Boobies that were nesting on the trail, and tiptoe around sea lions resting on the beach. And we would see similar behaviors by a wide variety of wildlife on every island we visited. The mockingbirds even seemed to follow us at times, probably looking for water.

Among the many highlights on this wonderful cruise were some of the bizarre creatures that the Galápagos are famous for: marine iguanas piled upon one another on rocky beaches, Galápagos Penguins and Flightless Cormorants perched side by side, brilliant Sally Lightfoot crabs covering every coastal rock, giant tortoises hissing at each other in a territorial dispute, and "Darwin's finches" of every shape and size, each occupying a slightly different niche. But equally impressive were the incredible concentrations of nesting seabirds. Blue-footed, Nazca, and Red-footed boobies were all in abundance and nesting literally at arm's-length. Great and Magnificent frigatebirds nested side by side in a number of places, and many were showing off their inflated red gular pouches. Stunning Red-billed Tropicbirds flew in noisy groups and "hid" on cliff-face nest crevices (their location frequently betrayed by projecting tail streamers). We saw a large portion of the world's population of Waved Albatrosses, many engaged in elaborate and endearing courtship displays. And possibly most spectacular of all were the thousands of Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels swarming over a lava field like hungry mosquitos. The tending Short-eared Owls had plenty of prey items to choose from.

Of course, the sea itself held many exciting surprises, and the abundance of life was just as impressive underwater as it was above. Everyone on the cruise was able to explore the underwater world, either by snorkeling or by taking a glass-bottom boat ride. Our impressive list of over 50 species of fish (thanks to Louise for compiling the fish list!) gives an indication of how rich the sea is here. Some snorkelers also had the privilege to receive underwater visits from Pacific green sea turtles, Galápagos sea lions, and Galápagos Penguins! And perhaps even more exciting than that was our encounter with blue whales—we had close views of 4–5 of these massive animals from our pangas!

Our ship for this amazing voyage, the Isabela II, was ideally suited to our needs. It was staffed with a hard-working and talented crew whose attention to detail was impressive, and whose goal to keep us safe, comfortable, happy (and well-fed!) was met at every turn. And special thanks go to our Expedition Leader, Cathy Iturralde, and our naturalists, Andrés Vergara and Ximena Cordova. Their incredible knowledge and friendly nature were a highlight of every outing, and we all learned a great deal from them.