Galapagos Islands Cruise aboard Isabela II Nov 28—Dec 07, 2011

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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Cruising the Galapagos Islands is a wonderful and fulfilling experience that really defies an adequate description. Each participant brings his or her own expectations to this weeklong journey, and every encounter and interaction with an iguana, lizard, tortoise, sea turtle, fish, whale, bird, or sea lion builds a very personalized bank of memories. This was Charles Darwin's laboratory where he witnessed clues to what would become his Origin of the Species, a work that would change forever how man perceives life and the world around him. The importance that this collection of islands played in the discovery of Darwin's theory on the evolutionary process and natural selection feels deeply ingrained in the entire Galapagos experience.

Swallow-tailed Gull and chick

Swallow-tailed Gull and chick— Photo: Paul Greenfield

Our adventure began even before we boarded the Isabela II—we began seeing "Darwin's finches" at the airport, and Brown Noddy, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Blue-footed Boobies, and Lava Gulls at the Baltra Island dock. Elliot's Storm-Petrels danced over the water as we neared the ship. Once aboard, we began to sail to our first destination just after settling into our spacious cabins and sitting down to a sumptuous lunch. We began spotting more bird species, some of which we would be walking right up to just a little later in the afternoon. From our ship, anchored just off-shore at North Seymour Island, we saw our only Galapagos Martins, a Peregrine Falcon, Swallow-tailed Gulls, Great and Magnificent frigatebirds, Red-billed Tropicbird and so on. On shore we came across our only Galapagos land iguanas and walked right up to our first Galapagos sea lions, along with many nesting seabirds and a few Dark-billed Cuckoos. Every day we visited a different island or set of islands, each with its particular history, age, look, environment, and species make-up.

Many islands hold unique species, found nowhere else, and we paced ourselves to try to see (and photograph) as many of these as possible. On Española we enjoyed intimate encounters with Waved Albatross, Española Mockingbird, and Large Cactus-Finch, along with our first Galapagos Hawks (too close to focus on!), Galapagos Doves, Gray Warbler-Finch, and a slew of other Galapagos regulars—including piles of marine iguanas. Champion Islet, off Floreana Island, brought spectacular views of the endangered Floreana Mockingbird, along with more nesting seabirds, a large pod of bottle-nosed dolphins, and our first Minke whale. Snorkeling and a glass-bottomed boat ride added many tropical fish, sea urchins, and starfish.

On Santa Cruz Island we headed to the highlands where we searched the humid zones, then back down to the coast for lunch and a visit to the Darwin Station, and later a walk through the town of Puerto Ayora. In all, we ended up seeing 9 species of finches including Green Warbler Finch; Large, and Small tree-finches; Vegetarian, Woodpecker, Common Cactus-Finch, and the 3 ground-finches. Additionally we saw a pair of Barn Owls, and of course our only "wild" Galapagos giant tortoises, seemingly littered about randomly like boulders that had fallen from the sky.

Genovesa is indeed a special island where we enjoyed nesting Red-footed Boobies (along with Blue-footed and Nazca), our second population of Large Cactus-Finch (which could easily be a separate species) and Sharp-beaked Ground-Finch, a hunting Short-eared Owl, and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels by the hundreds at their nesting site, along with our first Galapagos fur seals. Perhaps most interesting here is the mockingbird on this island, which has been regularly considered a race of the rather variable Galapagos Mockingbird; a recent preliminary DNA study suggests that this population could well be a separate species, more closely linked to San Cristobal, Española, and Floreana mockingbirds. So we took note of the many we saw…fascinating!

We continued on to cruise along Bolívar Channel to Isabela and Fernandina islands and two real specialties—the Galapagos Penguin and the truly bizarre Flightless Cormorant—species that really transport you to another world…penguins on the Equator and a cormorant that has decided to leave flight behind (or is amidst the long evolutionary process to do so), with its useless, disheveled wings. The channel afforded us better views of a few Galapagos Petrels along with a pod of about 6 Minke whales, while the Isabela Island shoreline was rich with seabirds, especially roosting Brown Noddies, penguins, and cormorants. Snorkelers got to swim with cormorants, sea turtles, and the usual lot of underwater species.

As we sailed towards our last official island visit—Santiago and later to Bartolomé, which is a true and most photographed icon of this archipelago—we finally began to encounter more and more Galapagos Petrels and were able to get close looks at this special species as it arched and criss-crossed over the ocean's surface.

These "enchanted isles" or islas encantadas have been visited (and even settled) by buccaneers, whalers, pirates, dreamers, entrepreneurs, and scientists for centuries, and were a major inspiration for Darwin's theory on the evolution of the species through natural selection; now, I think we can feel like they are part of us too—I believe that we were all duly enchanted.