Galapagos Islands Cruise aboard the M/V Evolution Oct 18—27, 2013

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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What can be said about the Galapagos that hasn’t already been said at some point, by somebody? Even sailors, whalers, and buccaneers expressed their impressions of these “Enchanted Isles” in their time, and of course Herman Melville and even Kurt Vonnegut dedicated chapters to this archipelago. But it was certainly Charles Darwin who was most responsible for engraving a lasting impression on mankind of just what secrets this strange assortment of isolated islands holds, and how its unique life forms tell a tale of serendipity, survival, adaptation, and evolution.

Española Mockingbird

Española Mockingbird— Photo: Paul J. Greenfield

It was with all of this in mind that we “deplaned” and set foot on Baltra Islet, a relatively small, flat slab of uplifted lava set basically in the middle of this wondrous place. Words really don’t come to my mind when experiencing and thinking about the Galapagos, yet sensations and mental images do. I have found, over the years, that as many times as I have visited these islands, and as I accompany new visitors who have perhaps read about them or seen TV documentary images of what’s to be found here, nothing can describe or prepare us for what we actually see, hear, or sense once we embark on this fascinating journey. Yes, our main goal was straightforward—to see as many of the archipelago’s bird species as possible. Many of them are endemic: unique to this particular place on earth, but many others are more or less familiar and perhaps innocently perceived as less interesting. But as I enjoy observing any specific Galapagos plant or animal (and especially a bird) here, I can’t help but ask myself, what’s its story? How and when did it get here? How did it survive? Even a Great Blue Heron, a Vermilion Flycatcher, or a Mangrove/ Yellow Warbler—here belonging to endemic populations (as unafraid of man as a “log”!)—had to arrive on these islands in large enough numbers in order to be able to survive, locate a mate, reproduce, and thrive. And then come all the endemic species…those found nowhere else on Earth, whose distant relatives are anybody’s guess.

We spent the entire week engulfed in this world of broad expanses of ocean and its underwater realm, rocky shorelines, pastel beaches, lush mangroves, sprawling lava fields with complex relief, arid coastlines with scrub, Palo Santo trees and Apuntia cacti, highland Scalesia woodland and farmland, and the wet, foggy, elfin Miconia and fern-sedge shrubland. How to describe watching a naturally curious Española Mockingbird while dozens of lethargic Marine Iguanas lay motionless at our feet (well, not quite motionless; every now and then one would snort salt spray into the air), or sorting out tree-finches from the ubiquitous ground-finches while a Giant Land Tortoise lumbers by, or stepping out on deck one night to find oneself face-to-face with a Swallow-tailed Gull as it glides alongside our ship with the ease of a floating helium balloon? How does one put into words the sensation of swimming with playful Galapagos Penguins, or sharing an underwater feeding frenzy with Flightless Cormorants and diving Blue-footed Boobies? Or watching three Galapagos Rails foraging along the roadside like chickens? These are just a fraction of the experiences that will be savored by each and every one of us, maybe never to be put into words.