Galapagos Islands Cruise Aboard the M/V Evolution Oct 31—Nov 09, 2014
Posted by Paul Greenfield
Cruising and birding the Galapagos Islands is far more than just visiting a place and seeing its birds and habitats. These islands, once thought to be mere shadows, uninhabitable and useless, “enchanted” in the negative sense of the word, later became a stopover and hideaway for feared pirates and buccaneers and a whaler’s hot-spot and supply stop for sailors who, among other negative deeds, sacrificed over a hundred thousand Giant Tortoises over the years, thanks to this gentle animal’s ability to survive for months (years?) without food or water before being feasted upon. The Galapagos were also used as a U.S. military base during World War II, complete with bombing practice. But thankfully, it was Charles Darwin’s brief visit to this archipelago in 1835 that eventually shed light on the true importance and relevance of this otherwise “uninteresting and barren oceanic wasteland.” And it is this relevance and Darwin’s footsteps that make us forget the “other” past and feel a deep reverence to the strange and unique conditions and wildlife that we find here.
Espanola Mockingbird— Photo: Paul J. Greenfield
Although our journey may appear to be like any “island cruise” in some aspects (food!), every step we took, every plant and creature we saw (and stepped over), every bird we watched, had a story, a history, and a legacy to share, perhaps more obviously than in any other place on earth. To tread in Darwin’s footsteps is no small matter—his masterwork, On the Origin of Species, being widely considered one of man’s greatest accomplishments—as we stood among the very mockingbirds that gave him key clues to his theory that species evolved from a common ancestor. How could we not revel in the very existence of the strange Flightless Cormorant, with its pathetic and apparently useless wings—a bird that seems to be in mid-journey between evolutionary end points.
We greeted each day at dawn, on deck, watching the sun rise and scanning the ocean and the horizon as we neared our next port-of-call, our new landing site. Always invigorating and filled with anticipation, we searched for whales, dolphins, “jumping” rays, and seabirds (this is the perfect place to study these often frustrating feathered creatures). Our days were activity-filled with morning and afternoon hikes, snorkeling, and kayaking. Each island was like a newly discovered treasure chest (with bounty that the silly pirates of yesteryear never even paid attention to!), unique scenery, geological conditions, animals, plants…even vibes varied between visitor sites. The birding is famously “galapagueño” in style, most species being relatively easy to spot and study, repeatedly. At one point or another, most showed up as close and friendly, as you would expect of a pet “budgie,” or your cat or dog. But there were challenges too, posed by a few pelagic bird species and several of the so-called Darwin’s finches— yes, those little brown (or black)-jobs that baffled even Charles himself—and we worked diligently to find as many of these as possible. But this was a broad experience that included close encounters with unique reptiles, fish, mammals, crustaceans, insects, plants… and lava too.
Highlights were many and, as it should be, each of us has taken our own back home with us to savor for years to come. I always find it difficult, if not impossible, to pick a favorite situation, moment, or experience, as there are so many and the last ones seem to always jump ahead of the first. So, these few recollections come to mind of our truly memorable week. Our morning arrival at our first visitor site—Punta Vicente Roca—could not have been more magical with that initiation panga ride along the coastline, complete with our first Galapagos Penguins, Flightless Cormorants, Green Sea Turtles, and Galapagos Fur-Sea Lions; our first walk at Punta Espinoza on Fernandina and first encounter with a mass of beach-bumming Marine Iguanas; the small band of Galapagos Martins seen by some of us at Tagus Cove; our whale sightings along Bolívar Channel; Bartolomé and the thousands of incoming Franklin´s Gulls; “finching” on Santa Cruz—spectacularly close Vegetarian Finches, and Woodpecker Finch; our dawn arrival at Española with all the Waved Albatrosses at sea, and our hike at Punta Suárez with all the nesting species (Waved Albatross, Red-billed Tropicbirds, Nazca and Blue-footed boobies, Swallow-tailed Gulls, etc.) and the Española Mockingbird; our brief last morning excursion to the San Cristóbal highlands and successful “pick-up” of the endemic mockingbird and Large Tree-Finch. Of course, snorkelers all have their special experiences, glued in their minds (or on film) of intimate encounters with fish, rays, sea stars, sea horses, sea turtles, sharks, playful sea lions, cormorants, and penguins. This was a special trip to one of earth’s special places.