Galapagos Islands Cruise aboard the M/V Evolution Jul 10—19, 2015

Posted by Michael O'Brien


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 2015 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 confortable ship, the M/V Evolution. No, we did not leave the Galápagos disappointed!

Swallow-tailed Gull

Swallow-tailed Gull— Photo: Michael O’Brien


Our adventure began with unfortunate airline delays, resulting in late arrivals into Baltra. But we all got there safe and sound, and after enjoying a delicious dinner aboard the M/V Evolution, we adjourned to the deck and were mesmerized by the sight of several Swallow-tailed Gulls feeding and calling around the ship, under a spectacular star-filled sky complete with the Milky Way, Big Dipper, and Southern Cross. At that moment, all our thoughts of the “real world” just melted away. Welcome to the Galápagos Islands!

On this amazing cruise, bizarre and otherwordly scenes were commonplace: Flightless Cormorants perched on rocky promontories, ancient Giant Tortoises loafing in forest openings, dozens of Marine Iguanas clinging stoically to lava rocks as waves crashed around them, and brilliant red Sally Lightfoot Crabs covering every tidal rock or pool. Also commonplace were interesting and elaborate courtship behaviors, like allopreening Nazca Boobies, noisy tandem flights by Red-billed Tropicbirds, the head-swaying, bill-clattering dance of Waved Albatrosses, and the grebe-like “synchronized swimming” dance of Flightless Cormorants. From the first moments of this cruise, we saw firsthand one of the most unique aspects of Galápagos Wildlife: having evolved with no major land predators, the birds and other animals were utterly unafraid of humans. At every outing, sea lions, iguanas, doves, hawks, boobies, and mockingbirds were literally at arm’s-length. This behavioral trait was emphasized whenever we came across a migrant from the north, such as a Whimbrel or Wandering Tattler, which invariably flew off as we approached.

Flightless Cormorant with Jewel Moray

Flightless Cormorant with Jewel Moray— Photo: Michael O’Brien


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, Flightless Cormorants, 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.

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 fascinating 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 ones at San Crystobal (supposedly part of the Gray Warbler-Finch group) seemed to contradict the rules. The highly variable Medium Ground-Finch presented the biggest identification problems, and some intermediate birds were surely hybrids. Just as interesting as finches were some of the seabirds. A close look at the abundant Galápagos Shearwater revealed two “types” which sort out well by plumage pattern and distribution. Could these be undescribed subspecies, or even cryptic species? Stay tuned!

Woodpecker Finch

Woodpecker Finch— Photo: Michael O’Brien


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 such good care of us and making sure our every need was met. Also to our extraordinary naturalists, Cristina Rivadeneira and Alex Cox, 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.