Galapagos Islands Cruise aboard the M/V Evolution Jul 08—17, 2016

Posted by David Wolf

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David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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Few destinations offer as rich and complete a natural history experience as the Galapagos Islands. The rugged beauty of these volcanic islands is breathtaking, the sheer abundance of wildlife is simply staggering, and photographic opportunities abound. But there is so much more to the Galapagos. 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 on the way scientists view the world today, is a humbling experience. Our July 2016 cruise was both a thought-provoking immersion into 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 comfortable ship, the M/V Evolution. Special thanks go to our outstanding naturalist/guides, Boli Sanchez and Cristina Rivadeneira, who eagerly shared their broad knowledge and experience with us, and to the staff of the ship, who took such good care of us.

Waved Albatross

Waved Albatross— Photo: David Wolf

 

Our adventure began with an on-time flight to Baltra in the Galapagos, where we boarded “pangas” (Zodiacs) for the ship that would be our home for the next week. Our first impressions were of a barren arid landscape surrounded by aquamarine waters, but it wasn’t long before we eagerly spotted our first birds, the ubiquitous Blue-footed Boobies and Brown Noddies. And, as we pulled up to the M/V Evolution, we found Elliott’s Storm-Petrels pitter-pattering right behind the ship, delightful little birds that would be with us throughout the trip. Finally, after a lovely late lunch, the loading of provisions, and the requisite safety drill, we left the harbor, and our Galapagos explorations were underway. As we approached Daphne Major, a perfect tuff cone, seabirds appeared in numbers and our excitement level rose. Cruising close alongside the island produced Nazca Boobies nesting on the barren slopes, Galapagos Shearwaters streaming past, and elegant Swallow-tailed Gulls dotting the cliffs. We struggled to identify frigatebirds overhead until we rounded a bend and found them littering the bushes, several of the males blowing up their huge red air sacs in courtship display. Magnificent was the dominant species, and would be all week, but on the edge of the colony we finally confirmed several female Great, with hard-to-identify males attending them. Then, suddenly, a feeding frenzy of dozens of Blue-footed Boobies formed, the birds dramatically plunging into the clear waters below the cliffs, likely pursuing a large school of “sardines.” As we watched them, a Red-billed Tropicbird flew directly to the island from the sea, only to be knocked to the ground by a vicious trio of frigatebirds. It wisely disgorged its prey and flew off with ruffled feathers! In no time at all the sun was sinking low on the horizon, but just then a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins magically appeared to ride the bow of the ship, some leaping clear of the water. All of this happened in just our first few exciting hours of cruising, but certainly foretold the many great sights that we would enjoy for the next week. Welcome to the Galapagos!

Magnificent Frigatebird

Magnificent Frigatebird— Photo: Jan Stull

 

Our first morning aboard the ship found us off the north end of Isabela Island, the sunrise twinkling like neon lights on the dorsal fins of dolphins around the ship. Panga rides at Punta Vicente Roca introduced us to the Marine Iguana, certainly one of the strangest creatures of these islands, while numerous Pacific Green Turtles were watched at arm’s-length as they swam in the crystalline water. We spotted our first Galapagos Hawk, as it hunted iguanas along the shoreline, and found rare Galapagos Fur Seals nestled in the boulders. The snorkelers swam with a Flightless Cormorant, while those who opted for a second panga ride found their first Galapagos Penguins. The afternoon hike over the lava flow and beaches at Punta Espinosa on Fernandina produced literally heaping piles of Marine Iguanas and our first Galapagos songbirds, a brilliant male Yellow Warbler around our feet and two Small Ground-Finches working the wrack line. Here too, we skirted resting sea lions, found our first shorebirds and “Lava” Herons, watched a pair of comical Flightless Cormorants at their nest, and paused to photograph the clumps of Brachycereus cactus colonizing the lava on this very interesting hike.

Marine Iguana

Marine Iguana— Photo: David Wolf

 

The next morning our first stop was Urvina Bay on Isabela, our first venture into the arid coastal scrub. The big orange Land Iguanas were the major attraction here, but for the first time there were also numerous “Darwin’s finches” to puzzle over. With care we identified both Small and Medium Ground-Finches (these two hybridize and can be quite variable and confusing) and Small Tree-Finches. Best of all was a lone Large Ground-Finch cracking thick seed pods with its grotesque bill. Here too were an elusive Dark-billed Cuckoo, numerous Galapagos Mockingbirds, and a surprise female Galapagos Vermilion Flycatcher. This latter species has declined significantly in recent years and was most unexpected.  Later that day, panga rides gave us numerous close-ups of penguins and cormorants, two of the most iconic birds of the islands. All of this was capped at sunset by a fabulous whale show as we cruised the Bolivar Channel. The captain positioned the ship beautifully, and we had great looks at Bryde’s Whales that repeatedly broke the surface, before a huge Blue Whale revealed its long back and tiny nub of a dorsal fin several times.

Large Ground-Finch

Large Ground-Finch— Photo: Jan Stull

 

These incredible first days set the pace for the rest of our cruise, as we visited one amazing site after another. Every island visited was different and offered its own unique mix of wildlife and scenery. A hike to the summit of Bartoleme clearly revealed the features of the incredible volcanic landscape of the islands, while panga cruises nearby produced penguins at close range, including a leucistic individual, and White-tipped Sharks in the shallows. A strange rippling in the sea further offshore proved to be a huge school of baitfish boiling to the surface to escape marine predators chasing them. Literally hundreds of shearwaters and noddies were attracted to this frenzy, and to sit amidst it was simply mind-boggling! At Bachas on Santa Cruz, just behind the fine white sand beach, we found Vegetarian and Common Cactus finches methodically feeding inside a thick bush, while a small lagoon harbored two gorgeous American Flamingos. On Rabida Island, the late afternoon light set the red beach aflame, while nearby a rare male Galapagos Vermilion Flycatcher glowed even more brightly.

Giant Tortoise

Giant Tortoise— Photo: David Wolf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our day-trip by bus on Santa Cruz was most successful. Here, in the moist and green highlands at Los Gemelos (pit craters, not sinkholes), we spotted three special finches, including a Woodpecker Finch working over the moss-draped branches of the Scalesia forest at close range. At Rancho Las Primicias we sorted through the swarms of all three species of ground-finches to our heart’s content, as we walked in awe amidst the famous Giant Tortoises. These immense prehistoric giants were largely oblivious to our presence, and because of the very dry conditions this year they were concentrated here in unusual numbers. That afternoon in Puerto Ayora found us strolling through the cactus-studded scrub at the Darwin Station, with Galapagos Flycatchers at arm’s-length and the last of the nine finches found on this island sitting up for us to study.  Souvenir shopping, cold drinks and ice cream treats, and the comical show at the town fish market, where pelicans, Lava Gulls, and sea lions shamelessly begged and frigatebirds dashed down to blatantly steal fish, rounded out the day.

Nazca Booby

Nazca Booby— Photo: Jan Stull

 

Almost last, but certainly not least, we visited beautiful Española, perhaps the most pristine and wildest island of all. Here we found wondrous sights every few yards along the rock-strewn path, from boobies and sea lions that we had to detour around to gulls and tropicbirds in nooks in the rocks, endemic Española Mockingbirds and Large Cactus Finches foraging at our feet, and towering spray crashing up through a blowhole at the scenic overlook. The undisputed highlight here, of course, was the Waved Albatross show. Almost all of the world’s population of this vulnerable species nests here, and we were privileged to observe many aspects of their breeding biology.  Especially enchanting was the prolonged swaying, stomping, and bill-clattering dance of a courting pair that we watched at length, but we also saw endearing chicks of several sizes and observed the awkward take-offs and landings of these huge birds. It was hard to leave, as a remarkably tame pair of Galapagos Hawks sat on the monument at the landing to bid us farewell.

We departed the M/V Evolution at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island, our heads swirling with wonderful memories of so many amazing things, but we weren’t quite done yet. A final birding excursion into the hills yielded one last endemic—the San Cristobal Mockingbird, great looks at several elusive Dark-billed Cuckoos, and some final studies of “Darwin’s finches” before it was time to head for town and the airport, our tour of the magnificent Galapagos Islands complete, but never to be forgotten.