Chirped by Tina
The Galapagos Islands of Ecuador… site of Charles Darwin’s inspiration for his treatise On the Origin of Species. If you’ve been toying with the idea of adding them to your “World Travels Bucket List,” allow me to sing their praises and convince you that it might be worth prying a good-sized chip off your nest egg to make it happen! We decided to splurge on this amazing trip with our two boys while they still have some flexibility in their summer schedules. Soon enough they’ll be getting “real jobs” with little or no vacation time, and a wildlife-focused destination was something the whole family could get behind. We were not disappointed. Maybe you weren’t sure whether a bunch of finches with different beak shapes and some big turtles would be worth the trip? As I think you’ll see from my photos, the Galapagos have soooo much more to offer than that!
We spent seven incredible days island-hopping on the Silver Galapagos cruise ship. Exploring the north and central islands in early June turns out to be a perfect time to see all sorts of species and courtship behaviors. It’s also right on the cusp between the rainy and dry seasons, so the water was reasonably warm for snorkeling (in the 70’s F, “refreshing” with our ship-provided wetsuits), we had mostly sunny weather, and select islands sported some of their former greenery. I am still a bit giddy with all the birds, reptiles and marine wildlife we got to observe at close range, always with a naturalist guide along to interpret their weird and wonderfully wacky ways! With over a thousand pictures to choose from, I’m going to highlight some extra special ones just to give you a taste of the experience…
As the first offering of what may turn out to be many future travel logs, let me apologize at this point for the length of this particular post. If you’re not fascinated by the behaviors of exotic species the way I am, hopefully you’ll at least enjoy scrolling through my up-close-and-personal photos! c(-; – Tina
Day 1: Baltra & Daphne Islands
Our flight from Miami landed in Quito, Ecuador, where we hung out for a day and a half before our chartered flight over to the islands. We booked all our transfers before and after the cruise through SilverSea, and they made everything super easy. They even had their own concierge desk at the Marriott in Quito, through which we arranged a great private tour of Old Town and visited some beautiful churches and historical sites. (Ecuador, by the way, uses US dollars as their official currency – how convenient!) From Quito we flew into Seymour Airport on Baltra Island to get to our ship. The first day was mostly about settling in, safety drills, meeting the guides, and an offshore cruise around Daphne Island. My hubbie and I had a tiny balcony off our stateroom, and I was thrilled when a great frigatebird soared right up alongside the ship and past our room! (Little did I know I would see hundreds of them by the end of the trip.) That and a gorgeous Galapagos sunset were my highlights for the day.
Every night we would find the latest edition of Silversea’s “Chronicles” in our staterooms, with everything we needed to know about the next day’s adventures. There were typically a couple of both morning and afternoon excursions of varying difficulty to choose from, and they did a great job at the 7:00pm daily briefing of letting you know what to expect in terms of how strenuous or rough the terrain would be, for the benefit of those travelers who might have concerns. Our family was among the youngest demographic on board, but by the end of the week, even we opted for one of the shorter hikes since it wasn’t going to miss any animals we hadn’t encountered in some form before.
Day 2: Genovesa Island
First full day in the islands, and what a way to begin! Boobies, pelicans, fur seals, sea lions and more frigatebirds wherever you turned on our hike from the top of Prince Phillips Steps. Our incredible guide taught us everything we’d never known that we might want to know about red-footed and Nazca boobies and their nesting and breeding habits, plus we got to witness some fledglings desperately trying to catch a breeze and take flight – one of them successfully! In case you’re interested, red-footed boobies are the only type to nest in trees and bushes (with appropriately adapted prehensile webbed feet) and only lay one egg at a time. Nazca boobies often lay two eggs, and the first chick to hatch typically commits siblicide on the later arrival… Yikes!
Snorkeling from the beach after our morning hike was more for beginning snorkelers, and with everyone kicking up the sand, the visibility wasn’t great. Nonetheless, one more experienced member of our group ventured over into a cove and saw two black-tipped sharks! (The guides acted like it would be a special treat to see sharks? We weren’t disappointed to have missed them…) After lunch and a break back on the ship, we went out again (always transported to land by inflatable Zodiac boats in groups of about 8-14) for a hike along Darwin Bay. Of particular interest were nesting rituals of the swallow-tailed gulls and the thievery of the great frigatebirds. Male swallow-tailed gulls make a big show of selecting just the right stones for their ground-level nests and presenting them to the females to show what great daddies they would make. By the way, it’s not always obvious what is a nest and what is just rocks on the ground, but as you can see, they will valiantly defend their pile from intruders!
Unlike the swallow-tails with their stone obsession, frigatebirds are suckers for sticks. Young chicks will grab at a proffered stick to practice tossing and catching it (you can’t eat a fish sideways, you have to master the flip to make it go straight down your throat!) As we hiked, we even offered them to passing adult birds – one plucked a stick right from my son’s hand! The animals of the Galapagos have no instinctual fear of humans, so they typically either ignored us or in this case, used us a resource for nice easy materials for their nests.
Male frigatebirds also put on a colorful show to attract a mate. They hang out in groups called leks and inflate their red gular sacs with air to catch the eye of fly-by females. At the same time, they flap their wings and either beat the sac with their bills (in the case of the magnificent variety) or squawk a bit (in the case of the great frigatebird).
Last tidbit for the day, frigatebirds also have a reputation for being thieves. They can soar for days at a time, but can’t land in the water and successfully take off again. As a result, they have to pluck their meals from the land or ocean’s surface – or steal them from other birds’ mouths! We saw a number of mid-air battles, as well as repeated efforts to steal fish during the regurgitation exchange between a parent and its chick. Sometimes the parent will just wait it out until the aggressor moves on to easier targets.
Back on board our floating oasis, we supped at The Grill – the outdoor dining area at the back of the boat. We all decided to try the Ecuadorian Barbecue on offer: shrimp, chicken or steak served on a sizzling lava rock. The kids were a little perplexed that they had to cook their own meat on a fancy cruise boat, but they survived the ordeal… poor things.
Day 3: North Seymour Island and Sullivan Bay, Santiago
For the third time in three days, we lucked out with our now favorite guide, Jan (pronounced “Yahn”) from the Netherlands. Jan could turn anyone into a birder, and my family got hooked. On the agenda today, the famous blue-footed boobies – smallest and most numerous of the boobies in the Galapagos. The bluer the feet, the more attractive the mate. This guy was doing his best to impress the girl, high-stepping and even laying a twig directly on her back. I’m no expert, but I don’t think she was impressed…
We also got some great shots of sea lions and Galapagos land iguanas. Might be TMI, but land iguanas apparently only move their bowels about once a month (conserves water), and we had the dubious “privilege” of witnessing this guy’s offering… You can tell he was pretty pleased with himself.
The afternoon’s activity was a guided “lava walk” over a very young lava flow on Santiago Island. It was also our first and only glimpse of the Galapagos penguins. We only saw two – or maybe it was the same one, once on the lava rocks and once in the water at the beginning and end of our hike. Those are Sally Lightfoot crabs in the background, supposedly named after a Caribbean dancer because of their agility.
Check out our “family photo” on the lava field – I thought my son who hates smiling for photos would like this one, but he thought it was corny… The intricate ropy lava formations were really beautiful, and seeing how tiny plants and cacti are just starting to spring up here and there on the flow was really interesting. Overall though, we thought this hike could have been about an hour shorter!
This past weekend I got a text from my neighbor about the volcanic eruption on Fernandina, one of the uninhabited western islands. Like the sharks, that’s a close encounter we’re not sad to have missed! We do wonder whether we would have even been able to see the plume from the eastern side of the archipelago. The islands are farther apart than you might imagine, sometimes requiring multiple hours of afternoon or overnight (and occasionally rough) cruising to get to. In general we found the rocking motion quite soothing, though there were a couple of nights where it was strong enough to roll us over and wake us up.
Day 4: Rábida and Eden Islet, Santa Cruz
Rábida’s red sand beaches stood out from the previous islands we’d visited, and made for an impressive “Martian” backdrop for some of our wildlife sightings. The red color somehow results from lava with a high iron content oxidizing before it has a chance to harden… but the geology factoids didn’t stick with me as well as the animal ones did. c(-; We learned about prickly pear cacti and a lagoon “killed” by sea lions mucking up the bottom and disturbing the delicate chemical balance. (It’s slowly reviving.)
After the morning hike, we got in some great snorkeling in the cove – exploring along the base of a sheltering cliff wall. Loads of big colorful tropical fish, swarms of tiny fish, at least three kinds of star fish, sea urchins, a sting ray, marine iguanas on the cliff walls, a sea lion darting past us, and the highlight for me – one of my kids spotted an octopus on the move. This one’s worth a video… So cool!
Our late afternoon expedition was a Zodiac cruise around Eden Islet, looking for baby hammerheads that normally shelter in the area. Turns out wildlife doesn’t always show up on cue – but we did see a huge sea turtle dart out from under the overhanging branches along the shore, as well as a lava heron hunting for dinner. Being out on the water also gave us a great angle on pelicans diving for fish right next to our little boat. They scoop the fish up with their pouched bills. When they tilt their heads back to express the water, fish will sometimes escape as well, so diving pelicans can expect an enthusiastic crowd of opportunistic birds to be waiting when they surface with their catch.
We also had the opportunity to watch and learn a little about the courtship of Sally Lightfoot crabs. According to our guide, the females have a tendency to eat the males, so an amorous male gingerly approaches a female and taps her shell to suggest that she mate with him, instead of eating him. I didn’t find that little nugget in my Google searches, so allow me to insert a disclaimer: I’m attempting to relay the information our naturalists passed on to us as faithfully as I can, but if they were just making stuff up, what can I do?
Day 6: San Cristóbal’s Tortoise Breeding Center and Punta Pitt
At long last, we got to see the giant tortoises of the Galapagos! These were the saddleback variety, referring to the shell shape adaptation that allows them to reach higher leaves and branches than the domeshaped grazing tortoises. The Ecuadorian government has worked hard to bring the giant tortoises back from near extinction. Touring the breeding center gave us a glimpse into how that has happened, right down to details like marking which side was up on each egg in a newly unearthed nest before transferring the eggs to incubators, in order to improve viability. Interesting, but the tour felt a little too much like a zoo for our taste.
By the afternoon, we were back with the boobies. Our Punta Pitt nature walk featured fantastic views from the cliffs and all three varieties of nesting boobies. The lessons from this hike were about how their size, flight habits and nesting preferences differentiate the species in terms of where on the cliffs they make their homes and what types of food they go after. The differences help ensure that there’s enough room and food for all. The blue-footed boobies like to catch the updrafts right along the cliffs when they take off, and clearly have no anxieties about the height, as you can see from the one scratching his head on one foot and the mama with a chick and unhatched egg right on the edge!
Day 6: Bahia Gardner and Punta Suarez, Española
In Bahia Gardner we did some deep water snorkeling from the Zodiacs, and got to swim with a couple of sea lions for a bit. Along the rocky shoreline there were all the “usual” exotic fish species nibbling at the coral and darting about, but I have to admit, when you turned your mask to the deeper waters, it was a little unnerving to gaze into the blue, bottomless nothingness – especially knowing that other folks had seen sharks in the preceding days!
The afternoon walk along Punta Suarez was our first close encounter with nesting and, even more exciting, courting albatrosses. The more in-sync their courtship dance is, the more compatible they presumably are as a couple. This is definitely worth another video clip – it was quite the show!
We also saw a colorful variety of the Galapagos marine iguanas – lots of them, piled on top of each other as a means of thermoregulation. The marine iguanas we’d seen on other islands tended to be shades of black or gray, so the red accents were pretty neat. Also got a shot of a younger version of those Sally Lightfoot crabs – the brighter red they are, the older, tougher and harder to eat they are, somewhat explaining the completely non-camouflaged evolution!
And then there were the sea lions – playing in the water, chasing each other around, sunning on the beach after a long day at sea, and on several occasions, nursing their young. The big bull males lumbered around checking on their harem and warning off any intruding younger males.
Day 7: Giant Tortoise Reserve & Plaza Sur, Santa Cruz Island
Seemed like another day at the zoo – but it’s really a farmer who realized his property was a mecca for giant tortoises and decided to capitalize on it, at least as we understood it. The tortoises are protected but roam free, and while the “two meters/six feet from wildlife” rule was always in effect, our naturalist guide let us all stand quietly behind a big one relaxing in a field for our “Kodak moment”… We’re not quite as close as the perspective makes it look.
The Tortoise Reserve also featured a short walk through a “lava tube”. These tunnels are formed when lava on the top of a flow hardens, but molten lava continues to flow underneath it and away from the area. The walkway was illuminated with small electric bulbs, and around each light a little oasis of plants had sprung up. Life will find a way!
Back in the town of Plaza Sur, we were encouraged to do a little souvenir shopping to support the local economy, and to check out the fish market. The fish mongers, pelicans and sea lions didn’t seem to have received the memo about the distance they should be keeping from each other…
One more lunch (including my daily ceviche) and siesta on the ship, and suddenly we found ourselves at Plaza Sur for our final expedition in the Galapagos… )-: This area was loaded with prickly pear cacti, and our new pearl of knowledge for the day was that if you’re in the Galapagos, and you see cactus fruit or pads on the ground around a prickly pear, that probably means the island does not have land iguanas. The big iguanas will claim and defend a cactus as their own, and just hang out below it waiting for dinner to fall from the sky. We also, over the course of the week, picked up that on islands without land iguanas or other creatures that like to eat cacti, the spines have evolved to be softer since they don’t need to defend themselves from predators.
Our guide, Nico, was a thoughtful kind of guy, and had us take a moment to reflect on our experience while we paused on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Flocks of swooping shearwaters were coming in to their cliff-side nests for the evening. A school of yellow-tailed mullets just like one we’d seen off our balcony earlier in the week came to say goodbye. We even got a glimpse of a school of golden cownose rays gliding near the surface of the water. It was a beautiful last hurrah…
Then it was time to head back to the ship.
It had been an incredible week. That night, Friday, we put our bags to be checked outside our stateroom doors by 11:00pm. They were spirited away while we slept. The next morning at 7:45am we waited with our carry-ons for a Zodiac to take us to shore, where we boarded a bus to San Cristóbal Airport. From there, we flew to Guayquil, on the mainland, a city of over 2.3 million people. Our transfer included a dayroom at Hotel Oro Verde, so we dropped off our things, had lunch at the hotel, and walked down to El Malecón, the gated and policed boardwalk with playgrounds, gardens, shopping, an IMAX and lots of happy folks out enjoying a beautiful Saturday afternoon. That got us good and sweaty, so we were glad for the dayroom to go shower in before dinner. A delayed red-eye leaving after midnight made us miss our connecting flight the next morning in Miami, so we had to catch a different flight two and a half hours later, and finally made it back home by 1:22pm on Sunday. Not an uncomplicated itinerary, but so worth it! I’d go again if I had the chance, maybe do the western island itinerary. After all, I still haven’t seen the flightless cormorants, flamingos, porpoises, dolphins, sharks, manta rays, barracudas, etc., etc., etc…