Galapagos Islands Cruise Aboard the M/V Evolution Oct 28—Nov 06, 2016

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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From the moment our plane touched down on that arid desert “slab” that is Baltra Island, in mid-Pacific Ocean, one could get the feeling that this was a “different” sort of place. As we descended to our landing site, we could see a scattering of distant islets jutting out of the deep blue water and could observe a handful of “seaworthy” vessels of all sizes anchored in a nearby bay. As we deplaned and walked to the somewhat small but neatly built airline terminal, a few questions began running through our heads…Are we really here? Is this really the land that whispered its secrets to a young Charles Darwin on his voyage of the Beagle? Are there really bizarre “dragons” and giant tortoises lying about as described by the sea-farers, whalers, and pirates of yore? Standing in this rather uninspiring austere, barren, and windswept landscape, those romantic and “fantastic” notions still seemed distant and unfathomable. After gathering outside the terminal, having collected our baggage and meeting our naturalist guides, Boli and Cristina, a couple of plain, unobtrusive sparrow-like birds hopped about and then disappeared, blown away by a gust of wind…that might have been the only hint that this could really be a different place, but we were already loading up on a local bus and heading off for what we were told would be a few minute’s ride to a small dock (this was obviously not a bustling port), where we would load onto Zodiacs, locally known as “pangas,” to transfer to our ship—the M/V Evolution (appropriate name?).

But wait a minute…what was that little dove that just flew by…it surely wasn’t a Rock Pigeon? Hey, those are Brown Noddies flying about…and Magnificent Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans, Blue-footed Boobies plunge-diving close-by…wait one minute…is that a lumbering Land Iguana by that shed? Does that blackish rock have a blackish Marine Iguana resting on it? Is that the rarest of all gulls, the Lava Gull? We may indeed be on those Galapagos Islands…it may be beginning to sink in…we are about to embark on our own voyage of discovery, into the realm of Darwin, of Melville, of “dragons” and volcanoes, giant tortoises, sea lions, bright red crabs, underwater creatures…the “origin of species,” and…not to lose focus here… special birds!

Waved Albatross

Waved Albatross— Photo: Paul J. Greenfield

 

We did not have to wait long for our initiation “ceremony”; just after a delicious lunch (our first of many excellent meals aboard ship), we set sail and closed-out our first afternoon circling Daphne Major—one of those volcanic islets we spied from the plane as we came in for a landing. We gathered on deck as the sun began to descend to admire this unique scenario—hundreds of Galapagos Shearwaters at sea, Magnificent Frigatebirds (including a few ballooning males!), Nazca and Blue-footed boobies everywhere, Brown Pelicans, a couple of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, an American Oystercatcher, and those absolutely gorgeous Swallow-tailed Gulls, all swarming and roosting about this pint-sized volcanic cone…but this was a mere taste of what was to come.

These mystical islands, considered to be “enchanted” in the classic sense of the word by buccaneers and whalers, are truly enchanting as a travel destination. On some days you experience some sort of pre-Cambrian Age time-travel effect; on others you can actually feel Charles Darwin breathing down your neck as you ponder the all-too-similar finches or the intriguingly different mockingbirds. Then there’s the cruise ship experience, the beach-bumming, the fascinating snorkeling adventures, kayaking, hiking…stepping over, around, and sometimes even between masses of ferocious-looking, salt-snorting Marine Iguanas, or endearing sea lion families, or nesting seabirds, then sharing a moment or a selfie with a moving boulder…no, a Giant Tortoise! We enjoyed being on deck at sunrise each morning and at any chance we got, as the Evolution glided towards our next anchoring location, to watch for whatever sea-life and pelagic birds we might spot; just being out overlooking the open ocean was a refreshing experience in itself within this “fantastic” multidimensional world, where each landing site offered a new set of conditions to take in and mentally digest.

Our naturalist guides mentioned, as we began our journey, that the recent El Niño event did not seriously affect the island’s wildlife as it might have, but during our 8-day cruise we noticed evidence that this might not be an accurate assessment of the situation. As we spent every opportunity sea-watching from the ship’s deck, we noted that numbers of certain pelagic bird species were noticeably down in comparison to previous trips. Most notable were those of Galapagos Petrel and almost shockingly, Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel. Obviously, a single one-week sampling period cannot tell the whole story, but our records exposed specific results that should be looked into…this is a place where one’s simple observations can reflect hidden realities, as seems to be the case with a few of “Darwin’s” finches; after years of noticing distinct differences between some of the finch populations on the different islands, a few of the traditional “species” classifications are beginning to demand review. Now two species of Warbler-Finch are recognized, and even this may be an over simplification…it certainly seems that way to many of us. What was considered the Large Cactus-Finch duo is now up for a split too—the birds we found on Española Island are finally being considered as a distinct species from the quite different Genovesa Island population, and as we asked ourselves, “Is it really a ‘cactus’ finch (?), spending much of its time digging at roots and for seeds on the ground, on an island that boasts precious few cacti!”

The Galapagos experience would not be so famously memorable if not for the up-close-and-personal encounters one can have with all sorts of wildlife: reptiles that just lie there when you approach them; birds that go about their business at arm’s-length from a human observer; and what about sea turtles, sharks, rays, and tropical fish, not to mention sea lions, Flightless Cormorants, and Galapagos Penguins that swim with you as if you were some kind of pool toy! It really must be seen to be believed…and we saw a lot. We recorded 11 finch species, and we had our challenges…glaring dumbfounded and speechless at a few confusing individuals is common practice here…“Is that a large medium, a small medium, an extra large…?” became a recurrent question, and no, we were not talking about shirt sizes or Starbucks coffee! Penguins on the Equator, cormorants that cannot fly…with those useless wings; it’s like we’ve caught them in some kind of evolutionary limbo or time-capsule; those wings can’t be the end point in their evolutionary journey…no way! Galapagos Hawk at arm’s-length, Española Mockingbirds that ran between our legs or jumped up on our backpacks, a Galapagos Flycatcher that almost landed on a stick I was holding, the Waved Albatross’s graceful gliding flight just inches above the ocean’s waves versus their clumsy, awkward, and incredibly cumbersome manner on land; and what about their chicks—the perfect “Big-Bird” look-alike! The booby displaying its “blue-suede shoes,” a Galapagos Martin swooping over the mangroves, lava, and beach at Punto Espinoza…all of these experiences and so much more filled our days and enlightened our hearts. This is truly a different sort of place…that will not be forgotten any time soon.