A cruise of the Galapagos Islands takes on a life of its own. Each day is a series of highlights that satisfy even the most expectant traveler.
Many visitors, including me, arrive with a mental list of species they hope to see. On this trip, I checked off every species on my list.
The first full day of the trip set the bar high. At 7 a.m. June 16, we board the Zodiacs for a pre-breakfast circumnavigation of Kicker Rock, a set of monolithic volcanic outcrops that rise more than 300 feet above sea level.
Blue-footed and masked boobies perched high on the cliffs, brilliant orange Sally Lightfoot crabs clung tenaciously to the tidal zone, and brown pelicans and brown noddies sailed by at eye level.
And shortly after we arrived, the sun appeared between a giant chasm in the rocks. The wake-up trip lasted less than an hour, but it’s a morning I’ll never forget.
That afternoon we landed on Espanola Island for a promised 2-mile hike over rugged terrain. I was among the first off my Zodiac and as I removed my life preserver, a lava heron sailed by and landed about 20 feet away.
At a glance, it suggests a green heron, an endemic species found only on the Galapagos. Chalk up another life bird. (Hereafter, I’ll indicate endemics with an “E.”)
Marine iguanas (E) littered the rocks lining the trail from the landing area to the beach and Sally Lightfoot crabs scurried past in the surf zone. Both were still novel sights that required everyone to pause to take photographs.
As my group gathered to begin the hike, a Galapagos hawk (E) sailed in and perched on a nearby tower and several Hood mockingbirds (E) perched conspicuously in nearby vegetation.
We began the hike by crossing a beach where sea lions basked in the sun. Most slept, oblivious to our presence, but a few males sat upright in displays of dominance.
For about 30 minutes, we traversed a rocky trail and encountered a Galapagos hawk nesting atop a large boulder, Galapagos flycatchers (E), many small and colorful lava lizards (E), and three of the 13 species (all endemic) of Darwin’s finches.
These drab, dark birds are difficult to identify, but knowledge of which species occur on which islands helps. The large cactus finch, small ground finch, and tiny warbler finch were hard to miss.
I especially enjoyed the warbler finch. Its tiny bill and body, smaller than a kinglet, made it easy to recognize, and they were fearless. At times, they perched within arm’s length in shrubs at eye level.
It turned out everything we’d seen so far on Espanola was just a prelude to a memorable encounter with waved albatrosses (E). At first, we saw a few in flight; everyone was excited because it was another new species. But 10 minutes later, the trail led us right through a nesting colony.
Though a few birds sat quietly incubating a single egg, most seemed still involved in courtship activities. Males and females faced off, bobbed up and down, and repeatedly snapped their bills open and shut.
They are huge birds with a 7-foot wingspan and a body that suggests a slimmed down Canada goose. At one point, an albatross followed us down the trail, seeming as fascinated with us as we were with it.
On our final day, we visited Santa Cruz Island, where we focused on the giant Galapagos tortoises (E). At the Charles Darwin Research Station we learned that 11 subspecies survive and that the total population numbers about 15,000.
To see tortoises in the wild, we visited a private farm, where the owner charges $3 per person to walk his pastures and encounter free roaming tortoises. It’s the best eco-tourism enterprise I can imagine.
If you plan a trip to the Galapagos, you’ll discover that many guides to the islands’ wildlife are available. I own eight of them and recommend Birds, Mammals & Reptiles of the Galapagos Islands, Second Edition (2005) by Andy Swash and Rob Still.
Next week, I’ll share some birding experiences from the cloud forest on Ecuador’s mainland.