Julie Hatfield reports on the exotic birds and animals found in the Galapagos Islands

Special to AllThingsCruise

San Cristobal Island – Perhaps because my husband and I are here at the beginning of the rainy season, the islands look greener than we expected from what we had read about the “barren volcanic rock landscape.” It’s quite lush, with lots of trees and flowers and bushes. All the better for the birds, which means it’s all the better for the Massachusetts Audubon Society group who are on the same cruise.

Of particular interest to the birders are the frigate birds and the blue-footed boobies, which are so prevalent in the Galapagos.

Blue-footed booby

We can concentrate on the birds, the sea lions, the marine iguanas and the giant tortoises because International Expeditions has taken such good care of us in all the logistics that most travelers have to worry about.  From the moment we left the hotel in Guayaquil we didn’t have to deal with our luggage until we saw it in our cabins on the boat.

IE has provided us with our own native-born naturalist on board, the incredibly knowledgeable Bolivar Sanchez, or “Boli,” and his assistant Alex Cox. Each evening before we prepare for our next island and next day’s adventure they present a slide show lecture on what to expect.

Just as Charles Darwin was, we are struck by how different each of these islands are one from another, and how unique are the birds especially and the plants and, in some cases, the marine life is on each island. As Darwin noted, each island is far enough away from the others, and the currents so strong, that the living things stay put on their respective islands, each suited to certain kinds of birds and fish, mammals and crawling things. The birders were thrilled to see the ground finch, which is endemic to Espanola Island, for example, and the waved albatross found only here. The latter albatross is so named because of the wavy configuration across his wings.

SUNDAY, APRIL 3 – Today we landed on on Espanola Island, greeted by one of the special endemic birds, the Hood mockingbird, which is so unafraid of us that he will not only alight on our heads but, if we allow it, he’ll steal a sip from our open water bottle! Hundreds of  marine iguanas, showing red coloration during this mating season, are lying around on the rocks here, sunning themselves.  They allow us to push our cameras inches away from their faces but we do it with caution because they have the impolite habit of suddenly spitting out the salt they collect from the seawater they have ingested.  If it lands on your camera lens it can ruin the photo session. The iguanas are nesting here, and the females are fighting for the best spot for a nest. Always, even in the remote Galapagos, it’s about real estate and location!

This afternoon we do our first snorkeling and swim with sea lions and barber fish.

One other special bird we found on Espanola is the albatross. The albatross is an awkward and ungainly bird, so ungraceful that it has to stumble to the edge of a cliff and jump off in order to fly with its enormous wingspan. Once in the air it transforms itself into an aerial ballerina.

Riding back to the ship in our little panga, or small boat,  we spot bottle-nosed dolphins and eagle rays, among many other swimming and flying creatures.

Dinnertime:  What is Galapagoan cuisine, you might ask? It is a wonderful bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables, including bananas and plantains, star fruit, blackberries and kiwis. Also, lots of fresh white fish and chicken and an impressive amount of shrimp, which Ecuadorians farm here.  The quantity and quality of this delicious shellfish is incredible, as is their local cheese.

Sally Lightfoot crab

Only one dress code exists on board the MV Evolution: shoes are required at dinner. Other than that, with the temperature remaining at about 87 degrees, T-shirts, bathing suits and shorts are our standard. We cover ourselves with sun cream rather than fabric in this land that sits on top of the Equator.

This cruise is unlike most typical cruises in that whenever we leave the ship for an expedition we are stepping into national parkland rather than touristy towns with bars and discos and T-shirt shops. Ninety-seven percent of the Galapagos is protected land, and the people who tend to come to the Galapagos cruises tend to love nature more than margaritas; these islands have been on their travel lists, in some cases, for most of their lives.

It’s a long way from most of our homes and we are going to relish every moment in this highly unusual preserved place. There’s great respect among our fellow passengers for nature and the environment, even though we may not be official birders. Three of the passengers are preteen children who have the opportunity of a lifetime to be enchanted by God’s creatures and to put away their computer games for a little more than a week and connect — unplugged — with the outdoors.

April 4, 2011

Photos by Cynthia Boal Janssens

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