Galapagos 2015

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UNESCO has described the Galapagos archipelago as one of the most unique, scientifically important, and biologically outstanding areas on earth. Whilst the islands have been accessible for a long time, it is only in recent years that the thought of going has occurred to us, as we had always regarded it as a place on the other side of the world that only the privileged would visit. However, that notion changed for us when we saw an opportunity of going with a small group of like-minded wildlife photographers. It was an incredible 11-day trip where we sailed right round the archipelago stopping at all the important 'visitor sites' and encountering an almost bewildering variety of wildlife.

The following is a brief island-by-island account of where we went and what we saw, plus a few words about our boat and the trip in general. Please note that the SPECIES I’ve listed after each site description are the most notable and memorable that we saw and photographed – they are not the only species that would have been seen at that location.


Baltra, and the start of the trip

Also known as South Seymour, Baltra, is a relatively small island near the centre of the archipelago. It’s of little interest except for the fact that it’s where the main airport is located. We flew to Baltra from Quito in Ecuador and, after clearing immigration, made our way down to Aeolein Bay to board our boat, Tip-Top IV.

This boat, or motor yacht as they like to call it, is part of the Rolf Wittmer fleet. It has 8 crew including the captain, an international cook and a certified guide, and only takes 16 passengers. There’s a top sun deck, an upper deck with four cabins, a main deck containing the lounge and dining room, and a lower deck with a further six cabins. We were lucky enough to have been allocated one of the upper deck cabins.

First impressions were good – it looked comfortable, clean and well run. We started with a 'safety briefing' and general discussion about the day-to-day arrangements. From this simple introduction it was immediately clear that this was a professional operation where organization and timing were of paramount importance in order to ensure that the planned itinerary was maintained.

Before dinner each evening we would have a short informative talk about the islands. This talk was given by Daniel Fitter our naturalist guide, which was handy as he is also a professional wildlife photographer and co-author of the ‘Wildlife of Galapagos’ pocket guide. And then, after dinner, we would have a short resume about what we had seen that day, followed by a run-through of the next day’s activities. This briefing was by our knowledgeable and very likeable official Parque Nacional guide, Joed Aguine.

A typical daily itinerary would be a wake-up call at 05.15 with breakfast at 05.45, and on shore at 06.30 for 3 or 4 hours depending on location. It was then back to the boat and, for those that were interested, almost straight back out for snorkeling. Lunch was at 12.00, followed by some free time or more snorkeling, before making another landing at 15.00. We would normally be out till dusk arriving back on the boat at about 18.30. Daniel’s talk would normally start at about 19.00, followed by dinner at 19.30. We would then go through the day’s events and where we’d be the next morning. Finally, a chat, and review of your photographs if you wanted it, and then to bed. The days were full, and you slept well.

The other point that’s worth noting is that you sometimes have to cover quite large distances between islands. Unless you were moving to a new location during the day, as we had to on the day of arrival, the boat would up-anchor late evening when everybody had gone to bed and motor through the night, so that when you woke up in the morning you were at the next location.

The whole operation was a credit to the company, captain and crew.


GalapagosStepMap


Anyway, after our initial briefing we were off to our first destination. The above map shows our route, starting at Baltra and sailing round the islands in an anti-clockwise direction. Unfortunately, due to the way I've had to produce the map, it is not interactive and consequently the 'visitor site' locations do not automatically link with the text below. However, to try to make the write-up as clear as I can, I have identified each of the official location sites we visted in coloured type and have obviously listed them in the order that they were visited as shown on the map.


North Seymour

Lying just to the north of Baltra, is North Seymour - a small low-lying island, named after the English nobleman, Lord Hugh Seymour. The island has just one designated visitor site consisting of a circular trail which takes you a short way down the coast and then inland through an open area of dwarf Palo Santo trees.
SPECIES : frigatebird (magnificent and greater), blue-footed booby, marine and land iguana, sea lion.


Genovesa (Tower Island)

Genovesa, or Tower Island as it is called in English, is a horse-shoe shaped island located in the northeastern region of the archipelago. Its distinct shape was formed from the eruption of a shield volcano (a volcano with broad, gentle slopes built-up over time by repeated lava flows and which resembles a ‘shield’) and the eventual collapse of one side of the caldera. The resulting submerged crater formed Darwin Bay, which is surrounded by steep cliffs that provide homes for many seabirds. The island has two visitor sites :-

Darwin Bay is a small sand and coral beach, behind which there is a trail through mixed vegetation of salt bush and mangrove, past a couple of intertidal pools and then up a rocky hill that leads to a point overlooking the cliffs.
SPECIES : greater frigatebird, red-footed booby, Nazca booby, swallow-tailed gull, lava gull, yellow-crowned night heron, marine iguana.

The site known as Prince Philip’s Steps consists of a steep rocky climb up the cliff to a trail that continues inland through a sparsely covered area of Palo Santo trees leading onto the other side of the island, where you walk along a large oxidized rocky brown-lava plateau that extends out to the tall cliff face.
SPECIES : red-billed tropic bird, greater frigatebird, red-footed booby, nazca booby, short-eared owl.

Red-footed Booby ~ Darwin Bay, Genovesa
Red-footed Booby ~ Darwin Bay, Genovesa


Santiago (James Island)

Santiago, originally named James Island after King James II, has two main visitor areas where you can land - James Bay on the northwest of the island and Sullivan Bay on the southeast. We went to James Bay, which actually consists of three separate sites – Playa Espumilla on the northern end of the bay, and Puerto Egas at the southern end where there are two trails, the first along the coast and the second inland to a salt mine. Our visit was concentrated on the coast, as this particular site is just about the only one where you can get close to the endemic fur seals.
SPECIES : fur seal, sea lion, marine iguana, sally lightfoot crab, brown pelican, lava heron, oystercatcher, various shorebirds.

In the afternoon we had a panga ride around Buccaneer Cove, which is north of James Bay.
SPECIES : fur seal, brown pelican, blue-footed booby, common noddy, Galapagos shearwater, Elliot’s storm petrel.


Isabela

The large seahorse-shaped Isabela Island is about 75 miles long and greater in size than all of the other islands combined. There are numerous visitor sites, of which we visited the following :-

Punta Vicente Roca
Nestled right up in the northeast crook of the island, Punta Vicente Roca is actually a marine site for snorkeling and diving, but it also provides an opportunity to take a panga ride around the cove at the base of the cliff. The cold waters approaching the area as you come around the top of Isabela offer some of the best opportunities for spotting whales and dolphins.
SPECIES : common and bottlenose dolphin, penguin, brown pelican.

Common Dolphins ~ Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela
Common Dolphins ~ Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela

Tagus Cove
A sheltered bay providing a natural harbour and anchorage, which was once a favourite of pirates and whalers. The cove is actually a flooded valley between two large tuff cones, with the flooded crater of a third, called Darwin Lake, set just behind. An ash trail leads up around the lake to a viewpoint overlooking lava fields.
SPECIES : various finches, yellow warbler and mockingbird.

After walking the trail we explored the rocky coastline around the bay by panga.
SPECIES : penquin, flightless cormorant, sea lion, marine iguana.

Elizabeth Bay
This is another visitor site that is only accessible by panga. You enter through a narrow gap between the lava where tidal waters can rip through, so timing of the visit is important. Once through this gap you enter a large lagoon of calm water where tributaries feed off into little mangrove bordered backwaters.
SPECIES : green turtle, spotted eagle ray, striated heron, penguin.

Urbina Bay
This site is at the foot of the Alcedo volcano. There’s a long narrow loop trail that takes you inland to an area where, in 1954, a large stretch of coral reef was raised over 5m above seal-level. Although they are now deteriorating rapidly some of the old coral heads are still visible several hundred metres inland. A further, smaller, uplift occurred in 1994, which has resulted in the rocky landing area only being accessible at high tide.
SPECIES : blue-footed boobies, various finches, giant tortoise, land iguanas.

Punta Moreno
At first glance, this site appears to be a barren lava field typical of hundreds of others in the archipelago. But, after a reasonably long walk across its surface you come to an area containing a number of brackish lagoons containing a wide variety of life.
SPECIES : flamingo.

Marine Iguana ~ Tagus Cove, Isabela
Marine Iguana ~ Tagus Cove, Isabela


Fernandina (Narborough Island)

Fernandiana, or Narborough Island as it’s called in English in honor of Sir John Narborough – a 17th century English naval commander, is the most westerly of the Galapagos islands. It is the third largest island, and the youngest at less than one million years old. It is also the most volcanically active as it sits at the centre of the hot-spot that created Galapagos. There have been 13 recorded eruptions on Fernandina in recent times, with the most recent in May 2005 and April 2009. The environment is regarded as being the most pristine of all the islands and is being kept that way by restricting visitors to just one landing site.

Punta Espinosa
This point has been raised and lowered a number of times as a result of geologic activity throughout its history, with the last known activity in 1975, when it was raised approximately half a metre leaving corals and red mangroves exposed. The trail starts in a small area of mangrove, which then leads into an open area of beach and lava rock, where it then splits into two separate trails.
SPECIES : flightless cormorant, marine iguana, sea lion, sally lightfoot crab.


Floreana (Charles Island)

Floreana is named after Juan Jose Flores, the first president of Ecuador, during whose administration the government of Ecuador took possession of the archipelago. Its English and original name is Charles Island, after King Charles II.

The island has some very interesting human history of which there’s far too much to summarise in this very brief overview, other than a relevant fact being that Rolf Wittmer, one of the original promoters of eco-tourism in Galapagos and founder of the Wittmer yacht fleet, was the first person to be born on the island. Read more about Floreana's intriguing history.

We visited three locations on the island :-

Post Office Bay
This is one of the few visitor sites in Galapagos where human history is the main focus. A group of whalers placed a wooden barrel here in 1793 and called it a post office. Traveling seamen would leave addressed letters in the barrel and hope that the next seamen to come along might be headed in the direction of their letters’ destination. Today, visitors leave their own postcards and sift through the current pile of cards—if they find one that they can hand-deliver, they take it with them.

Post Office Bay, Floreana
Post Office Bay, Floreana

Punta Cormorant
There are two contrasting beaches at this site, plus an offshore islet where there’s a chance of seeing the critically endangered endemic Floreana Mockingbird. Following a wet landing on an olivine beach, which is a mixture of green translucent volcanic crystal and sand, a trail takes you across the island, past a large brackish lagoon, to a beautiful white sand beach where green turtles nest. If you arrive at this beach early enough, as we did, you may find a green turtle that is still in the process of laying or covering her eggs. You return down the trail, past a viewing point over the lagoon, back to and along the olivine beach to another viewing point at the edge of the lagoon where, if you’re lucky, you’ll see flamingos close into shore.
SPECIES : green turtle, sea lion, various waders, flamingo, swallow-tailed gull, Floreana mockingbird.

Floreana Highlands
Whilst this is an interesting place to visit, it is not an official visitor site. We had a mini-bus pick us up from the small town of Puerto Velasco Ibarra to take us on the 45-minute trip to Asilo de la Paz. It’s primarily a historical site, but there is also a very large, low-walled, enclosure that you can go into where there are various species of giant tortoises.
SPECIES : giant tortoise, various finches, Galapagos flycatcher.


Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz (meaning ‘Holy Cross’ in Spanish) is the second largest of the Galapagos Islands and located right in the centre of the archipelago. It is the main tourism hub for all of Galapagos, given its proximity to the airport on Baltra to the north. Santa Cruz has the longest paved road in Galapagos, which runs north-south across the island, taking people from the airport ferry at Itabaca Canal on the north coast into the highlands and through a few smaller towns on its way down to Puerto Ayora on the south coast.

Santa Cruz Highlands
We had a trip inland, when we travelled north on the road to Baltra, up through the agricultural zone and into the mist-covered forests of the Highlands. We visited an area that was rich in birdlife and home to a large number of giant tortoises.
SPECIES : various finches, mockingbird, Galapagos flycatcher, yellow warbler, smooth-billed ani, white-cheeked pintail, giant tortoise.

Puerto Ayora
Situated in Academy Bay, Puerto Ayora is the main tourist hub of Galapagos, where the town has a hospital, banks, post office, hotels and restaurants. It is also home to the Charles Darwin Research Station and the headquarters of the Galapagos National Park.

A ten minute walk from the centre of town, the Charles Darwin Research Station is almost an obligatory place to visit due to its significance and, conservation and environmental education work. The station conducts research providing technical assistance to other researchers and governmental agencies, including the Galapagos National Park. The main attraction within the grounds is the tortoise-rearing centre that operates a very successful breeding and reintroduction programme. Read more about the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative. A boardwalk passes through various pens and enclosures where you can see tortoises of all ages. The trail then continues past other enclosures housing different sub-species of tortoise from various islands. The centre was the home of the famous Lonesome George after he was found in 1971 on the goat-ravaged island of Pinta. He was a fully developed adult and the very last wild member of the Pinta race. He lived in his enclosure at the centre until his death in 2012. For further information about the various sub-species, check out the photo on my Flickr photostream.
SPECIES : giant tortoise, land iguana, various finches.

Galapagos Flycatcher ~ Santa Cruz Highlands
Galapagos Flycatcher ~ Santa Cruz Highlands


Espanola (Hood Island)

Espanola, or Hood Island as it’s called in English after Viscount Samuel Hood, is the southernmost island of the archipelago and, at about four million years, one of the oldest. Due to its remote location, Espanola is home to a number of its own endemic species such as the Espanola mockingbird and Espanola lava lizard. It is also the sole breeding ground for the entire population of the world’s waved albatrosses, an IUCN Red List ‘critically endangered’ species. The island has two attractive visitor sites :-

Punta Suarez
This is quite understandably one of the most popular visitor sites in Galapagos, because of its varied and abundant wildlife. That being said, we encountered only one other group during our visit and that was when we were returning to the boat. This was the beauty of our early starts. The trail takes you from a landing point on the north side of the island, through low scrubby vegetation, past a pebble beach covered in marine iguanas, and then up through a mixed colony of Nazca and blue-footed boobies, continuing on to the famous waved albatross colony. These birds arrive in April to nest and leave the island en masse in December or early January at the latest. Given that our trip was in early February, we should not have seen an albatross, but to both our and our guide’s surprise there was still one juvenile bird just getting ready to take his or her first flight. There may have been more as we also saw an adult bird fly past, but this was the only one we could observe. In a way, this solidary juvenile bird made our trip as, by this time, we had seen and photographed just about every species that we could have expected. We also had a very close encounter with a pair of Galapagos hawks on the way up. They had caught, what we think was a Nazca booby chick that they were busily devouring, as a result of which they took almost no notice of our presence.
SPECIES : Galapagos hawk, waved albatross, Nazca booby, blue-footed booby, swallow-tailed gull, Espanola mockingbird, various finches, marine iguana, sea lions.

Waved Albatross ~ Punta Suarez, Espanola
Waved Albatross ~ Punta Suarez, Espanola

Gardner Bay
The expansive white sand beach at Gardner Bay is over a mile long in total and, whilst you’re restricted to the beach itself as there is no internal trail, you are free to explore as you wish. Although there were various things to see, we spent all our time that afternoon with a pair of remarkably relaxed and ‘friendly’ Galapagos hawks. It was just incredible how close you could get to these magnificent birds.
SPECIES : Galapagos hawk.


San Cristobal (Chatham Island)

San Cristobal, or Chatham Island as it is called in English after William Pitt - Earl of Chatham, is the easternmost island of the archipelago. It is home to the oldest permanent settlement in Galapagos and is the island where Darwin first went ashore in 1835. There are two sites where you can land :-

Punta Pitt
Following a beach landing there’s a tough climb up an eroded cliff path, which then opens out and passes through typical arid zone vegetation. There were some nice views and a few nesting boobies, but not much else. From a wildlife photographic point of view it was a pretty fruitless morning’s walk. Apart from a few shots of sea lions and gulls back down on the beach the highlight was probably having the opportunity of photographing the last of the four different types of mockingbird.
SPECIES : Chatham mockingbird, swallow-tailed gull, sea lion.

After returning to the boat we had to make our way round the island to our afternoon destination at Cerro Brujo. With a slight detour so we had to double back on ourselves, the captain took us around a spectacular marine site called Kicker Rock. This rock is actually a vertical tuff cone that rises almost 150m straight up from the ocean (tuff cones are created when boiling lava encounters a very cold ocean, resulting in an explosion). It really was quite dramatic, providing different perspectives as you sailed round. Erosion has split the rock into two parts, forming a narrow channel that’s a favourite spot for diving and snorkeling.

Cerro Brujo
The primary attraction of this site is the expansive coral sand beach which terminated in a rocky area that was a nice natural spot for various waders, seal lions and crabs. The main attraction when we were there though was that there was a small group of blue-footed boobies and a couple of pelicans fishing in the shallows. The boobies are particularly enjoyable to both watch and photograph as they fish as a group. They fly round together almost in formation and then all dive together. I watched them for about half an hour and never once saw them catch anything!
SPECIES : brown pelican, blue-footed booby, oystercatcher, sally lightfoot crab.

Sally Lightfoot Crab ~ Cerro Brujo, San Cristobel
Sally Lightfoot Crab ~ Cerro Brujo, San Cristobel


Mosquera

Mosquera is a small, flat, sandy islet, that’s almost devoid of vegetation. It sits in the channel between Baltra and North Seymour and, due to its location, is a convenient final stop for many boat tours. It was our last day and we had to be at the airport at 9am, but we still had time for nearly two hours on the island from first light.
SPECIES : sea lion, lava gull, various waders.


Footnote :

I started this particular write-up by saying that it would be a brief island-by-island account of our trip. However, when you read through it actually seems like a very long report and, to those that have never been, it’s probably a bit boring and repetitive. However, if you have been, or are thinking of going, you will probably find some of the descriptions and associated comments lacking. I fully accept that, as I know I have not done the islands justice. In fact, if I’d written twice as much it still wouldn’t have adequately conveyed the magic of the place. No description could, as you have to go there and sample it for yourself.