In 2008 my then-boyfriend Dwight and I took a trip to the Galapagos Islands on a small ship with around 100 veterinarians and their families as part of a continuing education cruise organized by the UC Davis Veterinary School. This is the story:
Saturday, August 2nd, 2008 — We are here, in the Cradle of Evolutionary Theory. What an amazing place!
It’s true I just made that name up, but equally true that it is an amazing place. Today we had a plane ride from mainland Ecuador to the island of Baltra, which I believe is the only island in the Galapagos with an airport. As soon as we were on solid ground we saw some land iguanas, and some other lizards roaming around. We then joined the other veterinarians and their families and boarded The Galapagos Explorer II, our floating (hopefully) hotel for the next week. At the dock I saw my very first sea lion. This one was an adorable, blubbery monster stretched out on the bench built for people waiting for their boat. He wasn’t actually sharing the bench with any people, which I suspect is usually the case.
Tomorrow the real action begins. According to the itinerary, we will have morning excursions to the islands after breakfast, then return to the boat for lunch and have afternoon excursions later in the day.
Sunday, August 3rd — Our very first excursion this morning was on Isla Bartholomew, where we climbed 360 stairs to reach the peak where we had stunning views over the Isthmus and Pinnacle Rock. We saw all kinds of amazing island creatures: crabs, lava lizards, some sea lions, pelicans and, finally, Blue-footed Boobies! After descending those same 360 stairs, we went snorkeling off the beach, where we saw every fish imaginable, plus three kinds of starfish – a little research later revealed that the yellow starfish with the brown spots is called exactly what it looks like: a Chocolate Chip Sea Star. Also during our snorkeling expedition we swam close to a penguin lounging on the volcanic rocks. Galapagos penguins are so cute!
The afternoon’s excursion was to Isla Santiago, where we hiked a loop through the interior and around the beach. This island brought us lots of bird sightings. Galapagos mockingbirds, Galapagos hawks soaring high above us, yellow warblers, American Oystercatchers. Three kinds of heron, even: Great Blue, Lava, and Yellow-crowned Night herons were all represented. Here also we found marine iguanas as well as a pack of sea lions and, for the first time, fur seals – one bull and one pup, according to Dwight. Fur seals have thicker coats than the sea lions. They aren’t true seals, though, because they still have the external ear flaps like sea lions.
Monday August 4th — This morning we took the panga, as the little transport boat is called, to Fernandina Island and Punta Espinosa (the area of Fernandina open to visitors). We walked across jagged beds of lava that looked as though they had just finished cooling yesterday. We saw piles of marine iguanas, lots of sea lions and their preciously chubby little pups, crabs jumping across the water, some iguanas swimming. We watched a Galapagos hawk try (and fail) to catch an iguana, and visited a family of Flightless Cormorants who were sunbathing on the rocks. One was sitting on a nest with a baby. We watched an adorable exchange between a sea lion mom and her pup, who nudged and clambered up on top of her and clumsily rolled over the other side, probably tormenting her to no end. Here also we saw sea turtles swimming, and watched a sea lion playing games with a puffer fish.
In the afternoon we visited Isla Isabela. We had a dinghy ride around the island – a dinghy looks suspiciously like a panga, by the way. We dinghied around a rocky shore and into a cave, where we saw Boobies and Pelicans perched above us on the cliffs. We saw some more penguins, too, and another family of Flightless Cormorants relaxing on the rocks, drying their useless wings in the sun. We watched one come out of the water and bring a mouthful of seaweed on shore for its mate. We also saw more sea turtles, iguanas, crabs, and saw some Brown Noddies (a type of tern) as well as one shorebird: a Wandering Tattler. After we went back to the ship and ate dinner, we sat out on the deck and watched the volcanic islands slowly pass us by in the setting sun.
Wednesday, August 6th — Yesterday we went to North Seymour Island, where we followed a narrow trail that wound around the island and through a nesting colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds. The birds, completely unafraid, sat on their nests with their half-grown chicks nearby. Frigatebirds are large black seabirds with huge beaks and a smooth red patch of skin on their necks which gets inflated when they go a-courting. The babies are like big cottony puffballs with an oversized beak – they kind of look like a down pillow exploded on a pelican, sort of. A little farther along, the trail led us around some Blue-footed Booby nests. The Boobies make their nests directly on the ground, because they don’t care what happens to walk by I guess. They have no predators and no fear. We saw one nest with little hatchlings, maybe a week or two old, and another with half-grown adolescent, and yet another with incubating eggs. The Booby babies look even more cottony than the Frigatebirds – imagine the cutest Q-tip you can think of, and now put a bird face on it. That’s a juvenile Booby.
Today we visited San Cristobal, home of La Galapaguera, a breeding station and sanctuary for giant land tortoises. We saw some massive tortoises in a field, slowly and methodically attacking the greenery to chew mouthfuls of leaves in their funny pointy lips. We saw some youngsters being brought up, the hope of the tortoise future; likely by the time they are ready to breed themselves, the next generation of keepers will be working with them.
Thursday August 7th — In the morning, we went to Punta Suarez on Isla Española. We hiked a rocky trail around the island and saw big beautiful lava lizards, red and black marine iguanas, Nazca and Blue-footed Boobies. We finally saw a Blue-footed Booby perform the Booby Love Dance! They are hilarious creatures with hilarious habits – when courting, they raise their feet up, one first and then the other, in a kind of clumsy showgirl routine. They waddle in place like this for a few minutes, then they arch their bodies forward, neck straight up, and extend their wings forward and over their head. It’s difficult to describe but fascinating to watch. I don’t know how any lady-booby could resist.
As we continued on around the trail we saw Waved Albatrosses, everywhere – eggs, babies, nesting, and adults. They are also known as Galapagos Albatrosses and the adults have a courtship ritual that may be even more entertaining than the Booby Love Dance. The albatrosses are large birds with brownish bodies and long white necks ending in a bright white head with a bright yellow beak and prominent white “eyebrows” which give them kind of a serious look. When mating, they start by weaving their heads from side to side, bending their necks so that the head bobbles around from one shoulder to the other. Then they start sparring with their beaks, jousting like awkward fencers. Intermittently they will stretch their neck up and open their beak as wide as they can, then snap it shut with a loud clacking sound. It is very unusual and such a fun thing to watch.
Eventually we walked past the albatrosses to the edge of the cliff, where we watched the waves crash onto the jagged rocks and send a shower of seaspray rushing up the walls of the island and onto the iguanas and crabs perched there. We also saw two beautiful Red-billed Tropicbirds, though I wasn’t able to get any photos. In the afternoon we went to Gardner Bay Beach, also on Española, and walked around for a bit watching all the sea lions on shore. Then we snorkeled for a while where we again saw a spectacular variety of fish, and I saw two rays pass me by.
Friday August 8th — Today we spent our morning excursion on Santa Cruz, where we visited the Charles Darwin Station and saw various subspecies of Galapagos tortoise. We also got to see Lonesome George, the last of his kind. George is from Isla Pinta and is thought to be around a hundred years old, though no one knows for sure. He lives in a large enclosure with his two girlfriends, both of which have laid eggs, but none so far have been viable. After visiting with Lonesome George for a while, we heard a talk by a researcher from the St. Louis Zoo about George, Galapagos tortoises in general, and attempts to preserve/revive George’s subspecies.
In the afternoon we visited Isla Rabida, which has a beautiful red sand beach the likes of which I’ve never seen before. We saw the usual sea lions, iguanas and crabs; at one end of the beach we also saw a nesting colony of Brown Pelicans with chicks in various stages of growth. They make stick nests in the shrubby vegetation and stand their trying to preen with their oversized bills. We went snorkeling briefly in the waters off the beach and saw the usual variety of fish and a group of sea stars. Two sea lions swam right underneath me.
Saturday, August 9th — It was a grey and cloudy day this morning when we took our last excursion onto shore. We saw a couple iguanas and some crabs and a night-heron, plus some shorebirds wading in a little pool inland, past the beach. We said our goodbyes to the place and then disembarked for the last time at Baltra. While we waited on our plane we looked for last-minute souvenirs at the small shops near the airport. On the ship they had a gift shop and I got a set of dominoes carved out of tagua, a kind of nut that grows on tropical trees and looks like ivory when carved. Dwight had gotten some last time he was here and knew what it was. I also got some pieces of tagua carved in the shape of a Blue-footed Booby and a penguin. In the gift shop next to the airport I spent $100 – Ecuador uses the American dollar as its currency – on a chess set with pieces all carved out of tagua, all made in the shape of a Galapagos animal. The pawns are tortoises, the rooks are penguins, etc. I was really on the fence about spending that much money but I’m glad I got it. It’s really beautiful and unique and I hope it will always remind me of this beautiful and unique trip of a lifetime.