Waking to the gentle rocking of the catamaran from our comfortable king sized bed, Diane and I hopped out of bed and headed to the balcony. Sleeping soundly after adjusting to the motion, we stepped outside and gazed at the shores of Genovesa Island, a spectacular but rather remote island for the second day of our Galapagos segment of our annual Expat Destination Research Vacation, this time to Ecuador. Having already seen fur seals, iguanas and penguins on day one, anticipation built quickly as we showered and headed for breakfast. Promising incredible bird watching opportunities, the crew briefed us on the morning’s activities that began with a wet landing at a beautiful coral beach in Darwin Bay.
Technically a shield volcano and built almost entirely of fluid lava flows, Genovesa Island is horseshoe-shaped, occupies only 5 square miles, has a salt water filled crater lake and cliffs all around the perimeter. Located eight hours from most other islands, only smaller vessels can visit due to habitat sensitivity and the crew navigated the waters while we slept. Known as Bird Island, wildlife abounds including assorted boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, Darwin’s finches, Galapagos mockingbirds and marine iguanas. Separating this experience from most bird watching expeditions is the unspoiled and unique environment which eliminates the need for binoculars as many birds don’t see humans as predatory and literally sit in front of you. Glancing right at us with googly eyes, scores of amazing big birds were on the trail guarding their eggs while wide-eyed visitors strolled past.
Approaching the beach, our group gathered together and Javier (our primary guide) gave us some guidance about walking carefully and never straying from the paths very far. Although you can approach the animals as close as they’ll allow, touching or disturbing nesting mothers is strictly prohibited. Walking about 750 meters up a trail, we entered an area of multiple seabird colonies. Taking only five or six minutes for the show to begin, we immediately came across a Galapagos dove, some swallow-tailed gulls and a Nazca Boobie.
Walking among birds showing total indifference to human presence is what makes The Galapagos Islands fascinating. Geographically speaking, humans have only affected the islands for a very short time. Although difficult to impossible to keep up the pristine conditions Charles Darwin found when he arrived, it’s clear they’ve done a relatively good job. Limiting all visitors to about two hours at each landing, tourism is supposedly carefully monitored but attempting to keep an undisturbed environment when annual visits rise twenty fold over only 10 years is a balance I’m concerned we may lose.
Javier explains the movements of a large frigate bird in the short video below:
Continuing on the trail, we spotted scores of Nazca boobies.
Less than five minutes later, we stumbled upon some lava gulls. While this may sound mundane because many of you probably see gulls all the time and think of them as pests, these gulls live entirely on the Galapagos Islands and estimates put the total population at 300 to 400 pairs. Realizing you’re seeing a creature not even kept in zoos is pretty awesome. Scavenging or stealing from nests, lava gulls have distinctive eyes we wondered why birds that can fly just sit around watching the funny tourists.
Already amazed, Diane and I kept close watch and snapped lots of photos. Noting on my Day One post that Jed Lowrie, shortstop for the Oakland A’s was on our trip with his wife and happens to be an accomplished photographer, we noticed Jed spent hardly any time with the group but did scamper off with an amazing camera for some photos worthy of National Geographic. Diane and I settled for our small but comfortable little Canon camera and a crappy old IPhone.
Continuing down the trail, we enjoyed great views of the cliffs and soon ran into one of the stars of the morning landing, red-footed boobies. Beautiful and dopey looking at the same time, the chicks look like small chickens until they get bigger and the juveniles are brown with feet that somehow change color from grey to red as they age. Javier told us they’re powerful and agile at flying but clumsy when they take off.
The short video below shows a red footed boobie carrying some nesting materials. I couldn’t help being mesmerized at all the birds total indifference to human presence. Javier explained that from an evolutionary point of view, the wildlife at Galapagos has gone so many thousands of years with no human contact that in the short 30 years we’ve observed them up close, nature has still not given them any reason to view us as predatory or threatening so they just go about their business. Absolutely fascinating !!
Especially enjoyable is how few other groups visit Genovesa. Seeing only one other ship docked in the immediate vicinity, we were given a bit more time to enjoy everything. Surreal in nature, the only sounds we heard all morning besides our own voices were hundreds of bird colonies all calling to each other while flying overhead which made it seem strange that the large boobies mostly prefer hanging out on the ground. Completing the day’s roster of birds were some turnstones, lava herons and Galapagos mockingbirds. Oddly, Javier told us they don’t make mocking sounds like the species we have in our area and I wondered why Darwin decided to classify them as mocking birds at all.
Wrapping up an extraordinary morning, we headed back to the boat for lunch while the crew made a quick little jaunt to the other side of the island for the afternoon activities. Even more interesting than the morning’s landing, the zodiac took us right to the shore of a steep rocky path right on the cliffs called Prince Phillip’s Steps where we ascended a 25 meter path leading to a palo santo forest.
Activities centered around an amazing hike through the forest where dozens of masked boobies sit right on the trail as if waiting for the visitors. Almost like a surreal Disney Land attraction, the mother boobies build little nests right on the side of the trail and just sat there staring at us as we walked past them. The trail continues through the strange and mostly barren forest until it hits a large clearing where we gazed out on the open sea and spotted marine iguanas. Endemic to the Galapagos islands, these bizarre lizards have the ability to forage in the sea, making it a marine reptile. Before we could get to any of this, however, some lazy and adorable fur seals were sleeping on the trail from the boat and blocked our path. Waiting a few minutes, they seemed content and eventually we all slowly and carefully walked around them while they just slept right through it all.
After the slight delay, it was easy to tell we’d reached the trail. Feeling like contestants in an episode of The Amazing Race, a masked booby sat on top of the sign leading the way.
Everyone proceeded down the surreal trail past the boobies just sitting there on their eggs but we paused to get a good picture of a sharp necked finch, one of 13 different finches all endemic to the Galapagos and commonly known as Darwin’s finches. Amazingly, all of them evolved from one ancestral species and technically they are not really finches. Untrained in ornithology, Darwin’s main intent of the Galapagos voyages was geological, and his theory of evolution was actually not adopted until many years later,
Pictures can’t really do justice to being there and witnessing this amazing display of what seems like trained animals so please just try to enjoy them as best you can. The first photo is an adult, the second is a chic and the third one shows the eggs that Mom is guarding (not very convincingly since they have no fear of humans and probably wouldn’t even realize if you snatched one).
The trail winds for almost a mile or two, allowing the group an opportunity to separate a bit so each of us could focus on whatever fascinated us the most. A bit further up the trail we spotted some marine iguanas. Although they don’t look so unusual in the environment, wait until our day three post where you’ll see hundreds of them closer to the water.
After about an hour we arrived at the end of the trail and were rewarded with beautiful sweeping views of the island’s sea cliffs when Javier gave us a challenge. Not commonly seen but very rewarding if spotted, he told us all to lookout for short eared owls that often populate the island. Unlike many owls, their natural habitat is open grasslands and rocky outcroppings. Winning the contest was one of the twin sisters who spotted the cute little guy just standing about a few feet off the main trail.
Javier was generous with our group, allowing us almost an extra hour of time on the trail, possibly owing to our status of being one of only two groups on the trail all afternoon. Eventually it was time to make the return trip but it didn’t get any less interesting. Truly one of the highlights of my entire life, the Galapagos Islands are so outstanding, so different and so fascinating I gathered it all in and wished I could come back any time I wanted. Realizing only a very careful balance of responsible ecotourism will keep the environment pristine for future generations, please take the extra time to patronize only responsible tour operators.
Sadly, the residents of the one populated island are legally allowed to lead budget conscious (cheap) people on unsupervised visits to some of the closer islands for those determined to tour the islands without spending a lot of cash. While not wanting to appear as upper middle class snobbish, it’s easy to understand why excursions to this special place are among the most expensive places to visit on earth, second only perhaps to Antarctica for the same duration of visit. I’d rather spend more money knowing I’m helping keep a place intentionally unavailable to the masses than a place that’s already been spoiled for future generations due to nature’s worst predator (humans).
As we meandered our way back to the ship, we ran across one last treat and one of the most memorable, a little baby boobie peeking his way out from under his mother’s warm grasp. If you’re a bird watcher and normally spend hours with strong binoculars you can appreciate how amazing it is to simply walk right up to a mother sitting with her young and observe with no fear or concern on the bird’s part. This trip goes beyond anything I could ever recommend and even moving to Malaysia with all its orangutans will still be second on the list of fascinating for awhile.
As Javier told us to expect, the Galapagos fur seals were still sitting on the path as we made our way back to the boat so we used the opportunity for a goofy photo. Arriving back on the boat, our turn down service was different on the second night than the first and we looked forward to an excellent seafood dinner with lobster and shrimp to end a perfect day.
Greeting us for the long cruise back to the main islands was a spectacular sunset. Unfortunately, so was a swell six times more powerful than what we had as we slept for the cruise out to Genovesa. Javier told us we needed to begin cruising at full speed to keep the jam-packed but short itinerary intact but warned us the seas might be rough for a few hours. Thinking nothing of it, I began to get motion sickness like I’d never felt before and so did almost all of our fellow passengers. Naturally, Diane and most of the other wives simply moseyed on out to dinner and enjoyed the seafood feast while us wimpy men suffered.
Probably the only down side of the trip, I tried desperately to wolf down dinner but found my head and stomach in a state of total revolt. So did almost everyone else but not Diane who somehow had no adverse reaction to what felt a scene from The Perfect Storm. Making my way to the cabin, I was somehow able to sleep it off and woke up with no hangover but starving from missing dinner. Deciding it was a small price to pay for the amazing sights, we set our sights on Day Three which promised to be equally interesting with a visit to Santiago Island and a chance to see green sea tortoises close up on a kayak and scores of crazy colored crabs. Here’s a brief preview:
Please feel free to comment or ask any questions
Join us next weekend for Day Three