Outstanding wildlife watching on Santa Cruz, Genovesa and Santiago Islands
27.05.2019 - 30.05.2019
From Iguazú Falls to Lima, we have travelled exclusively by bus, but for our last month of travel we changed to airplanes as our primary mode of transportation. Since we will be focusing on the highlights of Ecuador and Colombia only, distances are simply too large to travel by bus. Our first stop in Ecuador was Guayaquil, a large port city in the South of Ecuador, but we spent only an afternoon and a night there. In this time, we met two of Marta’s friends from her PhD for dinner and they showed us around the nice riverfront area of the city. The next morning, we continued to the Galapagos Islands.
We have thought hard about how we want to explore the Galapagos Islands, but ultimately settled on booking a seven-day cruise trip aboard a small motor-sailing boat. This cruise is by far the most expensive thing we have done in this year of travelling, but we concluded that going with a cruise will allow us to see the more remote islands of the archipelago, where the wildlife is more plentiful and less shy and where there are fewer other tourists. Also, a cruise has the advantage that you don’t loose time going back and forth between your accommodation since the boat can move over night to the next destination, thus providing more opportunities to explore the islands. We chose a North-Western itinerary, which includes visits to three of the four most pristine islands, Genovesa, Fernandina and Isabela.
Upon arrival we were picked up by Diego, our naturalist guide for the cruise, and brought to our boat. Our home for the next seven days was called «The Beagle», named after the «HMS Beagle», which brought Charles Darwin to the Galapagos in 1835. It is a 32-meter, two-masted sailing boat, but it was motoring for most of our journey. We especially enjoyed the large outdoor dining table and the many lounging opportunities on deck. Our room was very spacious and comfortable for a boat, with a private bathroom including a hot shower with good water-pressure. More importantly, we were lucky to share this trip with ten fun, friendly and well-travelled co-passengers.
On the afternoon of our arrival, we already had the first stop of our trip at a beach on Santa Cruz Island called Las Bachas. On our walk along the beach, we already saw lots of interesting animals. Right after landing on the beach, we were greeted by the ubiquitous Sally Lightfoot crab. A large and intensely colored crab that we found nearly at every stop. We also saw many birds like black-necked stilts, great blue herons or yellow warblers. After the walk, we jumped in the water for a first short swim in the Galapagos.
Overnight, we moved all the way to Genovesa Island in the far Northeast of the archipelago. The sea was quite calm and we had a good first night on the boat. After breakfast, we landed at a spot called Prince Philip’s Steps from where we walked along a path on top of the cliffs. This place was a nesting area for countless frigatebirds, Nazca boobies and red-footed boobies. It is hard to describe how many birds there were around us and they completely ignored us like we have never seen it before. We felt a bit like ghosts walking through those birds who were mating, building nests, feeding their chicks and in general went along with their daily business just meters away from us. Of the three booby species that live in the Galapagos islands, two are nesting on Genovesa. We did not visit any nesting areas of the iconic blue-footed booby, but we did occasionally see them flying around or dive-bombing into the sea to catch fish.
Our next activity was snorkeling along the cliffs of Darwin Bay. This was quite tricky because the water was very choppy. The visibility underwater was very low due to the high nutrient content of the water, which makes the Galapagos such a wildlife paradise. We did still manage to see a hammerhead shark though, which was very exciting. After lunch, we went for kayaking along the cliffs where we saw more birds like the red-billed tropicbird and storm petrels and some fur seals resting in the shade. Later, we did another landing, this time at the beach in the middle of Darwin Bay. This was again a large nesting area for birds like frigatebirds or swallow-tailed gulls. The latter is breeding almost exclusively in the Galapagos and is the only fully nocturnal seabird in the world. The frigatebirds are amongst the largest and most fascinating birds on the islands. Their wings can span up to 2.3 meters and they are known to harass smaller birds midflight to steal their catch, something we witnesses ourselves on Genovesa Island. While they are mostly black, the males have a large red gular pouch, which serves no other purpose than to attract females during the breeding season.
On the way back to the beach, we saw a group of sea lions bask in the sun and cool off in the water. They can be very playful with humans which probably makes them the most beloved animals in the archipelago. The Galapagos sea lion is endemic to the islands and is the smallest species of sea lions, though they can still weight up to 250kg. We ended the day with a short snorkeling off the beach where some sea lions joined us. They look so clumsy on land but are extremely agile in the water. Other notable underwater sightings were an eagle ray and about half a dozen whitetip reef sharks.
We could not believe how much we were able to see on a single day at Genovesa Island. It was a very busy day full of activities, though we would soon learn that this was not an exception. Overnight, the Beagle cruised to a spot called Puerto Egas on Santiago Island, where we landed on a black sand beach for another great walk. There, we found the Galapagos fur seal, an endemic species which looks very similar to the Galapagos sea lions but is more shy. We were also very fortunate to witness Mobula rays close to the shore. These large rays were jumping a few meters out of the water while doing flips in the air. In some kind of mating behavior, they did this almost synchronously in groups of about five rays. Another endemic animal we saw was the colorful Galapagos lava lizard, though they can be seen on almost all the islands. To end the morning, we went snorkeling off the beach. Here, the water was a lot clearer and we saw lots of fish, as well as a sea lion who was swimming around us.
After lunch, we set sail for the North of Isabela Island. The Beagle actually put the sails up for the first time, though the motor was still running at the same time. On board, there was a loud bell, which was rung to gather us for meals, activities or when interesting animals have been sighted. On this day, the latter happened for the first time as one of the crew spotted a Bryde’s whale close to our ship. During a beautiful sunset we arrived to Isabella Island, by far the largest in the archipelago, where we anchored for the night.