The 96-guest National Geographic Endeavour ship has 71 staff to ensure that we were well taken care of with a 24-hour doctor service, room service 3 times a day and gastronomic feasts day and night. A National Geographic Photographer, Rich Reid, 7 other photo instructors-cum-naturalists, a underwater specialist and a video chronicler, ensured that you get the best images possible.
Welcome to Paradise
The volcanic archipelago of the Galapagos consists of 13 main islands and 6 smaller islands which encompass an area of 8,095 sq km (more than 12 times the size of Singapore) in the Pacific Ocean and is spread over 138,000 sq km of ocean. The nearest landmass is Ecuador, which is a 1,000 km away. Although the islands lie on the Equator, the climate is mild and instead of tropical rainforest, we came across arid, desert-like conditions with giant tree cacti dominating the landscape. The islands of Santa Cruz receive more rainfall hence the vegetation is lush with taller trees. Not surprisingly, with the amount of vegetation available, the iconic Galapagos Giant Tortoises (endemic) thrive on the island. A mating pair seemed to have their coitus interrupted by the voyeuristic human paparazzi. But we came to see more than these Giants- the dazzling diversity unfolds across the islands, and despite the paparazzi, the creatures did not shy away. In fact, they came very close, beyond the minimal focusing distance of our lenses.
The ubiquitous Galapagos Sea Lions (endemic) were friendly, and their inquisitive pubs attempted to lick us. They are commonly found on sandy beaches but some colonies have invaded the human settlements, sleeping on park benches. Some even wait for discards at the Fish Market at Santa Cruz! Previous day tracks indicated the Pacific Green turtles nesting sites and two pairs were mating uninhibited near the shore. The Galapagos Marine Iguanas (endemic) did not even flinch when we approached them. They were so well-camouflaged on the lava rocks that we nearly stepped on them. The young iguanas are well sought-after by the Galapagos Hawks (endemic), which will go after the young tortoises too. The much smaller Lava Lizards are often seen scurrying away; females have bright red skin under their throats (there are 7 species of Lava Lizards -all endemic to the Galapagos). Unlike its marine counterpart, the Galapagos Land Iguanas (endemic) are more attractive with the yellowish brown colouration. They too have no fear and one was seen feeding on the flower of the endemic Galapagos Cactus Tree.
Sally Lightfoot Crabs are omnipresent on the islands. Their bright red bodies and legs are prominent over the dark volcanic rocks, which, in turn, make them easy prey for the octopi. Red is also the colour of the gular sac of the Great Frigatebirds (North Seymour (Baltra Island). The males inflate these sacs like a balloon to attract their partners–nesting pairs were strewn over the island. With their long, hooked beaks to catch fish from the water surface, they do not get wet, and are often seen kleptoparasiting other birds. The dazzling red male Vermillion Flycatcher is rarely seen on the islands, but we were lucky to see one feeding among the bushes on Isabella Island. Large-footed and dazzling red, the Red-footed Bobbies are the most numerous of the Boobies, but are lesser seen. They are powerful and agile fliers and spectacular divers; we saw a small colony at Punta Pitt on San Cristobal Island trying to land against the strong winds. Just as impressive but of a different colour are the Blue-footed Boobies with their equally odd large blue feet. They are fearless divers, plunging into the waters at incredible speeds to catch fish. They have a growing community at North Seymour (Baltra Island). Boobies have unusual mating rituals that involve raising and flaunting their odd-looking feet. They are so adorable and some are easy to photograph. On Baltra Island, we saw the endemic Swallow-tailed Gulls trying to chase a sea lion from their nesting site. The ashy-coloured Lava or Straited Herons (endemic) are also well-camouflaged against the volcanic rock (in Santiago Island) and they pick on fishes and the red crab. We came across other birds of the sea – the Whimbrel, Sanderling, Brown Noddy Tern and a Ruddy Turnstone feeding on the placenta of a sea lion.
Expert Fishing Birds
The Flightless Cormorants (endemic) were mainly seen on Fernandina Island. They are agile swimmers and have vestigial wings, a result of having evolved to catching fish and crustaceans in water and, hence, have no need for flight. A pair of Brown Pelicans were feeding on seaweed at the shore of Urbina Bay (Isabella Island), and the birds were so comfortable with our presence that we had a field day photographing their elegant flights.
Feast and Photograph
Besides photographing, we were also able to watch sea creatures from a glass-bottom boat. We kayaked and snorkeled along the coastlines. A trip of a life-time it certainly was. A ride on the Endeavour was the ultimate in sea expeditions. The tantalizing gastronomic spread of Ecuadorian and International cuisine help to replenish the spent energy in discovering this unbelievable word.
It was easy to understand how much Charles Darwin was fascinated with the Galapagos and moved him to propound his theories. I was sad that this sojourn had to end but the memories of the Galapagos will forever set me thinking of its uniqueness and perhaps set the bar higher on my role for nature conservation