The Sussex Wildlifer
Featuring endangered wildlife from around the world

Galapagos Islands and Ecuador Wildlife Trip Report: November 2007

Despite reports of poor food and cabin service, and as we disliked the thought of spending time at Miami airport, we flew Iberia. This also gave us more legroom than those travelling with American Airlines and a full half-day more in Quito.

Up bright and early later that morning we set off with our excellent guide Gloria, who showed us the main attractions of Quito, lunching high up over the city, where we had very close views of two American kestrels. Then in the evening she arranged an added experience for the group, dinner at the resplendent theatre restaurant. Not much else to report on the wildlife front, a fleeting glimpse of a hummingbird outside the hotel, several rufous-collared sparrows, some eared doves, an unidentified butterfly and the usual motley collection of feral pigeons you see the world over.

Day 1: Quito to Baltra, South Plaza, Santa Cruz

Our first day proper did not start well. The problem is this, Quito sits at an altitude of 3,000m and cloud can be a problem. So, having been ably shepherded through all the check-in procedures by Gloria, we endured the endless delays and chaos until our flight departed some two hours late. In the meantime the Cachelote had been wisely repositioned further round the coast so that we would not miss out too much on what was left of the day and, as we got off our bus, we met our first land iguana.

We lost no time boarding, the anchor was up and we were away. We were immediately surrounded by magnificent frigatebirds, like something out of a horror movie, these piratical birds were quite prehistoric, swooping and hovering, almost within arms reach. Blue-footed boobies, noddies and brown pelicans were there in good numbers, whilst Elliot’s storm-petrels danced on the wave tops and red-billed tropicbirds with their long, long tails swooped around us and it was not long before we saw our first Galapagos shearwaters, coming in low over the wave-tops.

The Cachelote is a charming sailing ship and Juan, our guide and mentor, could not do enough for us; Naturetrek has chosen well! Our 15-strong group included two Australians who had just joined us and we were all already getting on well.

Our first stop was South Plaza, a larva island with little vegetation, a dry landing, and our way was immediately impeded by an alpha-male sea lion; he had to be persuaded to let us pass. All around us were land and sea iguanas, lava lizards, waders, the delightful swallow-tailed gulls and the small land-birds such as the yellow warblers and the ubiquitous ground finches, but all too soon we had to leave, heading into a stiff swell towards Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. Some amongst us fumbled for their seasickness pills, but it was not long before everyone found their sea legs.

Day 2: Santa Cruz

The harbour at Puerto Ayora was a buzz of activity. We were already adept at getting into and out of our life jackets and knew how to get on and off the pangas. A morning at the Research Station was simply not enough. I wanted longer photographing Lonesome George and the other giant tortoises and getting even closer to the finches. I had my doubts about George; the only time he showed any excitement was when his keeper arrived. Could it be that the old chap just thinks he is human? Returning via the fish market we were treated to close views of a lava gull and a great blue heron.

The weather could have been kinder, but nothing was going to be allowed to get in the way of our enjoyment. The afternoon was spent amongst the clouds in the highlands, a different and unexpected experience, with collapsed calderas, ash piles, and a flash of brilliance when we saw our first vermillion flycatcher. An endemic barn owl roosted up in a cave and some had the briefest glimpse of a Galapagos rail before we moved on into the fields where numerous giant tortoises lounged about in the gathering gloom. White-cheeked pintails flew onto a small pond only a few feet away, completely unafraid of our group. What a day! What an experience!

Day 3: Espanola Island

We were setting the pattern for the rest of the trip: first on the islands in the morning, last off at night. Juan was ensuring we maximised every single moment we spent ashore, something sadly lacking with every other group we encountered. The morning was spent at Gardner Bay – sea lions by the score, lava lizards, sea iguanas, and a myriad of birds right down to point blank range; then a snorkel around Gardner Island. I was the only person not to don a wetsuit and the water was simply freezing. A lot of good fish and sea lions, but I had to give up after half an hour.

Around the coast at Punta Suarez, there started for me one of the most blissful times I have ever experienced. Two Galapagos hawks perched up by the lighthouse treated us with disdain, but I really didn’t know where to look first: great piles of sea iguanas, all jumbled up together, mating blue-footed boobies, nazca boobies, swallow-tailed gulls and, further around the coast, the waved albatrosses. The camera went into over-drive! The albatrosses were a pure delight; approaching to within a few feet the young regarded us with interest, whilst in the background older birds were practicing mating rituals. We seemed to have timed things just right, as they will all depart by the end of December. Lurking just offshore we could see huge Pacific green turtles but as the light went I was forced away from this magical place and reluctantly clambered aboard the panga, but not before capturing the two hawks again, perched up side by side. These locations just seem to get better and better every day.

Day 4: Floreana Island

A wet landing at Point Cormorant and we were off to the flamingo lagoon where there were distant views of these delightful birds. A short walk took us to a bay where frigatebirds perched up in scrubby trees. Although all the wildlife is so tame, with no fear of man, some of the visitors were behaving very badly. There were stingrays close to the shore and mating giant green turtles in the surf. Unlike the other wildlife, these actually moved away from the shore when another group approached too closely. Juan was good about these things and told us not to get too close so as not to stress out the turtles. Other guides seemed incapable of controlling their charges, mostly young Americans, who defied all advice and approached far too closely to the wildlife. Such a great shame!

Whilst some of the others had a snorkel through the Devil’s Crown, in somewhat warmer water I was told, I decided on a panga ride around the coast, drifting in amongst huge rafts of shearwaters and noddies. How strange it was to be almost on the equator and yet the weather was so cool and the sea so cold.

After lunch a brief visit to Post Office Bay, where we wrote a card and looked through those already there awaiting collection, but there were none that we could easily deliver when we got home. That afternoon the sails were set and with the motor on we forged through the waves until, that is, a Bryde’s (breedah) whale was sighted. Great excitement, but it soon made off at speed leaving us trailing in its wake. We got our first sight of Franklin’s gulls and Galapagos petrels. After dinner we sat with Juan for our routine summation of what had been seen during the day and by 8.30 we were all in our bunks getting some well-earned sleep.

Day 5: Isabela Island

After weaving through the lava reefs, we made a dry landing at Punta Moreno on Isabela and for the first time saw male magnificent frigatebirds with their red throat pouches fully extended, pointing their heads to the skies in the hope of attracting females to mate with. Nearby brown pelicans were already doing just that.

Sally lightfoot crabs had been such a delightful feature of our every stop; their red, gold and pale blue colouration provided a welcome contrast to the sea iguanas basking on the black lava, which sparkled as they scurried this way and that. Moving away inland we were immediately struck by the hellish interior. At first sight there seemed to be nothing but huge lava flows, but then we noticed sparse bits of vegetation – a small clump of lava cactus here, some Darwin’s aster there, but it was the brackish lagoons that came as such a surprise. These small oases provided an immediate contrast of bright green and the wildlife abounded. Here frigatebirds washed away the salt water on their wings, ducks swam through the reed-beds and there were dainty black-necked stilts. Then, we came face to face with flamingos; never in my lifetime had I been so close and I settled down to sit on the needle sharp lava – pointing my shadow directly at these birds and getting as low as possible, my camera going back into over-drive.

On the way back to the panga we watched from above as white-tipped reef sharks patrolled below us, and giant sea turtles quietly paddled around. A flightless cormorant posed beautifully and Juan indulged in a spot of rock pooling, where we were shown unusual urchins, sea stars, sea cucumbers, a sea hare and many other wonderful creatures.

Yesterday we saw a Bryde’s whale: today I was the first to spot a Sei whale, quite close. There was also an unexpected pleasure – several albatrosses on the sea, one being harassed by a frigatebird and hordes of boobies dive-bombing a shoal of fish. After we had relocated to Elizabeth Bay, the pangas were paddled into the mangroves where we saw large cacti and many turtles, with a sea lion pretending to be a new species – a tree lion! Entering a narrow entrance we became aware that three penguins were immediately alongside, so close we could have touched them and too close to focus the camera. On the way back to the Cachelote, and in an increasingly choppy sea, we circumnavigated a guano-covered islet where we saw at least 100 more penguins, of a total Galapagos population of 1500, and large populations of seabirds and huge sea iguanas. 

Day 6: Isabela Island and Fernandina Island

We had a wet landing at Urbina Bay, which was only the third place we saw land iguanas. There, a giant female tortoise blocked the path and we stopped to admire it, allowing her time to move on unstressed. Unfortunately, the sea was too rough, and probably far too cold, to snorkel and so we sailed on to Fernandina island.

Another stunning location, another dry landing - one moment all we could see covering the lava flows were sally lightfoot crabs, then a movement, then another, and suddenly we were aware of huge numbers of sea iguanas and some of the largest we had seen to date. We had to keep to the designated paths more than ever, that is until we were forced to detour around another pile of iguanas. 

After sighting another Sei whale, at 6pm we passed over the equator, all of us drinking cocktails, crammed into the wheelhouse, with a backdrop of Ecuador Volcano. Another unforgettable experience!

Day 7: James Island and Bartolome Island

We were fast running out of time on this trip but new sensations continued to flood in. After a wet landing at Puerto Egas, we enjoyed another wonderful coast walk. The usual sea lions were there in good numbers, but we also saw American oystercatchers with young, lava herons, a yellow-crowned night-heron in a crevice and a stunning Galapagos hawk allowed itself to be photographed from just a few feet away.

All too soon we were back on board and heading on again. At first we thought we had seen dolphins leaping out of the water, but as we got closer we saw giant manta rays, up to 5m across, somersaulting out of the sea in an attempt to rid themselves of sea lice. These had such a WOW factor: we were left speechless! Then, to ensure nobody got bored, we came alongside a feeding frenzy. Up to 10 huge Galapagos sharks had corralled a shoal of fish and this had attracted pelicans, frigatebirds and other assorted seabirds from miles around. I cursed myself for having the wrong lens on my camera, but I need not have worried, as we drifted right up to this frenzy.

Tearing ourselves away, we headed on to Bartolome, possibly the best-known island, as it features on so many postcards. We had one last snorkel, the best of all. When I saw two penguins and swam towards them, they in turn swam towards me and came to within a few inches of my facemask. Then, for the next few minutes, they cavorted all around me as I watched them utterly spellbound.

A spot of beachcombing revealed a ghost crab, which had somehow captured a fish larger than itself. It dragged the fish in a wide arc around us to a quieter part of the beach, where it dug a new hole, down which it disappeared with its prize. We ended the day climbing the boardwalk to the highest point of the island, returning to the panga just as the sun set.

Day 8: Santa Cruz Island and return to Baltra

One last panga ride saw us being paddled around Black Turtle Cove where we came across large numbers of giant green turtles and white and black-tipped reef sharks waking up and moving away from their night quarters just under the banks of the lagoon. Yet more spotted rays and cuckoo, brown noddy and blue-footed booby were all around us.

Then suddenly it was all over and, unlike the way out, everything ran smoothly and on time. We were back in the polluted city that is modern-day Quito and suddenly many of us suffered motion sickness after so long on a boat. I bent down and the room went all over the place. That evening Juan, who had escorted us back, took us to a Greek restaurant with panoramic views of the city and we enjoyed the views, that is, until the cloud came down and obscured it all.

Day 9: Antisana Volcano and the Paramo

A unique experience today took us high up into the Andes. The Paramo starts at about 3,500m, but we went higher, reaching 4,000m. Fortunately, most of us had become acclimatised to the altitude and few suffered from breathing problems.

The clouds cleared and we had a magnificent view of the snow-capped Antisana Volcano. The vegetation rarely grows higher than a few inches, but in many places the flora forms a wonderfully spongy mat of tiny plants. This specialised habitat was beautiful, but so were the birds living at that altitude. We saw not only six species of raptor, but Andean specialists such as silvery grebe, Andean ruddy duck, black-faced ibis, Andean gull and the Ecuadorian hillstar. No other hummingbird can live at such a high altitude. Regrettably no condor turned up for us – you cannot have everything.

Day 10: Coca and Sacha Lodge, Amazonian rainforest

Early low cloud meant Quito airport was again closed and the usual chaos reigned. Eventually our short flight down to Coca departed and soon we were speeding along the Coca and Napo Rivers. It was distressing to see the ravages of the oil industry, as was the amount of plastic littering this remote area.

Squirrel; monkeys greeted our arrival and dugout canoes took us across a black lake to the lodge. We had been promised a night walk through the rainforest after dinner and this proved to be a great success. Huge forest frogs lurked under one of the water pumps, giant stick insects feebly wobbled in the flashlight and a tawny-bellied screech-owl gave us excellent views before flying off. Spectacled owls were calling in the background, two species of tarantula spiders emerged from their hiding places and a simply huge forest owl butterfly rested on a tree-trunk.

Day 11 and 12: Sacha Lodge, Amazonian rainforest

An avid American birder asked me how I was enjoying the birds and seemed shocked by my reply that I did not consider tiny, almost unidentifiable, dots in a scope as an acceptable ‘tick’ and that there were many other locations in the world providing a better birding experience. Somehow I had expected more in a country that boasted so many birds and I was disappointed at how few chances existed to get close enough to photograph birds. On the other hand, the rest of the forest life was exceptional and butterflies were a real delight, although perversely our guide could not name them.

We enjoyed the popular attractions at the lodge, the kapok tree lookout, the canopy walk and the butterfly house, reputed to be the largest in Ecuador, but again no one could identify the butterflies that swarmed all around us. The photo opportunities were really good and it was wonderful to have spare time during the hottest part of the day to do our own thing and I returned to the butterflies time and again.

One of the speciality birds around the lake was the hoatzin, or stinky turkey as it is also called, a reference to its foul-tasting meat. It proved very difficult to photograph well and a lot of patience was needed, but at last one popped its head out from behind the foliage for a few fleeting moments and I was waiting. Mission accomplished!

Getting caught out in a canoe in an equatorial storm was an interesting experience, but I was glad I took a large plastic sack in which to put all my camera gear. After an hour my hands had turned all wrinkly, as though I had been soaking in a bath for that time and we were all simply soaked to the skin.

We had been told we were very lucky to have seen six species of monkey, as most people only get to see three or less. Undoubtedly, we had also been lucky to have had great bulldog fishing bats all around us on our last night out in the swamps and to see many long-nosed fruit eating bats flitting amongst the fireflies.

Did we take malaria tablets, I hear you ask? Yes we did, but only for this last part of the trip, mainly because we were spending this time below 1,500m. Did we see many hummingbirds - in a word no, not many, and then only fleetingly. Surprisingly, there were no nectar feeders, but all the other forest life more than made up for this.

Days 13 and 14: back to Quito

We made our way back to Quito, bang in the middle of fiesta time, and oh boy, do they know how to party! We dined at Mama Clorinda, a great atmosphere, good local food and live Andean pipe music and then joined in all the celebrations.

Our final morning was spent in the Botanical Gardens, where at last we got to see plenty of hummingbirds and at really close quarters. Now, that really was a great way in which to end such a marvellous trip.