Wonders of the Galapagos

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For more information: Call us at 617-566-1907.

Depending on availability, this tour can be reserved for any dates.

 

The Galápagos archipelago is a remarkable destination and perfect for a family vacation.  Young and old can explore together one of the most famous locations in science.  They also can relax and enjoy swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and other favorite vacation activities.

Located approximately 600 miles off Ecuador’s coast, the Galápagos is a fascinating cluster of thirteen large and six smaller islands.  In addition to its famous role as the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, the Galápagos is a living demonstration of ongoing natural processes in biology, zoology, ornithology, geology, volcanology, and oceanography.

In the Galápagos, Darwin discovered animal life and plant life that is unique in the world.  The numerous adaptations among the flora and fauna of the Galápagos inspired him to develop his theories of natural selection and evolution.  The marine iguana pictured here, for example, is the only species of iguana in the world to have evolved the ability to live in the sea.

 

Marine Iguana, Amblyrhynchus cristatus

Marine Iguana, Amblyrhynchus cristatus

 

Like many oceanic islands, such as Hawaii, the Azores, and Réunion, the Galápagos are thought to be the product of a specific type of volcanic action, the mantle plume.  Mantle plumes are columns of hot rock, roughly 60 miles in diameter, that rise from deep within the Earth.  The Galápagos mantle plume could be as old as 90 million years.  This unusually long length of time made it possible for many successive generations of animal and plant life to evolve into the diverse forms visible today.

The Galápagos’ dry and moderate climate is caused by the proximity of the islands to the great ocean current known as the Peru, or Humboldt.  As it passes northern Peru, the Humboldt Current bends to join the Equatorial Current flowing westward across the Pacific, bathing the Galápagos in cool water.  Indeed, the Galápagos is located at the confluence of five ocean currents, producing nutrient rich waters with the most diverse collection of sea life found anywhere in the world.  Five hundred species of fish swim among the islands.  On land, pink flamingos normally seen in the Caribbean mix only a few feet away from penguins normally seen in the Antarctic region.

Here are some of the places you will visit:

South Plaza Island

Upon your arrival your first stop will be South Plaza Island, one of the smallest islands in the Galápagos.  A narrow channel between North and South Plaza Islands provides a quiet anchorage and an easy dry landing.  A colony of sea lions occupy the smooth rocks.  On land, the small opuntia cactus forest is populated by land iguanas.  Swallow tailed gulls, red billed tropic birds, shearwaters, and blue footed boobies nest along the rocky shoreline.

In the Galápagos, there are six different species of opuntia cactus.  Most of these are confined to just a few islands. The opuntia is an example of a plant population that has diversified rapidly to take advantage of its local environment.  Where there are giant tortoises in the Galápagos, the opuntia have evolved to be quite tall and hard for a tortoise to eat.  Where there are no giant tortoises, the opuntia remain low to the ground, as there is no advantage conveyed by growing tall.  

Genovesa Island

Genovesa Island is a eight square mile island that is the top of a long-inactive volcano.  The summit of the volcano is only three hundred feet above the ocean.  Near the summit is a crater lake, Lake Arcturus.  A large, 1.5 mile wide caldera on the south side of Genovesa Island is filled by Darwin Bay.  This caldera is a cauldron-like volcanic feature formed by the collapse of land following a volcanic eruption. 

Genovesa Island is home to millions of birds of many different species, including the red-footed booby, frigates, and swallow-tailed gulls.  With some luck, you may even spot a short-eared lava owl.  A trail from the soft, coralline, white beach at Darwin Bay takes you into lush mangroves where the red-footed boobies nest.  Most of the Red-Foots are brown with the exception of red legs and feet and a light blue bill with a red base.  They make their nests in small trees and shrubs.

Fernandina Island

Fernandina Island is the westernmost island in the Galápagos and the most recent addition to the archipelago.  Its volcano is the volcano closest to the Galápagos mantle plume.  Due to past volcanic activity, the island has a mostly rocky surface.  At Punta Espinoza on Fernandina Island, hundreds of marine iguanas gather on black lava rocks.  The famous flightless cormorant inhabits this island along with penguins, pelican and sea lions.  Mangrove forests sway in the ocean breeze.

The flightless cormorant is native to the Galápagos Islands.  It is the only cormorant in the world that has lost the ability to fly. These cormorants evolved in an island habitat that was free of predators.  Having no enemies and taking its food primarily through diving along the food-rich shorelines, the bird eventually became flightless.  With only 1,500 estimated individuals, it is now one of the world’s rarest birds and is the subject of an active conservation program.

Isabela Island

With an area of 1,790 square miles, Isabela Island is the largest island in the Galapagos.  She was named in honor of Queen Isabella of Spain, sponsor of Christopher Columbus’ voyages of discovery to the New World.  The northern part of Isabela Island lies on the Earth’s equator.  Just off volcanic Isabela Island is the upwelling of the Cromwell Current, site of the most productive waters in the Galápagos and home to many dolphins and whales.

Isabela is home to more wild tortoises than all the other islands.  Isabela’s large size and notable topography create barriers for the slow moving tortoises; the creatures are unable to cross lava flows and other obstacles.  Over time, this has caused several different sub-species of tortoise to develop. 

Alcedo tortoises on Isabela Island spend most of their life wallowing in the mud of the volcano’s crater.  The mud offers moisture and protects the tortoises’ exposed flesh from insects.  The mud also helps the Giant tortoises control their body temperature.  The tortoises seek the coolness of the mud during the heat of the day and enjoy the extra insulation of the mud during the cool of the night.

You stop in Tagus Cove on Isabela Island, once an anchoring site for pirates and whalers.  There you can see the names of hundreds of ships painted on a high ridge.  (This practice is now prohibited.)  Tagus Cove is a great place for walking, snorkeling, and kayaking.  Afterwards, take a zodiac ride along the coast to see Galápagos penguins, brown pelicans, brown noddy terns, swallow-tailed gulls, flightless cormorants, and blue-footed boobies perching on the cliffs.  While exploring the channel between Fernandina and Isabela Islands, you are likely to spot dolphins or whales.

Santiago Island

This morning a visit is planned for Puerto Egas (James Bay) on Santiago Island.  Tender in to a long lava shoreline where eroded rock formations are home to a wide variety of wildlife.  Marine iguanas bask in the sun while land iguanas feed on exposed algae.
Follow black sand paths along intertidal pools containing Sally Lightfoot crabs.  These crabs attract fur seals, sea lions, shore birds, and Galápagos hawks.  Return to the beach, and there is time to snorkel, swim, and relax in the water among tropical fish.

Bartolomé Island

Bartolomé Island is named after naturalist and life-long friend of Charles Darwin, Sir Bartholomew James Sullivan.  Sir Bartholomew was a Lieutenant aboard Darwin’s ship, the HMS Beagle. Bartolomé Island offers some of the most beautiful landscapes in the archipelago, including an extinct volcano and red, orange, green, and black volcanic formations. 

 

Bartoleme Island

Bartoleme Island

 

Bartolomé is famous for its Pinnacle Rock, an ancient volcanic formation which is a distinctive landmark of the Galápagos.  During the afternoon, you have the opportunity to swim and snorkel off Pinnacle Rock, where tropical fish, sea lions, penguins, and marine turtles abound.  You also can board a zodiac for a dry landing onto a landscape of volcanic tuff cones, spatter cones, and black sand.  A stairway of cedrela wood (Spanish cedar) leads up along old lava flows and lava tubes to the top of the island’s central volcano. 

Santa Cruz Island

Today, you visit Santa Cruz Island, one of the few inhabited islands in the Galápagos.  Here, tour the Charles Darwin Research Station and learn of the efforts made to preserve the islands.  The station is a tortoise-breeding and tortoise-rearing center. 

You will meet the famous Galápagos (or giant) tortoise for which the archipelago is named.  The Galápagos tortoise is the largest living species of tortoise, reaching weights of over 880 lb.  It is one of the longest-lived vertebrates.  In the wild, a Galápagos tortoise can live over 100 years; in captivity, individuals have lived at least 170 years.

Later, you board a bus to the green highlands of Santa Cruz to see giant tortoises in their natural surroundings.  After returning to the ship for lunch, in the afternoon, you may want to kayak, snorkel, do some downhill biking, or explore in town.

Floreana Island

Due to its relatively flat surface and supplies of fresh water, plants, and animals, Floreana Island has historically been a favorite stop for 19th century whalers and other visitors to the Galápagos.  At Post Office Bay, whalers kept a wooden barrel that served as a post office.  Mail could be picked up and delivered to its destination by ships heading to and from Pacific and Atlantic ports.  Even today, cards and letters are placed in the barrel without any postage.  Visitors sift through the letters and volunteer to deliver them by hand.

In 1819, the island was set on fire by a sailor from the Nantucket, Massachusetts based whaling ship, Essex.  On the same voyage, one year later, Essex was sunk by a massive bull sperm whale.  The story of the Essex inspired Herman Melville to write his epic novel, Moby-Dick.

In September 1835, Charles Darwin visited the island.  There, he was told by the locals that shells of the giant tortoises differed in shape from island to island.  On islands with humid highlands, the tortoises are larger, with domed shells and short necks.  On islands with dry lowlands, the tortoises are smaller, with “saddleback” shells and long necks. 

I have not as yet noticed by far the most remarkable feature in the natural history of this archipelago; it is, that the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beings. My attention was first called to this fact by the Vice-Governor, Mr. Lawson, declaring that the tortoises differed from the different islands, and that he could with certainty tell from which island any one was brought … The inhabitants, as I have said, state that they can distinguish the tortoises from the different islands; and that they differ not only in size, but in other characters.

Darwin, C.R. (1845)

At the time, Darwin did not see the significance of this information and did not bother with collecting tortoise shells.  Later, however, in a moment of insight, he saw the connection between natural environment and the tortoise body form and used it to formulate his theory of evolution.  The saddleback shells and long necks are now thought to be an evolutionary adaptation that increases the vertical reach of the tortoise.  This enables the tortoise to browse tall vegetation, such as the tall local forms of opuntia cactus.

You will land by boat on a green beach known as Punta Cormorant.  The sand here has olivine crystals which gives the beach its pale olive color.  An easy trail leads you to a lagoon where delicate flamingos feed quietly.  Pintail ducks and common stilts are also found here.  The path continues past a wide variety of plants including the beach morning glory, cutleaf daisy, palo santo, scalesia, leather leaf, and lantana.  Eight varieties of finch, yellow warbler, vermillion flycatcher, short eared owl, and common gallinule make their home here.  You end the day at a sparkling white sand beach where manta rays, sting rays, and sea turtles swim in shallow water.

Española Island

Home to swallow-tailed gulls and red-billed tropicbirds, Española Island is most famous for its waved albatross.  These inhabit the island from April through December.  The 10,000 –12,000 pairs of waved albatrosses on Española Island represent the entire population of this species on the planet.  The albatross derives its name from the wave-like pattern of feathers on the adult birds.  These birds mate for life and share the responsibility of incubating the young.

 

Waved Albatross, Phoebastria irrorata, Courtship Ritual

Waved Albatross, Phoebastria irrorata, Courtship Ritual

 

On Española Island, the waved albatross perform one of the most elusive and spectacular courtship rituals in the animal world.  The albatross leave Española Island between January and March.  In April, the males return and then later, the females.  The mating ritual begins with the male’s annual dance to re-attract his mate.   The dance includes rapid bill circling and bowing, beak clacking, and an upraised bill movement that makes a “whoo hoo” sound.

In January, when the chicks are fully grown, most of the colony leave to fish along the Humboldt Current.  The island’s steep cliffs serve as perfect runways for the large albatross as they take flight, bound for ocean feeding grounds near the mainland of Ecuador and Peru.  Young albatross do not see Española again until their fourth or fifth year of life, when they return to seek a mate.

This morning, tender out to Gardner Beach on Española (Hood) Island.  Walk among the sea lions, swim, snorkel, and relax in the sun.  Later in the afternoon, travel by boat to Punta Suárez on Española.  The quantity and variety of wildlife here is remarkable.  Española is one of the most isolated islands in the archipelago and has a high proportion of unique fauna.

Santa Cruz Island / Baltra Island

This morning, you take a zodiac tour into the rarely shown Black Turtle Cove on Santa Cruz Island, a mangrove estuary and complex maze of tranquil salt-water inlets.  This is an excellent location to observe spotted eagle rays, sea turtles, and pelicans.  The water is nearly mirror-calm.  Your crew will often use paddles instead of zodiac engines to move through the water.

Travel Information

You fly from your home city to Guayaquil, Equador and then fly to the Galapagos and return.  Or you may want to take advantage of the exciting opportunity to see more of South America, such as Quito, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

The price per person for the ten day tour, with double occupancy, includes five star ship accommodations, airport transfers, entrance fees, private guides, private transportation, and meals.  We also have a number of single cabins available for an additional fee.
 
Child and sea lion, Gardner Bay, Galapagos

Child and sea lion, Gardner Bay, Galapagos

 

 

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