By GCT Chairman Dr Mark Collins
On board the motor yacht Majestic, which was built specially for Galapagos waters, 16 guests were treated to a grand tour of San Cristobal, Floreana, Espanola, Santa Cruz, Genovesa, Rabida and Santiago islands. With an expert skipper, eight crew and a fabulous accredited Naturalist Guide, Pablo Valladares (who featured in Liz Bonnin’s BBC Galapagos series), participants enjoyed the voyage of a lifetime!
After a good first night’s rest on board, we all awoke to find ourselves anchored off Floreana island, site of one of the most ambitious projects that GCT has ever been involved in. It was here that whaling ships set up the famous barrel post box in Post Office Bay – we all posted GCT cards and some of them are already back home!
Sadly, even when Darwin landed and met with Acting Governor Lawson on Floreana in September 1835, the Floreana giant tortoise was already suffering from over-hunting, predation by rats and cats and destruction of its food sources. Today this species is extinct. However GCT and partners plan to clear this island of invasive species before reintroducing locally extinct species including the giant tortoise, Floreana mockingbird and Floreana racer.
Espanola, our next port of call, is famous for its population of nesting waved albatross, Galapagos’ largest bird. We experienced the intimacy of their ritual courtship dances and ‘clacking’ watched over by a nesting Galapagos hawk just 150 metres away! GCT is concerned about the impact of plastic waste on albatrosses, which can become entangled in discarded fishing gear.
Santa Cruz saw us back on dry land for a visit to the Twin Craters, which are not craters at all but collapsed magma chambers. A stroll through the forest dominated by Scalesia trees (in reality giant daisies) produced, for me, one of the highlights of the trip – a juvenile vermilion flycatcher.
Now extinct on San Cristobal and believed to be down to 40 pairs on Santa Cruz, it was wonderful to see evidence of this species breeding. The cause of their decline is thought to be land use change as well as the parasitic fly Philornis downsi, which almost caused the extinction of the mangrove finch on Isabela until GCT and partners set up a rescue project.
Genovesa island is one of my favourite places in Galapagos. After a steep climb up Prince Phillip’s Steps from the dinghy, we walked through a majestic white woodland of incense trees to the cliffs where 200,000 pairs of storm petrels nest.
Our objective was to find the Galapagos short-eared owl, which waits patiently outside petrel nesting holes in the rocks to snatch them as they fly in and out. Not easy to spot in the rugged brown and black lava fields, we caught one napping under a ledge – what a treat! Galapagos raptors are some of the first to suffer when the ecological balance is upset by invasive species.
No trip to Galapagos would be complete underwater thrills. GCT’s projects on penguins (we saw three of them underwater), whale sharks and bullhead sharks figured in our discussions and every day we took to the dinghy for a snorkelling excursion – our beginners were safely shepherded to the best spots for reef fish, green turtles, whitetip reef sharks and sea lions. Kitted out with wet suits and all the gear, we were carefully watched over by the Majestic’s highly experienced sailors, ready to take us back on board at a moment’s notice.
Playful Galapagos sea lions chased us about in the clear waters off Lobos island near San Cristobal and we were lucky enough to see Galapagos fur seals. Swimming with 1.5m whitetip reef sharks was also a thrill! Harmless and docile they might be, but the adrenalin flows anyway.
Over all too soon
All too soon we were back in San Cristobal where, at the Galapagos Science Center, GCT’s Jen Jones treated us to a tour that highlighted the work being done to assess and reverse the threat from marine plastic pollution.
It might have been a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but we hope that our cruise supporters will stay with GCT on its long journey to protect Galapagos. Do join us next time and encourage your friends!
Evaluation responses have shown that GCT’s Supporter Cruise guests were thrilled with the added value they received from discovering first-hand what is being done to conserve the Islands’ spectacular wildlife.
If you would like to join GCT on a cruise, we have partnered with Ice Tracks to provide a bespoke cruise in 2019, or you can register interest for our own 2020 cruise by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.