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Wild Ecuador by Land and Sea: From the Jungle to the Galapagos Islands — Page 2

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While a jungle trip or African safari is an exercise in patience, animals in these islands are ridiculously abundant and visible. You need restraint more than anything when it comes to photos, as you can find you have a thousand shots to wade through after just a few days of marine iguanas and blue–footed boobies. You'll find that most of these photos are useful in designing your own picture calendar. If you've got an underwater camera or a GoPro, there's video too. Before visiting I'd see photo spreads from here Ospray Balconyand think the photographer must have had expensive equipment and 10–pound telephoto lenses either. In reality, a phone could get stellar shots here: the animals here treat you as just another part of the landscape. Even mothers with babies or birds sitting on an egg don't get stressed when you come near. With no memory of predators baked into their instincts, these are the world's hippy animals: passive and chilled–out.

So what differentiates one tour from another in the Galapagos, besides the itinerary details, is the ship you're spending the rest of your time enjoying. A luxury cruise like this offers an experience of hot showers with great water pressure, a whirlpool on the sundeck, and a spacious game room with large TVs for educational presentations. We enjoyed tasty, elegantly presented dinners in an indoor dining room that felt like a restaurant, with white tablecloths and real wine glasses.

After the captain did his job taking us six hours across the Pacific our first night, we woke up with the ship docked inside a big collapsed crater in a bay of Genovesa Island.

Ignored by Birds and Mammals

While the sea lions and giant turtles get top billing, the sheer number of birds you see throughout this region makes the whole idea of "bird watching" seem redundant. When we went ashore on Darwin Bay, we literally saw hundreds of Nazca boobies, red–footed boobies, swallow–tailed gulls, and frigate birds puffing out their red balloon–like pouches. This is just on the tiny designated nature trail visitors are allowed to explore.

Sealife on Galapagos
(c) Michael Smith

We snorkel right off the beach, spotting puffer fish, parrotfish, marbled rays, and the hieroglyphic hawk fish, which look like they have maps on their back. Later we snorkel along the crater wall, spotting completely different species.

Cuenca weaverA late afternoon walk on the other side of the crater at Egas Point is interesting for its dramatic landscape, but also for one unusual bird joining all the swallows, doves, boobies and petrels unique to this area. It's a short–eared lava owl, a product of evolution that has turned the usual night–hunting creature into a day hunter. In the bright sunlight, we see two of them scanning the rocky surface for something to grab and fighting with each other over territory.

It's just the small fry these owls are after though, the mice and other hiding creatures that truly do have something to fear. The colorful Sally Lightfoot crabs are the only things that run when we approach. We saw several dead ones on Santiago Island, with holes pecked in their back by some kind of heron or hawk, showing why animals bigger than them with two legs or big wings are a threat. They don't fear the marine iguanas though, crawling over them like they're just another rock, while the iguanas pay them no more attention than they would a fly.

Ecuador Iguanas

By the fourth day we've dialed back on taking photos of frigate birds puffing out their red pouch, but we can't resist the mothers with babies on North Seymour Island. We also get excited when we get to just sit and watch a mating ritual between two blue–footed boobies. It looks much like a compressed courting dance for humans, with a lot of back–and–forth banter, some playing hard–to–get, and some "your place or mine?" negotiation.

We make an obligatory stop on Santa Cruz Island to don rubber boots and see the tortoise reserve, catching some giant turtles munching on grass. We also see the giant crater and lava tube that are claims to fame on the region's most populated island.

This is a short cruise that has to stay in one section of the Galapagos Islands, as opposed to the longer ones Haugan Cruises runs that can get to the other side of Isabela. So our last stop before heading to a plane is close to where we started the journey, on Mosquera Island for sunrise. As usual the sea lions are ignoring us, rolling around in the surf and barking. In the morning quiet we watch babies nursing while marine iguanas lounge around on the lava rocks. It's a serene, beautiful ending to our too–short journey, a time where we saw amazing animals above the water and hundreds of colorful fish in the rich waters below.

Galapagos Island Sealions

While the pictures we'll share are all about the cute fur seals (really kinds of sea lions), interesting birds, and the prehistoric–looking marine iguanas, it's the ship and crew that took the whole trip up a notch. Our 16–passenger Ocean Spray catamaran was spacious and comfortable, elegant and well–equipped.

Ospray Cruise deck

As we flew back over the water to the mainland, I looked forward to one last night in Quito. After all, I had a thousand photos to sort through...

If you go:

Many high–end tour operators offer cruises on the Ocean Spray and Cormorant, or you can book directly with Haugan Cruises. Columbus Travel, the parent company, also owns La Selva Jungle Lodge, so you can book a seamless vacation that includes the Amazon, Quito, and the Galapagos with one organization taking care of all your connections.

Story by Timothy Scott, photos by the author except where indicated.