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Galapagos Expedition Journal: Arrival on the Enchanted Islands

Bewitched, enchanted, beguiling. Those are just some of the terms explorers across five centuries have used to describe the Galapagos, an unmatched archipelago of islands drifting in the vastness of the open ocean, in the middle of nowhere.

I returned last week from a ten-day expedition through these strange mid-Pacific volcano mounts. The islands are not exotic in the sense of a South Pacific tropical paradise with swaying palm trees. Instead, their jagged lava landscape and their situation astride the Equator, in a mixing bowl of currents coursing from both hemispheres, nutrient-heavy water welling from the Pacific depths, and shifting trade winds bearing birds and other airborne life, have endowed them with truly unique species of plants and animals adapted to such a peculiar environment.

The Galapagos are home to sea lions and penguins from the Arctic and fur seals and flamingoes from the Americas, while tortoises, iguanas and other reptiles that somehow floated across the seas to the islands have taken on shapes, sizes and hues found nowhere else on the planet. Each island is unique in its assemblage of species, and every island has animals and plants found nowhere else.

 

The Galapagos islands are the tops of volcanoes some 600 miles to the west of South America. NASA image courtesy of MODIS.
Image courtesy of NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, The SeaWiFS Project and GeoEye, Scientific Visualization Studio.

 

My mission was the National Geographic expert accompanying a Lindblad-National Geographic Expedition through six of the Galapagos’ 13 biggest islands. It was one of the most extraordinary natural history adventures I have had in journeys to some 80 countries. And it lived up to everything I’d heard abut the place.

You can read all posts for this expedition here.

Flying time from Ecuador’s balmy port city Guayaquil to San Cristobal Island is 90 minutes on AeroGal, surely the only airline in the world to paint iguanas on its aircraft. Visitors arriving at Cristobal’s tiny rocky airfield are welcomed warmly by a sign that states: “Galapagos is peace, human history, and evolution … Help us protect it for generations to come.” Right in front of it is a rough green mat for passengers to wipe their shoes free of soil and seeds that might add to the growing menace of  stowaway species that have been invading the islands.

 

AeroGal aircraft livery sports iguanas and other Galapagos wildlife. Photo by David Braun.

 

An indolent sea lion blocks the way to the Zodiacs that will take us to our ship. Fortunately, there was an alternate set of steps. No one would want to argue with this hefty animal. This was the first encounter we had with the Galapagos rule that the wildlife have the right of way on the islands. Photo by David Braun.

 

“Galapagos is peace, human history, and evolution.”

After clearing Galapagos “Immigration” and receiving a Galapagos stamp in our passports, we were met by the naturalists of the National Geographic Endeavour, our home and transport for the week.

Our official tour guides, the naturalists are employees of Landblad-National Geographic, but they wear Galapagos National Park insignia and gently monitor compliance with the strict protocols all visitors must observe in the protected parts of the islands. We quickly established that not only are they knowledgeable about animals, vegetation and geology, but many also share tips on where and how to make the best photos in the Galapagos.

 

Photo by David Braun

 

A short bus ride to the harbor put us in view of the Endeavour.  We threaded our way past basking sea lions and wary crabs to a small flotilla of Zodiacs that ferried us to the mother ship, where we found the luggage checked in at Guayaquil already in our cabins.

There were mandatory safety drills and briefings about the voyage, and then we sailed to the far side of San Cristobal and our first encounter with the legendary wildlife of the Galapagos.

 

The good ship National Geographic Endeavour, comfortable mobile home for 86 passengers and 65 crew on our voyage. Photo by David Braun.

 

On the beach at a site known as Cerro Brujo, or “Wizard Hill,” we were greeted by a profusion of sea lions and shore birds.

 

Photo by David Braun

 

Photo by David Braun

 

Photo by David Braun

 

Photo by David Braun

 

Photo by David Braun

 

After exploring the beach and being stared at by the wildlife for a couple of hours, the Zodiacs returned to take us home to the Endeavour, where the Captain’s Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party awaited us.

 

Photo by David Braun

 

Next time on my Galapagos Expedition Journal: Swimming With Sea Lions

All posts for this expedition here.

Comments

  1. Liz Myles
    Flower Mound TX
    November 12, 2012, 11:02 pm

    Your blog is wonderful David, I was able to relive the trip again with your narrative. Peter and I are still going through all our hundreds of photos trying to be selective. Amazingly some of them were quite good. It does help when the sea lions pose so nicely for you:)

    We had an amazing extension trip to Machu Picchu. If you’ve not been you need to add it to your bucket list, it was a fabulous experience.

    We cannot wait to do another Linblad/Nat Geo expedition.

    It was great to meet you and your son.

    Thanks again,
    Liz

    • David Braun
      November 13, 2012, 8:16 am

      Thanks Liz and Peter. I’m glad to hear the Machu Picchu extension also went well. Thanks for being part of the amazing Galapagos portion of the trip. Send us a link to some of your photos, if you post them on Facebook or the Web. Stay in touch, David.

  2. Zah Hosein
    Florida
    November 5, 2012, 5:23 pm

    Hi David, I am back at work after taking a few days off. Your pictures are wonderful keep up the good work and all you do.
    Nan cannot remember everything but I am in the process of putting all that I have unto a digital album next to her table where she sits and watch TV. I had a wonderful time and will never forget the wonderful people I shared the ten days with.
    Those pictures that I was not a part of I will try to copy unto a flash drive…
    My most memorable time on the trip was discovering the Sea lion in labour then witnessing the birth. What an experience.

    Keep well and best regards.
    I will vist Washinton next year. Zah Hosein

    • David Braun
      November 6, 2012, 7:15 am

      It was wonderful to meet you and Nan, Zah. I’m sorry I missed the actual birth of the sea lion, but I did enjoy hearing from you about it and watching the two videos that were made. What an amazing opportunity we all had to see such a profusion of wonderful species on the islands. I’m glad that Nan got to see the Galapagos as she had wanted to do for so long. Stay well both of you — and see you soon in Washington. DB

  3. rose
    November 4, 2012, 3:21 pm

    what a way to see some of the rest the world. Thank you for sharing

  4. Dr . Hany Gomaa
    Saudi Arabia
    November 1, 2012, 6:35 am

    always admiring the great efforts done by NAT GEO team

  5. DrAli
    Cairo_ Egypt
    October 29, 2012, 1:32 pm

    Wonderful! Thanks a lot!