National Geographic Orion returned to New Zealand for the first time since 2014; our staff in Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands captured incredible wildlife close-ups; and sweeping, ice-filled landscapes greeted guests in Patagonia and Antarctica.
Recently returned from our Panama and Colombia: Exploring the Caribbean Coast voyage, staff photographer David Vargas captured soul-stirring images of the people and places at the heart of this vibrant region,
Blue skies grew heavy with clouds as we spotted land. Light-mantled albatrosses, white morph southern giant petrels, and many other seabirds flew by the windows of the bridge. Macquarie Island appeared out of the mist and the endless seas. It was covered in greenery. This is the first green we have seen in four weeks of travel. Zodiacs were dropped carefully and slowly to the water, which was filled with thousands of king penguins swimming up to the ship out of curiosity. They followed us on our cruise, coming right up to the side of the Zodiacs. Their bright orange patches beamed out color in the dark water. The steep slopes of Macquarie Island held hundreds of thousands of penguins. King penguins strutted in their regal attire. Colonies of penguins spilled from upper terraces into pools of penguins at the shore. Out of nowhere, a loud call from a king penguin directly beside our Zodiac startled us. We watched in amazement. To our surprise, the air was warm. We have grown accustomed to bundling up in our warm clothes and wearing less felt strange. Macquarie cormorants popped up from the water’s surface after diving. Royal penguins mixed in with the king penguins swimming about. New Zealand fur seals slept on the beaches while southern elephant seals cozied up to each other in their wallows. Sandy Beach was a delightful place full of royal penguins. Hundreds stood in groups on the shores while others bathed in clusters around our Zodiacs. Their flamboyant yellow-orange plumage stuck fast to their wet heads. While we were outside enjoying Macquarie Island, the crew was busy preparing a Filipino dinner, which was followed by the crew show. The food was fabulous, and the talent and creativity of the crew made it worth staying up late, even at the end of this long and memorable day.
As morning dawned, we were lucky enough to have calm seas. We started the day with naturalist Mark Vogler presenting on, “The Greatest Explorer: Hubert Who?” He described the explorations of Sir Hubert Wilkins, one of the lesser-known explorers even though he accomplished a great deal. Today was a big day for our youngest guest, who celebrated his seventh birthday. He hosted a trivia quiz, coming up with most of the questions on his own (with a little help from his parents)! We had a lot of fun guessing the name of the dinosaur that roamed the Antarctic a long time ago. In the afternoon, guests presented two of their favorite photos from the trip during the Photo Talent Show. They included stories and even a poem about what led them to take the photo or what the photo meant to them. As always, the hotel department put on a scrumptious afternoon tea that was enlivened with continued birthday celebrations, including songs and a signed flag as a present. After tea, undersea specialist James Hyde gave a fascinating presentation on oceanography. The day wasn’t over! After dinner, James hosted an auction to raise money for the Antarctic Heritage Trust. All the money raised will go to the conservation of Antarctica’s historic sites, including Borchgrevink’s Hut, which we visited at Cape Adare.
San Cristobal has its own giant tortoise population, as well as endemic lava lizards and snakes. These are examples of adaptive radiation in the archipelago. We have had a successful week full of great memories. The unique and friendly animals found in this group of islands are not found anywhere else on our planet.
What a wonderful day on Española Island! This isolated island, located on the southeastern side of the Galapagos, is one of the oldest in the archipelago, geologically speaking. The volcanic landscape is breathtaking with high cliffs and white sand beaches. Española is home for many species that are not only endemic to the Galapagos but endemic to the island. Española mockingbirds, Española lava lizards, Española marine iguanas, and the waved albatross are the most representative of the endemic species. Early in the morning, National Geographic Islander II anchored at Gardner Bay. The spectacular pure white sand beach is beautiful. The sun was shining, and the Galapagos sea lions that call this paradise home rested near the aquamarine water. In the afternoon, we visited Punta Suarez. We followed a long, rocky trail as we explored. Myriads of colorful marine iguanas and marine birds were seen everywhere. We admired and photographed blue-footed boobies and Nazca boobies. We had a wonderful surprise today, as well. We spotted a couple waved albatrosses, one of the most beautiful marine birds in the world. During the last week in December, these birds normally abandon the island to venture into the open ocean for several months. At sunset, we returned to the ship with our minds filled with so many memories. Our hearts were replenished by the much-needed tonic of wilderness. Galapagos always evokes wonder in its visitors.
The morning was warm, and the sun woke us up early to explore Post Office Bay on Floreana Island. This legendary place is full of human history dating back to pirates, whalers, and early colonists. Some of our intrepid guests kayaked around the bay, where the many little islets are home to blue-footed boobies, seagulls, herons, and sea lions. In the ocean, rays and marine turtles started another day. We landed on the beach to visit the oldest mailing system in the Galapagos Islands. The site was established in 1792. Whalers set up a wooden barrel to collect correspondence from visitors passing through Floreana. Later, other sailors could deliver those letters to their next destination. This hand-delivery system has worked very well for around 231 years. We kept the tradition alive by taking some postcards and leaving our own behind in this historical spot. After breakfast, we motored a short distance to arrive at Champion Islet for snorkeling and tours around the islet in the glass-bottom boat. The snorkeling was outstanding. As soon as we jumped in the water, we spotted a wide variety of multicolored fish. The rocky lava is a benthonic wonder covered in barnacles, shells, sea urchins, and colorful sea stars. The highlight was a huge school of salemas. The final touch was a Galapagos shark that emerged from the school of fish for a few seconds before disappearing into the blue depths of the ocean. Our guests had a lot of fun playing with juvenile sea lions. A guest asked me what kind of marine species we would see before we snorkeled, and I guessed sharks; indeed, we saw around ten whitetip reef sharks as we drifted in the water. What a premonition! In the afternoon, we visited Cormorant Point, where we had a great adventure. We observed seabirds diving, flamingos in a brackish water lagoon, marine turtles mating in the water, and stingrays burrowing in the white sand to avoid predators. We had a great day! We enjoyed every single minute, and the nature was astonishing. The frosting on the cake was a spectacular sunset that decorated the sky and welcomed a night full of stars with a very clear Milky Way. We made some great memories and had unforgettable experiences.