Wandering Albatross on South Georgia Island, Antarctica. Rinie van Meurs
Travel with a Challenge editor’s cruise vignette
On a 2011 expeditionary cruise to a handful of Australia’s and New Zealand’s remote Subantarctic islands, there were three retired couples – from different countries and unknown to one another – who had booked this unusual adventure cruise with 100 other guests and 10 on-board naturalists. Why? For the singular reason that it would allow each of them to complete their bucket list of seeing in the wild the remaining two out of all 17 penguin species on Earth.
The only place to see these two species missing from each couple’s penguin bucket list was on one remote, uninhabited island on our 15-day itinerary. As we cruised nearer their destination, the excitement was contagious even for the more casual penguin admirers aboard as we joined in their anxiety that the weather might be too poor or the seas too rough to anchor close to their island and disembark by Zodiac to lay eyes on their quarry. However, the penguin mission was successfully accomplished, and champagne flowed at dinner that evening.
Bird watching — the observation of birds as a recreational activity — has been an increasing travel motivator to many destinations around the world, from the 1960s when airplanes began flying vacationers long distances until the present day. With popularity mainly restricted to land-based bird spotting, some of the world’s most exciting and abundant birding destinations have remained illusive to all but the most adventurous. Not any more! The recent growth of small ship expeditionary cruises (vessels carrying 12 to 125 guests) has dramatically expanded possibilities for travelers who love to observe their birds in many feathered variations.
“Small ship cruises can access remote locations where larger vessels can’t go safely,” notes AdventureSmith Explorations director and founder Todd Smith, himself an avid birder and a specialist in expeditionary cruising. “They are the perfect platform for bird enthusiasts to view species that may otherwise be difficult, or even impossible, to reach for the average traveler.”
A Galapagos finch perches on a visitor’s hat on Isabela Island. AdventureSmith Explorations
Guests mingle on board and off with local guides who explain not only the bird life but can also identify the birds by sight and sound. As well, they have intimate knowledge of medicinal/cultural/mythological /historical stories about the birds.
Todd observes, “While all small ship cruises have an element of birding to them, we are seeing a huge increase in self-identified bird watchers seeking to expand their horizons, recognizing small ships as a comfortable, accessible way to get closer to birds in their natural habitats. In the past five years, we have experienced a five-fold increase in birders interested in taking small ship cruises, with senior travelers making up 90% of that increase.”
Bird watching by small ship has a number of advantages over traditional land-based bird tours
1) Travelers are exposed to both seabirds not found on land and terrestrial species as guests go ashore on small-craft excursions to explore remote areas, even while kayaking and snorkelling in some cases.
2) Small ship cruises are able to showcase a variety of environments easily. A small ship can cover a hundred miles while cruising overnight allowing travelers to visit different regions and ecosystems on the same trip.
3) Experts aboard small ships are often ornithologists and local naturalists with extensive knowledge of local species, behavior and patterns ensuring guests are in the right place at the right time to view each species. They also offer illustrated educational lectures on days while the ship is “at sea”.
4) Passionate birders will stay on deck with binoculars all day, regardless of weather. However, for cruisers who enjoy bird spotting in less intense doses, a small ship offers plenty of indoor comfort, delicious snacks and stimulating conversation between outdoor forays or energetic shore excursions. The ship becomes your floating wilderness lodge.
5) Small ships travel in remote wilderness regions where bird populations are less impacted by human development so they are less likely to flee or become silent. This makes travel extra rewarding to some of the greatest concentrations of bird life on the planet in South Georgia Island, Papua New Guinea, the Galapagos Islands and the polar regions.
Blue-footed Booby birds are throughout the Galapagos Islands. Ralph Lee Hopkins
Galapagos Islands: There are 56 native bird species in the Galapagos, with 80 percent living nowhere else. Found throughout the archipelago, 13 species of Darwin’s finches are notoriously hard to identify but are a highlight for nature lovers. Choose an itinerary with Espanola Island during the breeding season of May-November to view the waved albatross with its seven-foot wingspan. Flightless cormorants, another oddity of evolution, can be found on Fernandina and Isabela Islands and the Galapagos penguin is the only one living north of the equator. While guests on any Galapagos Islands Cruise will view many species, bird enthusiasts will particularly appreciate the naturalist experts from National Geographic aboard the Endeavour and Islander.
“Birds in the Galapagos evolved without any predators so they have no innate fear of humans,” Todd emphasizes. “This behavior is startling at first as birds don’t flee when hikers walk quietly past a nest, allowing astonished visitors to get bird photographs impossible anywhere else.”
Alaska Birding Cruises: Alaska birding is best in spring (May 15-June 15) and after August 15 to experience the migrations. Hundreds of bird species migrate to Alaska’s arctic each summer making Glacier Bay National Park a popular destination for birders. Glacier Bay Adventure Cruise spends several days inside Glacier Bay where guests get plenty of time off the ship. South Marble Island is home to nesting puffins, kittiwakes and cormorants, and a popular haunt for predators like Bald eagles and Peregrine falcons. About 240 species of birds have been recorded in the Park. Check out the full list.
Glacier Bay Bald eagle on southeast Alaska’s Panhandle. AdventureSmith Explorations
Amazon Birding Cruises: The rainforest surrounding the upper Amazon River and its tributaries in Peru is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. An astounding 1,700 plus birds (close to 20% of the world’s total) can be found here, of which more than 300 species are endemic. On a Delfin Amazon Cruise guests can easily add 100 birds to their checklist. Colorful macaws and toucans get the most attention, but serious birders look out for local species such as Ant birds and Hoatzins during excursions into small tributaries and lakes. The high water season of December-May offers the best variety of birds.
“Clay licks offer a colorful natural show,” adds Todd, “where parrots, macaws, parakeets and other birds regularly come to lick the minerals in the clay. This rids their bodies of toxins that accumulate due to their seed diet.”
Macaw at a clay lick on the Upper Amazon. AdventureSmith Explorations
Antarctica Birding & Penguin Viewing: Cruising the Antarctic Peninsula reveals many species of penguin, such as Chinstrap, Adelie and Gentoo. For a greater diversity of penguins, including King penguins, and the chance to witness huge colonies of up to a million birds, select an Antarctic cruise that includes South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. Travel in November and December to see courtship behavior, nesting and eggs, or in January and February to view newly-hatched chicks and adolescents entering the water.
“One of my favorite experiences in Antarctica,” recalls Todd, “is to sit near a penguin colony with my camera, watching Gentoo males stealing rocks from other nests to bring to their mate for her nest.”
Emperor Penguins, South Georgia Island, Antarctica. AdventureSmith Explorations
“The future potential of birding cruises aboard small ships is enormous,” concludes Todd. “I think we have just scratched the surface of bird watching demand both at sea and in remote places where land access in any other way is a real challenge. We are working to create new opportunities that make the most of the size and agility of small ships to view birds in their natural settings.”
Founded in 2003 and based in California, AdventureSmith Explorations, www.adventuresmithexplorations.com, is an expedition cruise specialist that matches clients’ interests and abilities to itineraries and vessels worldwide. In 2012 and 2013, owner Todd Smith was named to Conde Nast Traveler’s prestigious Travel Specialists List as the world’s top expert on small ship expeditions. Upon request, he is happy to recommend his favorite bird guides and bird books for each destination.