Outstanding wildlife watching on Isabela, Fernandina and Santa Cruz Islands
31.05.2019 - 05.06.2019
On the fourth day of our cruise, we woke up on the Northern end of the Galapagos’ largest island. Isabela Island was created by the merger of six volcanoes, which gave it a distinct seahorse shape. Most of the Galapagos Islands lie South of the equator, but Genovesa and the Northern tip of Isabela are on the Northern hemisphere. Our first activity for the day was a ride in our two small dinghies along the cliffs of Punta Vicente Roca. Besides lots of birds like boobies and pelicans, we also found a sunfish in the water. Sunfish are among the largest bony fishes in the world. They are round and flat like a plate and can span about 2 meters in diameter.
Next we went snorkeling at the same spot. Given the location of the Galapagos at the equator, one might assume that the water here is very warm. Unfortunately, the Humboldt current brings cold waters from the Arctic up to the Galapagos. In our previous snorkeling spots, the water was around 23 °C, but here in the West of Isabela Island, a strong upwelling brings the temperature down to only about 20 °C. While this is not bad for a quick swim, after an hour of snorkeling we were feeling pretty cold. Despite the cold, it was absolutely worth it. The highlight of the snorkeling were once again the sea lions, who just loved to swim around us and show off their agility in the water.
On the way to our next stop, the boat’s bell once again rang to get us on deck. This time, a whale shark had been sighted and our guide rushed us to get our snorkeling gear on as fast as possible. With the dinghy, we went closer and jumped in. The whale shark was about seven meters long, although the visibility did not allow to see the entire animal at once. He must have not liked our presence, as he swam out of our sight after only about 20 seconds. Despite being so large, whale sharks eat only plankton. Back on the boat, they sighted another sunfish and we tried to snorkel with him as well. Unfortunately, these fish are very shy and he was gone before we could orient ourselves underwater.
In the afternoon, The Beagle anchored in Tagus Cove and we went ashore on Isabela Island for the first time. If you came to Galapagos expecting a classic tropical paradise, you would probably feel disappointed. While there are a couple of nice beaches, especially the younger islands like Isabela and Fernandina are mostly volcanic rock with only minimal vegetation. On our hike through this landscape, we saw lots of finches, the small birds that helped Darwin develop his theory of evolution. There are about 15 different species of finches on the Galapagos islands. They differ mostly in their size and the shapes of their beak, which are adapted to different food sources and habitats.
We spent the night in a calm bay in front of Fernandina Island, the youngest island of the Galapagos. In the morning, we went on land for a fantastic nature walk. Just in the first ten minutes, we saw a sea lion hunting for fish and a Galapagos hawk catching a baby marine iguana. We have seen marine iguanas at nearly every spot, but never as many as during this walk. Sometimes there were hundreds of them piled up in one spot. They don’t move a lot and they are as black as the volcanic rock on which they sit, so we had to be really careful not to step on one by accident. While they are not particularly handsome, marine iguanas are fascinating animals. They are endemic to the Galapagos islands and the only lizards that forage underwater, where they feed on green algae. They can dive as deep as 30 meters and stay underwater for up to one hour. When there is a shortage of food, they can shrink their body size so they need less energy.
After the walk, we went snorkeling in front of Fernandina Island and it was the best snorkeling we have ever done. Right after jumping in the water, a Galapagos penguin dove in next to us and swam around us for a bit. Next, we encountered a group of at least ten sea turtles feeding on algae. They were the largest sea turtles we have ever seen, probably close to two meters long. We are supposed to keep two meters distance from animals, but it was really hard since the waves were strong and the turtles were everywhere around us. While watching the turtles, a group of sea lions approached us and swam around us. They are so incredibly fast! In the end, we also saw marine iguanas swimming and eating algae.
For our afternoon stop we went to Urbina Bay, back on Isabela Island. There, we saw the famous Galapagos tortoise in the wild for the first time. They are so iconic for the archipelago that the Galapagos islands are actually named after the giant tortoises, not the other way around. So “Galapagos Islands” really means “Islands of the tortoises” It was great to see them slowly walking their way, with the composure of an animal who knows it is going to live another hundred years. We also found a few land iguanas in this area. Unlike their marine relatives, they are nicely colored, though Darwin still described them as “ugly”.
Moving South along the West coast of Isabela Island, we made our next stop at Elizabeth Bay, where we explored the coast with the dinghy early in the morning. Elizabeth Bay has the largest concentration of the endemic Galapagos penguins and we saw many that morning. Around half a meter tall, they are among the smallest penguins in the world and the only ones that can be found North of the equator (on the Northern tip of Isabela Island). Unlike other penguins, they don’t live in colonies, but are mostly solitary. Sadly, they are a threatened species with only around 2’000 individuals left. Another endemic bird we saw that morning was the flightless cormorant. Due to the abundance of food in the ocean here, they have lost their ability to fly and instead catch food by diving underwater. Later, we went snorkeling for the last time on the cruise and unsuccessfully tried to find seahorses hiding in the algae.
The second stop of the day was at Punta Moreno, where we walked over relatively new lava flows to a lagoon which had a couple of American flamingos in it. The American flamingo is the most colorful of all the flamingo species.
In the afternoon, we did not have any more excursions as we were sailing around the Southwestern tip of Isabela Island. Just as we thought that this day was the least exciting day of the cruise so far, the bell rang to get our attention on deck. We could hardly believe our luck, when a blue whale, the largest animal known to have ever existed, showed up next to the Beagle. The whale was at least 20 meters long, almost as large as our boat. We followed the blue whale around for nearly an hour and he sometimes came very close to our boat. They were once abundant in the oceans, but were hunted nearly to extinction until the 1970s. Nowadays, there are around 20’000 blue whales spread around the globe, which makes it quite rare to encounter one.
We started the next day in the harbor of Puerto Villamil, the only inhabited place on Isabela Island that is home to around 2’000 people. The first activity was a hike to the caldera of the Sierra Negra volcano, where we were extremely lucky to spot the rare vermillion flycatcher. Unfortunately, the weather was so misty that we hardly saw anything of the caldera. Sierra Negra is one of five active volcanoes on Isabela Island and the most recent one to erupt just one year ago. After the hike, we visited the tortoise breeding center. There were once an estimated quarter million Galapagos tortoises in the archipelago, but sadly they were a very convenient food source for sailors. They were very easy to catch and could be stored alive in the hull of the ships for up to a year, providing fresh meat during long journeys. Nowadays, they also face trouble from many introduced species and are considered threatened, which is why they are actively bred in captivity and released back into the wild only when old enough to survive (usually when they are 10 to 12 years old).
From Puerto Villamil, we sailed back to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. This was the most rocky part of our cruise and we were grateful for having packed seasickness pills. On Santa Cruz we did a last nature walk before having to say goodbye to our guide and our cruise-mates. During the walk, we again saw lots of birds like finches or the endemic Galapagos mockingbird.
Our seven-day Galapagos cruise trip exceeded our expectations on every scale. The boat, the guide, the fellow travelers, the food and most importantly, the wildlife were all amazing. We both agreed that although it was the most expensive week of our round-the-world trip, it was also the best one. We spent another two days in Puerto Ayora at a more relaxed pace. We visited the Charles Darwin Research Station and a couple of beaches around the town and still saw lots of wildlife, though nothing we have not already seen on the cruise. The Galapagos Islands are a true paradise on the Earth and we hope to come back one day!