Destination: Isabela Island, Galapagos; Fernandina Island, Galapagos
Best of: Salt spitting Iguanas by the hundreds, Dive Bombing Boobies, more Dolphin fun...oh...and a beautiful sunset (or moon rise) to boot! Fernandina was Tracy's favorite island.
Worst of: Due to too many tourists bothering the marine iguanas in the water, you are no longer allowed to snorkel with them
*With the islands being so diverse, we decided to post each one separately. The Galapagos Islands will be an 8 part series. Here is Part 6.
Day 06: Isabela: Urbina Bay / Fernandina: Punta Espinoza
Our last stop on Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos, was at Urbina Bay. Geologically speaking, Urbina is one of the newest areas of the Galapagos and was caused by an uprising in the 1950's. Uprisings occur much like an earthquake in reverse, instead of splitting the land, the land is forced together and pushed up out of the ocean. This one forced the land to rise about 5 meters (15 feet). The result of the uprising created a new beach, caused the island to grow in size, and caused the death of many corals and other marine plants, including the mighty mangroves. You can see what once was a vast forest of mangroves, now just black decayed and rotting trees. The new beach is an important turtle nesting sight, being one of the few beaches on this side of the Isabela so you have to watch your step.
Prior to the national park being established in 1958, human activity went on largely unchecked. Once it was determined that many of the human introduced animals (dogs, cats, rats, goats, cows, pigs, etc.) were devastating the natural habitats of the endemic and native species, a program was put in place to begin eradicating the introduced species. On Isabela, they have now eradicated all of the goats. What program you might ask would accomplish such a task? Poison? Nope, that would endanger the other species. Some sort of capture and release? Not right either, apparently the goats breed too quickly. With the use of helicopters and men with guns over 2-3 years, they flew over the island shooting goats as they saw them. Sounds like a scene out of Apocalypse Now rather than National Geographic but that's exactly what happened. Now that all the goats are gone, the vegetation is coming back and the native and endemic species have sufficient food sources to return to pre-human numbers on the island.
One such species is the Land Iguana, endemic to the islands. We showed you a picture of them on North Seymour where there are only a handful due to lack of food, but here food is not a problem and there is a large colony of them living here. Measuring from 1-6 feet in length (tail included) they are only slightly skittish, mainly from the goat eradication program. If all you heard was gun fire everyday for three years, you might be a little on the shy side as well! On a lighter note, the Iguanas are very intriguing to watch. Highly territorial, they do "push-ups" to let other Iguanas know this is my turf pal. We don't have a video, but think of really fast head bobs and you get the picture. They have no natural way of cooling themselves off so they dig holes in the ground to stay cool and stay in the shade.
We tried snorkeling off the beach here, but it was just too cloudy and the waves were pretty strong in this area so we threw off the gear and enjoyed the sun and sand for a moment or two.
After lunch, it was time to explore the youngest, geologically speaking, island of Fernandina. Only the point of Espinoza is available for exploration, but it provides more than enough wildlife viewing. Once again, we encountered a familiar face in the marine iguana, only this time they numbered in the hundreds. A popular breeding ground is found here and they don't stray far from home. The endemic marine iguana feeds on the algae and seaweed of the ocean during low tide, and spend the rest of the time sunning themselves on the rocks. As with the land iguanas, the marine iguanas also have no natural way of cooling themselves so they face the sun when they are cold, and turn around when they are warm. As you look at the sea (no pun intended) of iguanas they are 90% facing the same way, sometimes one on top of another. The white crust you see on their heads in not part of their coloring, it's from the salt spray...that they create. As they are digesting the seaweed and algae from feeding time, they have to have a way of excreting the saltwater. As you watch them seemingly doing nothing, one snorts and a spray of saltwater goes flying out its nostrils and the wind blows it around and back into their faces.
Fernandina is not only home to a marine iguana colony, but also plays home to more...you guessed it...boobies! One would think that we would get tired of them, but they never cease to amaze us with something new each time. Off the shores of Fernandina lives schools of fish, perfect feeding grounds for all the birds. Like a squadron of fighter jets, the leader of the pack is on the look out for prey. When a school is within sight, he signals to the rest of the group and they descend upon the unsuspecting victims. The rest take his lead and dive into the water one right after the other.
Just in the foreground of the squadron of boobies, there is the nests of flightless cormorants. The flightless Cormorants, as the name suggests, can't fly and are the only species of cormorants that cannot making them endemic to the Galapagos. Instead of flying, they have larger than normal webbed feet and are much stronger swimmers than their brothers that still fly. This allows them to dive much deeper in the water in search of food. They only use their small wings for support when jumping from rock to rock. Unlike other birds that use twigs and dried leaves to build proper nests, the cormorant build their nests out of wet seaweed. The female stay home to tend what little nest there is while the male goes out to collect supplies. When he returns, he shows his loved one what he brought home for her and the baby. There is a moment of either disgust and rejection or a welcoming thank you for such a nice pile of weeds. There is one major problem however with building your house out of wet seaweed rather than dry timber...IT's WET! As the seaweed begins to decay, it attracts lots bacteria and bugs, certainly doesn't scream home sweet home! As a result of this choice in building materials, the cormorants are prone to infections and have a low survival rate. The white in the pictures below is not sea foam, it's the rocks that have turned white from all the bird poo. Yet another amenity one looks for in a house...at least it's oceanfront!
A short walk from the cormorants and boobies, we came across a couple of young male sea lions that were playing/fighting, while a mother was caring for her pup. And in the background of the sea lions, a "young" sea turtle had lost its way and managed to come up on the wrong beach. The only time sea turtles are usually seen on land is when they are ready to lay eggs, which is at least 25 years old (when they reach sexual maturity) and always on the same beach in which they were born. This one had either got caught in the waves and washed up on shore by accident, or was dazed and confused about where it was. Either way, what a sight! Have we mentioned that the Galapagos is one of those magical places where things just happen?!? The turtle, by the way, got turned around and back out to sea safely.
During the season (June - October) the western islands and specifically, the channel between Fernandina and Isabela, is home to several types of whales. The only whale you have a real chance of seeing year round is the Killer Whale, or Orca, which feeds on sea lions. This time of year however, the water is too warm (sure could have fooled us!) for whales and so they go to deeper and much colder water to feed. Below are some bones left behind by a whale that washed up on shore and died.
As we sailed away from the island, once again we encountered a group of dolphins...this time the common dolphin and the spinner common dolphin. They, just as the bottlenose dolphin, are very acrobatic jumping in the air and, in the case of the spinner, doing a couple of 360's before splashing back down.
Just as the sun was about to set, we joined the captain in the wheelhouse for the moment we crossed over the Equator and were at 0.0.0.0 longitude. We took a picture of the gauge, but it came out a little fuzzy so just trust us that it read that at one time. It was also rather fitting that the full moon was rising right along side the lunar type landscape (with water) that is the northern volcanic cones of Isabela.
We continued to sail throughout the night to our next set of islands, and last full day on board the Beluga, Santiago and Bartolome Islands!