Galápagos Islands – Isabela & Fernandina

Friday June 5, 2009

This morning we reached Moreno Point on Isabela Island, one of the westernmost islands. The western islands are the youngest, with numerous lava fields and less vegetation than the older, eastern islands. They are also less visited by tour boats, so we enjoyed having the destinations to only the 16 passengers from our vessel. Here, our excursion took us over a solidified lava field over very rocky, sharp “ah-ah” lava (Hawaiian for “ouch”). As we trudged across the rough lava, we came upon several lagoons, completely isolated by the surrounding rock. The birds and fish here seem to have the perfect, isolated oasis.

After the morning trek, we sailed a very short distance and hopped on the panga for some snorkeling at a lava reef along Isabela’s shore. In addition to the usual tropical fish, we were quite fortunate to have some new underwater company – Galápagos penguins and a flightless cormorant. The penguins were unbelievable quick underwater, and it was amazing to see the cormorant’s powerful yet controlled dives from an underwater perspective (and only feet from us). We also spent some time with a large sea turtle in the exceptionally chilly water before returning to the panga.

Our afternoon activity was a trip through Elizabeth Bay via panga. Because this area is tightly restricted by the national park, there are no land or swimming excursions allowed. We cruised to a large pair of rocks, jutting out of the middle of the bay, where dozens of penguins and sea lions were playing gleefully. The sea lions were exceptionally playful, darting around the pangas and splashing water mischievously.

After observing the wildlife here, we rode back across the bay to a mangrove forest and lagoon area, and explored by quietly paddling the panga around the serene area. The silence of the lagoon was absolutely amazing… it was a hidden paradise. In addition to sea lions, turtles, and a heron, we were able to watch a school of about three dozen golden rays gliding gracefully around the pristine, shallow waters. It was a great journey through a very serene setting, completely tucked away from the open waters of the bay. As we headed back to the boat, where we remained anchored in Elizabeth Bay for the evening, we enjoyed a spectacular sunset over the large monoliths, with the hot orange sun eclipsing the distant volcanoes.

Tonight, we spiced things up with a little evening fiesta, turning the boat’s lounge area into a make-shift dance floor, where some of the crew, including Rodrigo (the bartender) and William (the cabin boy), taught us to meringue and salsa. They even introduced us to a cucaracha – a shot glass of Ecuadorian whisky, tequila, and vodka set aflame and guzzled through a bendy straw (kids… don’t try this at home).

Saturday June 6, 2009

We spent the first half of today at Urvina Bay, our final stop on Isabela. This area was stunningly beautiful. We landed on a black-sand beach, lined with sea turtle nesting grounds, craggy, black lava rocks, and green vegetation. We walked a trail beyond the beach and saw numerous land iguanas – large, colorful lizards with a deep golden color running the length of their bodies and tails.

The sun was blistering hot today, but we still saw many small birds along the trail. As we made our loop back to the beach, we were met with an incredible sight – a Galápagos hawk perched fearlessly only a couple feet from us! Our small group gathered around for photos, which did not even slightly unsettle the majestic raptor. It was incredible to be so close to such a large bird of prey. As we rounded the edge of the beach, to our surprise, there were about a dozen more hawks lining the small sand dunes and lava rocks running along either side of the beach. Each was as equally relaxed as the first, and I’m pretty sure Stephan was in his glory at this point.

After exploring the lava formations and admiring the cast of hawks in amazement, we went for a swim at the picturesque black sand beach. As we entered the water, we spotted a few sea lions and green turtles swimming nearby. The water here was a similar transparent, intense turquoise as we experienced on the other islands, but was surprisingly (and delightfully) warm. Another fantastic surprise, seemingly unique to Urvina, was the hundreds and hundreds of spectacular seashells blanketing the dark sand. There were cowries (my mom’s favorite) and numerous other types of snails – all unbelievably perfect in color and form, and all to be left there as part of the island’s splendor.

During lunch we made a short sail through the Canál Bolivar to Espinosa Point on Fernandina Island. This was the second western island that we had completely to ourselves, as the majority of boats are not capable of sailing that far, and was another magnificent area for wildlife watching. The views from this landing site were exceptional, and saturated with color. The stunning turquoise water met the ebony lava rocks with white foam; the black banks were lined with brilliant green foliage, and the towering, volcanic slopes of La Cumbre volcano provided a grand backdrop in the afternoon sunlight.

The terrain at Espinosa Point was covered with marine iguana communities; massive rocks were completely hidden beneath layers of black reptiles. In some instances what appeared to be distant, rocky lava was, in fact, a huge pile of iguanas. There were also several paddling around in the ocean, which was just as bizarre a sight as the first time we observed the marine reptiles on Española. The other notably abundant species we encountered was the flightless cormorant. A group was sunning themselves on a nearby rock, and we got to observe these curious birds and their strangely small wings.

This evening we prepared for a long and eventful night of sailing. We departed Fernandina in the late afternoon, as it was a 13-hour sail back to the central islands, sailing around the northern end of Isabela. Shortly after our departure, we enjoyed the company of a huge pod of common dolphins – about 100 of them leaping continually from the water. We followed alongside them for about a half hour, watching their sleek bodies flip and hurdle along the waves. This was yet another advantage to having a small boat – we were more flexible with regards to schedule, and nimble enough to track the unpredictable marine life.

Not long after our encounter with the dolphins, we all met on the captain’s bridge for a special cocktail as we crossed the Equator from South to North. We watched as the GPS displayed 00°00’00” and Walter, the captain, honked the horn loudly, as no one other than the birds and marine life were within hundreds of miles of earshot. A short distance later, and as the sun was setting, we stopped along the majestic cliffs of northern Isabela. The enormous, steep slopes were illuminated with a warm, amber glow from the receding sun – a dazzling spectacle.