The Galapagos is an extremely sensitive and protected part of the world. Over the past decade there have been numerous changes to live-aboard, land tour and diving permits. Also most live-aboard companies are only booking agencies with boats holding their brand name. A lot of these boats are franchises. From time to time boats will change ownership and be removed from fleets. When I went to the Galapagos I booked almost three years in advance, and we where some of the last divers allowed to dive during a re-assessment phase in the middle of 2010.
Isabela and Fernandina
The western islands take you to the youngest of the Galapagos Islands – Fernandina and Isabela. These islands are still in the process of formation and are home to the only active volcanoes in the Galapagos Islands. Visiting the area you’ll learn about how the islands were born of fire and how they developed over the years. Stark black lava fields cover much of these islands only pioneer plants such as cactus and mangroves that require little nutrients or soil survive.
Here near the western Galapagos Islands the ocean has the most nutrients due to upwelling. The marine life is abundant and the wildlife that lives on these islands is dependent on the sea. The western islands are the best place in the Galapagos Islands for whale and dolphin encounters. Much of the wildlife that lives in the western islands is endemic to Galapagos Islands . These species adapted to survive in the harsh conditions. Over 95% of the Galapagos Penguin population lives in the western Galapagos Islands and this is the only area to see flightless cormorants.
Isabela is with 4’670km² the largest island of the Galapagos. Most of the diving is done around the north coast (Cape marshall, Punta Albermarle, Punta Vicente Roca) and at Roca Redonda (on the trip north to Wolf and Darwin). On extended trips Fernandina island is also visited but diving in some dive sites is not permitted anymore. Puerto Villamil in the south of Isabela also offers some interesting dive sites around several small islands in the surrounding. The west of Isabela is directly in the path of the Cromwell current (see map), so there is a lot of upwelling cold water. Temperatures are around 20 to 24°C but can drop to 13 to 15°C (in El Niña years)! Galapagos Geology and Climate.
This area is specially interesting, since several fishes are more abundant here than elsewhere in the Galapagos islands because of the cold water, such as the Galapagos horned shark, the Galapagos rock bass (Camotillo), the goldrimmed surgeonfish, the harlequin wrasse or the sailfin grouper (Bacalao). Fernandina is very isolated and has endemic species seen nowhere else on the Galapagos, such as the flightless cormorant or – in the water -the endemic Galapagos Grunt (Orthopristis forbesi) and the White Salema (Xenichthys agassizi).
Isabela and Fernandina sit directly on the mantle hot spot and are geologically very active with 7 large volcanoes. Fernandina is one huge shield volcano with a large caldera and many lava flows. On Isabela there have been at least 13 eruptions since 1911, five of them at Cerro Azul and just 1998 a kilometer long crack opened and fountains of lava erupted to several hundred meters height, and three eruptions at Santo Tomas (Sierra Negra – black mountain) volcano in the south and five of them at the Wolf volcano in the north.
Isabela is also interesting for its flora and fauna. The young island does not follow the vegetation zones of the other islands. The relatively new lava fields and surrounding soils have not developed the sufficient nutrients required to support the varied life zones found on other islands. Another obvious difference occurs on Volcan Wolf and Cerro Azul, these volcanoes loft above the cloud cover and are arid on top.
Isabela’s rich animal, bird, and marine life is beyond compare. Isabela is home to more wild tortoises than all the other islands. Isabela’s large size and notable topography created barriers for the slow moving tortoises; apparently the creatures were unable to cross lava flows and other obstacles, causing several different sub-species of tortoise to develop. Today tortoises roam free in the calderas of Alcedo, Wolf, Cerro Azul, Darwin and Sierra Negra.
Alcedo Tortoises spend most of their life wallowing in the mud at the volcano crater. The mud offers moisture, insulation and protects their exposed flesh from mosquitoes, ticks and other insects. The giant tortoises have a mediocre heat control system requiring them to seek the coolness of the mud during the heat of the day and the extra insulation during the cool of the night.
When tortoises reach 20 to 25 years of age they become sexually active. Beginning approximately a month before the end of the rainy season the tortoises mate, after mating the females set out on a journey to lay their eggs. Alcedo females venture down to the sandy shores of Urbina Bay building nests in the sand. The female digs a hole with its hind legs approximately (30cm) deep. Once she is please with the hole she deposits between 2 and 16 eggs then covers the eggs with a layer of mud and urine before starting her journey back up the mountain. Baby tortoise take between 120 – 140 days to hatch usually happening between December and April.
On the west coast of Isabela the nutrient rich Cromwell Current upwelling creating a feeding ground for fish, whales, dolphin and birds. These waters have long been known as the best place to see whales in the Galapagos. Some 16 species of whales have been identified in the area including humpbacks, sperms, sei, minkes and orcas. During the 19th century whalers hunted in these waters until the giant creatures were near extinction. The steep cliffs of Tagus Cove bare the names of many of the whaling ships and whalers which hunted in these waters.
Birders will be delighted with the offerings of Isabela. Galapagos Penguins and flightless cormorants also feed from the Cromwell Current upwelling. These endemic birds nest along the coast of Isabela and neighboring Fernandina. The mangrove finch, Galapagos Hawk, brown pelican, pink flamingo and blue heron are among the birds who make their home on Isabela.
Located on the west coast of Isabela, at the Perry Isthmus, Elizabeth Bay is a marine visitor site (no landings are permitted). As you visit Elizabeth Bay panga Galapagos Hawks soar overhear and schools of pompanos and dorados can be seen swimming underneath you. Your panga brings you to Las Marielas the small islets just outside the bay and home to the largest concentration of Galapagos penguins living in the islands. This is one of the island’s breeding site for penguins. The ride continues into a red mangrove cove. The panga passes through the red root and green leaf breeding ground for fish and sea turtles. Brown pelicans, flightless cormorants, spotted eagle rays, golden rays and sea lions are often seen.
Lying directly east of Fernandina on the west coast approximately 2/3’s of the way up Isabela is the narrow channel of Tagus Cove. Arriving here the boat will sail through the Bolivar Channel, these are the coldest most productive waters in the Galapagos, the upwelling of the Cromwell Current, where dolphins and whales are frequently seen. Tagus Cove, named for the British naval vessel that moored here in 1814, was used historically as an anchorage for pirates and whalers. One can still find the names of the ships carved into the rock above the landing (a practice now prohibited). The coves quiet waters make for an ideal panga ride beneath its sheltered cliffs, where blue-fitted boobies, brown noddies, pelicans and noddy terns make their nests, and flightless cormorants and penguins inhabit the lava ledges.
From the shore, a wooden stairway rises to the dusty trail passing through the paleo santo forests to reach the perfectly round saltwater crater, Darwin Lake. Continuing on the trail around the lake through a dry vegetation zone, and then climbs inland to a promontory formed by spatter cones. The site provides spectacular views back towards the anchorage in the bay, as well as Darwin Volcano and Wolf Volcano farther north.
Lying at the foot of Alcedo Volcano, south of Tagus Cove, is Urvina Bay (Urbina Bay) one of the best and the most recent example of geological uplift in the Galapagos. Uplift occurs when the molten materials beneath the surface shifts. In 1954 the shoreline was uplifted nearly 15 feet (4 meters). The coastline was driven 3/4 of a mile further out to sea, exposing giant coral heads and stranding marine organisms on what was now on shore. A Disney film crew visited the site shortly afterwards and discovered skeletons of sharks, sea turtles and lobsters unable to find the ocean from the rapidly rising land. Schools of fish were found stranded in newly formed tide pools. Boulder sized coral heads can be seen near the area that once was the beach. The uplifting of Urbina Bay was followed by an eruption of Alcedo a few weeks later.
Seasonally Urvina Bay provides a nesting area for many of the Galapagos creatures. Female tortoises journey down from Alcedo to lay their eggs in the sand. Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants and brown pelicans nest in the area as well.
The visit begins with a wet landing on the white sand beach. Difficulty of the route varies by season. The trail ranges from stark and easily passable during the dry season to mildly challenging requiring wading to pass during the rainy season. Visitors cross the uplifted region learning about this geological wonder. Then reach the sandy area that was once the beach. Shorter visits return to the landing point on the same path, while longer visits continue past the coral heads and new beach.
Other highlights of this site include marine iguanas and some of the largest land iguanas in the islands, and Galapagos Cotton an endemic plant, historians believe the Incas brought to the islands, while naturalist theorize it floated across from Peru.
A colorful part to any tour located on the western shore of Isabela, Punta Moreno is often the first or last stopping point on the island (depending on the direction the boat is heading). Punta Moreno is a place where the forces of the Galapagos have joined to create a work of art. The tour starts with a panga ride along the beautiful rocky shores where Galapagos penguins and shore birds are frequently seen. After a dry landing the path traverses through jagged black lava rock. As the swirling black lava flow gave way to form craters, crystal tide pools formed-some surrounded by mangroves. This is a magnet for small blue lagoons, pink flamingos, blue herons, and Bahama pintail ducks. Brown pelican can be seen nesting in the green leaves of the mangroves. You can walk to the edge of the lava to look straight down on these pools including the occasional green sea turtle, white-tipped shark and puffer fish.
This idyllic setting has suffered from the presence of introduced species. Feral dogs in the area are known to attack sea Lions and marine iguanas.
At Isabela’s remote northern tip reminisce of a US WWII radar base lines the shore. The rough seas and pounding surf make it difficult for visitors to do much more than see the water barrels left behind.
Those fortunate enough to go ashore at Punta Albemarle are able to see that the site is much more. It is the nesting site for flightless cormorants and home to a colony of the largest marine iguanas in the islands.
Located on the eastern coast, across the Isabela Channel from James Island. Previously the site was only accessible by panga, the park service now permits land visits. Arriving at Punta Garcia begins with a dry landing in some rough current causing the panga and passengers to get wet. This is the only visitor site on Isabela reachable without sailing around the west coast.
Darwin Volcano looms above this barren landscape covered with aa lava. Just above the shoreline flightless cormorants used to be seen breeding between March and September. The birds now seem to have deserted the site leaving an occasional brown pelican behind.
Sierra Negra Volcano
Located in the southern part of Isabela between the volcanoes Alcedo and Cerro Azul. Sierra Negra’s caldera at 6 miles x 5 miles is the largest in the Galapagos and the second largest in the world.
The journey up to the crater begins at Puerto Villamil. From the town of Villamil you follow the road to the small town of Santo Tomas where if you have arranged to go via horseback – your horse will be waiting. Whether on foot or by horse the trip takes between 3 – 5 hours. The landscape along the way is quite lovely. Once on top there are a series of fumaroles inside small craters. The view during the “rainy season” is quiet spectacular.
Roca Redonda is located off the northwest tip of Isabela Island, separated by about a 30km stretch of very deep water. This is the tip of a submarine shield volcano that rises nearly 3000m from the sea floor and emerges from the water as an island. The underwater area of this volcano is said to be about 18 kilometers wide. The island is about 300 meters high with steep cliffs and a flat top. Several lava flows can be observed on the island and in the shallow water and there are various caves. Seabirds live here, for example the swallow tailed gulls (Larus furcatus). These gulls are endemic to the Galapagos and the world’s only night-feeding gull. It has unusual large eyes and feeds on squids that come to the surface, usually about 15-30km distance from the nearest land.
This dive site is visited either on the way up to Wolf and Darwin in the north or as part of a tour around Isabela. The water temperatures are very low here, because of the cold Cromwell current. Diving can be difficult because of the strong currents, unpredictable downcurrents, eddies and the heavy surge. If conditions are not right, your dive guide might advise you against diving. Be prepared when diving in the Galapagos. Read this article to learn more
You dive around several underwater rocks and pinnacles always accompanied by sea lions. This is a good place to find schools of scalloped hammerheads, yellow tailed surgeonfishes, barracudas, jacks, Galapagos grunts and king angelfishes. Galapagos sharks and whitetips, mantas, and even the huge sunfish visit this remote place. With luck you can also find sea horses among the rocks in the shallows.
A special attraction is on the Southeast Side of the island. There are several underwater fumaroles (steam vents) in the shallows (12 to 18m) and you can see gas bubbles rising to the surface which indicate that the volcano is probably still active. I have visited a place similar to this in Siau, Indonesia, where there was hot sand and so many bubbles, it looked like a curtain, and found, that some species of marine animals grow much larger because of the abundance of some minerals. Anayway – it’s also just interesting to touch hot rocks below the water and swim among bubbles…
Punta Albemarle lies on the very northern tip of Isabela. Rocky volcanic cliffs drop down to the ocean floor as almost vertical walls. You might see large animals like manta rays, marbled rays, hammerhead sharks and marine turtles, but also Chevron barracuda, snappers, yellow fin tuna, rainbow runners, wahoo and groupers. There are also a lot of smaller fishes like creole fishes, parrotfishes, scrawled filefishes, pacific boxfishes and tiger snake eels.
Cape Marshall (Puerto Egas) lies on the eastern side of Isabela island. You dive where a huge lava stream from the Wolf volcano stopped flowing into the ocean. The lava breaks off abruptly and forms a very steep slope with boulders and lava ridges. Cover is sparsely with some black corals. Dependig on the prevalent current you dive along either from north to south or vice versa.
This is a good place for mantas, mobula rays and eagle rays but also for the occasional shark, yellowfin tuna and sealion. We saw several huge mantas close by – one of them black on the top as well as on the belly – but the most impressive sight was the school of mobula, probably at least 50 animals, that we met several times. As we swam out into the blue, they were suddenly all around us, with quick flips they sped past us and the whole school engulfed us, mobulas in front, above, behind and on all sides! They stayed around, formed a more compact group again and let us swim along for a while. A eagle ray which also joined us only got a glimpse from us, we were so entranced from the mobula rays!
Isabela (Albemarle) West and South Side
Punta Vicente Roca lies at the northwestern point of Isabela close to the volcano Ecuador. There are two beautiful coves which lie on either side of the eroded remains of a volcanic cone. You start your dive on a shallow wall, that becomes a steep drop-off down to 50m. The wall is full of crevices and narrow shelves and is nicely covered with sponges and corals and you can find nudibranchs, crabs, slipper lobsters. There are several really interesting species of fishes living here, the red lipped batfish, frogfishes, seahorses, electric rays and the endemic camotillo. Here you can see schools of barracudas and salemas and even the occasional sunfish and marlin has been spotted here. Mostly drift diving. Night dives possible – good for crabs, shrimps and lobsters and other invertebrates.
The youngest of the Galapagos Islands, Fernandina is approximately 700,00 years old. It’s location to the west and on the far side of Isabela makes it one of the least visited islands.
It still is one of the most active (volcanically) since eruptions still may occur every few years. Which changes the landscape and life on the island. In 1968 the caldera collapsed dropping 1000 feet in a 2-week period. Eruptions in 1995 occurred from a smaller volcano located on the southwest corner of the island.
This constant state of volcanic change gives Fernandina its unique feeling. Lacking the native plants and animals of the other islands visitors obtain the feeling of being at the end of the earth.
Fernandina is home to a large colony of marine iguanas, Galapagos Penguins and flightless cormorants.
Located on the northeast part of Fernandina the visit begins with a dry landing. If the tide is right it is possible to use a dock, otherwise the landing is made on to volcanic rock and it can be slippery. The trail to the shore can be filled with interesting obstacles including marine iguanas and mangrove branches. Once on shore there are two paths:
From the left of the landing site the trail leads into the lava fields. As the youngest of the islands, Fernandina allows visitors to view the recent volcanic activity.
The lava itself is very fragile and full of fissures, which can cause for tenuous walking conditions.
Plants are nearly devoid in this area; lava cactus seems to be one of the few plants able to survive. These small cacti live only a few years, growing in groups. The spines are yellow when young darkening with age and the flower is a creamy white visible only in the early mornings.
This Land’s End trail takes you to a baron patch of land with a few mangroves and rich wildlife. Fernandina is home to the largest colony of marine iguanas. During the first half of the year the iguanas nest here by burrowing small holes in the sand.
Following the trail near the tip of the point a colony of sea lions can be seen. Male sea lions are extremely territorial and their barks warning off would-be-intruders are heard over the sound of the crashing surf.
Flightless cormorants nest in along this rocky area near the high water line, and recently Galapagos Penguins have been spotted nesting in the area.
Some Content Courtesy Teresa Zubi