Gardner Bay is one of the few places where it is permitted for visitors to wander without the close attendance of a guide, so once we had landed here Fabian left us largely to our own devices. We walked along the beach near the water’s edge, where a large number of Galápagos sea lions had congregated. Several of the females had babies, mostly fairly young. One little pup in particular took an especial interest in us, but all were friendly and made for some of the best “cute sea lion” photos I took on the trip.
We also saw a pair of Galápagos hawks here, in the trees at the northern end of the beach. They were perched here for quite a while, and one member of our group managed to get some great shots and video footage of them mating, but unfortunately by the time I reached this point, having spent longer with the sea lions, they had calmed down and were simply enjoying each other’s company.
There were also Yellow Warblers on the sand, swallows swooping past, several Hood Mockingbirds (endemic to Española) and various finches, among other species. Some strategically positioned logs at the top of the sands made for good perches on which to sit and observe all this activity when I had finished my stroll along the beach, and I really enjoyed the time we spent here – probably the most relaxing of all our island visits.
But after a while it was time to return to the Angelito as we were going snorkelling in the bay – but first, let’s take a closer look at all the sea lion activity here, and one special pup in particular!
The trail here is very different from the visitor site at Gardner Bay, being three kilometres n length and rated difficult. It was certainly the hardest of the week’s trails for me, being very rocky for much of its length and testing my dodgy knee to the full, and was tiring for several of the others I think, but we all agreed it was more than worth the effort – I wouldn’t have missed it for anything!
The walk started on the small beach next to the landing spot, where there were a number of Galápagos sea lions, as we had come to expect on every beach. From here we followed a short path to an area where there was a large number of Marine iguanas. These were different from those we had seen elsewhere, as this is a species endemic to this island. They have a deep red, and when breeding green, colouring – leading to the nickname of “Christmas” iguana. They were also among the largest we had seen, and more active than many, so I took the opportunity to make a little video to show their distinctive walk and the line they make with their tail in the sand. Watch how his back leg almost touches the front one – in fact, it was here that I saw one iguana nearly fall over his own feet as the back foot landed on top of and got tangled with the front!
After a while we left the marine iguanas to themselves and started along the rock-strewn path that heads across this narrow spit of land. My next tip focuses on this part of the trail.
With a troublesome knee, I found this trail to be the most challenging of any on the islands, both for its length and its rockiness. It was almost like walking on stepping stones in places, moving from one lava boulder to the next along the route. But it led us to some amazing sights!
Near the start of the path we got some good photos of a couple of the colourful endemic sub-species of Lava lizard found only here on Española (photo two). It is the female who displays this vivid red colouring around the throat and often across the head too.
But the stars of Española, if you visit at the right time of the year as we did (late March to December) are the awe-inspiring Waved albatross. My first sight of an albatross chick, five months old and already enormous, was one of the most memorable of the week (photo three). It was here that Fabian’s relaxed approach to these excursions really paid off, as he gave us plenty of time to appreciate all that we saw. We sat and watched this chick for some time (as he sat there watching us too!)
We then moved on to an open area of jumbled lava rocks, on the far side of which there were a large number of albatrosses, and spent considerable time here too, watching all the activity. Some were engaging in bill-fencing, part of their courtship routine, and several came into land as we watched, in a rather ungainly fashion.
Eventually Fabian announced that it was time to move on, so we carried on to where the trail emerges on to the cliff top.
The trail here crosses a spit of land and brings you out on the cliffs. We had a lengthy pause when we first arrived at this point, sitting and watching the albatross and frigates flying past us and the waves crashing on the rocks below. To see an albatross in flight is a breath-taking sight indeed. I have written more about these awe-inspiring birds in my Favourites tip, in order to share more photos with you.
A short walk along the cliffs brought us to another viewing point with a dramatic blowhole beneath us, and again we paused here for quite a while to enjoy the spectacle. But eventually we had to turn back, following a path parallel to (and a little less rocky than) our outward one. We passed a few more albatrosses and got a close look at their somewhat comical courtship dance, and towards the end saw some Nazca Boobies and Blue-footed Boobies.
We spent so long on the trail that as we neared the end of the path back to the landing point Fabian realised that we were at risk of being still on the island after 18.15, when no one is permitted to be there. He urged us on, and the last of our group boarded the panga with five minutes to spare after a truly exhilarating afternoon!
My final tip about Española looks more closely at our encounters with the magnificent Waved Albatrosses.
Gardener Bay is situated on the northeast side of Isla Española and here there is a beautiful long white sandy beach and turquoise water. We visited the beach at Gardener Bay on the 4th day of the cruise with Cachalote. After breakfast we took the panga to go ashore and by the beach there is a wet landing.
There is no trail at Gardener Bay but you can walk up and down the long beach. There is a Sea Lion colony and here and there you will see Sea Lions lying on the beach. On the beach we also saw the skeleton of a Sea Lion and a group of Hood Mockingbirds having a feast on turtle eggs. From the sand dunes came creeping vines of Morning Glory with purple flowers. I walked to the rocks in the end of the beach and on the rocks, covered with green algae, there are Marine Iguanas and some colourful Sally Lightfoot Crabs.
You can swim and snorkel from the beach at Gardener Bay so I had brought the snorkelling equipment , even if we were going to snorkel more after the visit at the beach. I wanted to practice diving to the bottom and this was a good place for that.
Gardener Bay is a popular visitor site so you will probably not be alone here. When we visited there were several other boats anchored in the bay and many groups on the beach. If I compare the beach at Gardener Bay with the beach at Cerro Brujo, which we had visited the day before, I liked Cerro Brujo better. The reason is only because we were alone there and it was such a beautiful and tranquil place.
To visit Punta Suárez on Isla Española was definitely a highlight on the Galapagos cruise with M/S Cachalote, because of its abundant wildlife and breeding colonies of Waved Albatrosses (their only breeding site), Blue-footed Boobies and Nazca Boobies.
There is a dry landing at a jetty where a trail of 1670m begins. It took us three hours to walk the trail and we could easily have stayed longer, but we had to leave before sunset. In the beginning of the trail there is a small beach with a small Sea Lion colony. There are also lots of Marine Iguanas and you have to watch your step so you don’t step on one. On the stones there were a few Lava Lizards.
The trail continues to a rocky cliff where we saw Blue-footed Boobies perform their courtship ritual just next to the path (you can see my video of it here). It was a funny and amazing sight to see. Besides Blue-footed Boobies you will see other seabirds here, like Nazca Boobies and Swallow-tailed Gulls. On some rocks the Marine Iguanas lay basking in the sun and here and there among the rocks there were a few Sea Lions.
We continued further along the path and came to the colony of breeding Waved Albatrosses and to our delight we saw their funny courtship ritual too (I have a video of it here). The Albatrosses don’t stay on Isla Española all year round, but only during breeding season and to be lucky to see their courtship display you should visit in April - November.
The coast is beautiful and at one point there is a blowhole where waves presses water into a fissure and the water is spurted high into the air, almost like a geyser.
While at Punta Suárez we also saw a Galapagos Dove, a Large Cactus Finch, a Woodpecker Finch, Ground Finches, a Galapagos Hawk and a snake.
After visiting the beach at Gardner Bay we went back to Cachalote for a quick change and then went to the panga again to go snorkelling at a small rocky island just off the coast. As we were all eager to see sharks, especially Hammer Head Sharks we first tried to snorkel on the rougher side of the island, but we soon had to abandon that side to go to calmer waters on the other side of the island (without seeing any sharks). It was an excellent snorkelling site with many colourful reef fishes. For a long time we had around 8-10 very playful Sea Lions swimming around us. It was fantastic! We also swam into a cave. When looking under the water towards the opening we were rewarded with a beautiful blue light.
The only place the Waved Albatrosses (Diomedea irrorata) breed is at Punta Suarez on Isla Española. They are the largest seabirds present in the Galapagos Islands and they look both funny and beautiful. I was very happy to see their courtship display while visiting Punta Suárez. It was an amazing thing to see.
During the breeding season in April - November around 18 200 pairs can be found on Isla Española. When the waved Albatross is not breeding it can be found over the Pacific Ocean east of Galapagos Islands and along the Ecuadorian and the north Peruvian coast. They can stay very long at sea, without putting their feet on firm ground. In the air they are very good fliers and can glide for long periods without flapping their wings. They feed far out at sea from the surface and usually eat fish, squid and crustaceans.
The Waved Albatross is a large seabird with a length of 85 - 93cm and a wingspan of almost 2.5m. They have a grey-brown plumage with white head and neck. The back of the neck is a bit yellowish. The webbed feet are large and the yellow bill is also big. Males and females look alike, but the male is slightly larger.
The males arrive first to Punta Suárez, in March/April, but the females soon follow. Most Waved Albatrosses are monogamous, some have several partners. The egg is laid on the ground and both parents help with the incubation. Strangely the parents sometimes roll the egg about. It is believed this is done for a more successful hatching.
During the breeding season, in April - November, you can see the albatrosses perform their courtship ritual. It is a fun thing to see. It looks like the couple is fencing with their bills when they snap and rattle. They move their necks from side to side, up and down, and they raise the bill towards the sky and make some guttural noises. You can see my video of the courtship display here.
The Nazca Booby (Sula granti) used to be seen as a subspecies of the Masked Booby, but it is now known that it is a species of its own. In Galapagos Islands the Nazca Boobies are quite common with a population of between 25 000 - 50 000 pairs, spread out in different colonies.
With a length of 81-92cm the Nazca Boobies are the largest of the three species of boobies presented in the Galapagos. They have a white plumage with a black tail, black ends on the primary feathers and a black band at the base of the bill, which looks like a mask over the eyes. The large bill is orange.
Like other boobies the Nazca Boobies feed at sea and catch fish by plunge-diving from high up in the air. They often feed long distances from land.
The Nazca Boobies build their nest on the ground. They lay two eggs, several days apart, but even if both eggs hatch only one chick will survive. When the second egg hatch the older chick will push the newly born out of the nest. There it will be left to die, because the parents will not pay any attention to it. This might seem to be cruel, but by laying two eggs the chance to get a chick to raise will increase, in case the first egg doesn’t hatch or the chick die very young.
Pushing out the second hatchling of the nest is not the only cruel behaviour of the Nazca Boobies. When parents go away to find food chicks left alone can be harassed by boobies without children. I recently read in a science magazine that scientists who had studied ringed boobies in the Galapagos found out that the ones who had become most picked on as young also became the worst bullies when they grew up.
The photos of the Nazca Boobies are from Punta Suárez on Isla Española.
There are two species of frigatebirds in the Galapagos Islands, the Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) and the Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor). There are about 1000 pairs of the Magnificent Frigatebird spread in 12 colonies, and a few thousand pairs of the Great Frigatebird, also in 12 colonies.
The frigatebirds are large seabirds with a black plumage and long, pointed wings. The tail is deeply forked and the bill long with a hook in the end. When flying it is difficult to tell the different species apart, but the Magnificent Frigatebirds are slightly larger and the males have a purple shine on their backs, while the Great Frigatebird males have a green shine on their backs. Female Magnificent Frigatebirds have a white breast and a blue eye-ring while the female Great Frigatebirds have a white throat and breast and a red/pink eye-ring.
The males have a very characteristic red chest pouch which they inflate like a balloon to attract females. They build a nest , blow up the pouch and call out to attract a female. The males also flap the wings during the courtship. I would have loved to see that while in the Galapagos.
Even tough the frigatebirds are considered to be seabirds they can’t dive or swim. They don’t have enough oil gland to make their feathers waterproof. They can pick up food from the surface, but very often they steal food from other birds, mostly boobies.
The frigatebirds are beautiful to see either when they fly above the boat or when they are in their nest, maybe with a downy little with chick next to it. When on the cruise with Cachalote I saw frigatebirds following the boat many times. When we navigated between the two visitor sites on Isla Española, Gardner Bay and Punta Suárez, there were several flying above us.
One of the highlights of Galapagos Islands is to see the amazing Marine Iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus). They are endemic to the islands and they are also the only lizards in the word that swim in the sea. The Marine Iguanas spend most of their time on land, but they feed on algae and seaweed. There are seven subspecies of Marine Iguanas in the archipelago and they can be found on all islands, often in the shore zone, on the lava rocks.
During millions of years the Marine Iguana has evolved to be well adapted to its environment. With a flattened snout and sharp teeth they can effectively feed on the algae on the rocks. Their tail helps them swim under water and with their long claws they can stand firmly on the rocks. Sometimes you can see the Marine Iguanas snort, that is when they get rid of excess sea salt with help from salt-eliminating glands in their nostrils. Most Marine Iguanas are black or dark grey in colour but on some islands the male can have a red or green colouring, a colouring that becomes brighter during the mating season.
Males become around 1m long, but some subspecies become longer and others shorter. The females are shorter than the males, and the spines along their back are not as large as on the male.
Females and young iguanas feed along the shore when it is low tide. It is mostly the males that feed in the sea and they can stay up to an hour under water. As the water is cold the iguanas must get warm when they come up on land, and then you can often see them basking in the sun with their face to the sun and their body raised from the ground (they must get warm, but not too warm so by raising the body they will allow the air to circulate under the body).
The Marine Iguanas are funny to see in the water. Twice when I snorkelled I saw them swimming. At Sullivan Bay I saw a Marin Iguana just as it took off from the bottom and swam up to the surface. As it reached the surface a sea lion got hold of the tail and played with it. Great for me to see, but I don’t think the iguana appreciated it that much. While snorkelling near Puerto Villamil I saw a whole group of iguanas swimming at the surface and just past me. It was wonderful.
The breeding season is from November - March. The females will then lay the eggs in an underground nest where they are incubated for three months. The baby iguanas are small and are therefore vulnerable to predators. They risk getting eaten by owls, hawks herons or mocking birds.
The first two photos are from Gardner Bay and the three following photos are from Punta Suarez. In the photos you can see that the Marine Iguanas on Isla Española has a red colouring.
The Swallow-tailed Gull (Creagrus furcatus) is endemic to Galapagos Islands, well almost endemic, as there is a small colony on the Colombian island Malpelo too. The population of Swallow-tailed Gull in the Galapagos Islands consists of 10000 - 15000 pairs, spread in 50 breeding colonies throughout the islands (but not on Fernandina and the west side of Isla Isabela).
The breeding adults have a black head and a red ring around the eyes., whereas the non breeding adults have a white head and are dark around the eyes. The Swallow-tailed Gulls have white underparts and grey neck and upperparts. Their bill is black with a grey tip. The legs and webbed feet are red. The tail is forked and white. Sometimes you can see Swallow-tailed Gulls with white patches on their back. The white patches will help them camouflage in their environment.
The Swallow-tailed Gull is the only nocturnal gull in the world. They feed mostly at night and can then fly several miles from land to catch fish and squid from the surface of the sea, as fish and squid come to the surface to feed on plankton. Sometimes the Swallow-tailed Gulls follow boats at night-time.
The Swallow-tailed Gulls nest in small colonies and they make their nest next to the shore, usually on a small platform on a cliff above sea. They lay only one egg which is incubated for 31-34 days. They breed all year round.
The photo with the two Swallow-tailed Gulls was taken at Punta Suarez on Isla Española.
The Blue-footed Boobies are funny looking birds, but also amazing with their bright blue feet and their special mating ritual. The Blue-footed Booby on Galapagos Islands is an endemic subspecies (Sula nebouxii excisa) and it is a common, with around 10 000 pairs.
As the name indicate the Blue-footed Boobies have bright blue webbed feet. The bill is greyish blue and the head brown and white. The under parts are white and the wings and upper parts are brown.
Males and females look alike, but males are slightly smaller than the females and the pupil of the females looks larger than the pupil of the males.
The Blue-footed Boobies feed on fish which they plunge dive into the Ocean for. When I snorkelled at Sullivan Bay (Santiago) one dived into the water just in front of me. They are really quick!
The Blue-footed Boobies have a very interesting mating ritual. The male make a dance in front of the female, where he raises one blue foot at a time. He then points the bill to the sky and spread out his wings. The male makes a whistle sound, and the female who has joined in with the movements answers with a more guttural honk. They than offer each another sticks and twigs, for a future nest. I was very happy to see this courtship ritual on Isla Española and I have a video of it both on my Isla Española page and on my Galapagos Islands page.
The Blue-footed Boobies form monogamous pairs and make their nest on the ground. The female lay 2-3 eggs, which both parents help to incubate. To keep the eggs warm they use their feet. After about 45 days the eggs hatch. If food supply is scarce the youngest and smallest chicks will be kicked out of the nest and only the biggest chick will be fed and survive.
The name Booby is believed to come from the Spanish word bobo, which means stupid.
The Blue-footed Boobies in the photos were all seen at Punta Suarez on Isla Española. It is an amazing place where you will see lots of birds just next to the path.
There are three species of snakes in the Galapagos Islands and they are all endemic (and there is also one species of water snake). Two of the snakes have three subspecies and one of the snakes have two subspecies. The snakes are the Floreana/Española/San Cristóbal Snake, the Galapagos/Fernandina/Isabela Snake and the Slevin’s/Steindachner’s Snake.
The snakes all look very similar, but the Slevin’s/Steindachner’s Snake is shorter, only around 50cm, while the other snake species become up to 120cm long. In colour they are brown with yellow lines (like the snake in the photo), or grey with yellow or dark spots forming a zigzag pattern.
The snakes kill their prey by constriction, which mean they wrap their long body around their prey and squeeze until it stops breathing. It also happens that they kill their prey with venom, as they are slightly venomous. They are also a little poisonous to humans. The snakes in Galapagos Islands prey mainly on Lava Lizards, Grasshoppers and small Marine Iguanas. The snakes in their turn are preyed upon by the Galapagos Hawk and also by Wild Cats.
The snakes are quite widespread on the islands where they occur, but not so easy to spot. There are no snakes on the most northern islands. I saw the snake in the photo at Punta Suarez on Isla Española, so it should be an Española Snake (Philodryas biserialis hoodensis). Beside the snake on Española I also saw the tail of a snake on Isla Santa Fe during my visit to the islands.
There are 13 species of Darwin Finches in Galapagos Islands, and they are all endemic. The Finches are famous because the role they played in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution . When Charles Darwin visited Galapagos Islands in 1835 during his voyage with the Beagle he didn’t pay much attention to the finches, but more to the Mockingbirds which he noticed differences in, between the islands. He collected finches but didn’t record from which islands. It was not until he came home and talked to an ornithologist and others who had collected finches during the visit that he understood the significance of them.
All 13 Darwin Finches in Galapagos Islands have evolved from a species of finch found on the South American Pacific coast. When they came to Galapagos Islands they adopted to different habitats and food available there. The beaks have evolved to be suitable to the food they eat. To be able to specialize in feeding is good when food is scarce and there is more competition for what is available.
Interesting to know is that the Woodpecker Finch can use thorns or twigs as tools when they search for larva or other insects in small crevices. Ground Finches eat skin parasites from Tortoises, Land Iguanas and Marine Iguanas, and the Sharp-beaked Ground Finch on Wolf and Darwin is also called Vampire Finch as they feed on blood they peck from Nazca Boobies.
The Darwin Finches have a length of 10 - 16cm. Their plumage is mottled grey, brown, black or olive coloured. Some species are not difficult to distinguish, while others are more difficult to identify. Not only are some species looking alike, but there are variations within a species and there are also hybrids.
The Darwin Finch in the photo is a Large Cactus Finch, seen at Punta Suarez on Isla Española.