The north-west side of Isabela and the island of Fernandina are some of the most isolated places in the Galapagos. Because these locations are six hours from any port, they’re nearly impossible to visit unless you take a multi-day cruise. Outside of areas restricted to research only, these are the most isolated places in the Galapagos. This is the Galapagos, nearly untouched by human hands.
Our morning activities are a mix of zodiac boating & snorkeling off the coast of Punta Vicente Roca. We board a zodiac and with our guide from the Santa Cruz II and speed toward Isabela, cameras at the ready to spot today’s sights. While there’s still mist over the water, the equatorial sun is rapidly raising the temperature and animals are taking full advantage of it, sunning themselves while resting on the rocky cliffs. We spot Galapagos fur seals near the surf line, so far away that my camera cannot hope to render one visible–their brown fur blends in with the rocks perfectly, and they’re revealed to us only by their wriggling as they climb ashore. Unlike their cousins the Galapagos sea lions, the fur seals here are endangered, hunted to near extinction in the previous centuries for their fur. Although they’re now protected, low success at raising pups to adulthood weighs heavily on the population: in times of scarce food, up to 80% of pups born die within months. Since times of scarcity are often triggered by severe weather events like El Nino, it’s hard to tell whether this species will survive as the global climate changes.
Punta Vicente Roca is also a birder’s heaven – there are several different species out this morning, nesting along the cliffs, preening themselves, and swooping down into the sea to catch fish. We spot blue-footed and Nazca boobies, brown noddies, lava gulls, and Galapagos petrels. They cluster in pairs or groups along the cliffs of Isabela, staining the rocks white with their poop. In fact, some parts of the cliff are less rocks and more bird poop than anything else. Though we might find this gross, wars have been fought over the control of bird poop as a resource. “What, why?!” you’re thinking. Because before we had chemical processes to produce fertilizer, bird poop was the stuff. Rich in nitrogen, phosphates, and potash, this was how the world improved crop yields and fed more people.
While the animals are the draw for most people, the rocks these creatures rest on are also fascinating. Geologically, Isabela is one of the youngest islands in the Galapagos, formed only a few million years ago when six volcanoes spewed forth enough lava and ash to fuse and form the island island. Our guide points to one cliffside, where a jagged edge of tan and black meet – this was was the edge of a lava flow, a place where lava stopped and ash and dirt compacted to continue the island’s length. This history is written in the cliffs, visible in consecutive layers of gray ash and black lava between dirt. And most of these volcanoes are still active, periodically oozing lava and exhaling ash that settles over the island and the sea, growing the island outward, ever outward.
After returning from our boat ride, we get a few minutes of rest (and snacks and juice), then we’re preparing to snorkel. I’ve been warned the water is frigid, a feature of the same upwelling that causes California’s frigid water temperatures year round. And, being Californian, I decide I can handle it and won’t need the $25 wetsuit rental provided by the cruise. I have, however, purchased a disposable underwater camera from the cruise’s gift shop, because for some insane reason we left our GoPro at home for our trip around the world. Don’t ask, I don’t know what we were thinking.
We gather at the back of the ship, load into zodiacs again (this time free of life vests), and head back toward the shore. Because the park management does not allow landings at Punta Vicente Roca, we’re told to stay away from the rocks and then let loose into the ocean. I don my snorkel and fins and am the first over the edge in my boat, swinging my legs over and plunging into the water before I have a chance to think about how it will feel.
FU**, it’s COLD. I can feel my body shudder and my breathing increase to near hyperventilation. I force myself to relax and slow my breathing, but I still feel a vague sensation of arrhythmia in my heartbeat, probably thanks to the mammalian dive reflex all humans experience. I’ll stay warm longer if I keep moving, so I force myself to swim. At the end of twenty minutes, I’m so cold that I have to climb into a zodiac boat and sun myself like a lizard. I’m painfully aware that I’ll burn in the sun as quickly as I’ll warm, so it’s out for only about five minutes before I jump in again. I can’t even imagine how good a hot shower will feel after this.
The marine life here is beautiful and reminds me of California. It’s not the traditional image of a thriving tropical reef, but is instead a rocky shoreline rich with schools of silver fish, swimming seals, and diving shorebirds intent on a meal. The one animal addition that stands out (and we definitely don’t see in California) is the green sea turtle. There are dozens of them, gliding through the water, browsing the selection of algae on the rocks, and coming to the surface to sun themselves. Some are small, less than two feet long. Others are massive, as large as I am. As we swim by, the turtles look up, but mostly ignore us. They’re interested in their lunch, and after snorkeling I find I’m looking forward to mine.
After lunch, our cruise makes its way to Fernandina island, and we are delivered onto Punta Espinoza. This is the sole place that tourists are allowed on Fernandina Island; the rest of the island exists solely as a nature reserve. The dominant life here at Punta Espinoza are the marine iguanas, which greet us by the scores as we step off the boat and onto a hardened lava flow. The iguanas lounge about, soaking in the sun and crawling along the shore to find their preferred food, marine algae. The larger males are skilled swimmers and also dive to graze algae from underwater rocks. It helps them gain a winning edge when food is scarce, and given the number of iguana skeletons lying around, food was scarce not too long ago.
The other divers that make their home here are the flightless cormorants, found only here in the Galapagos. Unused, their wings have shrunk to scrawny stubs that sport only a few pinion feathers and resemble sparse palm fronds. These birds are ungainly on land, but can swim circles around nearly any living creatures underwater. Still, they need to return to land to rest and warm their bodies, as the cold ocean water can chill them to death. They also need land to nest, as we find one bird doing. She is sitting on two eggs in a nest composed of seaweed and guano, and doesn’t take kindly to a nearby marine iguana. I’m not sure if a marine iguana would pose a threat to the eggs, but given that most reptiles are opportunistic omnivores, I wouldn’t trust him either.
We complete our hike with a brief walk through a mangrove forest, where I spot and photograph an island inhabitant that nobody else notices – a small spider hiding out in its web. Unlike most web-weaving spiders, this one seems to have built a small, bell-shaped house for itself. I’ve never seen a spider like this before and haven’t been able to match it to any spider in the Galapagos so far, so it’ll have to remain a mystery.
We emerge at the end of the mangrove forest and I’m surprised to find that the water has risen by nearly a foot in the hour we’ve spent walking. Our landing point lays entirely submerged in the bay, as are the mangrove roots around us. A zodiac boat comes to pick us up, and as we speed back toward the ship we can see the sun setting behind Isabela, a halo of bright fire around one of her volcanoes. There’s no sign of any human activity anywhere on the island–no other ships, no dwellings, nothing. This is the Galapagos how it looked hundreds of years ago, and hopefully it will look this way for hundreds of years to come.
Our first stop on our Galapagos Cruise is North Seymour, a tiny island just north of our starting point on Baltra. We’ve only been on the cruise for a couple of hours, just enough time for a briefing from the head guide and a bit of rest, and now the loudspeaker requests that we don our life vests and come to the back of the ship in our tour groups, each named after a different animal. We’re the Dolphins. I’d make a football joke here, but that would imply I know a lot more about football than I actually do. When we reach the back of the ship, we check out by putting a magnetic red chip into two slots labeled with our room number. This helps the cruise keep track of everyone and ensures no one is left behind, which is comforting considering that there is little fresh water on the islands. Then our guide, Lorenzo, helps us into a zodiac. Once everyone is loaded, we’re off–speeding over the water toward a rocky outcrop.
While North Seymour looks untouched by man from a distance, drawing closer reveals a stone platform and stairs that serve as our landing point. We hop off the zodiac (again, with help from our guide), and put our life vests into a giant sack (I honestly thought we would have to carry them-this cruise thing is full of surprises). Then we’re off down the rust-colored path into the island, one of the few trails cut into North Seymour’s landscape where visitors are allowed to tread. The rest of the island is kept isolated from human contact, in an effort to keep the park close to its natural state.
The first animal sighting of the trip is the Galapagos sea lion, one of the most ubiquitous animals on North Seymour. Sea lions live on the island year-round, diving off its shore for food and coming ashore to rest and bask in the brilliant equatorial sun. Though they’re graceful creatures in the water, their body shape does them no favors on land, and they waddle about unceremoniously. Even so, they can move quite fast when provoked. One sea lion decides s/he’s had enough of our pictures and noise, and scoots furiously toward our group while barking. The whole group scrambles to back up; park rules dictate that we’re supposed to stay six feet away from all of the animals, but they may choose not to stay six feet away from us.
The sea lion pups that scatter the island are far more docile, and far less interested in us. We’re at the tail end of sea lion breeding season in the Galapagos, but there are pups scattered everywhere along the rocky shore. Though they will join their mothers in swimming only a couple of weeks after birth, for now they are stuck on the beach. They play with each other, lay resting in the sun, and wait for their mothers to return from fishing. When a female climbs the beach, several pups waddle toward her demanding a meal. But she’s only looking after her own pup and barks any other pup away; they’ll have to wait for their meal.
The next animal we spot is so iconic it hardly needs an introduction: the blue-footed booby. While not unique to the Galapagos, the blue-footed booby is highly abundant here and has become an unofficial mascot on much of the islands’ tourist merchandise. There’s no mating occurring now, but the brilliant blue feet that bequeathed the animal its name are still highly visible. The birds can be seen resting on the beach or flying out to sea to hunt for fish, gracefully diving into the water. This diet of fresh fish is what helps the booby sustain its brilliantly blue feet, as carotenoids in fish stimulate the bird’s immune system, increasing the intensity of the blue color and signaling it is a fine choice to potential mates.
The other common avian inhabitants on North Seymour are the Magnificent Frigatebirds, a massive gliding bird common along the coast throughout Central and South America. While they cruise majestically and occasionally scoop squid or fish from the sea surface, the frigatebird are primarily kleptoparasites, meaning they steal food. When they spot a booby or gull with a fish, they harass the bird until it drops it’s catch and the frigatebird scoops it up, like an avian version of a purse snatcher. The male frigates sport bright red chest pouches that they inflate to impress females. I ask the guide what happens if it gets popped or deflates. “He’s out of luck,” Lorenzo says, “until next year, when it has healed over and he can inflate it again.”
Also present in the milieu of fauna is the Galapagos land iguana, ironically another sign of previous human intervention. Land iguanas aren’t native to the island, but several of them were moved here when the U.S. built a military installation on Baltra in World War II. There was concern that all of Baltra would become uninhabitable for the iguanas, so at the time North Seymour was the insurance plan to ensure their survival. As we saw when we flew in, it’s currently not needed, but it may be one day. For now, the lizards here live out their days wandering the island and munching on the sparse, low-lying succulents that cluster where the beach sand and island dust meet. They move with a luxuriously slow gait but with no predators here, there’s no need to move fast.
Amid the scenes of life on North Seymour, there are also scenes of death. Mostly unbothered by humans, the animals here live and die with nature, and carcasses of sea lions and seabirds alike are left to desiccate in the Galapagos sun. There are many things that kill animals here: thirst, starvation, disease, injury. In some cases human actions may have indirectly contributed to these deaths. As pollution emissions change global temperatures and climate, they alter water and wind currents around the islands. Historic times and places of plenty may now provide only a pittance of food and water for these animals. Many may die, and some may migrate or adapt. Otherwise, it’s extinction.
The trail leaves the beach and threads inland through a seemingly lifeless landscape, a martian landscape of volcanic rocks, red dust, and twisted, leafless skeletons of the Palo Santo (‘Holy Wood’) trees. But leafless does not mean lifeless. Though they look dead, our guide Lorenzo tells us, they’re just waiting. Waiting for the rain, which comes this time of year. Though the air is dry now, there has been some rain in the past few weeks and if I look closely enough, I can see the signs of life returning. Here, at the end of a thin, dry branch, there’s a visible dab of green on this brown backdrop. On other trees, bright red-yellow blooms are bursting forth. Living may be difficult here, but life persists nonetheless.