Anchoring off Punta Cicente Roca after our long journey around Isabela Island, we were greeted with quite the geological smorgasbord of coastline.
Beyond this rather stunning point of green with cave below, you can see a much rawer bit of dark lava to the right.
To the north — just beyond that cave — are long stretches of coastline that are largely raw, relatively, fresh lava flows with swaths of green where the lava hadn’t flowed in the last 100,000 or so years. Even in this relatively small bay, there were sandy beaches, weathered cliffs of a sandstone like rock, broken tumbles of lava boulders and dramatic sheer cliffs.
With all of the different kinds of coastline in such a small area, this was clearly a spot worthy of further exploration.
Before diving into one spot (literally), we took a zodiac based tour of the shore to see what critters might be around.
As we approached the cliffs, the first bird we ran into was….
… A PENGUIN!
The Galapagos Penguin is an endemic species to the islands and is the only breed of penguin to live either so far north or to live on the equator. For that matter, the small population that lives at the northern tip of Isabela island are the only penguins in the world to live in the northern hemisphere!
The birds are still well insulated for a cold climate, which comes in handy as they forage for food in the very cold waters of the Humboldt and Cromwell currents.
While the lands of the Galapagos islands are either tropical or relatively desert climates, the sea water is actually quite frigidly cold for much of the year.
Travel tip: Go to the islands in April as the water is relatively warm, while the weather is generally not too rainy. If you go in late July, it’ll still be warm on land, but you can expect the sea temperatures to be absolutely frigid!
While the above penguin looks quite grand, this one… not so much. This is a penguin in the middle of a molt and is actually just ifne.
The penguins generally molt prior to breeding. As molting means losing much of their insulative feathers all at once, the birds will generally stay out of the water and the molt most often happens in the spring when the water is the warmest.
This was also our first — but not the last! — real introduction to the Galapagos flightless cormorant.
Many thousands of years ago, these birds found their way to the Galapagos. Most likely, enough birds to form a breeding population made it to the islands either by flight or on various storm produced floating debris.
Given that there are no land based predators and that Cormorants hunt for food underwater, the birds lost the ability to fly, optimizing for swimming ability instead.
Unlike many waterfowl, the feathers of the cormorant are not actually water proof or, even, particularly water resistant. It isn’t uncommon to see the birds drying and warming themselves in the sun, including sticking their stubby little wings out to dry.
As ungainly as they are on land, the birds are spectacularly good swimmers. Oddly, when swimming, a cormorant doesn’t really sit on top of the water, like a duck. Instead, they swim with most of their body just below the surface!
More on that in a later post….
While we had seen Marine Iguanas on other islands, Isabela was the first with any real population density. Of course, it is nothing compared to the mass of iguanas we would encounter later in the day!
The iguanas of each island have very different coloration due to the color of the algae they primarily eat, which varies from island to island. Whereas the iguanas of Espanola Island were reddish, these were pretty solidly dark grey and black.
What is most surprising, though, was exactly where the iguanas in this photo were. Specifically, that mass of iguanas, with many more in either direction, are at the top of a 50+ foot tall, relatively sheer, cliff! As ungainly as the creatures might look, they can climb!
Unfortunately, I couldn’t really capture it as we were too close to shore.
Note that the iguanas are all pretty much lined up the same direction. Being cold blooded, the iguanas must use their environment to regulate temperature. In particular, they will expose more or less of their bodies to the sun to regulate temperature.
The iguanas were not the only creatures demonstrating a surprising ability to climb.
This is a fur seal — really, a sea lion (sea lions and fur seals have ears… true seals do not) — hanging out on a rock a good 30 feet vertically above the sea.
I would have a hard enough time climbing up that jagged tumble of lava boulders. Trying to do so with stubby flippers in front and a big flipper in back is unimaginable, yet this guy made it seem casually easy!
Along with penguins and fur seals, we also saw many boobies, a handful of frigates, and even another Galapagos hawk (which was too quick for me).
With the tour of this awesome shoreline behind us, it was time to go for a swim.