Albatross Return to Española Island

April 16, 2010 § 1 Comment

The southernmost island in the Galapagos Archipelago is also one of the most interesting to visit. The incredible concentration of wildlife found on Española makes it a favorite of tourists and guides alike and each April the Albatross return and make the experience complete.

The Galapagos Islands are volcanic in origin and were never connected to the mainland. Rather each island was born at the Galapagos “Hot Spot” a point deep under the sea where energy from the divergence of the Nazca, Cocos and Pacific plates is released in the form of magma, built up overtime this magma forms sea mounts which rise out from the ocean to form islands.  Over time as the plates continue to shift the islands break free and a new island is born and an archipelago is formed.

Española is a classic example of a shield volcano and the aging process of the islands.  The oldest of the islands at approximately 3.3 million years, Española was formed from a single caldera in the center of the island. As the island moved further and further from the hot spot the volcano became extinct.  When islands are younger and more volcanically active (like Fernandina to the west) the island is stark made up of lava and sand, plant life is limited to pioneer plants and wildlife found on the island are those that can survive the harsh environment and rely on the seas for food.  In contrast on Española as the island moved further and further away from the hot spot the lava fields begins to erode and were replaced by fertile soils.  This soil was able to sustain plants and in turn wildlife. The remote location of Española allowed these life forms to evolve overtime independently of the other islands in the chain and today Española is home to a large number of endemic animals.

The Hood Mockingbird is one such example and endemic to the island. These brazen birds have no fear of man and frequently land on visitor’s heads, shoulders, feet or anywhere else they can  searching for food and water. The Hood Mockingbird is slightly larger than other Mockingbirds found in the Galapagos; its beak is longer and has a more curved shape. It is the only carnivorous mockingbird and feeds on a variety of insects, turtle hatchlings and sea lion placentas.

Home to three species of Darwin Finch the large cactus finch, small ground finch and warbler finch can all be found.  For those who read about the Galapagos one of the better known inhabitants is one that you will never see – the Española Tortoise.  In 1965, the tortoise population on Española had been reduced to just 12 females and 2 males all of which were transferred to the Darwin Station on Santa Cruz.  In 1976 another male was found at the San Diego Zoo and transferred to the Galapagos to join the breeding program.  The first great success of the tortoise breeding and rearing program, in 1991 tortoises were repatriated to Española and today there are more than  living in a protected environment near Manzanillo Bay.

Española offers two visitor sites each with a very different experience, the beach at Gardner Bay and the Rocky Cliffs and wildlife of Punta Suarez.

On the northern coast is Gardner Bay, consisting of two long stretches of beach the sites main attraction is the sea lion colony that has found the powdery white sands the perfect place to take a never-ending siesta.  Gardner Bay is one of the few open areas within the national park where visitors are free to explore on their own, as long as they keep an eye out not to step on any sea turtle nest.

The snorkeling at Gardner Bay is fantastic. Close to the beach you can swim with sea lions this is an opportunity not to be missed. Further out towards Tortuga Rock and Gardner Island schools of large colorful tropical fish including yellow tailed surgeon fish, angelfish and bump-head parrot fish swim along with an occasional Manta Ray gliding by and white-tipped sharks napping on the bottom.

On the western tip of Española is Punta Suarez one of the best sites in the Galapagos. The amount of wildlife is overwhelming. The walk is approximately 2 hours and during mating season Punta Suraez comes to life as one big party.

Arriving on shore you are met by carefree sea lion pups waiting to entice you back into the water.  Colorful marine iguanas are waiting along the walkways and scattered in the rocks.  Normally marine iguanas are black in color, a natural camouflage, making it difficult for predators to differentiate between the iguanas and the black lava rocks where the iguana’s live. The subspecies found on Española appear to be almost festive; these iguanas which are normally a reddish shade turn green during mating season.

Continuing inland Galapagos Doves peck around seemingly unaware of your presence, finches fly back and forth between bushes and Galapagos Hawks are seen perched waiting for their next meal.  Here masked and blue footed boobies dance with their partners. Masked boobies flapping their wings as the blue-foots strut around their bright feet honking and whistling as if they each have their own party noise maker.  Young boobies appear to be in costumes as their downy feathers look like wig on their otherwise naked body.

The trail leads to the cliff’s edge where a fissure in the lava below creates a dramatic blow-hole forcing the sea water over high in the air as if it were liquid confetti.  These cliffs are an excellent place to watch what seems to be a magic show, swallow-tailed gulls and red-billed tropicbirds levitated by thermals perform stunts overhead.

If wildlife is the highlight of Española than the Waved Albatross is the star of the show. Known as endemic to the island Española is their only nesting place.  Albatross arrive on Española each April and remain here through December.  The island’s steep cliffs make perfect runways.  These large birds seem somewhat awkward on land as they spread out their expansive wings and run launching themselves off the cliff’s edge.  Once in the air these large birds with their 6-foot wingspan seem transformed as they gracefully soar in the wind.  Española is the only island where you are guaranteed to see albatross in Galapagos.

Española can only be visited as part of a naturalist cruise, and visiting Española is sure to be a highlight of your trip.  Make sure to have you camera batteries fully charged and plenty of space on your memory card because you’ll want to take lots of pictures!


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