Ecuador day twelve
06.11.2012 - 06.11.2012
Genovesa: the furthest island
Yolande and Reto at Darwin Bay
Genovesa, also known by the English name of Tower, is unusual among Galápagos Islands in having not a volcanic cone. Instead most of the volcano is submerged and surrounds an ocean-filled caldera on the south west side of the island. Due to its remote location and lack of fresh water the island was less visited in the past and has remained unaltered by man; there are no introduced species on the island.
Our bunk beds
This was the fourth island we visited on our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito, and one of my favourites. The journey here is a long one, and consequently it remains less visited than some of the other Galápagos Islands. The small engines of some of the cheaper cruise boats cannot reach it in a comfortable amount of time, and the larger boats (over 40 passengers) are not able to enter the natural harbour formed by its caldera. But if you find an itinerary that includes this remote spot, go for it!
The downside of a visit to Genovesa is the long voyage needed to reach the island, as it lies at some distance from the centre of the archipelago. The Angelito sailed here overnight from Bartolomé, a journey of around seven hours, and the return trip to St James’ Bay, Santiago, was eight hours. The sea between the southerly islands and Genovesa is more open and exposed, and therefore can be rougher. We had been warned to expect this and to take seasickness precautions. I did take a pill before going to bed on both these nights, and whether because of this, or because it was not as choppy as it can get, had no problems at all – indeed, I rather enjoyed the rocking of the little boat when I woke in the night.
Genovesa is also one of just three main islands in the group that lie north of the Equator (the others being Marchana and Darwin, neither of which can be visited). Although we have crossed the equator many times, it has usually been in the air, so it was quite fun to think that we were doing so at sea level – but of course, being an overnight journey, none of us was awake and on deck to appreciate the moment!
We also missed our 6.00 AM arrival at Genovesa, which I would like to have seen as to moor here boats need to cross a shallow and narrow channel into the caldera in order to anchor at the base of the steep crater walls. The bay formed by this caldera is Darwin Bay. Both visitor sites are found here, and the one we went to first, in the morning, was a wet landing on the small beach that bears the same name.
Darwin Bay - you can clearly see the caldera's shape, and sea lions in the foreground
Darwin Bay trail
This 750m trail, rated as easy / moderate, starts on the beach and is at first sandy and later over rocky lava. Near the start, on the cliffs lining the beach, we saw swallow-tailed gulls nesting, some with chicks. We were surprised to see some graffiti on those cliffs, as the Galápagos Islands are so strictly protected. But Fabian explained that this is regarded as part of the human history of the islands, a record of earlier visitors here who didn’t have our modern-day awareness of the damage they were causing.
Swallow-tailed gull and opuntia
Another bird we saw on the beach was one of the six sub-species of Galápagos mockingbird, the bauri, which is endemic to Genovesa, as well as various Galápagos finches. There were also a few Galápagos sea lions, although not as many as on some of the other beaches we visited.
After taking our photos on the beach we headed away from it to walk among the red mangrove and palo santo trees, in every one of which (or so it seemed to me) several red-footed boobies were nesting, and (again, so it seemed) posing for our cameras. Many of them had soft fluffy white chicks, and they seemed to be among the least fearful of all the birds we saw in the Galápagos, and as gently curious about us as we were about them. I took so many photos as it seemed that in every tree there was a red-footed booby more engaging and even closer to me than in the previous one! They are also among the most photogenic of Galápagos birds, with their bright blue bills, pretty pink and turquoise colouring around the eye (“I like the eye-shadow”, was my Dad’s comment later when he saw my photos!), soft brown plumage and red feet. The latter are worth a close look – not only for their vivid colour but also for their amazing prehensile quality – look at my close-up to see how they grip the branch of the tree.
Red-footed booby chick
Further along the trail between the mangrove trees it was great frigatebirds that proliferated, mainly juveniles with those comical ginger hair-dos, and fluffy chicks. I imagine that many of the adults were at sea looking for food for the young – great frigatebirds care for and feed their young for up to two years.
Great frigatebird chick
Juvenile great frigatebird
Behind the beach at Darwin Bay, the trail through the mangrove trees is interspersed with more open stretches beside a series of sheltered tide pools set into a rocky outcrop.
The tide pools
The trail winds in and out of the trees, and the stretches in this more open environment offer opportunities to see some different species. Among these we saw several yellow-crowned night herons, both juveniles and adults, stalking the rocks or tucked into the crevices in the low cliffs that surround them. Nesting on these outcrops were lots more swallow-tailed gulls. I enjoyed watching how affectionate the pairs seemed with each other.
Yellow-crowned night herons, juvenile on the left
An affectionate pair
There were also some marine iguanas here. These are the smallest marine iguanas in the archipelago, and the only reptile to live on Genovesa – there are no land iguanas or lava lizards here.
After we returned to the boat there was an opportunity for snorkelling in the caldera but I decided to spend some time relaxing on deck and catching up with my journal – not a bad decision as it turned out, as visibility was poor and those who went said that it was the least good of all the snorkelling sessions of our week on the Angelito. We also had our usual excellent lunch on board – even though we were spending all day at this one island, park rules prohibit taking any food or drink other than water ashore so picnicking is out of the question!
Prince Philip Steps
Our afternoon landing was at Prince Philip Steps (also known as El Barranco), where a steep but short climb leads to a trail across the cliffs. On the way there we took a panga ride along the cliffs that surround the caldera. We saw a lava heron poking around among the jagged rocks, and some Galápagos sea lions sleeping here, but the most exciting sight was of a small group of Galápagos fur seals who make their home here. This was our first clear sighting of these and a good chance to appreciate the differences between them and their cousins, the sea lions.
Galápagos fur seal
Arriving at the foot of the steps we made the usual transfer from panga to dry land – life-jackets off and passed to the stern, step off one at a time, from alternate sides of the boat to maintain balance, and move forwards quickly to let the next person off behind you. The slight challenge here was the last part of the operation. We were faced with the steep and uneven stairs cut into the rock, and although there was a (slightly wobbly) hand-rail to grasp, the large size of a couple of the steps meant that some of us took them a little slower than our usual pace.
Add to this the wish to stop and take photos as we climbed, and you will understand that Fabian had to chivvy us along at this point! Just the same, we were all soon at the top, 25 metres higher than the landing point, and ready to set out on the trail.
Prince Philip Steps take their name from the visit by Britain’s Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, in the 1960s. They are also known by the Spanish name of El Barranco. Once at the top of the steps you are at the start of a 2 km trail, rated as moderate. It passes at first through a palo santo forest typical of the arid zone of the Galápagos Islands.
One of the first things we saw, very near the top of the steps, was a short-eared owl. Even Fabian was surprised! He said he had been counting on being able to point some out near the end of the trail, but not at this spot.
But mainly here it was the Nazca boobies that most engaged my photographic efforts. While the red-footed boobies we had seen in the morning nest in the mangrove trees, the Nazca boobies prefer the ground. They have different breeding seasons on the different islands, but here on Genovesa it is August to November. Many of them had chicks of different ages, from scrawny new-borns to larger balls of fluff.
Nazca boobies with new-born chicks
Close-up of a chick
Other pairs were yet to produce their young, and were either guarding eggs (Nazca boobies lay two) or even still in the courtship stage, building their nests.
Nazca booby and eggs
I made a short video of one pair engaging in a rather lackadaisical courtship and of a very baby chick. You can see some finches in the background and hear Fabian speculating about the species, as we all did so often!
We also saw more red-footed boobies here, and Galápagos doves. Fabian pointed out how the spines of the opuntia cactus here have softened through evolution, thus allowing the Galápagos dove to reach the pads more easily and to pollinate the flowers. This is a result of the lack of bees on this remote island that would normally perform this function. He also broke a palo santo stick to demonstrate the scent that gives it its alternative names of Holy Stick or the Jerusalem Tree.
Eventually the forest started to thin out and we emerged on to a more open plateau. This is a broad lava field that stretches towards the north shore of the island. Here we saw more Nazca boobies nesting, mainly still quite close to the trees. We followed the path through the scrubby vegetation towards the cliffs. Birds were swooping overhead – frigatebirds, swallow-tailed gulls and others. We also saw storm petrels. The petrels here, wedge-rumped storm petrels, are unique among petrels in flying so much during the day. They only return to their nests in the evening in an effort to avoid their predators.
Birds above the lava fields
Geoff and Sue on the trail
We were excited to see the birds' main predator, the short-eared owl, also flying past. Owls on the Galápagos Islands are not nocturnal so it is not unusual to see them in broad daylight like this, but for us it was amazing to watch them hunting in the middle of the afternoon! Fabian explained that with few competitors for prey and no real threats, they are free to hunt by daylight, unlike elsewhere in the world. However they do tend to feed nocturnally in areas where the Galápagos hawk is present - unsurprisingly!
The short eared owl is a medium sized owl averaging 34 – 43 cm in length. It has large eyes, a big head, short neck and broad wings. Its plumage is mottled tawny to brown with a barred tail and wings, and a streaked breast. Its beak is short, strong, hooked and black, and its eyes yellow. Those seen here in the Galápagos belong to an endemic subspecies, Asio flammeus galapagoensis.
We returned to the landing place at Prince Philip Steps by the same route and were back on board the Angelito in plenty of time for dinner, before casting off for the long journey back to the main group of islands and our next destination, Santiago …