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"You don't know how lucky you are to see this!" said guide, Yvonne Mortola, during our cruise to the Galapagos Islands.

Flightless cormorant
Flightless cormorant
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We were viewing the courtship dance of a pair of flightless cormorants. Fewer than 1,500 of these endangered birds live on Isabela Island and Fernandina.

M/Y Letty, our Galapagos cruise ship, brought us to Punta Espinoza (also spelled Espinosa) on the northeast coast of Isla Fernandina. Also known for the largest population of marine iguanas in the Galapagos, Fernandina is the third largest island in the archipelago.

Flightless cormorant description

The scientific name for flightless or Galapagos cormorants is Phalacrocorax (formerly Nannopterum) harrisi.

The brown birds have snake-like necks and beaks that curve at the tip. Their wings are tattered and stubby, because they have lost the ability to fly.

Female interrupts courting dance.
Female interrupts courting dance.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"They have huge feet like pelicans — three times too big for the size of their bodies," said Yvonne. We were entranced by their eyes, the color of turquoise gems that sparkled in the sun.

Cormorant courtship dance

Vibrating clucking sounds drew our attention to a lagoon where two flightless cormorants had entwined their necks as they rotated in the water, first clockwise, and then in reverse.

"Flightless cormorants don't have a fixed breeding season," explained Yvonne. "The female chooses the male and starts flirting with him. Other females, attracted by the romantic dance, try to steal the male from her."

This female interrupted the dance to chase them away, until the male accepted her amorous advances and they waddled onto shore, where he brought her sticks to begin nest-building.

Courting flightless cormorants
Courting flightless cormorants
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Flightless cormorant nests & eggs

According to Yvonne, flightless cormorants usually build their nests with kelp, algae and twigs, but they often use whatever flotsam they can find. "I once saw a flightless cormorant nest made from sea urchin spines."

She explained that flightless cormorants mate over 10 days. The female lays one to three eggs. Both the male and female incubate the eggs for 35 days and both raise the chicks.

When conditions are good, about two weeks before the cormorant chicks fledge, the female leaves the male so she can mate again. The male continues to raise the juvenile cormorants.

American oystercatcher with eggs on lava rock
American oystercatcher with eggs on lava rock
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Flightless cormorants can nest twice a year," she said. "You need to stay at least six feet (1.8 meters) from their nests."

Nearby, we watched an American oystercatcher (scientific name: Haematopus palliatus) walk to her nest on the black lava rock. She sat down on two black-speckled white eggs to incubate them.

Galapagos volcano

The lava came from Fernandina Island's La Cumbre Volcano, which is 4,900 feet (1,494 meters) high. Volcán La Cumbre has erupted more than 24 times in the last 200 years, the last time in April 2009.

Its crater is a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) deep and nearly four miles (6.4 kilometers) wide.

Walking on pahoehoe lava
Walking on pahoehoe lava
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We hiked over pahoehoe lava. "It means rope," said Yvonne Mortola. "The molten lava flows for miles before going hard."

Because the top of the lava is like a skin and the inside is soft, it forms wrinkles on top. Yvonne compared pahoehoe lava to the wrinkles that form when you move a bowl of pudding with a skin on top.

Galapagos geology

Fernandina Island sits on the geological hot spot that created the Galapagos. Like a geological conveyor belt, the Nazca tectonic plate moves the Galapagos Islands about two inches (five centimeters) southeast annually.

Yvonne Mortola observes lava cacti.
Yvonne Mortola observes lava cacti.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

This makes Fernandina the youngest and most volcanically active island in the Galapagos. You would think that nothing would grow on the lava, but lava cacti thrive.

Lava cactus

Yvonne pointed out a clump of lava cacti. "The yellow parts are new growth. The green parts are older."

The succulent stems of the lava cactus (scientific name: Brachycereus nesioticus) store moisture.

Galapagos rice rats and small ground finches eat them. It's one of the first plants to grow on lava.

We were not able to climb Volcán La Cumbre. Only scientists can climb the volcano if they obtain a Galapagos National Park permit.

Nevertheless, we were content to observe and photograph the amazing birds, animals and plants thriving on La Cumbre's lava on Fernandina Island.

Yvonne Mortola was right. We were very lucky.


Ecoventura: www.ecoventura.com

Copa Airlines: www.copaair.com

Ecuador Ministry of Tourism: www.ecuador.travel

More things to see & do in the Galapagos Islands:

Puerto Ayora Santa Cruz Galapagos - Charles Darwin Research Station

Santiago (James) Island Galapagos - Birds, Animals and Plants

North Seymour Galapagos Trip - Land Iguanas and Magnificent Frigatebirds

Gardner Bay Espanola Island Galapagos Beach - Sea Lions, Sea Turtles and Galapagos Hawks

Bartolome and Pinnacle Rock Galapagos Cruise Tour