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During our Ecoventura cruise in Galapagos, we visited Isabela Island. Formerly called Albemarle, Isla Isabela is the largest island in the Galapagos.

Passengers kayak along coast.
Passengers kayak along coast.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Shaped like a giant seahorse facing west, Isabela is about 100 miles (160 km) long. The equator passes through the nose of the seahorse. Measuring 1,790 square miles (4,640 sq km) in size, Isabela comprises half the land mass of the Galapagos.

Charles Darwin visited Isabela Island on the HMS Beagle in 1835. On the M/Y Letty, we cruised through Bolivar Channel to Tagus Cove, located about three-quarters up the west coast of Isabela.

Galapagos kayaking

Our first view of Isabela Island wildlife was from kayaks and pangas (motorized dinghies), as we floated beside a ledge of tuff (compacted volcanic ash) at Tagus Cove. A flightless cormorant (scientific name: Phalacrocorax harrisi) stretched out its rudimentary wings to dry in the sun, as his mate rested in a nest.

Flightless cormorant dries vestigial wings by nest.
Flightless cormorant dries vestigial wings by nest.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Because flightless cormorants have no predators and dive into the ocean to fish, they have lost their ability to fly. Our Galapagos guide, Yvonne Mortola, pointed out their big feet used for paddling and their flat tails, used like rudders.

On another cliff ledge, a football-length Galapagos penguin (scientific name: Spheniscus mendiculus) preened its black-and-white coat. Galapagos penguins are the second smallest penguins in the world, and the only penguins that live north of the equator.

A brown pelican (scientific name: Pelecanus occidentalis) observed us in our kayaks and pangas. "During their breeding season, adult pelicans have brown stripes on their necks," explained our Galapagos guide.

Brown pelican
Brown pelican
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tagus Cove trail

From our pangas, we made a dry landing near cliffs covered with maritime graffiti made by pirates and whalers in the 1890s and early 1900s.

The Tagus Cove hiking trail is 5,900 feet (1,800 meters) long. It takes about 1.5 hours to hike to the top of the trail and back.

We climbed up 160 wooden steps to a viewpoint from where we could look down and see M/Y Letty anchored in Tagus Cove.

Darwin's Lake

A strip of land separated Tagus Cove from a round crater lake. "Its name is Darwin's Lake," said Yvonne Mortola. "The HMS Beagle was running out of water when Darwin arrived here, so the crew brought up barrels to fill with water. They were very surprised to discover that the water was salty."

M/Y Letty and Flamingo I anchor in Tagus Cove behind Darwin Lake and palo santo trees.
M/Y Letty and Flamingo I anchor in Tagus Cove behind Darwin Lake and palo santo trees.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Why is Darwin's Lake saline, even though it is about 10 feet (three meters) above sea level? Yvonne explained that repeated eruptions of La Cumbre Volcano on Fernandina Island, opposite Tagus Cove, likely caused earthquakes and tsunamis that filled Darwin's Lake with salt water. Darwin's Lake is now about three times as salty as the ocean due to evaporation.

Palo santo trees

We could smell the aromatic resin of the skeletal palo santo trees (scientific name: Bursera graveolens) lining both sides of the Tagus Cove hiking trail. The name means 'holy stick' because palo santo branches used to be burned as incense in churches.

Guide Yvonne Mortola describes vegetation to hikers.
Guide Yvonne Mortola describes vegetation to hikers.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Yvonne Mortola explained that although the leafless palo santo trees seemed to be lifeless, the whitish-gray trees were only dormant. "A week after the first rainfall, they all turn green."

She also pointed out other Isabela Island vegetation, including scalesia plants, members of the Asteraceae (sunflower) family.

Isabela volcanoes

We climbed to the top of a parasitic volcanic cone. Isabela Island was formed from six volcanoes — (north to south) Wolf, Darwin, Alcedo, Chico, Sierra Negra and Cerro Azul.

"Five volcanoes are still active," said Yvonne. "The last eruption on Isabela was in October 2005."

Pink land iguanas

Yvonne Mortola explained that Volcano Wolf, at 5,906 feet (1,800 meters) in height, is the highest volcano in the Galapagos Islands. "Pink iguanas live on the north and east sides of Volcan Wolf, at an altitude of 1,641 feet (500 meters)," she said.

American oystercatcher
American oystercatcher
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Scientists first saw land iguanas with pink skin on Isabela Island in 1986. In 2009, Galapagos pink iguanas (scientific name: Conolophus marthae) were officially declared a new species.

Puerto Villamil

Some Ecoventura Galapagos cruises stop at Los Humedales, located on the south coast of Isabela, where visitors can observe mangroves and shore birds. On a bus tour from Puerto Villamil, a fishing and farming village (population 2,200), they see lava flows and craters from the 2005 Sierra Negra volcanic eruption.

Other Ecoventura tours of Galapagos stop at Urbina Bay, located between Tagus Cove and Elizabeth Bay, on the west coast of Isabela Island. After landing on the beach, cruise passengers can see brain coral, moved 16.4 feet (five meters) out of the water by a sea floor uplift in 1954, prior to an eruption of Alcedo Volcano.


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:

Bartolome and Pinnacle Rock Galapagos Cruise Tour

Espanola Island Galapagos Birdwatching - Waved Albatrosses

San Cristobal Galapagos Interpretation Center, Kicker Rock and Playa Ochoa

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

Santa Cruz Island Galapagos - Lava Tubes and Pit Craters