An American's Guide to Galápagos Islands: Bahia Darwin
Bahia Darwin Beach
The Silver Galapagos anchored in the caldera of Isla Genovesa
as seen from the small beach. The bones are of a sea lion.
On Day 1 of our Galápagos expedition cruise aboard the Silver Galapagos (Silversea Cruises) we quickly learn what expedition cruising is all about. The ship is smaller than what we are accustomed to. It is the smallest of the Silversea ships with only 100 guests. There are at least 100 crew to service those 100 guests and it offers plush, all-suite accommodations.
This is an all-inclusive cruise event. There is no out-of-pocket expense on this cruise unless you choose to shop in San Cristóbal or Baltra, or take extra excursions in Quito or Guayaquil on either end of the cruise.
View From Suite 603
Zodiac Prep in Darwin Bay
The zodiac pilots wear light blue shirts. Here they prep the zodiacs before sunrise for the morning's expedition to Darwin Bay Beach
A 7:00 am wake up call is our first expedition shock. While we were sleeping the ship dropped anchor in Bahia Darwin (Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island) for a full day of hiking and wildlife viewing. Everything here has to be done early morning and late afternoon due to the excessive heat, year round. We are at or near the equator for the entire cruise. Isla Genovesa is located at 0°19'00"N (a few miles north of the equator). So, we rise early, hike, swim, snorkel, explore then return to the ship before the mid-day sun withers us.
Zodiac boarding can be a little chaotic depending on how high the seas are as both ship and zodiacs are moving. There are multiple pilots (light blue shirts) who hoist the passengers from ship to zodiacs. A dry bag is essential for cameras and iPhones. Every passenger must wear some sort of shoes and an auto-inflatable life vest when boarding a zodiac.
After a quick breakfast we line up to board small inflatable boats (zodiacs) to head for Darwin Bay Beach, a small yellow-sand and coral beach on one side of the bay (caldera) that is surrounded by steep, forbidding cliffs and swarmed by tens of thousands of seabirds. Only 10-12 passengers at-a-time are allowed onto zodiacs and its a heave 'ho to get most of us on there and situated for the short sail across the bay to the beach.
Darwin Bay Beach at Sunrise
The small beach is the only easy landing site in the caldera. It looks especially tiny from our penthouse perch atop the ship about 60-feet (20 m) above the sea.
We quickly learn that the 10 passengers we're paired with on this ride are the passengers we're supposed to stay with for the duration of the morning's expedition. So, if you know you do not want to be paired with another passenger (yes, this happens), you need to position yourself in line so you're on a different zodiac. We decide for afternoon excursion we will drop to the back of the line and ease into a favorable group.
Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island
The zodiacs line up to load passengers, 10-12 at a time. There is a zodiac pilot and a Naturalist Guide on each zodiac. The weather looks grim but it is a mirage. The sun is beating through that fog and low clouds and will quickly heat up everything below.
Each zodiac is captained by a Guía Naturalista certified by the Galápagos National Park and Marine Reserve. The guide will talk and hike us through our expedition. There really is no choosing guides, it is whomever one ends up with. They are all very competent and knowledgeable about the wildlife we encounter. The guide-to-guest ratio stays at about 10-to-12 individuals until there is an injury (an event we will explore in our next post).
The crew have a very rehearsed zodiac boarding and departing routine which works great until seas become too high, surf too rough, or landing too precarious.
When we reach Darwin Bay Beach we land in moderate seas topped by 3-foot waves. The guides and boat pilots do their best to steady the zodiacs so we can disembark directly into the water. It is a sloppy landing and a little scary but something we will become accustomed to. Once ashore we're greeted by the wild sights and sounds of Genovesa Island. Sea lions lounge on the beach, Sally lightfoot crabs crawl up the rocks, and thousands of massive Frigatebirds circle overhead.
We're (mostly) wearing wetsuits on this first day in the Galápagos but soon will find them more bother than they're worth. My own fitted wetsuit that I brought along is a pain to get on and off and becomes very hot, very quick in the tropical sun.
The sea lions move in and camp atop all of our beach crap. Very fun.
The ship provides wetsuits and snorkeling gear to those who don't have their own. Its a choreographed operation. The water is 68-75° F (20-24° C). Chilly, but not cold enough to need protection.
It doesn't take long for the morning clouds and fog to burn off and the day quickly becomes hot and sunny. By 10:00 am everyone is burning in the Ecuadorian sun.
After an hour of beginner's snorkeling class I realize that its like riding a bike, you never forget. Sea lions move in on all our crap on the beach which we find very amusing. Our first encounter with the tame wildlife of the Galápagos is these Galápagos Sea Lions that we will see on every other island we visit over the next two weeks.
Yield for Sea Lions
Sea lions are remarkably agile and turn up in the most unexpected places. We're supposed to stay 2 m (6-feet) away from the wildlife. The wildlife can do whatever they want. This sea lion walked through our group a little closer than 6-feet when we disturbed his resting place amongst a thicket of prickly pear cactus.
February-March is hot and humid in the Galápagos and it should be kind of rainy, but so far it is only hot and humid, kind of like August in Florida. Next up on the morning's agenda is a short hike along a trail that heads west along a tidal lagoon and then up a rocky hill that leads to a point overlooking the cliffs and Darwin Bay.
Along the trail near the tidal lagoon, we see pairs of Swallow-tailed Gulls—the only nocturnal gull species in the world—Lava Gulls, and Yellow-crowned and Lava Herons. The trail continues through Palo Santo trees, Opuntia cacti, and Saltbushes inhabited by Great Frigatebirds and Red-footed Boobies.
We must carefully watch where we walk, so as not to step on any Swallow-tailed Gull eggs.
This is one of the few places in the islands where visitors are guaranteed to see Red-footed Boobies, with their bright red prehensile feet and contrasting blue bills.
Red-footed Boobies are the smallest of the three booby species in Galapagos, and two plumage forms can be found: 95% of the birds have brown feathers and the other 5% have white feathers. It is estimated that more than 200,000 Red-footed Boobies live in the trees and bushes of Genovesa.
Brown or White?
The two morphs of the red-footed booby, side-by-side on Genovesa. This appeared to be a breeding pair, one brown, one white.
Great or Magnificent?
Frigatebirds are present in numbers too large to count. Distinguishing one species from the other is difficult. Both species are huge, with wingspans of nearly 9-feet (3 m).
There are five species of frigatebird found across the world all found in sub-tropical and tropical oceans. The frigatebird’s distinctive shape, a strong silhouette in the shape of a ‘W’ allows them to soar with minimal effort; flying without flapping their wings for hours and even days at a time on the warm, equatorial air currents and cumulus clouds.
The Galápagos is home to two species of frigatebird: the great frigatebird and the magnificent frigatebird. Similar in size, shape and appearance, the long, smooth shoulder feathers of the frigatebird are the most noticeable difference between the two. The subtle difference of color of the sheen on the plumage on their backs distinguishes the great frigatebird from the magnificent; the great has a green sheen while the magnificent has a purple iridescence in the sunlight.
The magnificent frigatebird is the larger of the two Galápagos species with a wingspan measuring between 217 and 244 cm (85-96 inches; 8 feet), compared to the great frigatebird’s wingspan of between 205-230 cm (81-91 inches; 7½ feet). So subtle a difference that they look alike until one studies the morning images.
The Science Behind Frigatebird's Ability to Fly for Weeks Without Stopping
The frigatebird’s most unusual trait is displayed by the males. During the breeding season the males regularly inflate the thin, red, gular sac on their throats with air. These fleshy, red balloons are used to show off to and attract females during the mating season. The display of courtship for the frigatebirds is to sit in groups with wings spread, sacs inflated and heads tilted back. Clattering their bills, shaking their heads and quivering their wings they call to females flying by in order to win a mate. These birds exhibit sexual dimorphism, with the female being larger than the male.
Genovesa Island is a small (14 km² or 5 mi²) horse-shoe shaped island located in the northeastern region of the Galápagos Archipelago. Its distinct shape was formed from the eruption of a shield volcano and the eventual collapse of one side of the caldera.
The resulting submerged crater formed Bahia Darwin, which is surrounded by steep cliffs that provide homes for many seabirds. Lake Arcturus, a salt-water, crater lake, lies in the center of the island and contains sediment that is less than 6000 years old. No eruptions have ever been recorded for Genovesa, but there is evidence of young lava flows on the outskirts of the volcano.
This image is not edited or photoshopped.
The numbers of frigatebirds circling overhead was astounding.
Genovesa has developed a reputation as “The Bird Island” because of the numerous and varied bird species that nest here. We are impressed with the abundance of frigatebirds, Nazca and Red-footed Boobies, Swallow-tailed Gulls, storm petrels, Red-billed Tropicbirds, finches, and mockingbirds, among other bird species. Genovesa is one of the few places in the Galápagos Islands where Red-footed Boobies are found en masse. The marine iguanas found along the shoreline are the only reptile on Genovesa and are the smallest in the archipelago.
This sea lion seems to be bidding us a bon voyage
I'm one of the last to board a zodiac back to the ship for some rest before doing the other side of the caldera.
After the snorkeling and a few hours exploring the area around Darwin Bay Beach we are exhausted and it is time for a return to our ship for lunch.
Afternoon promises an even more challenging hike up the opposite side of the caldera onto Prince Philip’s Steps. The steps begin an extraordinary steep path that leads through a seabird colony full of life, up to cliffs that are 25 m high. It is a bird-watchers paradise with Nazca and red-footed boobies always in sight. The storm petrels here are different from any others in the world because they fly around during the daytime. To avoid predators they only return to their nest holes at night. If you have time (it takes at least 3 days to get here from USA) and are a wildlife enthusiast, this island is a must see!