An American's Guide to Galápagos Islands: Rábida Island

Another 7:00 am morning hike on another island. Today, Rábida, Galápagos, located 4.5 km to the south of Santiago Island, Rábida Island is one of the most volcanically varied islands in the Galápagos archipelago. It is also very red.

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On the map above Rábida is at the bottom of the map, just to the south of Santiago.

Originally named for the 18th-century British admiral John Jervis, the island’s official Ecuadorian name is Isla Rábida, named after the convent of Rábida, where Columbus left his son during his voyage to the Americas.

At the geologic center of the archipelago, Rábida Island presents a different look from the other islands, with its red beach and cliffs, and steep, sloping volcanic cinder-cones.

One of the first animals we encounter is a sea lion. Lots and lots of sea lions.

The island is comprised of lava poured out of scoria cones, which are very rich in iron oxide and magnesium (typical of Galápagos basaltic lava); that when exposed and as it rusts, gives the island its astounding, unearthly reddish color.

Tourists posing with a Guía (Guide) and the Silver Galapagos in the background.

Rábida is a relatively small 1.9² m (4.9² km), arid island. Most of the coastline is rocky except for a beach on the northeast side. Several small volcanic craters and the high amount of iron in the lava give the island its distinctive red color and overall appearance.

Rábida is essentially a cluster of of steep-sided, coalescing domes, flows, and pyroclastic cones. An irregular depression in the center may be a crater, but it has no caldera. The oldest rocks on Rábida are about 1 million years.

Though small, the island contains a great variety of rock and lava types, including basalt, ferrobasalt, icelandite, and trachyte. Also to be found are a range of gabbroic xenoliths.

The range of lava compositions is a result of fractional crystallization. As magma cools, crystals form and settle out. As a result, the composition of the magma changes, generally becoming richer in silica and poorer in magnesium. The xenoliths are fragment of magma that crystallized and depth and where broken off and carried to the surface during an eruption.

It is interesting that these differentiated rocks (i.e., products of extensive fractional crystallization) are restricted to the central portion of the Galápagos archipelago, occurring on Alcedo, Pinzon, and Rábida.

This large ground finch (Geospiza magnirostris) was one of several species of Darwin's finches we encountered while on Isla Rábida. It is said that all 15 species of Darwin's finches can be seen on Rábida. I photographed about half that many.

There were many Galápagos sea lions in and out of the sea; some resting, some nursing and others snoozing on the beach.

The fog and low clouds hugged the red hills for the first half of our day on Rábida. Later the sun would come out as we snorkeled and kayaked around the island.

In Galápagos literature, the description of the various giant tortoise populations often describe a population for Rábida. On our visit to 2018 Rábida Island we encounter no giant tortoises. We do meet plenty of sea lions, birds and countless tropical fish.

The Silver Galapagos (our ride) anchored in the waveless sea between Rábida's tiny isthmus and Santiago Island.

An endangered Chelonoidis chathamensis tortoise specimen was collected by the California Academy of Sciences in 1905; however, there was some evidence that this tortoise was from southern Isabela and recent genetic analyses confirm this. Testudo wallacei Rothschild, 1902, was described with type locality “Chatham Island,?" but its type locality was designated Jervis Island [Rábida] by Van Denburgh (1914); Rábida tortoises were hypothesized to be an introduced population (Pritchard 1996), later confirmed by genetic analysis (Poulakakis et al. 2012) to represent tortoises from southern Isabela, and the name wallacei is considered a nomen dubium and synonym of C. vicina (Fritz and Havas 2007, TTWG 2014).

Santiago Island looks very close across this channel. Perhaps because of that proximity we enjoyed very calm seas for the first day in some time making snorkeling and kayaking much easier.

One thing I do not enjoy about the cruise life is always being rushed. Everything is scheduled and choreographed. I often wonder if the crew will come looking if we don't turn up when the Silver Galapagos is read to sail again.

As I take off my hiking shoes to change into swimwear I see the red sand is sticking to everything.

Our visit is early morning and the wet landing is calm and uneventful. We start the morning with a long hike up the only landing on this island, the fog-shrouded red sand beach, where we meet sea lions, birds, and crabs peacefully coexisting along the shore.

Marine iguanas and sea lions are often seen resting in the shade of the caves nearby.

Brown Pelicans nest in the salt brush behind the beach. Rábida is one of the best places for visitors to see pelicans nesting up close. Blue-footed and Nazca Boobies frequent the cliffs above.

Behind the beach is a saltwater lagoon that, at times, is a feeding and breeding area for flamingos. Our guides tell us that the flamingos haven't been regular visitors since 1995 but do occasionally appear. These large pink or reddish birds live in shallow saltwater lagoons and feed 7-12 hrs each day, primarily on the pink shrimp larva and water boatmen that give them their color. The number of flamingos on Rábida has varied over the years and in some years they are not observed at all. Pintail Ducks and Common Stilts are also frequently seen feeding in the lagoon.

According to the literature flamingos have been irregular visitors to this island since 1995.

Flamingo Lagoon, with flamingos.

The top of the hills is green, also near Flamingo Lagoon there are some green shrubs. Aside from that and lots of prickly pear cacti, this island is a desert. The hillsides are covered with Palo Santos trees which green up for a few months a year when rain falls or fog hugs the islands.

On a steep inland trail along a red rock cliff we observe land birds such as finches, Galapagos Doves, Yellow Warblers, and mockingbirds, as well as the occasional snake. The vegetation consists mainly of Opuntia cacti, Palo Santo trees, and scrubby bushes.

A sunny view of the beach and cliff.

Posing at the top of the cliff. Plenty of gear in tow and long sleeves and long pants and flap hat to protect my fair skin from the equatorial sun.

After our hike we snorkel around the northern tip of Rábida, a little rocky cliff that juts out of the island (see below).

Above: The landing site on Rábida. Tourists are only allowed on this 2-mile hiking trail and are only allowed to snorkel and kayak from the bluff to the rocky cliffs.

There we observe sea lions, sea turtles, Eagle Rays, Garden Eels, and a few sharks and penguins. There is a small colony of fur seals on the island but they were absent or elsewhere on during our visit.

A Galápagos Mocking Bird checks out a resting Galápagos Sea Lion on Isla Rábida.


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