Despite its small size, the southernmost island of Espanola, formerly known as Hood, has a rich variety of wildlife, making it popular with cruise boats. Ninety kilometers [55 miles
] from the main tourist center of Puerto Ayora
, this uninhabited island is often the first stop of a one-week itinerary after an overnight crossing. In a typical routine, visitors are woken early with a morning music call piped into their cabins.
Places to visit
After a breakfast with a variety of delicious and unfamiliar fruits and juices, the dozen or so passengers descend from the cruise ship into a panga
. This small dingy ferries them a hundred meters or so to the visitor site of Punta Suarez, a long, low headland of twisted volcanic rock. Laden with cameras, binoculars, large sun hats and suntan lotion, the pink-skinned, bare-footed bipeds are helped off the panga for a ďwet landingĒ onto the black lava rock by a strong-armed boat boy.
Immediately visitors feel like they have arrived somewhere between the Garden of Eden and Danteís inferno. Prehistoric marine iguanas
, which Darwin called ďImps of Darkness,Ē lounge on black rocks while sleek and slithery sea lions
bask in the sun on the beach. If this is your first major encounter with the wildlife of the Galapagos, you will be astounded that the animals donít scurry away when you approach. Even the birds appear quite tame, pecking about at your feet and perhaps even landing on your shoulders. We spotted a rare Galapagos hawk
and several endemic Espanola mockingbirds
at close range.
About a kilometerís walk [just over a half mile
] from landing at Punta Suarez, along the path marked by black and white stakes in the ground, the visitor comes to the edge of a high cliff overlooking a vibrant blue sea flecked with white-tipped waves. Fork-tailed frigate birds
soar and glide in the thermals, while the breakers crash on the rocks below. At one point the surf thrusts itself into the entrance of a lava tube blowhole and bursts out the other end in a 30m [100ft
] fountain of white spray.
Things to do
The usual cast of Galapagos wildlife takes the stage on Espanola. Blue-footed
and masked boobies
are always in the spotlight, while marine iguanas
and the ubiquitous sea lions
arenít shy of appearances. Galapagos doves
, lava herons
, night herons
, swallowtail gulls
, various finches
, lava lizards
and the occasional snake are among the supporting cast. Always hiding in the wings, however, is the reclusive Espanola subspecies of the giant saddleback tortoise
, some 700 of which have been reintroduced to the island during the last 25 years after captive breeding at the Darwin Station
on Santa Cruz
The bird most closely associated with the island is the waved albatross
, a creature famous for its elegant flight, elaborate courtship display and its size ó itís the biggest bird of the archipelago. Itís also the most monogamous. Birds mate for life, though they repeat their courtship ritual each year. Only a few thousand of these white-necked, yellow-billed beauties exist on the planet, all from Espanola, except for a few which breed on Isla La Plata
, off the mainland. Breeding season, from about April to mid-December is the time to see them. The rest of the year they spend at sea.
After a thrilling but hot walk among the creatures on Espanola, visitors return to the cool and comfort of the cruise ship for lunch. In the afternoon there is often a snorkeling expedition around Gardner Rock
, off the northeast shore where the waters glint and flicker with millions of tropical fish. If youíre lucky you might see a few turtles
in these waters. Or a white-tipped shark
may cruise silently past you underwater, like a police officer of the deep.
Then itís time to relax with sea lions
on the long, golden beach of Gardner Bay
. Life isnít all sun, sea and sleep for the sea lions
. Many big scars on the sleek fur of the males are evidence of fights with other males to dominate the female herd. We saw one pathetic youngster who was rejected by the group. Perhaps a shark had eaten its mother, but there was evidently no hope for this little one. It would die of starvation a couple weeks.
As the sun sinks towards the horizon, sunburned bipeds climb aboard the panga and head back to their natural habitat on the cruise ship. Delicious fruit cocktails are served on deck, marking the end of a typical day on a Galapagos cruise.
||Article contributed by Dominic Hamilton|||