The Different Islands of the Galapagos Archipelago
Because of their volcanic origins, the islands have never been physically joined to the South American continent, which explains why native mammals are rare and why so many species found here exist nowhere else. The islands’ extreme isolation made getting here very difficult indeed, and the species of plants and animals that managed to float, drift or fly here had to adapt quickly to survive in their harsh new environment.
BaltraBaltra Island, also know as South Seymour, is typically the first place where tourists set foot, as the main Galapagos airport is located here. Dry and flat, it is ideal for this purpose but lacks other real draws for visitors. During World War II, the United States used the island as an Air Force base, primarily for protecting the Panama Canal.
Though Galapagos land animals are sparse, the grasslands of Baltra do provide habitat for several species of birds, from small ground finches and noddy terns to large brown pelicans and the prehistoric black frigate. Sea lions also can be spotted on occasion.
BartoloméBartolomé, a small island off the coast of James Island, is an adventurer’s paradise. Its summit has one of the most breathtaking views of the Galapagos Islands. And Pinnacle Rock, the eroded remains of an old volcanic tuff cone, is a popular site for snorkeling. Underwater rock formations are spectacular and Galapagos marine animals, including reef sharks, rays and tropical fish, are abundant here.
The white sand beach at the foot of Pinnacle Rock is home to a colony of playful Galapagos penguins and a favorite site among tourists. Sally Light-foot Crabs, marine iguanas, sea lions, and Lava Herons also can be found along the shore.
FernandinaVisitors seeking the thrill of an active volcano need not look further than Fernandina. The youngest of the Galapagos Islands, it has extraordinary lava formations and the most volcanic activity of any of the islands, with eruptions occurring every few years. It also is the most pristine of any of the islands. Featuring rare species of Galapagos flora and fauna, it has remained untouched and unspoiled by the introduced plants and animals that threaten its neighbors.
Along with Isabela, Fernandina is the only other island in the Galapagos to provide a habitat for the rare Flightless Cormorant. It also has the largest population of marine iguanas found in the Galapagos.
FloreanaFloreana’s history is as colorful as the tropical fish that make their home along its coast. Home to one of the oldest settlements in the Galapagos, it attracted pirates, whalers and infamous settlers long before tourism became its biggest draw. Featuring the famous post office barrel, visitors can still carry out the long-held tradition of dropping off and picking up letters to be mailed or carried to remote destinations.
While it is one of the smaller islands in the Galapagos, Floreana also is one of the oldest. With soil rich in nutrients, the island supports a wide variety of native and introduced Galapagos flora. Wildlife viewing is abundant throughout the island, as well. Punta Cormorant features two diverse beaches—the landing beach, with green-tinted sand from its olivine crystals, and carbonate beach, a popular nesting site for green sea turtles. Between both beaches is the salt lagoon, a popular spot to see flamingos, pintails, stilts and other birds. Devil’s Crown, an eroded volcanic cone, is a roosting site for boobies, pelicans and frigates, as well as an amazing spot for Galapagos diving cruises and snorkeling with sea lions.
Genovesa (Tower)The explorer who first referred to the Galapagos Islands as enchanted must have been thinking of Tower Island. Also called Genovesa, the island is often shrouded in mist and sometimes completely obscured by heavy fog. A geologic marvel, Tower is essentially a low volcano that barely breaks the surface of the ocean.
The rocky cliffs that mark the coastline of Tower Island are not an ideal habitat for most Galapagos mammals, but the island’s dramatic landscape attracts a wide variety of birds, making Tower an exciting destination for bird-watchers. Visitors can hike the picturesque trails leading from the beaches to the cliffs reveal a variety of species. Red-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls and storm petrels all nest in the crevices along the island’s cliffs. Lava gulls and yellow-crowed night herons gather in tidal lagoons. Frigatebirdss and boobies can be found among low shrubs in the island’s open areas. Thousands of band-rumped storm petrels flutter along the edges of Tower’s cliffs.
Hood (Espanola)Espanola Island, also know as Hood, is one of the oldest Galapagos Islands and also one of the most secluded. As a result of its isolation, wildlife on Española has adapted to its habitat in unique ways. The subspecies of marine iguana found on the island is the only one that changes color during breeding season. The Hood Mockingbird is larger than other mockingbirds found in the Galapagos and is the only carnivorous one of the species.
Punta Suarez, on the western tip of the island, is one of the top sites to view wildlife in the Galapagos. Its cliffs provide the nesting grounds for most of the world’s Waved Albatrosses. Several other species of seabirds, including Galapagos doves and hawks also nest here. From Punta Suarez, a trail leads to the amazing beach lining Gardner Bay on the eastern shore. A primary nesting site for marine turtles, the beach also is a favorite site for a colony of Galapagos sea lions. Small inlets nearby provide a protected home for colorful tropical fish, turtles and sharks and are an ideal location for sea kayaking.
Isabela (Albemarie)Isabela is the largest island in the Galapagos, and at just a million years old, one of the youngest. Because of its size and the distance between its attractions, it also is one of the least visited. Those who have the time to take in its many treasures are greatly rewarded by the island’s many natural wonders.
Shaped like a sea horse, Isabela provides visitors with a one-of-a-kind opportunity to experience the spectacular marine mammals of the Galapagos —especially whales and dolphins. Scuba diving tours through subterranean passages off the coast lead to a secluded cove abundant with marine life. The waters around Isabela are the best in the Galapagos for whale watching. The Cromwell Current upwelling creates a nutrient-rich feeding ground attracting a wide variety of species including humpback whales, sperm whales and orcas.
In addition to the many marine mammals of the Galapagos found here, Isabela is home to more land tortoises than any of the other islands. Tourists also are likely to encounter blue-footed boobies, Galapagos penguins, marine iguanas, marine turtles and even the rare Flightless Cormorant.
James (Santiago)The fourth largest island in the Galapagos goes by several names. Depending on who you ask, it’s either James, Santiago or San Salvador. Uninhabited for some time, it is a rich site for observing the land-shaping power of volcanic activity and for viewing wildlife.
Sugarloaf, the islands’ now dormant volcano, towers more than 1,000 feet above the coastline, providing habitat for lava lizards, Galapagos Doves and Darwin’s finches. Cliffs of hardened volcanic ash stripped yellow, brown and black dominate most of the landscape. Along the coastline, the sea has shaped the ash into coves and rocky beaches.
James Bay and Buccaneer Cove
Puerto Egas on James Bay, on the western coast, captures the islands’ many natural treasures. Lava pools and caves line the blackened beaches, providing habitat for marine iguanas, Sally Lightfoot crabs and herons. Galapagos diving and snorkeling tours to inlets along the coast reveal abundant marine life, including fur seals, tropical fish, sharks, moray eels and octopuses. Inland from Puerto Egas, is a salt crater. Once the site of a small salt mine, it now provides habitat for many types of birds, including the Galapagos hawk. Just north of James Bay is Buccaneer Cove, where 17th and 19th century pirates stashed their loot.
Sullivan Bay Lava Flows
A volcanic eruption more than a hundred years ago created the dramatic landscape encountered by visitors to Sullivan Bay on the eastern coast of James Island. Untouched by erosion, every lava ripple has been preserved in the large pahoehoe formation here, giving the impression that the surface is still bubbling with hot molten lava. Only the hardy Brachycereus cactus and Mollugo carpetweed plants have colonized the glazed black rock here, a testament to nature’s resilience.
Rabida (Jervis)Rabida is a bird-watcher’s paradise. Finches, blue-footed boobies, doves, yellow warblers, pelicans, mockingbirds and flamingos all make their home on the island. Geologically striking, its reddish beaches, teal waters and steep volcanic cliffs are an instant draw for visitors.
Galapagos Island marine mammals are abundant on Rabida. The island’s beaches and surrounding waters are home to a colony of sea lions, and a vast array of tropical fish greet snorkelers along the rocks at the east end of the island.
San CristobalSnorkel with sea lions at Cerro Brujo. Cruise around Kicker Rock at sunset. Search for blue-footed boobies on cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Natural Habitat Adventures’ Galapagos cruises include a full-day of exploration in and around San Cristobal.
Geographically, San Cristobal is one of the oldest Galapagos Islands. It also is one of the more developed islands. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, capital of the Galapagos province, is located on San Cristobal and offers a wide range of accommodations for tourists. But there’s much more.
San Cristobal Island wildlife is abundant. La Loberia beach harbors one of the Galapagos’ largest colonies of sea lions and one of the largest colonies of marine iguanas. The highlands feature El Junco, the only freshwater lake in the Galapagos Islands. And just off the coast is Kicker Rock. Also called Leon Dormido or the “sleeping lion”, this volcanic formation created in an explosion of hot lava now serves as a serene habitat for boobies and frigates, among other Galapagos birds.
Santa CruzSanta Cruz is the most populous of the islands and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Galapagos. It also is a focal point for scientific research, housing the Charles Darwin Research Station, where a variety of Galapagos land animals are studied, including the Galapagos giant tortoise.
Symbolic of the islands’ fragile biodiversity, the Galapagos giant tortoise has persevered despite continued threats. Whaling and poaching depleted their numbers almost to extinction in the 19th century, and today, introduced species and population pressures continue to threaten their survival. Despite these challenges, conservation efforts are making strides to protect them.
Santa Cruz Highlands
From its lush highlands to the beautiful beaches in the coastal town of Puerto Avora, Santa Cruz features some of the most varied and dramatic landscapes in the Galapagos. In contrast to the dry lowlands, the highlands of Santa Cruz are often shrouded in mist, providing an ideal habitat for many Galapagos land animals and plants. One of the highlands’ top attractions is Los Gemelos, Spanish for “the twins”, two volcanic craters located in the Scalesia forest. These dramatic depressions provide an ideal location for wildlife viewing. Bird watching is at its best here, and almost every bird known to exist in the Galapagos has been spotted in Santa Cruz.
Giant Tortoise Reserve
The north shore of Santa Cruz features Black Turtle Cove, an extensive mangrove lagoon and reserve for giant tortoises. Accessible only by sea, the reserve protects the turtles in their natural habitat, providing a protected area where they can lumber through wild grasses and break the surface of the still waters while fish, rays, and sharks swim below.
Santa Fé (Barrington)Santa Fé lies about eight miles southeast of Santa Cruz. At just over nine square miles it is a relatively small island, but well worth a visit, nonetheless. It is one of the oldest islands in the archipelago, with rock formations below the water’s surface that date back almost four million years. It is also home to two species that are endemic to the island; the Sante Fé rice rat and the Sante Fé land iguana, which can often be seen beneath the island’s towering (over twenty feet tall) prickly pear cactuses. It is believed that the enormous size and heavy trunks of the cacti are adaptations that protect the plants from iguanas and the now extinct giant tortoises that once roamed here. Feral goats were eradicated from the island in 1971.
Picturesque Barrington Bay is the only visitor site on the island. There are two hiking trails that start here. One leads to a scenic viewpoint atop a cliff and the other wends through a forest of gigantic opuntia cactus. The beach is popular with sea lions and is an excellent spot from which to snorkel.
On the cliff, rare Heller’s scalesia and radiate-headed scalesia can be found. Watch for the Galápagos hawks that overlook the beach from the tops of saltbushes and palo santos.