Española Island, Galápagos

Isla Española is the southernmost and among the oldest islands in the Galápagos. Your itinerary includes two visitor sites. The first is the eastern headland of Punta Suárez, the home of several species of seabirds including 30,000 waved albatrosses. The second is the pristine beach at Gardner Bay.

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1 Introduction to Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

Española Island defines the southeast corner of the Galápagos. Sometimes referred to as Hood Island, this remote location is arid, barren and flat. These harsh conditions make Española Island uninhabitable for humans. Yet this 23 square mile rock is a haven for wildlife. Your first stop is Punta Suárez, a promontory on the east coast of the island. Your small watercraft will make a dry landing along a concrete pier. There to greet you will be a colony of sea lions. Especially camera worthy are several pups basking on the beach in the Ecuadorian sunshine.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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2 Sally Lightfoot Crabs at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

Clinging along the concrete boardwalk at Punta Suárez is a colony of Sally Lightfoot crabs. Their bright red and orange carapaces shine like beacons against the dark lava rocks. They hold steadfast as waves cascade over their three to five inch shells. As the water retreats, they scurry around while feeding on algae. You might also see them climbing on top of nearby marine iguanas. This is not a hostile move. The crabs make a banquet of the lice on the iguanas.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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3 Lava Heron Eating Crab at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

According to legend, the Sally Lightfoot crab was named after a Caribbean burlesque dancer famous for her fancy footwork. Similarly, these salt water crabs have an uncanny ability to dart, dodge and weave in order to outwit most predators. The key word here is “most.” The stalking skills of this Galápagos heron were superior. This slate gray lava heron with yellow and red rimmed eyes is endemic to the Galápagos. The seabird is about 1.2 feet tall.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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4 Christmas Iguana at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

The Galápagos marine iguana is unique among all iguanas in the world because it forages in the sea. This unsightly yet intriguing species evolved from land iguanas over five million years ago because of the scarcity of food on the barren islands of the Galápagos. They also morphed into eleven subspecies. Usually they are black and sometimes also have green streaks. Only on Española Island do they display patches of red during mating season. This coloring earned them the nickname Christmas iguanas. This reptile can grow up to five feet.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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5 Marine Iguana Colony at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

If one marine iguana makes you squirm, then seeing hundreds of them at the end of the landing might creep you out. Like all reptiles, they are cold blooded. Before entering the sea, they bask in the sun along the rocks and sand, often raising their body temperature above 96°F. The ritual is repeated after swimming. They also demonstrate an unpleasant habit. They jettison salt through their nose in a cloud of mist similar to a sneeze. Gesundheit!

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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6 Walking Trail at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

Your small tour group will assemble near this beacon after everyone is finished taking photos of the wildlife within the first hundred feet of the landing site. Your two-hour excursion will follow a two-mile loop. Although the island is mostly flat, the hiking trail is very uneven and littered with rocks of every size. So being physical fit and vigilant of your steps are essential. While you are waiting for stragglers, enjoy seeing these napping sea lions.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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7 Encircle Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

In Spanish, the word “punta” means tip or point. This accurately describes the headland you will explore at Punta Suárez. The rectangular-shaped path starts along the eastern shoreline before exploring the southern seacoast. Both banks are rugged, windswept and pounded by waves. There are three neighborhoods of endemic birds along the way. The first near the lighthouse is favored by Nazca boobies. Then it transitions into nesting grounds for blue-footed boobies. The third has the largest colony of waved albatrosses in the Galápagos Islands. Seeing each community of marine birds at the base of your feet is exhilarating! The trail then transforms into uneven rocks as it weaves through the unremarkable inland before ending back at the landing pier.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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8 Nazca Booby at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

With a wingspan of five to six feet, the Nazca booby is the largest of the three types of boobies living in the Galápagos. It was initially considered to be part of the masked booby family. It was recently reclassified as a unique species called Sula granti. These seabirds are capable of mating and nesting all year. You are likely to see all stages of the breeding process along the cliffline. During courtship, males dance and sky point in an attempt to attract a female. You might spot an adult incubating two eggs with its gray, webbed feet. Nearby might be fuzzball chicks waiting for a parent to return with dinner. The rosy bill of this bird suggests it is an adult female. Male Nazca boobies display an orange bill.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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9 Geological Origin of Punta Suárez and Española Island in Galápagos, EC

The Punta Suárez coast is defined by mounds of lava rocks and boulders punctuated with basalt cliffs. Geologists consider Isla Española to be one of the oldest islands in the Galápagos. They believe it was formed by a shield volcano that erupted underwater about four million years ago. It was then uplifted from the sea by a shift in tectonic plates. In the center of the island is the remnant of a caldera. The crater only reaches an elevation of 675 feet. The rest of the island is flat thanks to millions of years of wind erosion.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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10 Blue-footed Booby on Eggs at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

Also along the eastern coastline of Punta Suárez are colonies of blue-footed boobies. With a wingspan averaging five feet, they are the second largest booby endemic to the Galápagos. The mating season of these monogamous seabirds peaks between June and August. The female typically lays two eggs on the ground about five days apart. The parents take turns incubating the eggs with their bright blue feet for about 45 days. Then the chicks are protected and fed for about two months. There are more than 25,000 breeding pairs of blue-footed boobies living in the Galápagos Islands.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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11 Eastern Seascape at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

The trail turns inland about half way along the eastern coastline. Pause here to savor the seascape. Watch the sea lions basking in the sun. Notice the streaks of chalky white on the clifftops, a clear indication these are established perches for marine birds. Enjoy seeing the aquamarine water turn a turbulent white as the waves slam into fingers of rock. Smell the fresh air. Feel the tranquility. Superlatives fail to describe your sensations.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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12 Waved Albatross at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

Similar to a realtor’s open house sign, a trail marker points the way to the third seabird district. This is the exclusive community for waved albatrosses. From April to December, approximately 30,000 of these handsome white and brown birds assemble on Española Island during breeding season. This is the vast majority of the world’s population of Phoebastria irrorata. Adults return annually during their 40 to 45 year life expectancy.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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13 Waved Albatross Courtship at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

Waved albatross are monogamous. Finding the perfect mate involves an elaborate courtship. These two were actively flirting with hopes of finding true love. The ritual is fascinating to watch. The birds parade around each other. They fence with their long orange beaks, snapping them open and closed amongst loud chattering. Their heads bob in unison and their wings flap with excitement as the dance continues. This couple ended by intertwining their long white necks. Clearly, it was time to purchase an engagement ring.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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14 Waved Albatross Nursery at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

Waved albatross lay one egg on Española Island between April and June. The ground nests are tucked among lava rocks at the base of dry vegetation. After a two month incubation period, the parents take turns guarding the downy brown chick while the other hunts for small fish and crustaceans. Because the nests are huddled together in close proximity, certain spots resemble an albatross nursery. The juveniles remain on the island until January. Then they fly to the Peruvian coast where they live in a colony for six years. After reaching maturity, they return to this island to find a mate.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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15 Southern Seascape of Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

It requires several minutes to reach the southern coast of Punta Suárez. The walk is slightly uphill and a bit arduous. But as you approach, the smile will return to your face as another magnificent seascape appears below the 50 foot ridgeline. Then you hear a roar. The unexpected noise is followed by a cloud of mist enveloping you. After wiping off your glasses, rush toward the tourists assembled in a crowd.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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16 Spouting Blowhole at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

When you arrive, you will notice a lava field slick with water plus puddles trapped in the crevices. Wait for it. Watch with anticipation as a large wave rolls toward shore. A loud whoosh precedes a fountain blasting through a hole in an old lava tube. The torrent can reach 75 feet before collapsing into ocean spray. Locals call this spectacular display El Soplador. In English, this means “the blower.”

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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17 Photography at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

The Galápagos Islands is a dream destination for any photographer, from those using a smart phone to professionals with expensive cameras and lenses. The opportunities for outstanding photographs are endless. The scenery is spectacular. The wildlife is unique, up close and they virtually pose for a portrait. Each island offers diverse landscapes and seascapes. The only downside is it will take you weeks to cull through all of your great photos to select the very best.

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18 Waved Albatross Airport at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

The albatrosses on Española Island are named after the wavelike shape of their wings when in flight. With a wingspan above eight feet, they are the largest bird living in the Galápagos. Their aerodynamic design allows them to effortlessly glide over the sea for hours. Yet their landings are clumsy at best. Waved albatrosses are more challenged during takeoff. So, they launch themselves off inland cliffs to get aloft and to gain airspeed in the headwinds. Consequently, the surrounding ridgeline has been nicknamed the albatross airport.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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19 Southern Coast Seabirds at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

Waved albatrosses are not the only bird you can watch along the southern coastline and patrolling the skies. In the foreground, you will see this is a favorite spot for Nazca bobbies and swallow-tailed gulls. Overhead is a squadron of blue-footed bobbies going out to sea to hunt as a flock. The white birds with the long tail streamers are red-billed tropicbirds. They are common along many tropical cliffs in the Pacific, Caribbean and Indian Oceans. Some ornithologists suggest those found at Plaza Sur, Genovesa, North Seymour and Española islands should qualify as a unique subspecies. Until a consensus is reached, they are classified as Phaethon aethereus.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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20 Galápagos Hawk at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

The second half of the trail at Punta Suárez moves inland. The path is littered with large, often treacherous rocks and flanked by tall scraggly vegetation. The experience is disappointing compared to the spectacular scenery and wildlife along the coast. Then you see it. This magnificent Galápagos hawk perched on a monolith. This raptor is endemic to the Galápagos. They average 18 to 23 inches with a wingspan of four to four-and-a-half feet. The largest ones live on Española Island. Conservationists estimate only 150 breeding pair remain in the archipelago, making this encounter a delightful rarity.

Punta Suárez, Española Island, Ecuador
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21 Sea Lion Pup at Punta Suárez on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

Your tour of Punta Suárez ends at a small, crescent-shaped bay. Along the beach is a sea lion rookery. Sleeping along the sand – actually on the pathway – are several nursing females. They seem oblivious to tourists as they walk by. The adorable pups are inquisitive. Their big brown eyes watch your every move in wonderment. It is hard to imagine someday this cute little guy might weigh 550 pounds.

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22 Anchoring at Gardner Bay on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

From Punta Suárez, your ship will reposition to the northern coast of Española Island and set anchor a few hundred feet offshore of Garner Bay. This slice of Galápagos paradise can be summed up in three words: beach, swim and snorkel. During the typical two-hour exclusion, you might have time to enjoy two of the three. You will wish you could stay all day.

Bahía Gardner, Española Island, Ecuador
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23 Hood Mockingbirds at Gardner Bay on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

Locals often call sea lions the welcoming committee to the Galápagos because of their omnipresence along the shores. That distinction should go to the Galápagos mockingbird. While sea lions sleep and ignore you, this bird will race toward you, stare up with curiosity and beg for a handout. They may also peck at your toes to get your attention. There are four species and seven subspecies of mockingbirds in the Galápagos. These are hood mockingbirds. They are also called Española mockingbirds because they are endemic to this island with a population of about 2,500 birds.

Bahía Gardner, Española Island, Ecuador
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24 Beach at Gardner Bay on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

The 1.25 mile beach at Gardner Bay rivals any you will find in the tropics. The white coralline sand is hard along the shoreline, making it perfect for a stroll. Another option is to sit, relax and bask in the sun while watching the rolling waves. Or follow the lead of the sea lions and take a nap. The best spots for savoring this picturesque bay are on the sand dunes along the thick saltbrush. There are no trails at Gardner Bay. So, leave your hiking shoes behind. Appropriate footwear here are water shoes, flip flops or, best yet, no footwear at all.

Bahía Gardner, Española Island, Ecuador
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25 Swimming and Snorkeling at Gardner Bay on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

Water activists love Gardner Bay. The shallow aquamarine water is ideal for cooling off on a hot day. Near shore, the waves tend to be mild without currents and the bottom is sandy. Your swimming partners could be playful sea lions, schools of colorful fish and maybe green sea turtles. Snorkelers head to Turtle Rock in the background. Your guide will direct you to the side of the monolith that best matches your experience level. Common sightings are whitetip reef sharks and manta rays. Our group was lucky enough to see breeching whales.

Bahía Gardner, Española Island, Ecuador
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26 Mom Sea Lion Embracing Pup at Gardner Bay on Española Island in Galápagos, EC

A mom’s love is unconditional and forever. Ask any sea lion pup.

Bahía Gardner, Española Island, Ecuador
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