Genovesa Island, Galápagos

Genovesa is a small, remote island just north of the equator with large colonies of seabirds including three kinds of boobies, two types of frigatebirds plus herons, gulls and owls. Other residents range from enormous sea lions to tiny colorful crabs.

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1 Prince Phillip’s Steps on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

Most of the Galápagos Islands are south of the equator. The remote island of Genovesa is an exception. The namesake for this donut-shaped, 5.4 square mile isle is Genoa, Italy, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. This is El Barranco, one of two locations with hiking trails on the island. It is frequently called Prince Phillip’s Steps for two reasons. First, it honors two visits by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and consort of Queen Elizabeth II. Second, tourists must climb a rugged staircase carved into the 82 foot cliff before reaching the plateau at 250 feet above sea level.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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2 Swallow-tailed Gulls at Prince Phillip’s Steps on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

These swallow-tailed gulls were sleeping among the rocks in the early morning rain until rudely awakened by tourists trudging up Prince Phillip’s Steps. You might joke the bright red rim around their eyes means they were out all night. They were. The creagrus furcatus is the only gull species in the world that feeds nocturnally. Their primary diet is squid augmented by small fish. Approximately 35,000 swallow-tailed gulls live in the Galápagos. A large percent of the 50 colonies are here at Genovesa and two other eastern islands.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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3 Nazca Boobies Skypointing at Prince Phillip’s Steps on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

These Nazca boobies were playfully engaged in a mating ritual called skypointing. The female on the right has a pinkish-orange bill while her perspective mate’s bill is orange. Both feature white plumage with dark brown feathers on their wings and tails. The orange iris is highlighted by a black facemask.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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4 Young Red-footed Booby at Prince Phillip’s Steps on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

The walking path along Prince Phillip’s Steps is flanked by a forest of palo santo trees. Peer between the thin white branches to catch a glimpse of juvenile red-footed boobies. They are abundant. Estimates suggest there are over 200,000 of these seabirds on Genovesa Island. This youngster is still flightless. Although they tend to leave the nest after three months, they do not become skilled aviators until about five months old. Their average life expectancy in the wild is about twenty years.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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5 Tourists on Trail at Prince Phillip’s Steps on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

The excursion to Prince Phillip’s Steps on Genovesa Island is often marked as difficult to moderate. That is partially correct. Navigating the steps is challenging for the less physically fit. Yet once on the plateau, walking along the .9 mile path is very easy. In fact, it barely qualifies as a stroll. You will make frequent stops along the way to marvel at the fearless birds posing for your camera while the naturalist introduces you to each species such as this red-footed booby.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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6 Red-footed Booby at Prince Phillip’s Steps on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

The largest colony of red-footed boobies is on Genovesa Island. You are guaranteed to come face to blue bill with this delightful seabird. At less than two pounds, they are the smallest of the Galápagos boobies. Their plumage color can vary from either a white morph to the more common brown feathers. But there is no mistaking their bright red feet as they cling to a branch and stare curiously at you. You will laugh when you see one take off – they are clumsy at best. But in the sky, their over three foot wingspan can carry them up to 100 miles.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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7 Parenting by Nazca Boobies at Prince Phillip’s Steps on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

The reproduction habits of Nazca boobies are unusual, predictable and cruel. The lack of predators allows the seabirds to nest on barren ground near cliff edges. The mature female lays two eggs a year. The season varies by island in the Galápagos. At Genovesa Island, the timing is August through November. The parents take turns incubating the eggs with their feet for 40 days. The birthrate is low. Only 25% to 50% of the eggs survive. The first chick arrives four to ten days before the other. When the second one hatches, it is always rejected by the elder and the parents, leaving it to die from starvation. The behavior is called obligate siblicide. Ornithologists believe the seemingly barbaric practice evolved because of the historic shortage of food.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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8 Short-eared Owl at Prince Phillip’s Steps on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

The Galápagos short-eared owl is an endemic species on Genovesa Island. They are smaller than most owls with a wingspan of 33 to 40 inches. Storm petrels are their favorite prey. Colonies of these seabirds swarm the cliffs at Prince Phillip’s Steps and nest in lava fields. Unlike most owls, this predator hunts during the day. They are difficult for visitors to see because their plumage is perfect camouflage for their environment. Inspect crevices in the lava rocks. Some are littered with feathers and bones from successful hunts. If you are lucky, you will catch a glimpse of this short-eared owl standing near its dining room.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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9 Frigatebird Chick at Prince Phillip’s Steps on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

Frigatebirds are enormous and majestic. The opposite is true of their chicks. They are born featherless and are routinely nurtured and nourished by their parents. When they reach the puff-ball stage – this adorable guy is about two months old – they are only fed once every day or two. So it is common to see them looking towards the sky for the arrival of their next meal. The frigatebird has an unusually long post-fledging period of six to 18 months. They are dependent on their devoted parents until capable of flight.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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10 Elder Blue-footed Booby at Prince Phillip’s Steps on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

With such a large population of boobies at Genovesa Island, you can witness all stages of their development – from eggs to old age. Judging from the condition of the bill on this blue-footed booby, it is probably reaching the end of its 17 year life expectancy. So why are its feet and legs not blue? The seabirds lose their coloring when sick, malnourished and as they age. This is nature’s way of indicating the individual is not ideal for mating. It seems females only favor the males with the brightest blue extremities.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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11 Seascape at Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

Great Darwin Bay at Genovesa Island is encircled by cliffs in a horseshoe shape measuring nearly 2,000 feet wide. The seascape was formed when a volcanic cone collapsed about two million years ago, resulting in an immersed crater called a caldera. At first glance, this rugged coastline seems uninhabitable. To the contrary, this harsh environment is full of life. Large colonies of seabirds nest in the rocky crevices and among the sparse vegetation. They are constantly patrolling the skies or diving for food. Herons and egrets stalk along the water’s edge. Below the surface, the abundant marine life includes hammerhead sharks and manta rays plus sea lions and marine iguanas. There are also so many aquatic microscopic organisms swimming around that the water often appears green.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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12 Arriving at Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

While cruising around the Galápagos Islands, you itinerary typically includes two excursions a day. After your ship anchors in open water, you will board an inflatable raft for a short journey to the next destination. There are two types of landings: wet and dry. The former means you will step into shallow water along the shore. Good water shoes are a must. There to help you disembark are members of the crew and the occasional swallow-tailed gull. Welcome to Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa Island.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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13 Sea Lion at Darwin Bay on Genovesa Island in Galápagos, Ecuador

When expedition cruise ships such as the Silversea Galapagos arrive at Isla Genovesa, sea lions are among the first to greet the curious as they disembark from their Zodiac and begin exploring the white coral beach at Darwin Bay. This large male Galápagos sea lion – they can weigh up to 800 pounds – was accustomed to being the dominate bull. Yet territorial males cannot eat and become weak within a few months. So this sea lion is resting until he can reclaim superiority over his colony on another day.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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14 Juvenile Nazca Booby at Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

This inquisitive and charismatic bird waddled along the sand until standing directly below a group of tourists. Then its yellow irises twinkled with curiosity. The juvenile Nazca booby hardly resembles its parents. When hatched, the chick is a white fuzz ball. By the time it fledges, the belly remains white but the top feathers are brown. When the bird reaches adulthood, its plumage is predominately white with a black band along the wings and tail. By then, the sula granti measures three feet with a wingspan nearly twice as long.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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15 Naturalist at Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

Every visitor to the Galápagos Islands must be accompanied by a guide certified by Galápagos National Park. To qualify, a candidate must be Ecuadorian, pass a rigid study program and then attend continuing education. Only about 400 people meet these qualifications. Level three guides have years of experience, a master’s degree, an area of specialty and speak at least two languages. All of this is designed to optimize the tourist experience while helping to protect the fragile habitat. This naturalist at Darwin Bay Beach is describing the species of birds flying overhead.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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16 Air Traffic over Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

The blue sky over Great Darwin Bay is a constant swirl of seabirds in flight. Most are frigatebirds and boobies. But in the mix are swallows, finches, doves, storm petrels, mockingbirds and an occasional owl. It is easy to understand why Genovesa is often called Bird Island. Alternatively named Tower Island, this is a bird watcher’s paradise.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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17 Whale Skeleton at Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

This whale skeleton at Darwin Bay Beach seemed staged to delight the tourists. But there is little doubt it washed up on shore. An abundance of these giant sea mammals swim around the Galápagos Islands. The orcas, sperm and Bryde’s whales are year-round residents. Humpback and blue whales migrate here from June through December. So, keep a vigilant eye while sailing. Chances are good you will see water shooting from their blowholes accompanied by occasional acrobatic leaps.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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18 Tide Pool Seabirds at Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

The tide pools at Darwin Bay Beach are brimming with activity. It is easy to miss some of the action unless you are patient and vigilant. Stalking along the left is a lava heron. Also called the Galápagos heron, this species is endemic to the islands. With a population of only 900 to 1,200 birds, they are relatively rare and rated as vulnerable. This bird’s yellow legs suggest it is mating season. Their favorite food is small fish and crab. Watch as these potential prey scurry away from their predator’s sharp beak. On the right is a swallow-tailed gull. They hunt at night. But you can often see them in the day sleeping or observing the action near where they roost

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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19 Hauling-out at Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

Sea lions and fur seals are commonly seen socializing, barking and sleeping on beaches and rock ledges throughout the Galápagos Islands. The practice is called hauling-out. They typically congregate by gender. The females band together with their pups under the watchful eye of the dominate bull. The young bachelors form a different colony. Often you will spot a solo older male like this one resting in the sunshine.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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20 Sally Lightfoot Crab at Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

While in the Galápagos, inspect lava rocks and cliff ledges near the shoreline. You are certain to find brightly colored salt water crabs scurrying in every direction. The scientific name of the species is grapsus grapsus. Its common name is a lot more fun: Sally Lightfoot crab. Apparently, the crab’s amazing ability to run and leap in any direction to avoid predators reminded someone of the nimbleness of a Caribbean dancer. The width of the adult’s colorful shell (carapace) is three to five inches.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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21 Morphing Colors of Crabs at Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

The coloring of the Sally Lightfoot crab changes throughout its life. When born, the .02 inch hatchling is dark black or brown with a few spots. This is the perfect camouflage against lava rocks. Until the age of four or five, the crab molts several times a year. Each new shell is larger and more colorful than the previous one. At maturity, they molt only once a year until eventually becoming bright red and orange with splashes of yellow, pink and blue. You would think this flamboyance would make them an easy target for predators. Not so. Their uncanny awareness, agility and speed leave most enemies frustrated and hungry.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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22 Picture Perfect Portraits at Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

You expect to see a lot of birds at a place called Bird Island. What is not expected is their acquiescence. They do not escape at the first sounds of approaching footsteps. Instead, they are unflinching as you walk by and are often as curious to see you as you are of them. They seem to enjoy tourists acting like paparazzi. This fearlessness stems from a lack of predators. Credit also goes to the Galápagos National Park for their excellent job of protecting the ecosystem and limiting the number of visitors. Among the park’s rules are staying within the narrow paths, never getting within six feet of the wildlife and enjoy photographing these incredible birds such as this red-footed booby.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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23 Arid Zone Flora at Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

The Galápagos Islands are located on either side of the equator. You expect it to be very hot. Surprisingly, the high temperatures of this subtropical climate range from the 70s to 80s degree Fahrenheit. Yet Genovesa Island is an arid zone, resulting in sparse vegetation including mangroves, palo santo trees and cactus such as this prickly pear. During the dry season (July through December) much of the flora is leafless and appears dead. This is the perfect nesting environment for the red-footed booby. This proud parent will take turns guarding its single chick for three to seven months. Notice this parent’s coloring. It is called black-tailed white morph. This is a rarity. Most red-footed boobies have predominately brown plumage.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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24 Frigatebird Dinnertime at Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

The breeding season for frigatebirds – from initial bonding until the end of parenthood – is typically two years. Each monogamous pair will produce and raise only one chick during this period. However, because frigatebirds are colonial, it is common to see several chicks huddled together in sparse brush along with other seabirds. Although the chicks are fed regularly after hatching, the frequency is lessened as they grow older. So, after not eating for one or two days, you can imagine the ruckus these youngsters make when a parent swoops in with dinner. The noisy chick is silenced as it sticks its head inside of the adult’s bill while receiving the regurgitated food.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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25 Male Great Frigatebird at Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

The Galápagos Islands hosts two types of frigatebird: the magnificent and the great. The former is slightly larger yet the latter is still big. The great frigatebird female can measure up to 3.5 feet long with a wingspan of 6.5 to 7.5 feet and weigh 3.5 pounds. So how can you tell the species apart? One way is by their call. The magnificent makes a rattling noise while the great sounds like a turkey. An easier way is to inspect their feathers. Notice the telltale green sheen across the neck and back of this great frigatebird male. In contrast, the magnificent’s feathers have a purple iridescence in the bright sunshine.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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26 Perched Red-footed Boobies at Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

Your initial reaction to seeing a red-footed booby for the first time is, “that’s adorable!” Then avid bird watchers will notice something peculiar. They tend to perch on trees. This is a common practice among birds with separate digits but an oddity among webbed birds. Yet these crimson feet are equally adept at grabbing branches as they are propelling the bird underwater at depths reaching 100 feet (no pun intended).

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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27 Nazca Booby Evolution at Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

Since 1959, the Charles Darwin Foundation has been committed to studying and protecting the Galápagos Islands. It seems their affiliated Research Station (CDRS) is always learning something new. An example is the Nazca booby. Until 2002, it was considered to be part of the masked booby family. But after extensive DNA analysis, the Nazca booby was reclassified as sula granti. It seems evolution separated the two seabirds about a half million years ago. This discovery would have made Charles Darwin proud. He was the original evolutionist on the Galápagos Islands. The telltale orange bill of this adult Nazca booby indicates it is a male. The female’s bill is pink.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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28 Savoring Final Moments at Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa in Galápagos, EC

The marked trail at Darwin Bay Beach is less than a half mile. Surely such a short path can’t maintain your interest during a two-hour visit. Wrong! The time disappears in a flash. You are in constant awe of the beautiful scenery and incredible wildlife. Then, as the shadows grow long and the inflatable boats return to shore, you will linger along the sand and be reluctant to end the experience. Savor the moment before saying goodbye to Genovesa Island.

Great Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island, Galápagos, Ecuador
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