Lying across a narrow channel from the much larger Isabela Island, Fernandina Island is best known for its abundance of marine iguanas: reptiles that the revered Charles Darwin himself called “hideous-looking” and “imps of darkness” — and, indeed, they have a prehistoric look that only a mother could love. But they are also fascinating creatures, the only reptiles that head to sea to forage for food – causing them to continually expel sea salt from their nostrils.
Fernandina, the westernmost island of the Galapagos and the youngest geologically, is also, along with Isabela, among the most volcanically active islands in the world. It’s usually visited in conjunction with its close neighbor.
Life Along the Lava Beds
If you visit this pristine island on the Equator, your Zodiac will disembark on a bed of black lava at Espinosa Point, at the foot of an imposing volcano. (It’s the only landing site approved for visitors.) Espinosa Point offers some of the best snorkeling in the Galapagos, and you might also spot whales, Galapagos dolphins, and Galapagos penguins here.
After a dry landing, you’ll first be greeted by swarms of marine iguanas – unique to the Galapagos – whose dark gray color blends in with the jagged black rock. Even though they can grow to be four or five feet long, they’re so numerous that they can get underfoot, so tread lightly. When humans are around, marine iguanas show no fear; the local hawks, however, cause them to scatter.
When they aren’t scurrying into the water to feed on algae, swimming with their tails rather than their feet, they can usually be found basking in the sun, carefully regulating their body temperatures. Like so many other species on the Galapagos, these unique reptiles probably found their way to the islands from elsewhere (most likely South America), and evolved over millennia into amphibian-like behaviors.
During “pre-breeding” season – before the spring nesting times – you may see males (larger than the females) battling for dominance. The males don’t court the females – instead, they fight among themselves to prove their strength to potential mates. The more aggressive males usually die younger than other marine iguanas; it’s more important for them – biologically, anyway — to fight for female favor than to further their lifespans.
Sally Lightfoot crabs are usually much in evidence along the lava beds. The agile, colorful red crabs hover in tide pools before skittering off to scavenge for sustenance. You may spot lava herons among the volcanic rock as well; it’s the only endemic heron in the Galapagos. The lava herons hunt down baby iguanas – as do their fellow predators, hawks and snakes.
The tiny lava lizards that occupy this area are also common prey. The lava lizards, in turn, feed on flies and mosquitoes, and, if presented the opportunity, have been known to climb up on human shoulders to jump out at them. (Do not attempt to duplicate this yourself, however – all Galapagos wildlife should remain undisturbed.) But you may spot the little lizards gorging on flies atop the sea lions on Fernandina’s beaches.
Sea Lions, Fur Seals and Sea Turtles
Two closely related species, the Galapagos sea lion – which shares a common ancestor with the California sea lion – and the Galapagos fur seal, which originally came from the south, perhaps Antarctica, are endemic to the islands. While sea lions are widely scattered through the Galapagos, fur seals are most easily seen on Fernandina and Isabela.
Though more like sea lions than true seals, fur seals differ from Galapagos sea lions in several ways. Fur seals are smaller, shyer, have thicker fur, like to hunt at night rather than in daytime, prefer rocky surfaces to smooth, and “roar” less than the Galapagos sea lions. Sea lions, particularly, like to hang around Fernandina’s beaches, “walking” on their pectoral fins and slipping periodically into the lagoons. You can also view them as they roll around in warm tide pools, a kind of sea lion “Jacuzzi.”
Female sea lions prefer to mate with big males for protection (sharks are their main predators). Sea lion females – several of which may mate with one male – give birth to a single pup after a nine-month gestation period, and only nurse their own pups. One baby every year is typical.
You’ll probably hear the dominant male barking noisily to drive off potential predators. There may be danger lurking in the wings, however, in the form of a challenge from a new bull. And he may be vulnerable: While zealously guarding his harem, the male may have neglected to eat and become weakened. If the attack is successful, the new bull then takes over.
The local variation of the Pacific green sea turtle is found only on the Galapagos, including Fernandina, and is the only type that nests there. But it’s actually black rather than green in color; it got the name “green” because of the color of its fat. If you’re diving or snorkeling here, the best way to distinguish the males from females is the length of their tails: Males long, females short.
Endemic Bird Species
The little Galapagos penguin is the northernmost penguin on earth, and can be seen on the rocky shores of Fernandina as well as on Isabela, while the Galapagos is the only place on earth to find flightless cormorants. Fernandina has a small nesting colony of them, and if you have a chance to view them, don’t miss it. Though their breastbones – which allow other birds to fly — are atrophied, they compensate with excellent diving and swimming skills.
The Galapagos hawk, which jealously rules over its own territory, reigns as the island’s top land predator, feasting on baby iguanas and snakes. But, with only about 500 left, they are endangered as well. If you come upon a hawk dining on the remains of another creature, it’s a memorable, though graphic, sight – but it’s all part of the cycle of life (and death) that plays out daily in the Galapagos.
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Clark Norton is a Tucson, Arizona-based travel writer who has visited 120 countries and seven continents. He blogs about travel at clarknorton.com.
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