Isabela Island, by far the largest island in the Galapagos, is also one of the richest in wildlife.
Home to more wild tortoises than all the other Galapagos Islands combined, it’s also the best place to spot penguins in the archipelago, which harbors the most northerly penguin colony on earth. (Isabela lies directly on the Equator in the Pacific about 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador.) And Isabela serves as the world’s only habitat for rare pink iguanas, which live on the slopes of a volcano there.
Other well-known Galapagos species call the island home as well — sea turtles, a variety of marine and land iguanas, and a host of bird species among them. You aren’t likely to spot a birder’s dream — the Mangrove Finch — with less than 100 of its species living in mangrove forests off Isabela’s northwest coast. But most visitors on a thorough tour will see Galapagos penguins – the third smallest penguin species in the world — and flightless cormorants, both of which are endemic to the area, along with pelicans and flamingos.
Sightings of whales and other marine mammals are common. In the chilly waters off Isabela’s west coast, some 16 species of whales — including humpbacks, minkes, sperms, and orcas — have been counted. You may also see dolphins, sea lions, and an abundant variety of fish, with several good diving and snorkeling spots available. Underwater, you may see sea turtles, sharks, sea lions, sting rays, moray eels, cormorants, penguins, manta rays, and more.
Geology plays a key role
The geology of the island – featuring six volcanoes, five of which are still active – is notable on its own. One volcano, reaching 5,600 feet, is the highest point in the Galapagos; another sports the world’s second largest caldera. But the volcanoes also play a key role in the Galapagos’ evolutionary living laboratory. Each, for instance, harbors a different species of wild tortoise, adapted to its particular micro-environment.
Wolf volcano – site of the latest eruption in 2015 – is also the sole home to the rare pink iguana, larger than other Galapagos iguanas and yes, colored pink. And at Moreno Point, at the base of Cerro Azul volcano, a lava field is pockmarked with a number of lagoons where flamingos and other birds gather.
Key sites open to visitors
The best place to view Galapagos penguins is from a small boat or Zodiac along the Marielas Islets. They hover on shore and in the waters just outside Elizabeth Bay, which in turn is a haven for sea turtles. No land visits are allowed in the area, but snorkeling is permitted. Rays, flightless cormorants, pelicans, and lava herons live in the waters and among the mangroves there.
The island’s attractive main town, Puerto Villamil, is nestled among lagoons and sandy beaches that offer the top viewing areas for migratory birds in the Galapagos. An interpretive trail runs from town past the lagoons, where resident species include black-necked stilts and flamingos.
The mile-long trail from town ends at the Tortoise Center, which shelters tortoises that are threatened by poachers. Visitors to the center can view both older breeding tortoises and hatchlings. (The largest tortoise population in Galapagos lives on and in Alcedo volcano, which requires special permission to visit.)
Darwin was here
Charles Darwin visited Isabela during his voyage of the Beagle in 1835 by going ashore at Tagus Bay, once a hangout for pirates and whalers. A small boat or Zodiac ride offers cliffside views of Galapagos penguins and other bird species there. Divers in the cove may spot sea horses, sponges, and corals.
A short, steep hike passes salt-water-filled Darwin Lake, where a variety of land birds — ground and tree finches, hawks, yellow warblers, and large-billed flycatchers – share space with land iguanas and giant tortoises.
Tintoreras, a group of small islets off the coast, is accessible only by small boat or Zodiac and is home to sea lions, sea turtles, marine iguanas, rays, and other species. A loop trail across lava provides access.
At Urbina Bay, a loop trail leads away from the beach to habitats for giant tortoises and land iguanas. Flightless cormorants inhabit the coast.
You can visit Punta Vicente Roca only by boat. Blue-footed and Nazca boobies, gulls, storm petrels, pelicans, and terns are among the birds that frequent the area, while whales, dolphins, sea lions, and fur seals occupy the waters and rocks.