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The bay of Puerto Villamil on Isabela is greeting us with calm, turquoise water. The tour boats only come here for a short visit and in comparison to San Cristobal and Santa Cruz there are a lot of special animals to see at the anchorage.

Isabela is by far the largest of the Galapagos Islands with a size of 4.588 km², a length of 120 km and formed by the merger of 6 shield volcanoes. Very interesting are the many salt and brackish lagoons and marshes at the western side of the village, which harbor a lot of coastal and sea birds. There is a nice walkway through those lagoons which ends at the tortoise breeding center of Isabela.

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We take our time and are surprised by many American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) which feed on small crustaceans and other micro-organisms in the lagoons. The pink to orange-redish color also comes from those tiny organisms. The Flamingos are able to extract and convert carotinoids with the help of enzymes in their liver. So pigments are formed, mainly canthaxanthin, which are then deposited in the feathers of grown Flamingos. We observe them while eating with their specially adapted beaks. They separate mud and silt from the food they eat with their beak, which is uniquely used upside-down. The filtering of food items is assisted by hairy structures called lamellae which line the mandibles, and the large rough-surfaced tongue. When they are resting they put their head under one wing and stand with only one foot in the shallow water.

We also see some White-cheeked Pintails (Anas bahamensis galapagensis), an endemic duck, as well as the Common Gallinule (Gallinula chloropus) and the funny looking Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) with their long, red legs. Furthermore some Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) which belong to the cuckoo family and are distinguished by the large, laterally compressed beak. It is one of many introduced species and the distribution across the islands is monitored by the Galapagos National Park.


The Tortoise Breeding Center here has a lot of very good signs and an additional exhibition room where you can learn a lot of facts about the Giant Tortoises. There are five distinct races of the Giant Galapagos Tortoises (Chelonoides sp.) on the island of Isabela, each restricted to one of the five large shield volcanoes. Each volcano is separated from the next by a lava flow, impassable to tortoises. Since the volcanoes have extensive moist areas all the tortoises are dome-shaped. They were especially threatened by feral goats which ate the same food and were responsible for soil erosion. So between 2003 and 2006 Operation Isabela effectively eliminated the entire goat and donkey population on northern Isabela in a worldwide unique and expensive (40 million US-Dollar) action plan. So the tortoises now have a chance to survive and every year many small ones from the breeding center are reintroduced into the wild.


Of course you can also find Marine Iguanas (Amblyrhynchus crsitatus albermarlensis) here on Isabela, which consist of the largest subspecies and grow up to a length of 1,3 m. Best observed at the main pier where they rest in the shade of the mangrove trees. In the Laguna de Perla, where you are allowed to snorkel, they enjoy swimming and look for food.


There you also see a wide variety of fish, sea stars and with a lot of luck even some Penguins while snorkeling. On Isabela Island you find the only penguin to breed entirely in the tropics and the only one to be found in the northern hemisphere. It is the Galapagos Penguin (Sphensicus mendiculus), one of the smallest in the world with a height of only 35 cm. We see them sometimes hunting at the anchorage. The cool Cromwell or Equatorial Current brings cold water from the deep sea and is responsible for cooler water temperatures on the west side of Isabela and around Fernandina. With this current a lot of small fish, which are the main food source for the penguins, arrive as well. During El Nino years the current stops or flows differently and this affects the food supply for the penguins. In those years many of them are starving to death and this year it seems the water temperature is too high as well. Therefor there are fewer penguins around Puerto Villamil than in other years. So we were really lucky to see them a few times.


One of the highlights during our visit of Isabela was the day trip to Los Tuneles. There you can swim around lava tunnels, bridges and caves under water and enjoy the wildlife. In the caves lots of Whitetip-Reefsharks (Triaenodon obesus) are resting during the day. Outside of the caves there are many Galapagos Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas agassisi) feeding on the algae at the bottom, although it is mainly an introduced Caulerpa-species. In between the mangroves one of the guides finds a Seahorse, but only because he knows exactly where to look. It is 10-15 cm long, yellow-green-brown in color and almost not recognizable within the mangrove roots.


We also check out the top of the lava bridges and caves during a walk and get lucky in seeing Bluefooted-Boobies (Sula nebouxii excisa) doing their famous courting dance. First the male bird shows his beautiful blue feet while landing in front of the female. Then he walks around while showing off more of his blue feet and shortly after he points his head and bill up to the sky while keeping the wings and tail raised. During this the male releases a high, whistling noise and the female answers with a low grunting sound. We are able to watch this ritual from only a few meters away. It is fascinating how close one can be to the animals here in Galapagos without them being afraid. After that there is a last short stop at a large rock, which is home to a group of Nazca-Boobies (Sula granti) with their beautiful plumage.


During the trip to Los Tuneles we also see our very first Pacific Giant Manta Rays (Manta birostris), which can be as wide as 7 m in contrast to the smaller Reef Manta Ray (Manta alfredi). They feed in this nutrient rich and therefor greenish water, which makes taking a picture a little difficult. The wing span of the ones we saw was about 4 m. The next day there is even one swimming right through the anchorage and Tom can take a small video of this giant of the ocean.

57_Two_Cactus_Ground_Finches_in_a_mating_dance_(Geospiza scandens-Kaktus-Grundfink)

For a day we borrow some bicycles to ride and explore the way to the Wall of Tears - Muro de las Lagrimas. This stone wall was erected by prisoners of the Isabela Penitentiary Colony which existed in the years 1946 to 1959. A lot of them died during this hard life and the abuse of power here on the island. From there you can reach a viewpoint where you can see the whole of southern Isabela. On the way up and down we observe a few Cactus-Groundfinch (Geospiza scandens) , which feed on the flowers of the cacti. Furthermore we see a pair obviously during their courtship. They fly around and make a lot of noise as well as open their wings across from each other. We also see some wild Isabela Galapagos-Giant-Tortoises (Chelonoides nigra vicina), which were almost extinct but now, thanks to the excessive breeding program, has a population of app. 1.200 individuals again.


A trip to the Caldera of the volcano Sierra Negra is also recommended. The Caldera is 10 x 9 km and looks like a desert with different colors of stones. The last eruption was 2005 and the lava was flowing along the eastern and southern part of the Caldera where you can still see it. There is a beautiful view towards the volcano Alcedo in the north and across the Galapagos archipelago.

Our 2 months on Galapagos are almost over and we have to sail back to Puerto Ayora again for the check out. And we want to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables on the famous Saturday market there, so we will have enough vitamins for our next leap towards the south towards Easter Island. We do recommend a trip to Galapagos if you have the time. There is nowhere on this Planet where you find so many animals in such a small space, which are special and let you come close to them without being disturbed. We hope it will stay this way for a very long time to come!