“The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself.”
~Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle
Our zodiac had been bouncing along the Pacific at a steady clip for about ten minutes when suddenly groves of trees appeared in the open waters, lining both sides of a narrow inlet, like doorways to another world. We slowed to a puttering speed as the crystalline water rippled and reflected and shimmered in the morning light. I was instantly captivated by the beauty and otherworldliness of what seemed to be a secret spot, a place where you could almost hear the quiet.
We were cruising among the red mangroves on Isabela Island, the largest island in the Galápagos, recognized by its distinctive seahorse shape. Originally named Albemarle Island, Isabela was formed by the merger of six shield volcanoes – all except one are still active – and at one million years old, it is one of the youngest in the archipelago. The island’s mangroves are found on the east coast in Elizabeth Bay, an area rich with wildlife and a vastly different landscape from the islands we had visited a day earlier.
Pacific Green Sea Turtles
As we cruised deeper into the mangroves, our naturalist Diego climbed atop the zodiac’s stairs for a better view of wildlife sightings. Within seconds, he was pointing out sea turtles – dozens of them, it seemed. Beautifully patterned shells appeared at the surface, then quickly returned underwater. I was surprised by how swiftly and elegantly they glided through the water, their colorful shells blending in with the mangrove’s foliage. Diego told us that they are officially called Pacific Green Sea Turtles and are the only species that nests in the Galápagos.
The Herons of Elizabeth Bay
It turned out that Diego wasn’t the only one on the lookout for wildlife. Our zodiac driver suddenly called out to Diego in Spanish and quickly steered toward a bank of mangroves. While the rest of us had been busy watching and photographing sea turtles, our driver had noticed a baby lava heron perched on a tree branch, camouflaged among the leaves and branches. A while later, we happened upon two more herons – an adult lava heron and the majestic great blue heron.
It wasn’t long before instantly recognizable little black heads began appearing above the water’s surface, swimming, bobbing and returning underwater. A few years ago, the penguin encounters on our Antarctica voyage completely won my heart, and I’ve been hooked on these delightful creatures ever since.
The Galápagos penguin is the only penguin found north of the equator. At 20 inches tall, it’s the second smallest species, with a physical appearance that reminded me of the penguins we saw on Chile’s Magdalena Island. Galápagos penguins are on the Endangered list, with only about 1,200 adults remaining, and are considered the rarest penguin species in the world.
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The Celebrity Flora sailed northward to another part of Isabela Island for the afternoon excursions. Our destination was Tagus Cove, a sheltered deep-water bay on the western coast and home of Darwin Lake, where Charles Darwin visited in 1835. Tagus Cove was once a popular anchorage for whalers and pirates, and it was customary for them to paint or carve their ship names on the surrounding cliffs.
We headed out in a zodiac, ready for the hike to Darwin Lake. But before we disembarked, our naturalist Charley offered a bit of commentary, pointing out wildlife as he directed our driver closer to the rocky cliffs. Galápagos birds and penguins build their nests in the nooks of these cliffs, Charley explained, which also serve as a welcome spot for cooling off. I focused my camera, ready to zoom in yet not quite knowing what to expect.
Wildlife began to appear, gradually at first and then in a constant stream. Soon it seemed as if there were a party on the rocks and the whole gang had arrived!
Hiking to Darwin Lake
It’s a dry landing from zodiac to shore at Tagus Cove, but it’s a tricky one. Steps built out of rock lead to a sloping rock-filled hill that requires some maneuvering before reaching the wooden staircase leading to Darwin Lake. We climbed about 150 steps and were greeted by a pathway lined with green and golden trees that glowed in the afternoon sun. Charley stopped at a clearing for us to catch our collective breath and to talk about the area.
Darwin Lake is actually a salt-water crater that was formed inside a volcanic cone. Many theories from tsunamis to landslides speculate on how salt water could have reached such a high spot. Darwin is said to have gone swimming here on his 1835 visit.
Our glimpses of Darwin Lake were through the tree-filled landscape. We didn’t hike to the top of the caldera which would have offered a more bird’s-eye view – and a more strenuous experience!
As we were walking back down the wooden stairs, I overheard someone in another group say that there wasn’t much to see here. That may be true in the literal sense of the word. But for me it wasn’t about viewing a lake or even another part of Isabela Island. It was the history of Tagus Cove that made this hike special. Darwin walked here almost 200 years ago, and now, as a modern-day traveler rather than a nineteenth-century explorer, so have I.