The 3rd largest island in the archipelago and named for King Ferdinand of Spain, Fernandina holds the honor of the youngest and the most active volcanically. (Some say that it may be one of the most volcanically active in the world.) The most recent eruption of its only volcano—Volcán La Cumbre (meaning “the summit”)—occurred on April 11, 2009. In the past, scientists thought that a volcanic hot spot exists around Fernandina, which accounted for the creation of the volcanic islands in this archipelago. However, recent research suggests that the hot spot may actually be ~100 miles southeast—closer to Isabela and Floreana. You can read more about the complex geophysics of the new thinking about this hot spot here. No worries—it’s a very readable summary of the extremely technical scientific article.
Fernandina is also possibly one of the most pristine islands on the planet, with no introduced species. Everything found on Fernandina either arrived there without the help of humans or evolved in place. Because of—and to help maintain—this pristine status, Fernandina offers only one landing site: Punta Espinoza (also spelled “Espinosa”), a stretch of lava and sandy beach located on the northeastern coast at the base of Volcán La Cumbre. Punta Espinoza means “spiny point”—an apt description of the stark, dramatic sand and lava field that stretches to the ocean.
The above photo is from the header slide show on the National Park’s Web page about Punta Espinoza. You can see the 2 different landing points, depending on the level of the tide, as well as the variety of paths to follow (the yellow lines). Click here or on the photo to read the rest of the page about this landing.
In 1994, tectonic action resulted in the entire area’s uplifting 20 – 36”, leaving the specially constructed landing dock inaccessible in all but high tide. (At lower levels, you have to scramble across the rocks to get to the path.)
Wednesday, May 15, afternoon
The captain headed us toward Fernandina over the lunch break, located a short distance across the Bolívar Channel from Urbina Bay. Once he dropped anchor, we headed out for a quick snorkel from the pangas. The most memorable encounter during this outing was snorkeling near the largest Marine Iguana I’ve seen. (These western islands host the largest Marine Iguanas in the archipelago.) Looking rather like a monster from a B-grade Japanese horror film, it moved smoothly along the rocks within about 15 feet of us. I’m not very good with sizes, but this critter was perhaps 4 feet long. Wow! For just a moment, I could understand Darwin’s referring to them as “imps of darkness.” The Galápagos Marine Iguanas are the only sea-faring lizards in the world. They don’t use their feet and legs in the water; instead, they hold their extremities close to their bodies and propel themselves through the water powered only by their long, flattened tails.
After a shower and change of clothes, we headed to Punta Espinoza for a long walk. Our first encounters on land were massive piles—likely numbering in the hundreds—of Marine Iguanas (left), a species endemic to the archipelago. Fernandina likely has the largest population of Marine Iguanas of any island in the archipelago—estimates suggest as many as 385,000 individuals on this island alone. Marine Iguanas are cold-blooded; since they spend considerable time feeding in the cold Humboldt Current, they have to warm themselves by basking in the sun on the black lava. They regulate their internal temperatures by varying their position with respect to the sun. For maximum warming, they flatten their bodies so that they can get full sun on as much of their black skin as possible. As they warm up, they move to face directly into the sun and raise themselves a bit off the lava, to lessen the amount of solar heat, capture any cooling breezes, and avoid overheating. As a result, you often see masses of these gregarious iguanas lying together, all oriented in the same direction like black, spiky weather vanes. (You can get a sense of this in the photo above, right. Click on any photo to see a larger version of it.) Most iguanas eat only once a day; after diving and swimming in the cold waters, where they can lose up to 20 degrees F due to the cold, they have to come ashore and warm up before digestion can begin.
As we walked by another cluster of iguanas, we could occasionally hear what sounded like little sneezes—and, in a manner of speaking, they were. Each iguanas have special glands located between the eye and the nostril to remove excess salt from its very salty environment and it diet of marine algae. The glands open into the nose and the salt is ejected with a stream of air through their nostrils. Ah-choo!!!
Some of these iguanas look as if they had lichen growing on them (below), but those patches are just variations in their skin color.
Continued on p. 2; click below.