Most Memorable Moments: Darwin Bay

This post continues a new semi-regular series, Most Memorable Moments, featuring some of the most memorable natural history experiences that WC has been lucky enough to enjoy. Sometimes nature can be magical and memorable, and, yes, it’s still magical even when you know how and why it works. Links to prior Most Memorable Moments are at the end of this post.

Lava Gull, a Galapagos endemic, Darwin Bay, Tower Island, Galápagos Islands

[This post is a lightly edited version of the journal entry WC kept from his Galapagos Trip in February 2002. All the photos in this post are scans from slides; many of them are harshly lit by the equatorial sunlight. WC will just have to go back and get better shots.]

Darwin Bay is a partially collapsed volcanic caldera on Tower Island, one of the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of South America. The Bay is open to the southwest to the ocean. Apparently the entrance across the drowned portion of the rim is tricky – our ship crossed at a crawl – but the inside, as we saw snorkeling, is very deep. Inside, you are surrounded on three sides by the interior walls of the caldera, and there are birds absolutely everywhere. More than WC saw anywhere else in the Galapagos.

Darwin Bay has two landing sites, only about a half a mile apart. The Darwin Bay landing itself and Prince Phillip’s Steps.

Darwin Bay Landing – Morning. We landed at Darwin Bay about 8:30 AM after a brief tour of the cliffs from Prince Phillip’s Steps (our afternoon landing) counterclockwise to the southwesterly end of the crater. We had a wet landing on a coral cobble beach, then hiked westerly through the most amazing collection of birds on the trip. Masked Boobies, Red-footed Boobies and Great Frigatebirds were on nests, in all stages of breeding, from courtship to near-adult kids. There were a lot of Swallow-tail Gulls with kids, although most of the juveniles were fledged. The gulls were utterly fearless. A Swallow-tail Gull fledgling flirted with Mrs. WC for quite a long time.

Mrs. WC spending quality time with a fledgling Swallow-tailed Gull, Darwin’s Bay, Tower Island, Galapagos Islands

As we walked the trail, v-e-r-y slowly as the professional photographers in our group were burning film at a manic rate, we were gradually higher up and could look down on the nests of birds, as we picked our way around Masked Boobies nesting in the trail itself. There were Galapagos Fur Seals and Galapagos Sea Lions around, as well as a substantial numbers of marine iguanas.

Masked Booby “nest” in the trail, Darwin Bay, Tower Island, Galápagos Islands

There were Great and Magnificent Frigatebird rookeries, with each shrub carrying a nest or two, while males puffed out their gular sacks and pointed their bills at the sky, trying for a date. Great Frigatebird chicks in mid-fledge are surely one of largest, most homely birds on the planet. 

Blue-footed Booby, Prince Phillip’s Steps, Tower Island, Galápagos Islands (scanned from slide)

Red-footed Booby chicks are miniature, white Big Birds, and seem to regard humans as just as likely as their parents to have food. The Masked Booby chicks were generally the youngest, although it was more of a majority process than an absolute rule. Blue-footed Boobies did their slow motion dance, displaying their bright blue feet in an effort to attract a mate. If the little bit of Tower Island that WC saw is anything like representative, there are tens of thousands of birds raising chicks on that small island.

Intermission. During the hottest part of the day, our guides often had us snorkeling. We were joined in the water by Galapagos Fur Seals, Green Turtles, noshing Marine Iguanas and plunge-diving boobies. The incredible density of life at the Galápagos Islands is possible because the cold waters of the north-flowing Humboldt Current well up as they strike the volcanic platform under the Galapagos Islands. It brings nutrients to the otherwise-near sterile equatorial waters of the Eastern Pacific. It also makes for cold snorkeling; at zero degrees latitude, we needed wetsuits to stay in the water long.

[All of these photos were taken underwater with one of those disposable, submersible film cameras. The image quality is wretched but kinda/sorta convey a sense of the experience.]

Prince Phillip’s Steps. After the snorkel, we did our second landing on Tower Island, at Prince Phillip’s Steps. The trail climbs through a narrow crack where a portion of the cliff face has pulled away from the bluff, and emerges onto a tableland that seems to be mostly lava. The trail crosses the crest of the southeasterly portion of the island, and then heads north back a ways from the northerly bluff. 

The area from the head of the steps to the northerly shore is covered in brush; the northerly portion is bare rock to a bluff dropping to the ocean. 

The brushy area had a number of Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds and Masked Boobies, and an amazing number of Red-footed Boobies. We had excellent views of chicks in all stages of development. On the northerly bluff there were clouds of Storm-petrels, as well as Audubon Shearwaters, Brown Noddys and Swallow-tail Gulls. With a little bit of work, we found a pair of Short-eared Owls on the lava, waiting for a careless Storm-petrel. We also located a cave shelf near the trail which was clearly a favored roost or nest of the owls.

Red-footed Booby napping along the trail, Prince Phillip’s Steps, Tower Island, Galápagos Islands (scanned from slide)

We waited a while at the turn around spot. Boobies flew in and out; Masked Boobies coming in and Red-footed heading out. We watched both Small and Large Ground Finches scrabble in the gravel and rocks for seeds. We listened to Masked Boobies do their greeting calls and the calls of the hundreds – thousands – of storm-petrels filling the air. Clouds of birds fed on schools of fish just off-shore. The sense of abundance and unspoiled life was extraordinary. 

We walked back in the late afternoon and early evening light. The lava and the brush were alive with birds. Swallows danced overhead and finches buzzed and cheeped all around us. More than any other place we had been, except perhaps Fernandina, you had a sense of what the Islands must have been like before man arrived.

Okay, it wasn’t a moment, it was an entire day, but it was the most memorable day of an extraordinary 18 days visiting the Enchanted Isles, the Galapagos. If you haven’t been there, you should go. It’s astonishing.

Previous Most Memorable Moments
Madre de Dios River Clay Lick
Caroni Swamp
Kaktovik Polar Bears
Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

One thought on “Most Memorable Moments: Darwin Bay

Comments are closed.