Galapagos Islands: Genovesa

Prince Philip's Steps to Bird Island
The moon peaks from behind the pink clouds of sunrise as hundreds of frigate birds soar the sky.
Boobies and frigate birds resting in trees are sillouhetted against pink sunlit clouds.

A Magnificent Morning in Genovesa

Stillness woke me after a full night of wave running under cover of darkness. I slipped outside of my cabin to see that our boat, the Letty, was anchored in the heart of Genovesa Island. This island is a dormant volcano and a portion of the caldera’s wall collapsed thousands of years ago. When it did, the sea flooded the crater to form Great Darwin Bay. It felt like we were floating within the beginning of the world.

Welcome to Bird Island!

Why all the birds here? No other land animal could migrate this far north in the Archipelago.

As I snuck out of my cabin, camera in hand, hundreds of frigatebirds flew through the waning moonlight. (Look for tiny black dots against the purple sky.) These birds have wingspans of 7.5 feet, which explains why they made it this far.  Sillouettes of still-sleepy red-footed boobies could be seen resting in scrubby trees atop the surrounding cliffs as the sun rose. With a wingspan of 5 feet, they, too are strong flyers.


A panga (raft) delivers passengers to the steep climb up Genovesa's cliffs by way of rudimentary steps.

Prince Philip’s Steps

Taking a quick panga ride from the Letty to the caldera’s edge, we got out at the foot of Prince Philip’s Steps. Ascending an 82 foot cliff, we used the aid of 2×4 rails for handholds. 

The lower cliffside was speckeled with brilliant red Sally Lightfoot crabs. Much of the black rock above the waterline? That was streaked white thanks to the many birds we are about to meet. 

Nazca Boobie Extravaganza!

My first bird sighting was a baby Nazca boobie. At nearly a foot tall, this awkward, beaky puff rested on it’s haunches at the start of our path. Blue eyes twinkled hello as we walked past. He did not move, and he was not alone. 

Nazca boobies nest on the ground with no structure beyond a single layer of scattered twigs and pebbles. Rather than formal nesting material, parents’ feet protect the egg. None of these birds were compelled to move as we walked by.

Tim climbs the steep steps up Genovesa's jagged cliffside.
Awkward and largely unfeathered, this baby boobie sits in the path with mouth agape.

Stages of Development

Because Galapagos boobies nest all year long, many stages of growth were represented. We saw eggs, skin-and-bone hatchlings in their parents’ shade, toddling kindergardners mimicking parental behaviors, and patient parents tolerating cranky teens up in their beaks demanding food.

Sibling Rivalry

While Nazca bobies typically lay 2 eggs. The first sibling to hatch pushes the other egg away. And those doting parents? They do nothing to stop it. The egg will die.

I’m not sure what signals got crossed in the stages of evolution, but this development doesn’t make much sense.

A long orange beak leads to glowing yellow eye amidst a black face and white feathered head.
A doting Nazca boobie protects it's egg between clawed, webbed feet.

Red-footed Baby Boobies!

Another baby made our acquaintance, this time of the red-footed kind. Red-footed boobies, unlike Nazca boobies, grow in short, scrubby Palo Santo trees. And this is how I happened upon one. Face to face. We were equally surprised.

You’d think, with a mouth that big, a scream accompanied the expression, but no. It’s not that they don’t make noise. They certainly do — a repetative, raspy call as they wave their heads back and forth. But boobies of all ages silently open their mouths and flutter their throats to show off their blue interior. 

Napping Nesters

Red-footed boobies are the smallest of all boobies. They come in brown or white and breed across all morphs, but each shares the same red footed trait. Females lay a single egg cared for by both parents in twiggy tree nests.

The white puff of a bird with it's long black beak reveals it's inner blue mouth as it's bill drops open.
One parent stays with a baby, keeping it warm and safe.
This Red-footed boobie sleepily sits on an egg in the nest.

Flying the coop!

When babies hatch, it can take as long as 3 month for them to fly short distances, and up to 5 months before they make longer flights. Even adults awkwardly fly while taking off or landing from twiggy branches, yet they adeptly fly up to 90 miles when deep diving for fish in a synchronized formation.

When Brown’s not Brown

For the record, the brownish variation of red-footed boobies closely resemble actual brown boobies. Can you spot the differences between the two in the slideshow below?

Not Your Touristy Tropics

Standing atop Genovesa’s caldera rim, the strong sun bore down upon us with little shady refuge. My skin burned easily, even through sunsreen, and the salty air my my thirst unquenchable — which explains the reason for the terrain.

With so little water available or retained by the volcanic rock, Palo Santo trees, conserve energy by putting out few small leaves during June’s wintery dry season. The trees look to be on death’s doorstep, which was surprising to me. And I’m not alone. Charles Darwin noted this same observance upon his arrival.

The Man, The Legend

Finding vastly different conditions than at their origins due to dry, cooling currents from the South Pole and west, migrating animals either adapted to thier new location or risked death. Darwin first noted 4 distinct differences in mockingbird across 4 different islands with varrying conditions. The same was noted in finches, tortoises, and others. Thus Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was born.

Rifts on the upper edge of the Genovesa caldera.
Sparse water during the season yeilds tiny leaves.

Day for Night

Following Ceci, our guide, down the marked path, we crossed an open lava field to find thousands of swarming storm petrals and a Galapagos short-eared owl.

Different than anywhere else in the world, storm petrals in the Galapagos are active during the day. They return to their nest holes at night to avoid predators.

Short-ear owls are also active during the day, hunting when their prey is most active. We found a severed black wing indicating that the owls had recently fed.  

To the Inner Edge

A lone sea iguana, the smallest adaptation in the archipelago, marched across the volcanic rock after climing up the steep cliffs. And, perched Frigatebirds, one with it’s red throat pouch brilliantly displayed, sat on nearby nests. I could have stayed all day, but it was time to head back for lunch and set out on our next adventure. 

Walking the upper edge of the Genovesa caldera.

In Living Color

See our new feathered friends in action. Through footage taken with my little handheld camcorder, you’ll see behaviors and hear gutteral boobie chatter that still shots simply can’t convey. You’ll also get a sneak peek of a fun enounter! I’ll give you a hint. It’s like a puppy, but not. 

Up Next: A Sharky Snorkel and New Shore Birds!

Come snorkeling in murkey waters as we encounter a Hammerhead shark and a pleathora of oceanic beasities. Aftrward, we’ll stroll the base of Genovesa’s cliffs where Darwin Bay’s sandy shores are home to gulls whose eyes are neon pink!

Touring Info:

Touring Company: Ecoventura
Boat: The Letty
Our Fabulous Guides: Billy and Ceci
Itinerary: Western Northern Route

Trip Details:

Time of Travel: June 19-26
Duration: 7 Nights
Islands Visited: San Cristobal, Genovesa, Santa Cruz, Fernandina, Isabela & Santiago

Image Info:

My Galapagos images featured on this blog, unfortunately, aren't for sale. This is due to restrictions by the governemnt of Ecuador. 

Be aware. If you travel to the Galapagos Islands and would like to make images to be sold, you must apply and pay for a permit before you arrive in the county.

Don't miss a minute of our Galapagos Islands adventure! 

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