Fernandina island is right up there at the top of the list of best sites to visit at the Galapagos Islands. Fernandina is born of fire, and today is one of the most volcanically active spots on the planet. Evidence of black lava flows is everywhere, and lucky visitors might even witness an eruption themselves. But Fernandina island is not just about landscapes, the wildlife is pretty amazing too. This is one of the few places to find the Flightless Cormorant – the curious bird who forgot how to fly. Fernandina Island is also home to a huge colony of the largest Marine Iguanas found at Galapagos. Let’s not forget Galapagos penguins and possible whale sightings. Fernandina island truly is a very special place, even by the high standards set by other Galapagos islands.
Read on for everything you need to know to plan your visit to Fernandina Island. What wildlife can you find? Which activities and visitor sites await? Also learn about the interesting geology of the island.
• Fernandina Island is the best spot at Galapagos to find the fascinating Flightless Cormorant.
• Here be dragons! Fernandina is also home to the largest and darkest colored Marine Iguanas at Galapagos.
• The Bolivar Channel between Isabela and Fernandina islands is the top spot for Galapagos whale watching.
• An unforgettable chance to snorkel with Galapagos penguins, as they enjoy the plentiful food in Fernandina waters.
• For those who watched a terrified baby marine iguana escape from racer snakes on BBC Planet Earth - all of the action was filmed right here on Fernandina Island.
• Fur Seals are a common Fernandina sight – see if you can tell the difference between them and Galapagos sea lions.
English Name: Narborough
Ecuadorian Name: Fernandina
Total Area: 248 sq miles
Population: zero (uninhabited)
Fernandina Island is hot property. Quite literally, this is as close as you get to the Galapagos volcanic hotspot. Volcanologists constantly monitor activity, and spectacular eruptions every few years are common. Yet many Galapagos animals have remarkably learnt to adapt and live here. Fernandina land iguanas even live on the slopes of the volcano itself, using thermal heat to incubate their eggs.
The presence of a great diversity of wildlife owes much to the rich waters that surround Fernandina island. Here a unique marine upwelling occurs. The cold Cromwell current brings with it nutrients and plankton from the west, forming important feeding grounds for Galapagos marine species. These conditions are perfect for sea birds like Galapagos penguins and Flightless Cormorants. There’s also plentiful food for mammals (Galapagos fur Seals), and reptiles (marine iguanas). But larger visitors can also be spotted. This is the best spot at the Galapagos for whale-watching, especially from June to November.
Fernandina is the closest island to the Galapagos hotspot, so it comes as no surprise that this area is volcanically active. Fernandina is the youngest island at the archipelago, created between 300,000 and one million years old. On average there is a small eruption every 5 years or so, the last ones ocurring in 2005, 2009 and 2018. Today, visitors can enjoy wonderful views of the 6.5km wide caldera of La Cumbre Volcano. This is a long and flat shield volcano that takes up much of the island itself. Volcanic eruptions can occur inside the huge caldera, or on the volcano slopes. The land iguanas that live there are often able to sense increased volcano activity, giving them time to descend to safety.
As you might expect, Fernandina island is rather barren without much vegetation. The surface is made up of historic lava flows and volcanic rocks, with little or no soil to help plant life. This habitat is typical of a young Galapagos volcano in the early years of life. Plant colonisation is more common on the islands that have tectonically drifted further east, and had more time for soil to form. Extraordinarily, pioneer cacti have managed to gain a foothold. Fernandina island is home to a wonderful miniature cacti forest, proving their impressive resilience. Mangroves have also been able to grow in this harsh habitat.
Fernandina island was first named in 1684 by British bucaneer Ambrose Cowley. He chose to name it Narborough, after Sir John Narborough, an English naval commander of that era. The island’s Spanish name, Fernandina, honors King Fernando of Spain, sponsor of the voyage of Christopher Columbus.
Fernandina is one of the most pristine islands found anywhere on the planet. No species have ever been introduced here by humans. The Galapagos animals that you see today all arrived by their own devices. Genovesa is the only other Galapagos island to boast the same claim as Fernandina. The National Park Authority monitor the island, to ensure that no new species are accidentally introduced, especially rats.
How to get to Fernandina Island Galapagos? Fernandina is the western most island of the archipelago, and third largest island. Due to it’s isolated location, the only way to visit Fernandina island is aboard a Galapagos cruise. Not all cruise itineries cover the western islands, so be sure to check when you plan your trip.
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What can you do on Fernandina Galapagos? This island offers a great combination of activities including treking, snorkeling and diving. Keep reading for more details below.
Landing Type: Dry, occasionally slippery.
Trail length: 1.2 miles (2km). This trek takes aprox 2-3 hours at a slow pace.
Terrain: Uneven volcanic terrain so visitors should take some care.
Visitors to Espinosa Point on Fernandina island are greeted by a barren jet-black landscape of lava. Both sharp and brittle A’a lava, and smooth ropy Pahoehoe flows can be observed here. Your guide will be happy to point both out to you, so you can notice the difference. Also try to spot the amazing pioneer cacti, clinging to life here on the lave despite the lack of soil.
After checking tidal pools for molluscs and fish, you’ll head to see one of Fernandina’s main highlights – the large colony of Marine Iguanas. These cold blooded reptiles are the only iguana species that has learnt how to swim. They dive to feed on algae growing on the rocks. After returning from the cold waters they then huddle together for warmth, creating great photo opportunities. They also need to expel sea salt from their bodies, done by spitting salt through their noses. The Fernandina island marine iguanas are both the largest individuals found at Galapagos, and the darkest in color.
Continuing on the trail around to the right, you will pass by marine iguana burrows. They dig these nests in the sand during mating season, often right next to passing tourists. Along this stretch of coast it is also common to find sea lions playing in the surf. Our next highlight though is a rather unusual bird. The Flightless Cormorant arrived to Galapagos through flight, but has adapted to the environment in a very surprising way. Galapagos Cormorants dive deep for fish, so have developed strong hind legs for swimming. However, the lack of natural predators means that they no longer need to fly. So today you’ll see them with just small, stubby, useless wings. They have trapped themselves on Fernandina island, unable to fly away even if they wanted to. This amazing bird can only be found on Isabela and Fernandina islands, so enjoy this unusual wildlife treat.
The trail continues to a cove often frequented by green sea turtles, and vegetated with mangrove plants. This area is also the hunting ground for Galapagos Racer Snakes, especially during marine iguana hatching season (May and June). Fernandina snakes leapt (or crawled) to instant fame in 2016, when BBC Planet Earth caught unique footage of them chasing a baby Marine Iguana. It went viral on the internet, receiving an incredible 13 million views! Check it out on Youtube before you travel.
The final treat at Punta Espinosa Fernandina is the chance to spot Galapagos Penguins. They are the only species of penguin to live in the tropics, attracted by the abundance of food found here
Landing Type: No Landing.
Activity: Panga (zodiac) ride and/or snorkeling.
A visit to Mangle Point takes tourists on a panga (zodiac) ride into a small inlet looking for wildlife, and is also a great location for snorkeling. This coastline is a popular nesting area for both Flightless Cormorants and Galapagos Penguins, giving snorkelers an opportunity to see them underwater. Snorkelers should also keep an eye out for Marine iguanas, Galapagos sea lions, Green sea turtles, rays, sharks, sea horses and colorful reef fish.
Don’t forget to keep your eyes on the skies too. Mangle Point is a good opportunity to spot Galapagos Hawks soaring high above.
Landing Type: No Landing.
Activity: Scuba Diving.
Cape Douglas is a Galapagos dive site with moderate currents, suitable for advanced divers. Here Galapagos Fur seals share the depths with sea lions, while penguins zip around searching for food. Various shark species can also be found, as well as marine iguanas snacking on algae.
Note: All wildlife sightings are by their very nature unpredictable, and activities may be subject to change by your guide or the National Park Authority.
In conclusion, Fernandina island is the our very favorite islands at Galapagos. The birds and animals here are unique, and have interesting tales to tell. The landscape is barren and black, yet breathtakingly beautiful. Few other sites at Galapagos demonstrate so clearly the story of evolution. Birds have evolved the ability to swim instead of fly. Land reptiles have also taken swimming lessons. The island itself is also a living illustration of creation by fire, and the fight for survival. The first slow steps of plant colonisation are already taking place. Life is beginning, and will continue evolving in ways we could never imagine. Fernandina island is a highly recommended inclusion to your Galapagos cruise itinerary!