Fernandina Island in Galapagos is the youngest of all the volcanic islands in the archipelago. This makes it a unique tourist destination with lava flows and virtually untouched wildlife colonies.
Explore Fernandina Island in Galapagos and the Youngest Volcano
Perched atop the hot spot that formed the Galapagos Islands sits Fernandina Island. It is currently the most active of all the volcanoes in the Galapagos and has erupted 24 times since 1813. It is also the youngest of these islands, and one of the most ecologically pristine. Only one visitor site exists on the island, and it is home to animals found exclusively in the western side of the archipelago.
How Fernandina Was Formed
Fernandina and the surrounding islands are a series of extinct and active volcanic islands that were formed by a geologic feature called a hot spot. Hawaii is another volcanic island chain formed the same way. A hot spot happens when you have a thin portion of the earth’s crust and a location where the magma inside the earth pressurizes and pushes outward. Magma then bursts through the surface and cools into rock.
As new eruptions happen, the lava spills over the old hole, building upward into the classic cone shape of a volcano. Island-volcanoe growth is quite different than mainland’s volcanoes. The location where the magma tends to push will remain the same, but as tectonic plates shift, new holes will appear, forming new volcanoes. The volcanoes located the furthest from the hot spot are the least likely to continue erupting, and the ones closest to the hot spot, like Fernandina, are the most likely to erupt.
These islands erupt not only from a central crater (conduit), but rather release the built-up pressure from magma through different openings along its crust. These are all fissures that can extend for miles, and some are vertically oriented, while others take a horizontal pattern. The technical term for these is radial and circumferential fissures.
Fernandina Island in Galapagos is an island with only a single visitor’s lookout called Punta Espinoza. Its remote western location forces you to be part of a Galapagos cruise, and that’s the only way to visit it. Due to its remote location, no day trip can make it that far. It is a true privilege to be able to land on this magical island.
A visit here comes with two options. A short walk along the small peninsula on the island offers a look at some of the original wildlife inhabitants and how they survive when they move onto new volcanic islands. If you prefer to see lava flows, there is a walk that you can take over two different kinds of lava formations. The pahoehoe forms a ropy, bubbly surface that looks a lot like the top of a freshly baked pan of brownies.
Aa lava is chunkier and more angular, and it looks like you are walking on a surface of breadcrumbs instead. Both kinds of lava can be formed from the same volcano and even from the same eruption. Though it is not safe to go to the top of the caldera for obvious reasons, a visit to the lava fields allows you an excellent view of this volcano’s effects. Right at these lava flows you can see how plant life happens, but a very slow rate. Mangroves, few grasses, and the stunning endemic lava cactus dominate the landscape.
The wildlife on Fernandina Island in Galapagos is much different than that on some of the other islands. There is very little vegetation on the island with the exception of the lava cactus, which is a favorite sight for plant-loving visitors. Because of this, most of the wildlife that lives on the island gets their food from the sea. These include:
- Flightless Cormorants: These diving birds live on only two islands in the world, Fernandina and Isabela. The nutrient upwelling of the local ocean current here creates a rich fishing ground for these unique birds.
- Galapagos Penguins: The northernmost penguin species in the world, and a charismatic favorite of divers and tourists.
- Sally Lightfoot Crabs: These colorful and charismatic crustaceans live on most of the Galapagos islands and are fun to watch wherever you go.
- Sea Lions: These playful sea lions are a tourist favorite due to their playful nature.
- Galapagos Hawks: This top predator on the food chain will take on the few rodents, small birds and reptiles. They are very easy to approach and seem totally oblivious of our human presence.
- Marine Iguanas: The world’s only marine iguana is as black as the lava rocks and an active swimmer who can dive repeatedly for algae.
- Galapagos Snakes: These endemic and non-poisonous reptiles will seek protection along cracks and crevices, and that’s the best place to wait as predators! If you’ve seen BBC’s show Planet Earth II, it is quite likely the footage of snakes chasing young marine iguanas really got your attention. That was filmed right here on location.
The Best Time to Visit Fernandina
There really is no wrong time to visit this volcanic island, but depending on what you most want to see, there may be some more ideal times to go. The Dry Season (June-November) is a good choice if you want to catch a glimpse of dolphins and whales as they are attracted to the feeding grounds from the same Humboldt and Cromwell Current as the local cormorants and penguins. Nesting seabirds and chicks can be seen (safely from afar to avoid disturbing them) too. December and January are great months to see impressive reptile battles as adult male marine iguanas establish their territories.
The Hot Season (December-May) finds warmer water which is great for snorkeling and for spotting sea turtles, penguins, and hopefully a marine iguana feeding underwater during low tide. Late August, September and October are awesome for witnessing the pupping season of sea lions; most births happen right at this time. You decide when to come, and Fernandina Island in Galapagos will deliver.
How to See Fernandina
Best way to experience Fernandina Island in Galapagos is on any expedition cruise that explores the western islands, and if land-based programs are your option, then go for best of both worlds: find your land-based program and take a pre or post expedition cruise that goes out to the west of the archipelago.
Blog Reviewed & Edited by: Francisco Dousdebés
All Images: Francisco Dousdebés (all photos taken on location at Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island)