The Galapagos Islands are around 12 to 15 million years old. A relatively young age in a geological sense. Throughout these millions of years, flora and fauna found a way to thrive in this otherwise harsh environment. Even though 15 million years is considered “young” in geological terms, it was certainly enough time for the islands to shape themselves into what they are today – one of the most pristine, unchanged and unaffected natural environments in the world. Behaviors evolved, vegetation found a niche, and beaches took their sweet time in becoming a part of the landscape.
But the beaches don’t happen overnight. These actually depend on the movement of the sea, erosion, and sometimes even on local fauna to come about. Sandy beaches have two origins: organic and inorganic. The way these two origins affect the physical characteristics of the sand allows for nature to flaunt some of its most astonishing color palettes. Green, red, white, or black, the Galapagos are home to a rainbow of beaches that will certainly capture your gaze. To be able to admire these stunning and sometimes distant visitor sites, an exploration aboard a Galapagos Yacht is the way to do it. So hop aboard one of the islands’ most exclusive vessels and get ready to soak your feet into some of the most beautiful Galapagos beaches.
The white-sand beaches we have all come to relate to something akin to paradise are of organic origin. Composed of coralline sand (or white coral sand), these types of beaches are partly manufactured by living specimens, particularly sea creatures. Little fish dressed as construction workers come to mind and such an image, is in fact, not all that far from reality. Coral-eating fish, mainly Parrotfish, are responsible for 30% of the formation of white-sand beaches in the Galapagos. Though the process is less cute than one might have imagined, their role is crucial. Coral-eating fish have pharyngeal teeth and a little beak-like mouth that allows them to bite the hard coral and grind it. The coral per se has no nutritional value, but the polyp living in its interior (which is also responsible for the growth of the coral) is packed with nutrients. In order to get the nourishment out of the coral skeleton, coral-eating fish munch the coral’s rigid calcium-carbonate carcass. Once its stomach has digested the polyp, the fish expels the ground coral in the form of white sand that is deposited at the bottom of the ocean. However, one pre-existing factor must first be taken into account: for coralline beaches to be formed, a coral reef must exist first. Coral reefs require specific conditions and temperature (like the ones in the Galapagos Islands) to thrive. That, plus the hard work of thousands of coral-eating fish and centuries of erosion – due to water currents that gradually break down the coral – result in the white-sand beaches we all fall in love with. Gardner Bay, over on Española Island, is a beautiful example of a coralline beach and you can visit it for yourself!
Gardner Bay. Photo credit: Francisco Dousdebes
Black-sand beaches are less common on the islands but are quite a sight to behold. Inorganic in origin (meaning their formation was only a result of erosion) these black-colored beaches are the result of ground lava flows. Though this tougher rock is harder to erode, it only requires a couple of million years to become a night-shaded beach. Urbina Bay, on Isabela Island, is one of the Galapagos’ most iconic black beaches.
While on your Galapagos adventure, at some point you will certainly disembark on a brown-, orange- or beige-colored beach. Why is it that one place can have so many different-colored beaches? The reason is their different formation processes – organic, inorganic, or both – which all depend on the composition of the seafloor, island terrain, temperature of the water, and fauna that roams the area.
Brown, beige or orange beaches are mostly of inorganic origin. They are composed of tuff rock that has been mixed with other materials. Erosion (due to the constant movement of underwater currents) slowly grinds the tuff rock of which many islands are made of. It’s the different materials that tuff rock is combined with that gives the sand its particular tonality. There are also cases of hybrid sands, which consist of a combination of both tuff rock and coral, and sometimes result in lighter-looking sands. Punta Pitt also visited on La Pinta’s Eastern Islands Itinerary and located on San Cristobal – one of the older islands of the archipelago – is a beautiful example of beige-colored sand.
When seen from a distance, olive-colored beaches glow with a silky sheen. The green shade of these kinds of beaches is inorganic in origin and comes from the presence of a volcanic crystal called olivine that gets mixed with tuff rock. Olivine is a specific rock that only crystalizes in the depths of the volcanic crust. For it to find its way up to the surface of the planet it requires a powerful explosion from deep inside the Earth’s crust. The moment the eruption takes place, olivines that are encrusted in tuff rocks are later eroded by sea currents over a long period of time. During your exploration of the Western Islands aboard Yacht La Pinta, you will visit Cormorant Point on Floreana – one of the most stunning visitor sites in the archipelago. There, your expedition leader will sometimes take a sample of the sand to see it through the stereoscope aboard. You will marvel at the many shades of gorgeous olivine. Just remember it is not allowed to take a single speck of rock with you out of the islands! So soak at the moment and let the olivine’s shine remain as a part of your dearest memories.
A potent red color, oftentimes resembling iron oxide, is the shade you will find not only on many of the trails you will walk around the islands but some of its beaches as well. These inorganic beaches are the result of the erosion of tuff stone with a high concentration of iron, which gives it that intense orange-reddish tone which also happens to be pretty appealing to the eyes.
If it’s Earth’s color palette you are interested in, then check out both the Western and Eastern Islands Itineraries to give yourself an even more enriching Galapagos experience. If you have a little more time on your hands and want to have an even more comprehensive view of this magical archipelago, why not combine both itineraries and fill your color quota for the days to come?