Island Profile; Española

Written by GCT volunteer, Max Smith

Española island is also known as ‘Hood’ after Viscount Samuel Hood, an English Admiral who was honoured for his naval exploits during the American War of Independence. It is an eroded remnant of a large volcanic eruption, though the volcano is now extinct. The island was created when the volcanic eruption split a hole in the tectonic plates, allowing what is now Española island to float away from the Galapagos hotspot. The islands furthest from the hotspot are the oldest while those closest are the youngest. As the southernmost island of the Archipelago, it is said to be the second oldest of the Islands, at approximately four million years old.

Coastal landscape, Española © Jenny Howard
Coastal landscape, Española © Jenny Howard

Española has never been inhabited by humans and hosts several endemic species. The whole of its south shore is a low cliff, which is the key nesting site of the waved albatross. Española mockingbirds, lava lizards and tortoises evolved into distinct, endemic species on this isolated island.

Humans exploited Española giant tortoises as a food source during the 18th and 19th centuries. With just 14 surviving giant tortoise individuals, there has been a successful breeding programme. Scientists and resource managers at the Charles Darwin Foundation and Galapagos National Park have since released nearly 2,000 young tortoises back onto Española where they have been thriving for the last thirty years. Feral goats were eradicated from Española in 1978 and the re-introduced population of tortoises re-established their roles as key herbivorous gardeners. Current conservation efforts on the island are aimed at ensuring the restoration of the cactus forests that existed before the presence of goats.

The variety and quantity of wildlife makes Española an attractive tourist destination, but a trained guide must accompany all visitors. One of the island’s most popular visitor sites, the Punta Suarez walking trail, is occupied with sea lion pups that are often found playing in the shallow water, waiting for their mothers to return with food. During the breeding season, male marine iguanas have a strong red and green colouration and can be seen catching sun rays on the rocks. Their impressive colours have earned them the nickname the ‘Christmas iguana’.

Marine iguana © Robin Slater
Marine iguana evidencing why they have the nickname the ‘Christmas iguana’ © Robin Slater

The highlight of the island, however, are the nesting sites of the waved albatross. The albatrosses leave the island in January and February and return during the nesting season between April and December. With such a confined breeding range and threats including long line fishing outside of the Galapagos Marine Reserve, climate change, oil spills and potentially plastic pollution, the waved albatross is listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Some colonies have also been lost as result herbivorous tortoise declines, as vegetation has regrown and taken over the bare rocks, leading to the desertion of eggs.

Waved albatross © Kelvin Boot
Waved albatross © Kelvin Boot

Diving on Española is confined to Isla Gardner and Bahia Gardner. The Isla Gardner dive site is a mini wall with a sandy bottom, lava tunnels and caves. The currents are usually moderate, but when they get stronger, there is a chance of encountering fish such as rays, sharks and even hammerheads. The Bahia Gardner also usually has a moderate current, which makes for relatively easy diving. Divers can encounter schools of eagle rays, manta rays, Galapagos sharks, whitetip reef sharks, mackerels and sea lions.

Find out more about visiting Galapagos using our Responsible Tourism webpages.