Of the five islands that make up the remote northern group, only Genovesa is open to visitors. The tiny islands of Darwin and Wolf, at the far northwestern reaches of the archipelago, and Marchena, some 90km north of Santa Cruz, are occasionally visited by scuba divers, but only for offshore exploration, while Pinta is out of bounds to all but authorized scientists. Genovesa, lying approximately 95km northeast of Santa Cruz, reached after a night of sailing, is usually only visited by faster boats or as part of longer itineraries. It’s well worth the extra effort, as it’s one of the best bird islands in the Galápagos and home to the world’s largest colony of red-footed boobies.
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Captains align solar-powered beacons on GENOVESA to find the safe route into Darwin Bay, formed by a pincer of imposing cliffs rising to 25m over the sea, the remnants of a large, sunken caldera. A wet landing onto a small beach brings you face to face with Nazca boobies, frigatebirds, swallow-tailed gulls, mockingbirds and red-footed boobies. Birds rule the roost here; there are no introduced species and very few reptiles. The marine iguanas on the rocks are among the smallest in the islands, and the absence of land iguanas and giant tortoises means Genovesa’s prickly pear cacti, free from major predators, grow with soft spines. As a trail heads west along the shore past red-footed boobies, you’ll also see great and magnificent frigatebirds nesting in saltbush and red mangroves, with lava herons and Galápagos doves hopping around the rocks searching for food. Yellow-crowned night herons loiter near the tide pools watching for chances to snatch wrasse, blenny and damselfish. Four types of Darwin’s finches also inhabit the palo santo and croton scrub. Snorkelling in the bay can be thrilling for the schools of hammerhead sharks that sometimes congregate at its western arm.
Among the crevices and protrusions at the eastern end of the bay inhabited by fur seals, swallow-tailed gulls and red-billed tropicbirds is a natural dock and a gully, named Prince Philip’s Steps after the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit in the 1960s. Nazca boobies greet you at the top and another trail takes you through a palo santo forest, past more red-footed boobies and frigatebirds. On the far side you come out of the vegetation to stand above a broad lava flow overlooking the sea. Clouds of storm petrels swarm in the sky above their nests hidden in the lava fissures. They’re the smallest of the sea birds – a perfect-sized meal for the superbly camouflaged short-eared owls which prey on them.