An explosive trip to Isabela: New potential nesting sites for Galapagos penguins

September 18, 2018

By guest authors Caroline Cappello, Godfrey Merlen, Dee Boersma

Galapagos penguins

Our research team visited Elizabeth Bay on Isabela Island in July 2018 to see if the Galapagos penguins were breeding and to look for individuals we had web-tagged on previous visits. As if leaping from our boat to the shore to catch a penguin, crawling through tight lava tunnels to looks for chicks, and seeing a penguin carefully brood its new egg aren’t thrilling enough, we had an additional source of excitement this trip: Sierra Negra, one of the colossal volcanoes of Isabela, was erupting.

Anchored in Elizabeth Bay for seven days, we watched gas and lava spew into the air and huge plumes of vapor billow from the sea as the hot lava flowed into the cool ocean. As night fell, the glow of the lava illuminated the clouds, turning them a deep orange. We typically sleep outside on the deck, watching the stars and swallow-tailed gulls above and listening to sea lions exhale as they look for fish around the boat. This trip, we also watched the eruption. We called it the “nightlight” or “bonfire,” and excitedly compared notes each morning (“Did you see it at 3 am?” “No, but it was really bright at 4:45!”).

Sierra Negra eruption 2018

Sierra Negra erupting in the afternoon and evening on July 9th, 2018. The lava is erupting on the left and flowing into the sea on the right.

When we heard that Sierra Negra was erupting just before our July trip, and that there had been two 5.3-magnitude earthquakes associated with the eruption, we were concerned about the penguins that nest in Elizabeth Bay. How many of their nests would collapse due to the earthquakes? Would the constructed nests that we built for them in 2010 be strong enough to withstand the tremors?

But we were also curious to see if the erupting lava would flow into the ocean, creating new sections of coastline with good nooks and crannies for penguins to use as nest sites. Maybe we’d even find a brand-new, predator-free island perfect for penguins!

We were relieved to discover that none of the natural or constructed nests that we checked seemed affected by the volcanic eruption or the earthquakes. Though we didn’t find a new island, land was created — we estimated (from a safe distance!) that about 6 km of new, jet-black lava now stretches along the southern coast of Elizabeth Bay. It was still too hot to get close for a good look, but we hope some of the new land provides shady crevices for the penguins to lay their eggs and raise chicks in the future.

Lava flow Sierra Negra

New land formed from Sierra Negra’s lava flow. The lava is still hot and steaming.

We were pleased to find the penguins in excellent body condition, which indicates a recent abundance of food. Thirty-one percent of the penguins we saw were juveniles, signifying that breeding has been successful in the last year — a continuation of the trend we’d seen on our visit last year. Many adults had recently molted and pairs were starting to court and look for nests. Two of our constructed nests and six natural nests had penguin pairs inside, and two natural nests already had eggs within. If foraging conditions remained favorable, the penguins should have started breeding a couple weeks after we departed.

We’ll return to the Islands in February 2019, and though we already know it will be a fascinating trip, with new areas to explore, it will probably be a bit less explosive.

Penguin in a constructed nest

Adult male in a constructed nest in Elizabeth Bay on July 11th 2018.

The team: The research team has traveled to penguin breeding areas twice a year since 2010 to check both natural and constructed nests and study the penguins. Dr. Dee Boersma is a professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, where she holds the Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science and directs the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels. She has studied Galapagos penguins since she began her dissertation research on Fernandina Island in 1970. Caroline Cappello is a PhD student at the University of Washington studying the ecology and conservation of Galapagos and Magellanic penguins. She began her work with Galapagos penguins in 2015. Godfrey Merlen is a conservationist, natural historian, boat captain, and Director of Sea Shepherd’s Galapagos office. He has lived in Galapagos since the 1960s and received the Disney Conservation Hero Award in 2015 for his conservation work in the Islands. This project is a collaboration with Galapagos National Park Directorate (permit no. PC-47-10 through PC-65-18) and has been funded by Galapagos Conservancy and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Photos © Dee Boersma, Caroline Cappello, Godfrey Merlen

Galapagos Conservancy has been supporting Dr. Boersma’s project to increase the Galapagos penguin population since 2013.

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  1. Thrilling! Exciting !

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