Blue-footed Booby Colony on Mexico’s Isla Isabel
What a thrill to have our exclusive up-close-and-personal encounters in a Blue-footed Booby colony on Isla Isabel off the west coast of Mexico. After spending a couple of days in San Blas, and with the assistance of Josefina Vazquez at Hotel Garza Canela, we lined up a full-day excursion to the small volcanic island that is located some 43 miles northwest of the tiny fishing village.
Our launch to Isla Isabel was booked with Ricardo Delgado of Sport Fishing & Ecotours whose business was a short 5-minutes from our hotel and located adjacent to the San Blas harbour.
If the conditions were right, the cruise to Isla Isabel would take 2 1/2 hours, but if the sea was rough or the winds got up, it could require 4 hours to arrive at the small island that is home to Isla Isabel National Park.
We had a very early start that morning…5:15 a.m…so were required to be at the dock before sunrise. Ricardo had the boat loaded with our provisions for the day, and we set off just as the sky was beginning to brighten on the horizon. Pacific Ocean here we come!
It was neat to have the sun rising behind us. San Blas was awash in a beautiful orange glow as we withdrew from shore. Ricardo provided breakfast but erred on the side of caution in case we would feel seasick. Black coffee and whole wheat “cookies” broke our fast, and a short time later, the deckhand, Edwin, gave us each a banana and waited to see how that would sit in our stomachs.
Both Bob and I actively sailed on Lake Ontario for many years, so the rolling waves and rocking and bouncing of the boat had no effect on us. We reveled in being on the water with the fresh salty air on our faces, and took pleasure in the giant swells as they heaved the boat up and down. When Ricardo was satisfied that we wouldn’t turn green with seasickness, he presented us each with a huge, fresh orange that went down very well indeed.
Our prolonged cruise out towards Isla Isabel was not without a few distractions. Ricardo cut the engine when he spotted some Whale Sharks near a line of flotsam, and we waited while they slowly approached the side of the boat. At one point, a Sea Turtle crossed our wake causing Ricardo to slow our speed, but before we could pick it out, the Turtle promptly disappeared below the surface. When we were almost within sight of our destination, Humpback Whales began to make an appearance, showing their tails and flukes and spouting.
As we drew closer to Isla Isabel, our anticipation was mounting. Touted as the Galapagos of Mexico, the Isla Isabel National Park and wildlife refuge that is located on Isla Isabel is populated with about 42,000 birds. The absence of predators on the island means that the wildlife has learned no fear so we will be able to get very close to the birds.
The sky began to fill with Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring on the ocean breezes,
the occasional Blue-footed Booby skimmed the waves near our boat,
and elegant Red-billed Tropicbirds floated on high, their tails trailing like delicate ribbons of silk.
Ricardo drew our attention to two spires standing proudly on the southeast side of Isla Isabel. They are the remnants of an offshore tuff cone that has been eroded by wind and wave action over the centuries. They now bear the names Islotes Las Monas.
There are coral reefs that surround Isla Isabel, several nutrient-rich ocean currents that converge there, and a constant progression of sea life that makes its way to the reefs from the rich mangrove swamps along the west coast of Mexico. All of these factors combine to make Isla Isabel a destination for a wide variety of birds and sea life owing to the bountiful food supply. Northern Humpback Whales are another species of animal that returns annually to the area during breeding season.
We were lucky enough to see several groups of Humpback Whales feeding adjacent to Isla Isabel. In one group, there were three, and others traveled together in groups of 5 and 8.
Having so many Humpbacks within a small radius of the boat certainly was amazing to see. I only wish that one of them might have breached. As it was, we had to be content to appreciate their large glistening tails that sprung out of the water as each whale prepared to dive.
Isla Isabel is comprised of a series of tuff cones and lava flows that together make up the small 1.5-kilometre long island. As we approached, it looked like a tropical paradise with several rounded hills, each covered in lush greenery.
Ricardo did a spin around the complete island before we landed on shore, so we were able to see thousands of birds nesting in the caves and on ledges of the sheer cliffs on all sides. Red-billed Tropicbirds nest on Islotes Las Monas.
Because of dangerous submerged reefs and buoys in the waters surrounding Isla Isabel, the boat was kept well offshore until we returned to the south side.
Magnificent Frigatebirds filled the air above Isla Isabel, an indication of what was in store on land.
There is only one safe landing spot on Isla Isabel and that is through South Cove on the southeast side of the island. The sheltered cove is about a half kilometre wide with rocks jutting out on both sides, and it protects a narrow sandy beach called Playa Chica. Though the island is uninhabited, about a dozen fishermen’s shacks stand lined up the length of the beach.
The fishermen are prohibited from fishing in the waters directly off Isla Isabel but use the beach as a staging area before and after fishing trips. They would be returning later. Once we had our feet dried and our hiking boots on, it was time to set off.
Ricardo indicated a nearby hill, Cerro del Faro, that we would be climbing for an unobstructed view of the whole island. Barely traversing a few feet from the beach, we came face to face with some Magnificent Frigatebirds that were blissfully unafraid of we humans.
A narrow isthmus formed by a lava flow connects Cerro del Faro to the other tuff zone that makes up the rest of the island. Erected on this isthmus is a biological research station that is a fixture of the wildlife refuge. The game warden only monitors the island occasionally and was not on site the day we visited.
The research station itself was in bad disrepair, and the fringes of one-time well-made volleyball and basketball courts have been monopolized by Magnificent Frigatebirds that idly watched Edwin, Ricardo, Bob and me pass by. The atmosphere was redolent of Jurassic Park revisited.
Our hike up the side of Cerro del Faro was on an unmarked trail with an uneven surface, but it was the tussocks that made footing a bit unstable given their density, size and spongy texture.
The path became steep and rugged before ending at the brink of a cliff on the west side of the island. We had a spectacular view of the island itself, the sparkling turquoise lagoon and the wide open sea.
The height of Cerro del Faro was sufficient to allow a good view of the isthmus, South Cove and beyond to the two spires called Islotes Las Monas (Monkey Islands). In front of the spires, the crater lake called Laguna Fragatas lies in a depression.
To the north on the western side of Isla Isabel is Cerro del Mirador, the highest point on this island archipelago.
Given the danger lurking in the ocean near Isla Isabel, in the form of coral reefs and shallow waters, there is a lighthouse on Cerro del Faro, but I was more taken with the Brown Boobies that occupy that corner of the island so never even snapped a photo of it.
Brown Boobies nest on this pitch near the lighthouse and on the hillsides of Cerro del Faro, but the Blue-footed Boobies have established their main colony on the east side of the island, so a cross-country hike would be our next activity.
Even at that, the occasional Blue-footed Booby was seen loitering around the edge of the cliffs,
and Magnificent Frigatebirds were observed in constant motion, coming and going, circling and wheeling over the island.
If we thought the trail up to the lighthouse was rugged, we had only to compare it to the rock-strewn path leading to Laguna Fragatas to know better. It was very rough going through the lava field because of loose rocks and half-buried ridges of lava. We descended the sides of the volcano and passed by the lake only to turn around and climb back out of the crater on the far side.
From there, it was a short walk to the shoreline adjacent to Islotes Las Monas. It was brutally hot, and because weather conditions were threatening to change, we had opted to postpone lunch until we were back on the boat.
Ricardo was miffed when it appeared that no Blue-footed Boobies were present where normally the bulk of the breeding colony is present, so we spread out to search for the missing seabirds.
It didn’t take long to establish that most of these gannet-like birds were seeking shelter from the hot sun beneath the Garlic Pear Trees and low shrubs.
How marvelous to experience these Blue-foot booby birds in a place where they exhibit no fear of humans. They simply looked at us as we reveled in our very special nature experience.
Many of the Blue-footed Boobies were roosting with their mates keeping close by, so we did not venture beyond the border of trees. The nests of Boobies are pretty much non-existent, however when eggs are being incubated, a bird remains in place at one spot on the ground, and its excrement or guano builds up in a circular pattern around the eggs.
We were free to walk along the fringe of deciduous trees and peer into the shadows with nary a thought of spooking the birds. Mind you, we did nearly step on the tails of a couple of Brown Iguanas that, likewise, demonstrated no fear of the people in their midst.
Of course, it is the feet of the Blue-footed Booby that gave the bird its name. Males use their blue feet during breeding rituals to impress prospective females. The more blue the feet, the better a male’s prospects are. Noticing the band on this bird’s ankle may be evidence of the work carried out at the research station by visiting groups of scientists.
I noticed that the eyes of some Blue-footed Boobies were strikingly different from those of others in the colony. I have since learned that the eyes of a male Blue-footed Booby have a small, round pupil,
whereas a female Blue-footed Booby has eyes with much larger, irregularly star-shaped pupils.
Once we turned from observing the Blue-footed Boobies in the thickets, we discovered that several were taking up positions on the rocky ridges closer to shore. The name Booby comes from the Spanish word “bobo” meaning fool or dunce and alluding to the birds’ clumsiness on land. The birds were fairly inactive so gave us no evidence of that trait.
Blue-footed Boobies are about 3 feet tall with a wingspan close to 5 feet and display their prowess when in the air and plunge-diving for food, both tasks that require agility and strength.
Of course, Bob and I wandered the shoreline, and just beyond the extent of the grassy area, we found piles of lava rocks also populated with Blue-footed Boobies. We were getting quite a show.
Just offshore sit the Islotes las Monas, and although we saw none of the Red-billed Tropicbirds that nest there, we certainly could not miss more of the Blue-footed Boobies where they perched just above the water.
One large group of these blue-footed beauties appeared to be making use of a small cave to escape the midday sun, and it was now time for our small group to return to the shade of the trees and make our way back to Playa Chica. The wind had gotten up over the course of the previous few hours, and at the same time, the tide was going out.
The beach was a beehive of activity when we finally emerged from the canopy of trees. A group of fishermen had returned from the open water and were cleaning their catches, Hammerhead Sharks, Red Snapper and Manta Rays.
Flocks of Green Pelicans and Heermann’s Gulls were in a frenzy fighting for the scraps, while others rested on the piles of hardened lava out in the bay. We, ourselves, were famished so boarded the boat and immediately were served homemade Ceviche and scrumptious corn tortillas. Massive Humpbacks gave us a show while the boat bobbed on the waves, then we had to turn for home. Bigger waves slowed us a bit, so it took 4 hours to reach the harbour, but it was a very pleasant trip, and we finally got to see a Sea Turtle. The whole adventure had been very worthwhile.