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Isla Isabela: Cromwell Counters

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Pelican, Isla Isabela
Pelican swoops down after a fish, Isla Isabela

Oliver Cromwell is regarded by many historians as one of Britain's finest military leaders, particularly with his use of cavalry. He ensured his horsemen charged in a tight knit group, knee to knee, making it virtually impossible for infantry to get their swords anywhere near the riders. He was also an exponent of the surprise counter. Initially he would attack with only a small portion of his force, holding the rest in reserve. Then, if the first wave failed to break through, and as the enemy was preparing to launch its own attack, he would release the reserve to deliver a (usually) devastating second blow.

The surface currents of the Pacific, at the equator and slightly south, travel westward, in the direction of the winds. That is why cruisers, like Skyfall, travel west at this latitude. However, just below the surface (at about 15 metres) there is a stream of water (250nm wide) travelling quite fast in the opposite direction. With its origins much further south it is cold, rich in oxygen and nutrients.

Our second stop in the Galapagos is on Isla Isabela, the largest and western most island in the group. This cold stream of water is (usually) brought to the surface here. It is named the South Equatorial Counter Current or Cromwell current. Although its name is derived from Townshend Cromwell, the scientist who discovered it in 1951, the idea of a hidden force which 'appears' unannounced, delivering a fierce, unexpected shock (to any unsuspecting snorkeller), makes Cromwell, referencing Oliver's reserve, 'counter attack' force, an appropriate name for the current which hits Isabela.

Ocean currents around the Galapagos
Ocean currents around the Galapagos

However, the effect on the wildlife here is the opposite to 'devastating'. Once anchored, I dived on the anchor to check it and also to verify there were no rocks in the proximity that we might swing into (charts are useless here). The water is turbid as there is a lot of sand so visibility was not great. I came face to face with a Galapagos shark ( he almost swam into me). Fortunately he was (marginally) more scared of me than I was of him. Stepping out of the dinghy at the dinghy dock, we looked down to see around five eagle rays circling the area.

Rays patrolling the dinghy dock, Isla isabela
Rays patrolling the dinghy dock, Isla isabela

There were also marine iguanas, seals and crabs everywhere.

The anchorage is protected by a group of low lying islands which are usually home to penguins and blue boobies. Yes, penguins can live this close to the equator if the water is cold enough. They are said to be friendly and often come to investigate the yachts. Unfortunately, we are here in a period where the water is unusually warm and there are none to be seen in the anchorage. Similarly, most of the blue boobies are away at sea (they typically only return to land in the breeding season of June- August).

It turns out that access to Isabela is 'controlled': you can only go and visit most places accompanied by an official guide. For instance, we cannot paddleboard over to look at the penguin colony. Instead, you must rent a kayak and paddle over in a group with a guide. Similarly, the highly recommended hike up the volcano is only allowed if you pay for the guided tour. In fact, apart from the bars and restaurants, there are only three places on the island ( all close to Puerto Villamil) which you can visit alone. The first of these is a snorkelling area about three minutes walk from the dinghy dock, accessed via a walkway through the mangroves. The approach is pleasant and, from the platform and steps we could immediately see frigate birds in the mangroves overlooking the 'pool', a turtle feeding below us, a ray swimming by. Again there were marine iguanas and seals everywhere.

Marine iguana, Isla Isabela
Marine Iguanas are not afraid of people

Unfortunately, the effect was spoilt by the presence of that other invasive species, humans. There must have been close to a hundred people trying to snorkel in one small area. I guess we have been spoiled on this trip.

The second unaccompanied visit is to a nature reserve to the west of Puerto Villamil. During WW2 the USA established a presence here and built a radar post on the highest point to the south west. The road (track) they built to support the post forms the main 'artery' in the area. Directly after the war, a notorious penal colony was built in the same area, again served by the road. The inmates were brought ashore and forced to hue volcanic rock to build the place where they would then be incarcerated. Many died during the process; the guards showed little mercy for those wilting under the heat. The penal colony closed in 1959. Today, one wall has been left standing as a memorial to those who died there. It is known as 'El muro de las Lagrimas'; or the 'Wall of Tears'.

'El muro de las Lagrimas', Wall of tears
'El muro de las Lagrimas', Wall of tears

From the port the wall is about 18km round trip with a further 2km hike uphill to visit the radar post. In addition, the park has many attractions on little side tracks. To fit it all in we rented bicycles for the day.

Actually, our highlights probably came more from the journey there and back than from visiting the wall. Once out of the port the beaches suddenly become deserted and very beautiful.

Beach on route to the Wall of Tears, Isla Isabela
Beach on route to the Wall of Tears

A little further, we reached a part of the trail known as 'El camino de tortugas'. A tortuga is a giant tortoise. We had seen them in a breeding centre on San Cristobal but finding them in the wild would be so much better. It took a little patience but eventually we did spot a couple. They were significantly bigger than those in the breeding centre, which are released into the wild on their sixth birthday. So we deduce that this fellow is more than six years old.

Annick with a Giant tortoise in the wild
Annick with a Giant tortoise in the wild

On the walk up from the wall to the radar post, the path is lined with small trees filled with chirping birds. They seemed interested in us and had no fear. One mockingbird appeared to want to show us the way. It landed on a branch about one metre in front of us, watching enquiringly. As we advanced it would move forward to the next branch, keeping just in front of us. It reminded me of the robin in 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'. A bit further up we came across this baby mockingbird. I was able to get really close (note: photos taken with a smartphone not some fancy camera with a telephoto lens)

Baby mockingbird
Baby mockingbird

The view from the radar post made the ascent worthwhile.

On the way back we visited a delightful beach cum pool. Although isolated from the sea by rocks, it was filled by waves breaking over these rocks at high water. It was just deep enough to swim in and was full of fish. Pelicans watched on from nearby trees before suddenly bursting into action and swooping past us and diving into the water (top photo). Finally; the track passes an area of wetland which is supposedly home to many flamingos. Unfortunately we did not encounter any.

The third area which you can visit unguided is the Giant tortoise centre (every island has one). We decided to skip this as we had visited one in San Cristobal and also seen these animals in the wild.

Isabela was actually created, not from one volcano, but from six. They were close enough together to form just one island. So, it is therefore no surprise that Isabela is the biggest island in the Galapagos group. Two of the four recommended guided tours explore the largest, Sierra Negra, which has a caldera (crater) 9km in diameter. One is a long hike around part of the rim. The second descends into the caldera and across to the 'sulphur mine'. The gases which escape from the magma chamber two km underground are very rich in sulphur. We crossed a moonscape of black lava rock painted yellow and white by deposits from the escaping gases. The vents looked very yellow:

Sulpher mine,  Isla Isabela
Sulpher mine, Isla Isabela

The final two guided trips involve boats. One was to visit the islands protecting our anchorage. The attractions are the penguin colony (currently empty) and the blue boobies (currently out at sea). So we decided to give that a miss. The second was to a place where the sea had created arches in the lava flows and where there was supposed to be excellent snorkelling. We passed on this as well as I objected to be asked to pay over $200 to be allowed to snorkel somewhere. So we whiled away our final day on the beach, swimming in nice waves (there were also surf lessons on offer) and put the unused 'trips money' to our diving fund for our final stop in the Galapagos, Santa Cruz.

Our final remark on Isla Isabela is a culinary one. We discovered empanadas, a sort of Spanish Cornish pastie, in Galicia. There we had them filled with meat and veg, tuna or cheese. As you leave the Isabela dinghy dock there is a empanada 'fast food' place which does a version filled with octopus. Delicious. It is worth coming here just to taste one.

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