Humpback Whale - Isabela Island - SurboundIsabela Island was originally named Albemarle Island for the Duke of Albemarle by Ambrose Cowley, one of the first men to ever set foot on the islands, in 1684. The seahorse-shaped Isabela Island

is the largest of all the islands, measuring 120 km long and an area of 4670 km2.

The human populations has grown since the year 1906 when colonization began. By 1974 there were nearly 450 residents on Isabela. This number has increased in each official census, with the total in the 2006 census reaching 1749 mostly in the larges town Puerto Villamil. The majority of Isabela residents make their living by fishing, farming, and tourism.

Villamil is the most beautiful town site in The Galapagos Islands, with its long, white-sand, palm-lined beaches and several brackish-water lagoons frequented by pink flamingoes, common stilts, whimbrels, white-cheeked pintails, and gallinules. The majority of Isabela’s residents live in the port town of Villamil.

Puerto Villamil on Isabela
Puero Villamil on Isabela Island

Until recently, the population was primarily involved in fishing and agriculture and had little connection to tourism. Then in the 1990s, development for tourism began in earnest. A small airport was completed in 1996 for inter-island flights. However, the town still retains its relaxed attitude in contrast to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal. There are several visitor sites accessible from town by car, foot, and dinghy.

Unlike the other large islands, the vegetation zones on Isabela Island do not follow the normal pattern. There are many relatively new lava fields and the surrounding soils have not developed sufficient nutrients to support the varied life zones found on other islands. The island’s rich fauna is beyond compare. It is home to more wild tortoises than all the other islands combined.

Galapagos Dove on Isabela Island
Galapagos Dove on Isabela Island

On the west coast of Isabela Island the upwelling of the nutrient-rich Cromwell Current creates a feeding ground for fish, whales, dolphins, and birds. These waters have long been known as the best place to see whales in the Galapagos. Some 16 species of whales have been identified in the area including humpbacks, sperms, sei, minkes and orcas.

There are about seven dive and snorkeling sites around Isabela Island. These include: the Four Brothers, Tortuga Island, Urbina Bay, Tagus Cove, Punta Vicente Roca, Roca Redondo, and Cape Marshall. Many of these sites provide viewing of various species of sharks, sea lions, sting rays, moray eels, sea turtles, cormorants, penguins, manta rays, and many other species. Of particular interest is Roca Redondo, a small island to the north of Isabela, where many shark species can be seen, as well as gas fumeroles. Tagus Cove provides viewing of sea horses, sponges, corals, and other species.

Bottle-nosed Dolphins near Isabela Island of the Galapagos Islands.

The immense size of Isabela Island increases the various conservation challenges found on other islands. Eradication of introduced species on an island this size can be extremely costly, as demonstrated during Project Isabela when successful eradication of goats and donkeys in northern Isabela was achieved. The continued presence of cats and rats on the island are causing problems for some of the more endangered and vulnerable birds, as well as snakes and other small reptiles.

Mangrove Finch
The plain-colored Mangrove Finch faces lack of habitat on Isabela Island.

Of greatest concern is the survival of the mangrove finch, with a population of only 100 birds. Isabela Island has also been the center of much of the fishing controversies over the last two decades. Sea cucumber fishing was focused primarily in the nutrient-rich waters of the western coast of Isabela, especially the channel between Isabela Island and Fernandina. Although there have been many advances in fisheries management during the past ten years and much of the conflict is reduced or non-existent, achieving sustainability in marine ecosystems where fishing is permitted is still a work in progress.