History of Isla Isabel
Isla Isabel is a volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean and is located about 18 miles of the Mexican mainland. The island is nicknamed the ‘Galapagos of Mexico’, because like its famous brother, it to is home to breeding birds including the frigate, several varieties of boobies and resident iguanas. The island was granted National Park status in 1980 and later in 2003 it became a World Heritage Site. The island was home to marine explorer Jacques Cousteau for 9 months while filming for his TV series and he was also involved in helping the island gain protective status.
Probably the most recognisable resident of the island, the blue footed booby
In the early 1900s rats and cats were introduced to the island and resulted in the predators killing both the bird and reptile populations on the island. The cats have since been eradicated and steps have been taken to reduce the island’s rat population. As the island is relatively predator free, the birds are relaxed about the camera snapping humans who visit, although the frigates may warn you by clacking their beaks and the boobies will honk if you get a little too close.
We went ashore twice during our time anchored off Isla Isabel. The first trip we went with ‘Love and Luck’ and ‘Totem’, landing the dinghies near the fishing village. The fishing village consists of a series of shacks for the men’s sleeping quarters, behind these are a string of toilets each with labelled with the owner’s names. All of the trails on the island begin at the fishing village along with a map and information on the island.
The lower half of the hill features the nesting frigate birds, who sit solemnly on their nests casting their gaze down at you. There is something a little creepy about the frigate birds, I’m not sure if it is their size, their black beady gaze, the adults dark coloured feathers or maybe the frigate bird body parts scattered around.
On our way up the hill we passed many iguanas including one group fighting over a piece of fish. Siobhan and Ava held out a piece of grass to one iguana who hung around for a look, which quickly led to several more ambling over to see if there was any food on offer.
While we were looking at the girls interacting with the iguanas, Behan spotted some other beautiful little lizard, after a little research I discovered it was a western fence lizard. He camouflaged so well with the tree, the only colour on him being a vivid blue on his chin and stomach.
After a steep hike uphill, we finally reached the booby nesting area on top of the mountain. You may be wondering, like I was, why are they called boobies? Well after a little research I discovered the name comes from the Spanish slang word ‘bobo’, which essentially means stupid, because the Spanish were able to catch them so easily. As boobies are sea birds, they can spend weeks out to sea and if they see a passing ship they will land and rest a while, they have certainly done it on our boat. Once on board the birds were easily captured and provided an easy meal for the Spanish sailors.
The view from the top
During our morning visit we saw a lot of single parent nests at different stages of breeding, some with eggs, others with baby chicks and some where the baby was as big as the adult. It did make me laugh when we approached one mother/baby duo and the mother was honking to protect her baby who was bigger than her. I guess it shows that they too feel that regardless of the size or how old they are, you still want to protect them.
We saw a lot of blue footed boobies and some members of our group spotted a red footed one, I must have missed that one. There nests seem to consist of a little dried grass and a lot of bird guano. It was amazing how close you could get to the birds especially as we were a group of six adults and eight teens.
When we reached the shore one of the boats had returned and was unloading their catch, which of course drew the curious gazes of the men in our group. We wandered over to have a look at their haul, which consisted of some very large red snapper all of which were quickly and efficiently gutted, washed and stored away. Of course, the fresh fish drew the attention of the gulls who quickly encroached looking for their share.
After our hike, the kids dug out a paddle board and went swimming, while Andrew and I went for a snorkel/spearfish around one of the rocky outcrops. It is a little different from what we are used to as there is no coral. We did see some recognisable fish and Andrew did get a couple of fish for dinner.
For my second visit I went in the late afternoon with Jamie and Behan. Julie from Love and Luck had told us that the birds were more active and seemed to do a mating dance in the evening, so we went to experience it. We tried a different trail which led us past a caldera filled with greenish water and is called Lago Crater. After walking past many frigate birds and fighting of the bugs, we decided that there were no boobies on this track and headed back to the one we went on yesterday. Glad to no longer fend off the insects.
Passing through the village to reach the trail we passed a frigate bird sitting on the rocky shore, it appeared to have a broken wing and didn’t look like it would survive much longer. Everywhere you go there are detached wings, dead frigate bird bodies and bones. While the island displays the full circle of life, it is still sad to watch these giant, archaic looking birds dying and unfortunately, we witnessed two during our visits.
While the frigate bird can’t really be described as beautiful, they do exhibit some extreme qualities. Firstly, the mother spends between 9 to 12 months feeding the baby in the nest, which results in them breeding on alternate years. Secondly frigate birds spend weeks in the air and sometimes up to two months, not only that, but they don’t have a lot of oil in the feathers and as such can’t dive into the water or they risk their feathers becoming sodden and drowning. As the birds can’t dive in the water they have to skim the surface looking for fish, steal baby chicks and fight other birds for what they’ve caught. Certainly not an easy life.
The most notable difference with visiting the boobies in the afternoon is that both parents are near the nest, so I can only assume that in the morning one is off fishing. Again, the birds weren’t particularly fazed by our visit, but they postulated and honked when you approached.
During this visit I spotted some pairs of green footed boobies. The green footed boobies are much sleeker looking and probably a prettier looking bird, their feet just aren’t vibrant blue like the blue footed boobies, but rather a pale green colour. Funnily enough, it turns out that they are not green-footed boobies but are brown boobies. I think the name really doesn’t do the bird justice as brown is such a non-descriptive colour and these birds are beautiful.
The boobies were more active during our second visit with some birds sitting on rocks, timber, building remnants looking over their nests and enjoying the last rays of sunshine for the day. It reminded me a bit of a bird’s version of afternoon sun-downers.
I’m so glad we visited this island, I loved looking at the birds and you could easily whittle away many hours admiring them.
My favourite mother and child pair
Access to Isla Isabel
The island can be accessed either by private boats or by boat from either San Blas or Boca de Camichin, the latter involves a shorter boat trip. You can also book a trip to camp on the island through different tour organisers.