When a tiny piece of land breaks away from the rest and winds up 40 kilometres off shore in the Pacific Ocean, its uses can become limited.
Like many such places, Isla de la Plata has a story behind its name: The Island of Silver. Two in fact.
One is a tale of swashbuckling adventure, with Sir Frances Drake fighting off Spaniards to protect his stolen gold, then burying it in the island’s white sands never to be found again.
The other is that as night falls and the moonlight hits it just right, the whole surface of the island shines like a glistening mound of silver.
Although the second might seem the more far-fetched of the two, once you’ve been there, it makes perfect sense.
Almost the entire island is covered in tropical dry forest. For three quarters of the year it’s brittle, thorny and the light grey colour of sun bleached twigs. Dusty outcrops and jagged cliff edges fill the gaps between the bushes. And on top of it all, is a whole lot of bird shit.
The frigates and blue footed boobies who live and breed there have essentially whitewashed the entire place in caca, making it not too hard to believe that rising up between the shimmering waves, the whole place could glow like a pile of coins in the moonlight.
Although the island may look barren, it manages to sustain some exceptional life, and that, was our reason for coming.
An hour-long boat ride from Puerto Lopez in Ecuador brought us to one of Isla de la Plata’s bays and an amazing welcome party of huge sea turtles passing by our boat. They moved so gracefully through the waters, playing on the currents and were a truly spectacular sight to behold.
Between the sea turtles and the banana bread our ship’s captain had given us on the journey, this was already shaping up to be a perfect day.
I’ve loved frigate birds ever since I first saw them flying above the mountains of Rio de Janeiro a few years ago. Their huge size and effortless glide made them look prehistoric against the dramatic backdrop. They inspired me so much I have one tattooed on me, so getting to see them up close in their nesting environment was a pretty exciting prospect.
There are a few trails to decide between on the island. Different birds live in different areas so in order to see the world famous blue-footed boobies and the frigates we opted for the long route.
Our guide was amazing; a sixty year old guy who loved the birds as much as drinking shots of aguardiente. As we felt our exposed skin begin to sizzle in the sunlight, he wore an accidentally stylised ensemble of chino shorts and pulled up socks with a hoody, coat and cap. The man was cold.
We walked along the dusty trail, climbing higher and higher until the tropical dry forest cleared a little and we reached the top. Between the bushes dotted across the landscape were an incredible amount of blue-footed boobies. White circles of crap mark their simple nests on the ground and there on the headlands of the tiny parched island is where they nurture their eggs.
Blue-footed boobies are a pretty great sight to behold. Their identity seems a little confused. With a waddle like a penguin but the body of a seagull, they each hold a vacant piercing stare as though vaguely inquisitive but not particularly bright. And as expected, most of them have blue feet.
While we walked the trail, carefully passing the brooding birds, our guide explained that their diet is the reason for their blue feet. It’s only over time that they gain that famous hue.
Further along the clifftops is where the frigates roost. Their young are huge and in contrast to how graceful they are in the air, they’re pretty damn clumsy on land. Poop coated bushes strain under the weight as they awkwardly squabble for space, squawking and screeching between themselves. But as they take to the skies, their gracefulness is returned to them, back in their true element.
Whether you believe the pirate story or the silver shimmer theory, Isla de la Plata is a special place to visit. Seeing such unusual creatures in their breeding habitats is incredible and the terrain that surrounds them is visually stunning.
It may not be a particularly convenient piece of land for humans to use, but for the wild inhabitants that rear their young there, things seem to be working out just fine.