Ultimate Galápagos Photo Diary
In July this past summer, I embarked on a 12-day voyage along Galapagos islands with Zegrahm Expeditions. We were to explore this sprawling volcanic archipelago straddling the equator in the Pacific, the closest land mass being mainland Ecuador almost a thousand of kilometres away to the east.
We lived on a small ship, Isabella II, easily navigating the islands, often following in the footsteps of Charles Darwin who came here for five weeks back in 1835, with three naturalists always at hand to explain everything that we saw.
We meandered the rocky shores and swam in the cold waters, always surrounded by countless of animals of all shapes and sizes.
The European discovery of the Galápagos Islands occurred in 1535 by the bishop of Panama. Towards the end of the 16th century, they were officially put on the map and named “Insulae de los Galapagos” or “Islands of the Tortoises” in reference to the tens of thousands of giant tortoises found there. The archipelago is famed for its vast number of endemic species – giant tortoises, marine and land iguanas, finches, mocking birds, penguins amongst many others – some of which were carefully studied by Charles Darwin during the famous voyage of the Beagle in 1835.Charles Darwin’s observations and collections on Galapagos Islands contributed towards the inception of seminal Darwin theory of evolution by natural selection. Nowadays, unfortunately many of the species are vulnerable in their conservation status.Being on of the foremost wildlife watching destinations on earth, Galapagos is now the richest province of Ecuador due to relatively big, but still rather restricted, influx of visitors of more than 250,000 a year. The islands are also a national park and a biological marine reserve.Above is the photo of Jack Grove and I, our very passionate and knowledgable expedition leader as well as a friend. Jack has lived in Galapagos in fro 7 years, and he has led Zegrahm trips to the Galapagos every single year since the company’s inception over 25 years ago.
So what is my absolute favourite animal from Galapagos Islands? The Galapagos penguin, of course!
The most magical moment of the trip was snorkelling one cloudy afternoon in chilly waters amongst several little penguins who were hunting for their supper. Clumsy little creatures on the ground, they were dashing about sleekly and speedily underwater, looking for something yummy to eat!
The only penguin that lives in the Northern hemisphere in the wild, it survives at the equator because of the cool temperatures, which are the result of the Humboldt current and the cool waters brought from the deep due to the Cromwell current.
Galapagos penguin is the rarest pension in the world, with less than 2,000 species in the wild. An endangered species, which will hopefully be preserved for future generations to see! Due to its small size (average height is 49-50 centimetres), it is prey to many predators, including cats, hawks, owls, sharks, sea lions and fur seals.
Of course, the name of islands comes from the spanish galápago or tortoises.
The 16th century Spanish explorers who discovered these islands named these islands after these hefty creatures.
These giants can weigh up to 250kg and live for over 100 years, making them one of the longest living vertebrae! They leave rather uncomplicated lives, slowly moving around, munching on lush vegetation and occasionally cooling themselves off in pools of sluggish water.Charles Darwin highly impressed by these creatures and also found them to be a source of welcome diversion whist exploring the islands:
“I frequently got on their backs, and then giving a few raps on the hinder part of their shells, they would rise up and walk away;—but I found it very difficult to keep my balance”
Unfortunately, tortoise numbers declined from over quarter of a million to a meagre 3,000 according the the census in mid-1970s. This drastic decline was due to overexploitation of these defenceless and relatively immobile animals as a durable food source by people – they could survive on a ship for up to a year without food and water providing sailors with valuable fresh meat- as well as the advent of agriculture resulting in habitat clearance and the introduction of feral animals.
I knew I was really in Galapagos, when I spotted my first marine iguana basking in the sun at Charles Darwin Research station (that’s the exact same one in the photograph above!)
Charles Darwin was revolted by the animals’ appearance on his visit to the islands, and later wrote:
- The black Lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large (2–3 ft [60–90 cm]), disgusting clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl & seek their prey from the Sea. I call them ‘imps of darkness’. They assuredly well become the land they inhabit.
Don’t these large reptiles remind you of pre-historic times of dinosaurs and of childhood tales of mystic dragons? When exploring the rocky Galapagos shores, it is easy to confuse these creatures with black lava rocks, on which they leisurely rest whilst warming their bodies from comparable cold waters. Their dark coloration allows them to rapidly absorb the heat of the sun.
Marine iguanas, just like land iguanas (but more on them in a minute), are endemic to the Galapagos. They are unique amongst modern lizards, because they forage in the sea on algae, these grateful swimmers, who seem to lack any agility on land, sometimes dive up to 30 ft in the water.
Once again, Charles Darwin was not impressed by these large yellow lizards and described them as:
“ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance.”
Land Iguanas can grow up to the length of five feet, depending exactly which island they are from. They also like to bask on volcanic rocks in order to absorb heat, sleeping in burrows at night in order to conserve the heat.
Land iguanas are primarily herbivorous – their main food and moisture source being the prickly pear cactus – often feasting on yellows flowers of the genus Portulaca, which results in their warm yellow colour.
A lava lizard gingerly posing for me…
Also called manzanilla or manzanilla de la muerte which means “little apple of death.” In fact, very part of the tree is extremely poisonous and causes severe dermatitis!
And then, of course, there were countless playful Galápagos sea lions.
We found them on every single island of the archipelago, either greeting us with their loud barks and delighting us with their inquisitive nature napping on sandy beaches or warm lave rocks, moving clumsily about or swimming agilely in the sea!
A flightless cormorant is also endemic to Galapagos, and is another great example of the highly unusual fauna found on the remote archipelago. It is the only cormorant that has lost all ability to fly, its wings being short stubs attached to the torso. However, they are excellent swimmers, navigating the waters looking for fish and other small making creatures, its webbed feet and powerful legs that propelling it rapidly through ocean waters.
My favourite bird was a blue-footed booby.
This bird is easily recognisable buts its bright different shades of blue feet, ranging from pale turquoise to deep aquamarine. Females have darker feet than males and juveniles. In an elaborate mating rituals, males display their gorgeous feet by lifting them up and down whilst strutting in front of a female.
Usually laying between one and three eggs, blue-footed are also well known for siblicide – in times of food scarcity, stronger offsprings will kill of the weaker ones.
And last, but no least Nazca booby and its fluffy chick!
And then of course, the mostly barren and dramatic volcanic landscapes, rocky islands surrounded by waters of fairy tale blue.My favourite stop was the small Rabida Island, known for its unusual fiery-red sand beaches!We snorkelled with sharks around the famous Kicker Rock (the one you see on the horizon line) towering over 500ft over the sea. We even saw a hammerhead shark, rapidly swimming by!
We also went up to the highlands, where due to rainy climate, the vegetation was lush, and we felt like were were miles away from relatively barren islands.
When in the highlands, we stopped for a delicious lunch, accompanied by bottles of refreshing beer.We came across pink flamingoes on a couple of islands…
Just look at the sheer size of these monumental rocks!