For many years I wanted to visit the Galápagos: to walk on these remote islands where unique species thrive, where Darwin first developed the ideas that would change our understanding of nature, and where animals have never learned to fear humankind. In 2012 I realised my dream; and fortunately, it more than lived up to my expectations!
The Galápagos Islands are located 600 miles from the Ecuadorian coast in the Pacific Ocean. There are 14 large islands and 120 smaller islets and rocks. Their isolation from any other place has resulted in the evolution of many unique species of flora and fauna, endemic to the archipelago or even to just one island within it.
The islands have been formed through volcanic activity, due to a ‘hot spot’ just west of the group. Eruptions here cause an island to form from the lava and rock emitted from beneath the sea bed. But rather than create one ever-growing island, made larger by each new eruption, the slow south-eastward movement of the tectonic plate on which they sit means that by the time of a subsequent eruption the island created by the previous one is some miles to the east, and instead a new one forms. Thus each island is on a slow journey south and east (moving at a rate of seven cm/year). Those furthest on that journey, such as San Cristobal and Espanola, are the oldest; and those in the west, such as Fernandina and Isabela, much younger (in geological terms).
A keen geologist will be fascinated by the details; but for the rest of us the attraction lies in the vivid scenery that results from all this activity, and for me, above all the colours. A jumble of black lava boulders, the backdrop to a white coral beach. Or a black lava beach washed by a turquoise sea. Or again, on Rabida, dark red cliffs with dusty green opuntia clinging to them.
And this dramatic scenery is the set for a multitude of living dramas, as the various animal species play out their lives under the gaze of mesmerised visitors. For the islands’ isolation has not only led to the large number of endemic species being present; but also to their tame and inquisitive nature. The Galápagos were never attached to any continent; the island chain’s remote location made it impossible for large land mammals that usually dominate the food chain to make the journey here. The giant tortoise became the dominate animal on the land, and he is a herbivore, so no threat to the others.
With this lack of natural predators, the wildlife of the Galápagos thrived in an Eden-like environment and never learned to be fearful of other species – even our own. Meeting these animals and interacting with them in their own environment is the true joy of a Galápagos holiday; so for this week’s Sunday Stills theme of wildlife I want to share some of our most memorable encounters there.
Galápagos sea lions
The first animals to greet us on almost every island were the sea lions. And I do mean ‘greet’. It often seemed that they had been lolling around on the beach or even the landing jetty just waiting for our arrival! This isn’t a scientific distinction, but for me they fell into four groups: adorable pups; languid and photogenic females; lively bachelor males; and the occasional bolshie alpha male throwing his weight about. The latter are best avoided; but all the others will allow you to come pretty close and will often come closer still to you.
The Galápagos sea lion is a distinct species, but closely related to the California sea lion. They are found on all the islands and number in the ten thousands. The females usually have just the one pup a year, though our guide Fabian said twins are not unusual and he has once seen triplets! We saw several new-born pups, for example on Sombrero Chino and Española. The babies are nursed by their mother for about six months until old enough to fish for themselves. Most of those we saw were still at this stage, so stayed quite close to mum. Some were more adventurous though and were venturing along the beach or across the rocks. One such followed a few of us for some time at Gardner Bay on Española, apparently mistaking us for family; so cute!
In addition to these large nursery groups we saw several of bachelor males (including on Isla Rabida and South Plaza). Male Sea Lions sometimes retreat to these so-called bachelor colonies to take a rest from the aggro of the alpha male. Once refreshed they may try themselves to take on one of the latter and to try to establish their own beach territory with several females. This they will then have to defend continuously from other bulls. These fights take their toll; most alpha males we saw were battle-scarred. Fabian told us that their reign is often short (sometimes only a few weeks) as they grow weaker with each fight and are then more easily vanquished.
Memorable encounters with the sea lions
On Santa Fe we had a ‘David Attenborough moment’! Soon after landing there we spotted one female who was further up the beach, almost among the salt bushes that line the beach. Moving closer we saw that she had a new-born sea lion pup; she was still blooded from the birth and the placenta was lying on the sand nearby. As we watched, we spotted a couple of juvenile Galápagos hawks circling the area and landing in the nearby trees, and more soon arrived. They sat there for a while, eyeing up this ‘treat’; they were perhaps each waiting for another to make a move, or for the mother to be sufficiently distracted. Eventually one of the hawks dived in to grab the placenta, and they were soon all fighting over it, devouring it with great relish.
Once the meal was over they retreated to the trees, presumably to rest and digest. Now we were able to get very close for more photos, even capturing the blood that still lingered on their hooked beaks. They seemed totally unfazed by their human audience, even seeming to pose for photos with us. Definitely one of my most memorable Galápagos experiences!
It was also at Santa Fe that I enjoyed my best snorkelling session with the sea lions. We were joined in our swim by a group of Galápagos sea lions. The females were happy to play with us while the watchful alpha male who patrolled among them tolerated our intrusion but disdained to join the fun. They stayed with us for a long while, and I was really pleased to be able to capture some of their antics on my waterproof camera, both on video, and these stills, just before its battery ran out! The sea lions seemed almost to know what I was doing; they repeatedly swam towards me, peered at the lens and flipped gracefully away again.
I’m sharing this and my ‘David Attenborough moment’ for this week’s Lens Artists challenge theme of memorable events. You can’t get much more memorable than this!
The video below isn’t perfect but it really captures the essence of the experience. The clicking noise you hear in it is the sound of the sea lions communicating with each other; or possibly with us! Watch it full screen if you can, to get a fully immersive experience
One of the largest animals you can see in the Galápagos are the land iguanas, which on some islands can reach over a metre in length. There are actually two species to be found here: Conolophus subcristatus on six of the islands, and Conolophus pallidus only on Santa Fe. The latter is often a paler yellow than the main species (hence the name, ‘pallidus’), and has more spines on its back. Charles Darwin described the land iguanas 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.’
However I have to say that I disagree with the famous naturalist; I found them sort of cute, although probably only their mothers would consider them beautiful!
All the marine and land iguana species in the Galápagos are thought to be descendants of a single species, the green iguana, which is native on the South American continent. Arriving probably on vegetation rafts to the isles, the green iguana had to adapt to a new and different environment. It did so by evolving into two very distinct new species.
One of these descendant species, the land iguana, adapted to feed on the vegetation of the islands. Surprisingly perhaps, they prefer the prickly pear cactus or opuntia. This in turn has evolved, growing much taller than elsewhere in the world to be out of reach of the iguanas; but the latter simply stand on their hind legs to reach the pads and fruit. They have a leathery, tough tongue and don’t need to remove the spines from the cactus before eating. The cactus forms about 80% of their diet and ensures that they get plenty of water even in the arid dry season such as when we visited.
The other main species of iguana that live here are the marine iguanas. Darwin wasn’t too impressed with them either:
The black lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large most disgusting, clumsy lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl & seek their prey from the sea. Somebody calls them ‘imps of darkness’. They assuredly well-become the land they inhabit.
I’ve written about these bizarre-looking creatures in a previous post, so I’ll pass quickly over them now.
This is the animal that perhaps most symbolises these islands, and indeed gave them their name; Galápagos is derived from the Spanish for saddle, referring to the shape of the tortoise’s shell. And their huge size (they can weigh over 250 kilos, and their shells measure up to 150 cm) makes them the dominant species on the islands; dominant that is until man arrived.
These lumbering but strangely mesmerising beasts have captured people’s imagination through the centuries. They played a part in developing Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, when he heard the vice-governor of the Islands’ assertion that he could identify from which island a tortoise came simply by looking at it:
The inhabitants…state that they can distinguish the tortoise from different islands; and that they differ not only in size, but in other characters. Captain Porter has described those from Charles and from the nearest island to it, namely Hood Island, as having their shells in front thick and turned up like a Spanish saddle, whilst the tortoises from James Island are rounder, blacker, and have a better taste when cooked.
Giant tortoises are endemic to the Galápagos, with 15 subspecies having been recorded around the archipelago. Not only do we find a different subspecies on each island where the tortoises live; on Isabella there is a different subspecies for each of the four volcanoes. To a tortoise these volcanoes might just as well be islands; they are unable to travel the distances between them, being too slow to cross large areas devoid of suitable vegetation for their diet.
But man very nearly wiped these animals from existence. When he arrived in the Galápagos there were hundreds of thousands of giant tortoises; but as the quote from Darwin above indicates, the tortoises were found to be a valuable source of meat for sailors who had been long at sea, and were hunted accordingly. They were also threatened by the arrival of alien animals introduced by man: pigs, goats, horses and cows whose existence in the islands threatened young tortoises. These ate the little vegetation that was available in the islands; and their hooves crushed tortoise eggs and the soft shells of the young ones.
Fortunately the danger was recognised, although not before several of the subspecies had been wiped out. In the 1970s the Charles Darwin Research Station established their tortoise-rearing project, collecting eggs from islands where the species had become endangered, and bringing them to the station where they are incubated and hatched. The young tortoises are raised until their shells become strong and they can withstand the threat of the introduced predators; then they are released back into the wild.
At the research centre we met ‘Super Diego’ (above), considered to be their most sexually active male (and therefore very useful to the breeding programme!) He is a saddleback tortoise, and his shell shape differs from that of his cousins, as described by Darwin. On the larger islands, such as on Santa Cruz, the giant tortoises thrive in the highlands where there is plentiful ground vegetation. There the domed shell is the norm. But on some of the smaller islands, where most vegetation is above ground and harder to reach, the tortoises have evolved to have this cut-away area of their shell, behind their heads. This enables them to stretch upwards to reach more food. Our guide told us that Stephen Spielberg had been inspired by seeing the tortoises on a visit to the centre to come up with the image of ET; look, you can see him, can’t you?
One inhabitant we did not see however was Lonesome George, arguably at one time the most famous tortoise in the world. Sadly he had died a few months before our visit, in June 2012. George was thought to be the sole surviving member of the Pinta subspecies (chelonoidis abingdonii). Scientists had tried for many years to persuade him to breed, with no success. Hence the nickname of Lonesome; although Fabian maintained that his failure to find success with the ladies was down to his own cantankerous nature!
Around the time of our visit however it was reported that scientists have identified at least 17 tortoises that appear to be closely related to George’s subspecies; and that they might even have found one purebred Pinta tortoise. Maybe George was not totally lonesome after all! Meanwhile his pen had been left as it was. A plaque had been placed beside it in memory of one who undoubtedly did a lot to draw people’s attention to the importance of preserving as much of the wildlife of these special islands (and indeed of the world) as possible.
Elsewhere on Santa Cruz we were able to see some giant tortoises in the wild and in a reserve. We had a walk through the latter where we saw quite a few, including one enjoying a mud bath and several munching on grass and leaves. One came straight towards a small group of us, and we had to step aside and let him pass; he was clearly the boss, and nothing was going to stop him reaching his destination. Sharing a narrow path with one of these enormous reptiles really gives you a sense of their size and strength!
I hope you’ve enjoyed meeting these iconic animals and some of the other inhabitants of these amazing islands. There are plenty more that I left out rather than make this even longer a post than it is already; so I may add a sequel at a future date!
I visited the Galápagos Islands in 2012