Taking nothing but photos, leaving nothing but footprints – Galapagos – The Enchanted Islands

Early opinions of sea faring Europeans on the Galapagos were not very enticing.

Fray Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Castilla del Oron (in Panama) in the service of Charles V of Spain, was the first European to encounter the Galapagos – in his report back to the emperor he writes:

“they found nothing but seals, and turtles and such big tortoises that each could carry a man on top of himself, and many iguanas that are like serpents…”

And about another island: “On this second one, the same conditions prevailed as on the first; many seals, turtles, iguanas, tortoises, many birds like those of Spain, but so silly that they do not know how to flee, and many were caught in the hand…”

And he concludes that “on the whole island I do not think that there is a place where one might sow a bushel of corn, because most of it is full of very big stones, so much so that it seems as though at some time God had showered stones; and the earth that there is, is like slag, worthless, because it does not have the virtue to create a little grass, but only some thistles”

Here’s how Herman Melville describes the Galapagos:

“Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot; imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea; and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles; looking much as the world at large might, after a penal conflagration.”

His conclusion – “It is to be doubted whether any spot on earth can, in desolateness, furnish a parallel to this group.” Or “in my time I have indeed slept upon evilly enchanted ground”, and “nothing can better suggest the aspect of once living things malignly crumbled from ruddiness into ashes. Apples of Sodom, after touching, seem these isles.”

And on beautiful tortoises:

“Lasting sorrow and penal hopelessness are in no animal form so suppliantly expressed as in theirs; while the thought of their wonderful longevity does not fail to enhance the impression.”

With 21st century vision, most of my fellow visitors and I beg to differ, and I wonder if we saw the same scenery unfold as those early voyagers…galapagos-landscape3

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It is a little sad how quickly one can get into a routine of watching early morning sunrises over sullen islands, full breakfast of fresh fruits, eggs, toast, cereal, fresh fruit juice, and occasionally yoghurt, followed by a not too rigorous nature trail, snorkeling with turtles and sea lions (and the occasional shark) or kayaking, then lunch starting with hot soup, brief siesta on the deck, another nature trail, then snacks and drinks at sundown, watch stunning sunsets over more sullen islands, attend a briefing of the following day’s activities, then dinner and conclude with star gazing on the deck. If I believed in paradise I would say such is life in paradise, but this is planet earth and life on a Galapagos cruise.

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Now a UNESCO designated World Heritage site and an officially protected national park since 1959, with an effective conservation strategy (in recent years, reversing the decline of several centuries), and very few natural predators, there is abundant life out here, both on land, in the air and in the seas. Some of it is at risk of extinction, but there are enough resources now being put into programmes to maintain the natural ecology of the islands and reverse, as much as is possible, the damage done by humans over the least three to four centuries.

Darwin spent only 5 weeks on the islands, but what he saw, samples he took away and the analysis he did on the evidence back in England has been nothing short of revolutionary. It is possible that a chance meeting between Darwin and the then vice-governor of the Galapagos, Nicolas Lawson, planted the seed of an idea in Darwin’s mind when Lawson remarks that “… the tortoises differed from the different islands, and that (he, Lawson) could with certainty tell from which island any one was brought.”

His theory of evolution and natural selection of course is now firmly accepted and proven through detailed studies of genetics. What surprises me, though, is the abundance of churches on islands that are inhabited by humans – the Catholic church does not give up easily!

This blog will not be a day by day diary of the Galapagos part of my journey. Instead I will put thematic groups of collaged photos to give a sense of the diversity of life on these islands. In all, over a period of 14 days, we have covered 10 (of 19) islands and I hope to convey the diversity in the species from the different islands. Where there are differences in colours, sizes and shapes, the animals will likely have been from different islands.

You often don’t need a telephoto lens for these islands – the animals are fearless and curious enough to come to us, which was occasionally disconcerting!

I will start with the finches – and though these fascinated Darwin, interestingly he did not chronicle the samples he took with dates and more importantly the locations he took them from. Without the data he could not analyse them. So he focused more on the Galapagos mockingbirds. However, a later botanist who travelled to the islands after Darwin brought back properly identified samples of finches and this was documented later still in the book “Darwin’s Finches” by David Lack (1947)– hence these became more synonymous with Darwin’s theories than the mockingbirds. Here are a few that we spotted around the various islands…

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Next the turtles – broadly two types, sea turtles and land tortoises – but each species from each island has a distinctive shaped shell – there are 15 identified species of land tortoises – the one associated with “Lonesome George” has now become extinct with the death of this tortoise. It is possible that the tortoises are actually all part of one species with 15 sub-species – but the botanists continue to battle that one. Early buccaneers, pirates and whalers practically eradicated these beautiful creatures for food. But breeding programmes have been hugely successful and other species are seeing significant increases in population as breeding centres give birth, protect and repatriate tortoises back into the wild.

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And then the iguanas – beautiful miniature dinosaurs – again, two types, marine iguanas and land iguanas – the former are dark (highly effective camouflage in the dark lava rock) and the latter are larger, lighter in colour and more colourful (the male ones at least) – you can see the difference. Photos include a very rare hybrid (the two types are distinct species so they do not successfully breed fertile offspring) spotted on South Plaza Island…

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And then the sea lions – abundant, fiercely territorial (in particular the males – of each other), totally unafraid of humans (they know no predator) and are very curious of us two legged animals…

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Lizards and snakes, again, each variation implies a different island or habitat, dark ones are lava lizards camouflaged against the dark rock…

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Colourful crabs everywhere…

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Birds – the only predator is a hawk and, to a lesser extent, the frigate bird, which steals from other birds and animals (and it does not like the water, odd for a marine bird!). Abundant pelicans, cormorants fanning in the sun, boobies (red and blue footed), gulls, oyster catchers, yellow warblers, red billed tropic bird, herons, Galapagos albatrosses, Galapagos penguins …

Blue heron, taking flight in the mangroves…

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Frigate birds keeping us company on the boat, and one male magnificent frigate displaying his wares to attract the other half…

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Galapagos penguins, hawks, cormorants drying off in the sun…

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Lava herons and lava doves – camouflaged against the dark lava rocks…

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Darwin’s Galapagos mockingbirds adapted to different islands…

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Nazca booby laying and incubating an egg, with that elegant red billed tropic bird taking flight and the striking yellow warbler…

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Pelicans minding their own business, hawks looking out and oyster catchers – one young chick with a mother keeping a close watch…

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Red footed boobies with stunning blue beaks, some young ones who have not yet taken on the colours of their parents…

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Their cousins, the blue footed boobies…

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Squabbling blue footed booby couple, wildly gesticulating which one of them should take flight and leave the other to incubate the recently laid eggs – the mother won…

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Galapagos albatrosses, demonstrating unusual courtship procedure, begin with bowing, clicking of beaks, yawning, more clicking, and eventually ugly adolescent offspring and flight!

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Sun fish, rays and sharks…

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Playful dolphins…

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If anyone reading this blog is considering coming here, I strongly suggest you bring an underwater camera. I didn’t. As a result, I have no pictures to evidence the stunning fish life that exists in these seas. Snorkeling was some of the best, with crystal clear waters most of the time, though occasionally freezing cold – but to give an idea of the diversity here are just some of the creatures I swam with – white and black tipped reef sharks (yep!), giant turtles, manga rays, eagle rays, sea lions, trumpet fish, parrot fish, black spotted puffers, yellow puffers, and so much more.

One of the best parts of seeing animals in their natural habitats is that you get to see how they co-exist, as opposed to compartmentalised in a zoo. Some do so happily and symbiotically, others are rivals for either space or food or both. Here are some photos that reflect happy or unhappy co-existence on the islands – new mother fending off hawks that are after her placenta, frigate birds trying to steal a sea lion’s catch, with a pelican opportunistically looking on, iguanas and sea lions happily sharing the same space, a couple of inquisitive gulls curious about a young sea lion pup…

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Sea lions stealing a nap using human built shelters, crabs iguanas sea lions happily co-habiting, cormorants flapping in the wind with iguanas looking on, suckling young sea lion pup disturbed by a passing iguana…

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Another wonderful sight of animals in their natural homes, and a nice concept to end on, is amore. Whether it be new mother sea lions cuddling young pups, turtles, iguanas, gulls, all making out, or the fond attentions of a young chick for it’s mother – there is much love around…

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Enchanted islands or hell on earth? I’m for the former.

4 thoughts on “Taking nothing but photos, leaving nothing but footprints – Galapagos – The Enchanted Islands

  1. Can’t believe the quality and beauty you have achieved in the photos. Great work and your written work is pretty good as well

    Must catch up when you have finished your adventures

    Liked by 1 person

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