Galapagos Islands (Part 3)

The Galapagos Islands and Charles Darwin have been inextricably linked since the publication of his “Origin of the Species” 25 years after he visited the islands as a 22-year old geologist aboard HMS Beagle.  While Darwin is generally credited with conceiving the idea of evolution, the theory actually had its beginnings with a French naturalist, Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, who died in poverty and obscurity six years before Darwin arrived in the Galapagos Islands. Darwin’s contribution, however, was equally important.  He explained how and why evolution occurs.

So when you travel to the Galapagos Islands, an eerie feeling comes over you as you realize that the individual birds, mammals, and reptiles you are viewing and photographing most likely are direct descendants of the very creatures that inspired one of the most revolutionary scientific conclusions in history.

At the same time, this wildlife sparks a sense of wonder regardless of its ancestry.  And that is what the rest of this post will focus on.

Galapagos 29 3 Boobies

Blue-footed Boobies Conferring

Although I rated the Sally Lightfoot Crab as having the coolest name, my overall favorite should be no surprise;  it is the blue-footed booby.

Galapagos 30 Booby

Their ridiculously colored blue feet, serving as their namesake, ironically are contradicted by the steely gaze of their arresting eyes and the impeccable sleekness of their plumage.  When their stare fixes you, you become grateful that you are not a small fish.

But while humans may smirk at their garishly colored feet, the color blue is a very big deal to both the male and female booby.  The  males take great pride in their fabulous feet. During mating rituals, male birds show off their feet to prospective mates with a high-stepping strut. The bluer the feet, the more attractive the mate.  The short video clip below was filmed by our trip leader.

(Video by James Zimbelman, Smithsonian Institution)

Yet, when you watch the birds in their role as a predator, you realize why that piercing glare gave you pause.  Circling high above the ocean in search of anchovies and other small fish,   they will suddenly fold their long wings back around their streamlined bodies and plunge into the water at speeds up to 60 mph.  It happens so quickly that I failed in every attempt to capture that critical moment of hitting the water.  The best I could do was the shot below, when a successful plunge was followed by the bird as he/she was taking off.

Galapagos 10 Blue Footed Booby

Blue-footed Booby on Take-off Run

There are many ways to see the Galapagos Islands including larger ships (about 90 passengers), small charter vessels that may take as few as 12-16 passengers, or on-island lodging (ranging from regal to rustic).  Choosing the latter may restrict your ability to visit more than 1-2 islands unless you are willing to change lodging a few times.  The variety of wildlife you will see depends on which islands you choose to visit.  Not all itineraries are the same.  But however long you stay, you will be glad you made the journey.

Galapagos 26 (Straight Shot No Tricks)

  Frigatebird at Sunrise, Galapagos Islands

(Technical: Nikon D810 handheld with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 70mm; exposed @ 1/800th sec. @ f/16, ISD 400; No Photoshop trickery used in positioning the bird over the sun)

 

Galapagos Islands (Part 2)

Galapagos 20 Approaching Storm

Approaching Storm at Sunset

(Techniical Stuff: Nikon D810 handheld on moving ship with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens extended to 150mm; exposure 1/250th sec. @ f/14, ISO 800; four images photomerged)

The volcanic archipelago making up the Galapagos Islands is relatively young by geological measures and on some of the newer islands you may see only the initial stages of plant life.

Galapagos 12 Cactus

A Cactus Plant Finds a Spot on a Lava Formation

One of the strange aspects of volcanic activity is the formation of lava tubes.  Don’t ask me for an understandable explanation, but it has to do with the lava flow cooling and becoming hard on the surface, while still-hot lava continues to move under the hardened surface.  In some cases, when the eruption ends, the last of the moving lava proceeds through the channel, draining it and leaving a long cave behind.

Galapagos 22A Lava Cave

Lava Tunnel

(Technical Stuff: Nikon D810 handheld with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens extended to 24 mm; exposure 1/25th sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1600; two images photomerged)

The tunnel was interesting but very dark and creepy, a great location for a horror movie. And it was the wildlife we wanted to see so not a lot of time was spent there.

Galapagos 28 Sea Lions and iguana

Two Sea Lion Pups Napping as Marine Iguana Strolls By

The Galapagos marine iguana is the only iguana that has evolved from a strictly land-based creature to one that swims and feeds in water.  They are found nowhere else on the planet.  They feed on ocean algae, often fully submersed, and even have a special gland common to marine birds that enables them to extract excess salt from their blood and sneeze it out several times a day.

Galapagos 11 Sea Lion YawningSea Lion Yawning

The sea lions found in the Galapagos Islands are the smallest of the sea lion species.  The female gives birth to a single pup a year after mating and she stays with it for the first week after birth.  She then will depart for one to four days to hunt, while other females of the colony stay behind to watch over the youngsters.  Eventually, the pups join their mother to develop swimming and hunting skills.

Galapagos 28 Mocking BirdGalapagos Mocking Bird

(Techniical Stuff: Nikon D810 handheld with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens extended to 200mm; exposure 1/250th sec. @ f/8, ISO 800; very tight crop of final image)

The smaller birds, such as the Galapagos mocking bird, were more timid than most of the island wildlife but they still provided photo opportunities on occasion.  Interestingly, there are seven subspecies of the Galapagos mockingbird, and each one seems to be largely endemic to different islands of the archipelago.  Apparently, it was the differences (such as beak size and shape) among these birds, as well as his better known study of the Galapagos finches (15 subspecies) that sparked Darwin’s thinking about adaptive evolution.

 

Galapagos 24 Floreana IslandSunrise, Floreana Island

 

 

Coming Next: The World Famous Blue-Footed Booby

Galapagos Islands (Part 1)

Galapagos 21 Another Sunrise           Sunrise on the Equator, Pacific Ocean

The Galapagos Islands are a chain, or archipelago, formed by volcanic action over the past 5 million years.  Located on the equator about 600 miles west of Ecuador. But what makes them special is the unique array of wildlife that is found there.  Many of the species are found nowhere else on earth and, because they lack natural predators, most have no fear of the thousands of tourists (even photographers) who come to see them every year.

Galapagos 02 Land Iguana

Galapagos Land Iguana, Feeding on Succulents

The Galapagos Land Iguana is primarily an herbivore, feeding mostly on cacti and other succulents and thus can go for long periods without drinking water.  This species can weigh up to 13 pounds and they can live for as long as 50 to 60 years. The female lays up to 20 eggs in burrows they have excavated.

Galapagos 07 Frigate Red Chest

 

There are two kinds of frigatebirds on the islands, but the males of both variants possess the distinctive red throat pouch which inflates into enormous heart-shaped balloons. It can take up to 30 minutes for the pouch to completely fill as the male hopes to enthrall a passing  female.

Galapagos 03 Frigate Bird with Nest MaterialFrigatebird Carrying Nesting Material

 

Nesting occurs in colonies that may include members of both variants.  The nests are constructed mostly by the female with materials brought in by the male.  The birds can have wing spans of 7 feet.

CGalapagos 04 Frigate ChickYoung Frigatebird Chick on Nest

The female lays only one egg and it may take 40-50 days to hatch.  Both parents share in the nesting and feeding after hatching.  It will take another 20-24 weeks before the juvenile fledges but they continue to be fed for another 20 weeks or more before they fend for themselves.   Because of the length of this cycle, the female can reproduce only once a year at the most.

Galapagos 27 Comorant

Galapagos Flightless Cormorant Drying “Wings”

The Flightless Cormorant is unique to the Galapagos and is found on only two of the islands.  Only 1,000 breeding pairs exist.  Having no land-based predators, natural selection favored those birds that were better built for swimming and diving.  Their wings are about 1/3rd the size needed to fly.

Galapagos 17 ComorantFlightless Cormorant with a Catch

Their courtship is unusual because it is the female that aggressively seeks out the male, and subsequently will depart her partner and offspring to re-mate serially with different males while males raise the young by themselves.

Galapagos 08 CrabSally Lightfoot Crab (Yes, really!)

Winner of my award for the creature with the best name (barely edging out the blue footed booby), the colorful  Sally Lightfoot Crab is a common sight in the Galapagos Islands.  According to one source, this little beastie is named after a famous Caribbean dancer because of its incredible agility.  I don’t know about the namesake, but these guys are quick.

Galapagos 01 SurfWave Breaking in Late Afternoon Light

 

Next:  Galapagos Islands (Part 2)