Galapagos – Still Evolving (2013)

Galapagos – Still Evolving (2013)

Charles Darwin, all of 22 years old in 1832, stumbled upon Galapagos Islands, partly to escape his persistent seasickness while on a five-year voyage on HMS Beagle. At the end of just five weeks’ stay on the islands, he collected enough specimens of both flora and fauna to come up with a path-breaking theory that would turn upside down the worlds of science and religion. At that time, Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution ruffled many feathers, elicited many jeers and earned the wrath of the Church. But since then, evidence adduced by Darwin himself and other researchers who followed in his footsteps validated beyond doubt not only the theory of natural selection but also the revolutionary theory of evolution that rocked the very foundations of Christendom inasmuch as it questioned the theory of Creation.

In Search of the Weird and Wonderful

 I am on a quest to retrace Darwin’s footsteps, if only to gawk at all those weird and wonderful creatures that inspired Darwin. Most of them are found nowhere else on the planet except in the unique archipelago called Galapagos. Visiting Galapagos, straddled across the Equator some 950 kilometres off the west coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, entails effort, expense and time. The journey from New Delhi involves five flights and 23 hours of flying time, not including the many hours spent waiting at airports for flight connections. As if this was not daunting enough, one had to pick the right vessel that would tour a combination of islands that would offer the opportunity to see every species that inhabits this archipelago. The Galapagos administration does not allow visitors to stay on the islands. The only option is to stay on board a ship that sails to various islands. The sailing is usually at night, and the ship stops over during the day at different islands, mostly uninhabited, allowing visitors to explore the land.

The islands can only be visited in tour groups escorted by a certified guide. Picking the right season to visit the islands is crucial if one does not want to miss the captivating courtship dance of blue-footed boobies, or the clownish vanity of the male frigate bird that puffs up its bright red neck pouch to the size of a balloon to impress the female. Even the Galapagos penguin puts in an appearance only during certain months. So, some homework is required if one is to derive the maximum benefit from this trip. The government of Ecuador regulates tourist arrivals into Galapagos and allows no more than 140,000 visitors a year.

On a bright and sunny morning towards the end of January, my friend and I land in San Cristobal Island, which has a population of about 8,000. There are 10 major islands in Galapagos, of which five are inhabited. Santa Cruz is the biggest of them all, with a population of 20,000, while Floreana has just 150 people. Galapagos has two airports, the second one at Baltra which also doubles as a fuelling station for the 65 boats that are licensed to sail in these islands. We are greeted by our naturalist guides Ivan and Orlando, who briskly shepherd our tour group of 18 through immigration and quarantine and put us on the minibus that will take us to the boat jetty on the other side of the island. Two pangas (inflatable rafts with outboard motors) are waiting to take us to Ecoventura’s MV Letty, the vessel that will be our home for the next eight days. San Cristobal’s boat jetty is teeming with yachts and boats of various sizes as well as marine birds—pelicans, lapwings, coots, mallards, frigates.

Adventure Begins

Our adventure begins even before we board the pangas.

There are sea lions snoozing on each step of the jetty leading to the panga. It is, after all, their territory, and they show no inclination to let us pass. Our cameras out, lenses poised, we begin clicking when something orange crawls into my viewfinder. It is the first of the many frisbee-sized sally crabs that we would encounter everywhere on the islands. The oarsmen make no move to shoo off the sea lions and we learn our first Galapagos lesson; wildlife has primacy and right of way on these islands; if they choose not to let you go, you do not go! After about 10 minutes of waiting, we move to another jetty where only two steps are occupied by sea lions. We take our chance, gingerly ease ourselves onto the far corner of the step, avoiding the flapping tail of the mermaid-like sea lion, and somehow make it to the panga with injury to neither.

A short panga ride brings us to Letty, a lovely little yacht with just 10 climate-controlled twin cabins, compact but comfortable. Our cabin on the foredeck has a large glass window that gives us a panoramic view of the deep blue ocean, decidedly an advantage when the view out of your window often presents leaping dolphins or soaring frigate birds. Ecoventura, which owns Letty, has long experience in sailing these islands and gets up-to-date information on wildlife sightings in various islands from its identical sister yachts—Eric and Flemingo. Captain Pablo keeps us informed of the latest sightings.

Kicker Rock

After a quick lunch while Letty sails away to Kicker Rock, a dramatic rock formation on the horizon, we are bundled off, wetsuits, flippers and all, into the pangas again for our first snorkel session. The sea is very rough and the panga pitches violently, especially when we near the dramatic split between the rocks. The receding tide reveals a row of barnacles clinging to the base of Kicker Rock and going all around it like a jewelled anklet. Barnacles are arthropods related to the crab and lobster family and are exclusively marine organisms. They stay permanently attached to rocks where they feed on plankton from tides washing in. Ivan informs us that Kicker Rock must have been a single rock formation, but the relentless onslaught of waves created a crack which eventually split it into two. Our panga sways in the rapids rushing through the gap, and we hang on for dear life. However, the blue-footed boobies perched on the slimy rock face above seem to have no problem dodging the powerful winds.

Magic of Undersea World

Our first snorkel session of the trip introduces me to the magic of the underwater world, one we have known only from the images beamed on our LED/plasma screens. It is a stunning world of colourful creatures in silent communion with their surroundings. Fish come in all hues and designs—painted, translucent, transparent, striped, embellished, bejewelled and decorated. Tiny salema swim companionably with much larger fish or sharks. Sting rays with their eyes set on the top of their flat faces eye us warily but make no effort to move away. Curious fish hide in the rock crevices and check us out. An occasional turtle passes by, flippers flapping lazily. From time to time, Ivan makes deep-throated sounds through the snorkel, guiding us towards a sea lion cub or a shoal of salema that swirl to an invisible choreography. Ivan tells us that 70 per cent of the fish found in this part of the Pacific are endemic to Galapagos. He reels out names like barber fish, butterfly fish, angel fish, yellowtail surgeon fish, amberjack, skipjack, rainbow runner and barracuda, all of which appear before our eyes for a moment and vanish. Sharks also swim around us, white-tipped black creatures, with not a hint of menace. Ivan assures us that Galapagos sharks do not harm humans. There are also hammerheads in these waters, although we do not sight any. As the sun’s slanting beams illuminate the seabed and light up the phosphorescent colours of the fish, I regret not having brought a good underwater camera before embarking on this trip.

Unbeknownst to Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, another British naturalist, explorer and anthropologist, had independently conceived an identical theory of natural selection and evolution of species almost contemporaneously. Yet, posterity today fetes and remembers Darwin as the author of the discovery. That Wallace was generous enough to let Darwin take credit for the discovery is perhaps less well known.

Darwin’s Finch

Darwin’s discovery of natural selection owes not a little to a very common bird, the Galapagos finch, which resembles the sparrow. Darwin had collected finches from various islands in Galapagos but had failed to tag them according to their island origins. But during the journey, he found that there were minor variations in the birds, primarily in the structure of their beaks and also in their colour, and so on. On his return to England, with the help of the ornithologist John Gould, Darwin was able to classify as many as 13 species. While one had a parrot-like beak ideal for crunching nuts, another had an elongated one suited for picking insects, and a third had a beak good for grinding grain. Darwin formed the hypothesis that the variations stemmed from adaptation to the resources available on the particular island from which the species had originated. He could postulate convincingly that natural selection played a major role in determining which species would survive and which would perish and that the successful evolution of species was based on natural selection.

It is hardly surprising that Galapagos Islands should have played so important a role in this spectacular discovery. Formed by volcanic eruption, and detached from the mainland, which precluded any biological contamination, the islands became a living laboratory in which Darwin’s theories were tested and validated. Crucially, the very isolation of these islands and the absence of human contact until 500 years ago provided an environment in which wildlife could flourish unmolested. The absence of predators has virtually rendered the islands a paradise for endemic wildlife.

Bounties of Volcanic Soil

Almost every island has at least one volcanic cone, while some have many. The soil is black and appears charred in some islands. There is an occasional smoking volcano too. While the islands today are somewhat removed from their original pristine state as Darwin would have seen them, the Ecuador government stops at nothing to ensure that they at least retain their unique character. Limiting and strictly regulating tourism, eliminating introduced species and restoring the local environment are part of the efforts launched by Ecuador to restore Galapagos to some measure of its former wilderness.

The volcanic lava that clothes the islands has given rise to unique flora that can thrive on very little fresh water. The islands get only 50 to 60 mm of rainfall in a year, and water is a scarce resource found only in a few of these islands, which explains why the other islands are uninhabited. On high islands like San Cristobal, Floreana and Santa Cruz, the vegetation changes from semi-arid to surprisingly verdant forest, whereas in low islands like Baltra and Espanola, the arid zone covers the entire island. Giant cactuses are common on some islands, while others have vegetation that thrives on saline soil. Santa Cruz has Scalesia forest whose trees can trap and store water and is a habitat for eight different varieties of finches. This forest hosts orchids too.

Sociable Sealions

We wrap up our first day with a visit to one of the golden beaches occupied by several colonies of sea lions. They lie companionably in groups on the beach, their bodies glistening with the golden sand. Sea lions are sociable animals that usually live in assorted groups. Mothers, young adults and babies lie side by side, soaking in the sun. Mother sea lions swim out to sea only to fish, and after feeding spend the rest of the day lazing around in the beach, on the rocks and almost everywhere. Sea lions have no legs, but only four flippers which they use to move rather clumsily, but quite swiftly.

In Galapagos, sea lions are ubiquitous and numerous and can be found on every island. Sometimes, when the mother sea lion has gone fishing, the babies are left alone on the shore. Hungry, confused and lonely, the babies make plaintive noises and try to suckle any female nearby only to be rudely rebuffed. Sea lions do not indulge in foster parenting, and any baby whose mother has been killed faces certain death due to starvation and rejection. But in one of nature’s great wonders, even in a colony of a few hundred, the mother sea lion unerringly recognises its offspring and vice versa. The sea lions in Galapagos are now used to human visitors and ignore them most of the time. However, if one of us gets close enough, the mother might rear up and bite, inflicting a serious bacteria-infested wound that may take months to heal.


On the next day, on Santa Cruz Island, walking through the same meadows that Darwin might have crossed 180 years ago, I come across the same primordial spectacle of giant tortoises lumbering up the slopes in search of water. Once ubiquitous, giant tortoises are now much fewer and even these are confined only to Santa Cruz where they number 1,500.

The name Galapagos, meaning saddleback in Spanish, derives from the profusion of saddleback tortoises in the island when the Bishop of Panama landed here, quite accidentally. On a journey from Panama to Peru in 1535, Bishop Tomas de Berlanga found himself shipwrecked on the islands which teemed with unique wildlife. His search for water on the island came to fruition when he followed the giant tortoises ambling up the slope towards a waterbody. But the poor tortoises that revealed the source of water to the early visitors to the island themselves went on to become the favourite menu on their diet. In fact, tortoise meat was considered a delicacy and was much sought after.

Soon, the island’s reputation for harbouring an apparently unlimited supply of giant tortoises spread and many buccaneers, whalers and pirates would stop by to pick up hundreds of tortoises and load them alive on their ships. Tortoises could live many days without food or water and provide fresh meat for the crew. No wonder then that Galapagos Islands became some sort of a free tortoise supermarket for every passing ship. Even scientists and researchers who thronged the island to carry back live tortoises for study and research ended up eating all of them, so much so that by the time they reached their destination, there was not a single specimen left! It is rumoured that Darwin himself was guilty of such gluttony, and it took many trips before a single uneaten giant tortoise reached its destination in Europe alive!

Today, tortoises are not only protected but also bred in captivity so that their population can be restored to the multitudes that they once were. In fact, at the Darwin Centre in Santa Cruz, there are many enclosures where tortoises are bred, each enclosure dedicated to a particular species. We see many enclosures with tortoises of different age groups, some just hatching. Lonesome George, believed to have been over 100 years old, died in 2012 and, by all indications, is sorely missed on this island. He has become the symbol of conservation in Galapagos. There are restaurants, shops, souvenirs of all kinds and posters bearing the name and photos of Lonesome George, raising him to iconic status. In fact, Lonesome George has been commercialised and immortalised at once. Conservationists hope that one day they can restore the islands to their former state where thousands of tortoises ambled everywhere and only the availability of resources would limit their numbers.


Galapagos – Enchanted Islands

As Letty crosses and recrosses the equator several times during the voyage, calling at a new island each day, we are treated to a variety of fauna and flora, none as dazzling as the marine iguana, the mascot of the archipelago.  While iguanas, like sea lions are found on all the islands, Espanola, 42 nautical miles from San Cristobal, is teeming with these creatures. They are on the beach, all over the rocks, behind the shrubs and in the water. There are baby iguanas galore, most sprawled on the rocks, watching adults swim while some youngsters take their first tentative plunge into the sea.

The adults, usually four feet long from nose to tail, wear rainbow colours – pink, yellow, blue, green, red, black, brown and even purple.

The colour comes from the rich algae that constitute their main diet. Ivan, our naturalist guide tells us that Iguanas are generally black or dull in colour but this being the mating season, they have put on their best vests to impress their females.  We don’t know whether their females are impressed, but we certainly are.

Impressive Iguanas

Primordial and fearsome looking, these creatures evoke mixed reactions. Darwin found them ‘hideous’.  He says, “The black Lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large (2-3 ft), disgusting clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl and seek their prey from the sea. I call them ‘imps of darkness’. They assuredly well become the land they inhabit”.  Most visitors might not agree with Darwin’s description. In fact, the marine iguanas, unique to the Galapagos, are fascinating animals.  Clumsy on land, these creatures are agile and graceful in water.

Despite their forbidding appearance, these are gentle and shy creatures.  Being cold-blooded, they are slow of movement and need to warm up to find the energy to move. That explains why so many of them are stretched out on rocks sunbathing.  Iguanas share a symbiotic relationship with mocking birds and finches which pick out parasites from their backs.

Land iguanas are fewer in numbers than the ubiquitous marine iguanas; they are much bigger and at this time of the year, they are moulting. They are found mostly in Plazas and North Seymour.  The two species of iguanas don’t compete for food. Land iguanas eat cactuses while marine iguanas prefer squid and algae.  There is also a hybrid species, the descendants of cross-mating between marine and land iguanas, although these do no reproduce.

Fearless and footloose

The absence of major predators, other than the Galapagos hawk that eats baby iguanas, has rendered these lizards fearless so much so, that they are quite at ease with humans clicking away at touching distance.   Of course, visitors are forbidden to touch any creature in the Galapagos National Park.  My lens is only inches away from the colourful male’s nose and all he does is to look askance at me!  The only time they get excited is when a rival male approaches, with apparent designs on the females. Then the male puts on his most vibrant hues and bobs his head up and down, in what he believes is a menacing gesture, but to us appears rather comical.  But it usually does the trick and a wise rival takes the cue and backs off.

‘Silly birds’

While shards of ceramic pottery found on these islands suggest that seafarers may have settled here long ago, by the time Darwin arrived, the islands still remained unsullied by human habitation and therefore, a paradise for wildlife.  In fact, one of the first ever dispatches from the island, sent to the King of Spain by Bishop Fray Tomas de Berlanga goes thus:  “On the tenth of March (1935) , we saw an island; and since the ship had enough water only for two days, it was agreed to lower a boat and go ashore for water and grass for the horses;  once ashore, nothing more was found but sea lions and turtles and tortoise so large that each could carry a man  on top of itself, and many iguanas that are like serpents.. on the second island, there were the same conditions as on the first; many sea lions, turtles, iguanas, tortoises, many birds like those from Spain but so silly that they didn’t know how to flee and many were caught by hand”.

From all indications, sea lions and iguanas seem to be aplenty, not requiring assisted breeding.  It is not surprising that the Darwin Research Centre at Santa Cruz now focuses mainly on tortoises, in an effort to restore them to healthy numbers.  But in the not too distant past, even the iguanas were dwindling in numbers, thanks to the thoughtless actions of humans who settled on these islands.   Floreana was first established as a penal colony in 1932 when Ecuador claimed suzerainty over the Galapagos. But, a few years later, owing to lack of sufficient fresh water on Floreana, the colony was moved to San Cristobal where an enterprising convict established a sugar factory to crush sugarcane which was then cultivated on the  islands.  Subsequently, a German dentist who settled down in Floreana began to grow corn as well.

Feral goats and cowhide coins

When agriculture is introduced, can animal husbandry be far behind? The settlers soon made themselves comfortable with all familiar animals like pigs, cows, donkeys, goats, chicken, dogs and cats.   Cowhide was used as currency. Ships frequenting the islands from the mainland brought in their own cargo of rats, mice and insects.  Naturally, these introduced species played havoc with local flora and fauna.  While the domesticated animals were not exactly predators, they competed for the limited resources on the islands with the natives. The goats brought into San Cristobal, just disappeared into the wilderness, turned feral and grazed the natural pastures to baldness so much so, the tortoise population dependent on grass began to dwindle alarmingly.   Fresh water being scarce on these islands, the goats ate up all succulent vegetation and giant tortoises died of thirst and starvation. The rats and other species ensured that no vegetation was spared for the poor vegetarian iguanas so much so, their population took a nosedive.

In the late 1960s, the Ecuador government began an eradication program to get rid of all introduced species.  While pigs were easy enough to tackle, goats proved to be a huge challenge.  In Santiago island alone, nearly 80,000 goats were culled, using multiple strategies to capture them. Helicopters would identify goat concentrations and then these were herded using sheep dogs and shot dead.  Seeking out the feral goats from far corners of the island proved to be far more challenging than envisaged. In Isabella, 85000 more goats were shot from helicopters.  Some female goats were neutered. Today, the goat population of Galapagos has been successfully eradicated, not a mean task considering size and dispersal of these islands.

Eliminating rats proved to be an even greater challenge.  In islands where rat poison was used, iguanas had to be shifted to a safer location so that they did not consume the poison. Once the rats were eradicated, iguanas were brought back to their native locations.  Even introduced flora, which was edging out native vegetation, was eradicated.  Quinine, guavas, blackberries and lantanas which were being grown in Santa Cruz have now been eradicated. Even so, on Santa Cruz we saw plantations of coffee, paddy, cocoa and kitchen gardens apart from cattle and poultry.  In fact, Galapagos have now built up a reputation for producing gourmet coffees appreciated by connoisseurs around the world.

Clairvoyant Darwin

Fortunately, till date, no beast of prey exists on land, with the sole exception of Galapagos hawks. Man has long ceased to be a predator, thanks to expanding knowledge and awareness of the need to protect and conserve native ecosystems and fauna.  That Darwin should have expressed apprehensions about the deleterious effects of introducing new species to the island seems almost clairvoyant in retrospect.  He wrote:  “what the introduction of any new beast of prey must cause in a country before the instincts of the indigenous inhabitants have become adapted to the stranger’s craft or power.”  While the early seafarers wantonly killed quite a few animals, now Galapagos National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For the government of Ecuador, Galapagos is a money spinner, not only because of tourists whose numbers are regulated, but also because of many scientists who have established research stations here to study their unique flora and fauna. Visitors are forbidden to bring even a shell from the islands and all the endemic species are zealously protected.

On Floreana, there is a village called Velasquez Evora with a population of 150, all of whom live on rationed water.  Margaret Wittmer,  who came as a young girl to this island in 1935  along with her husband and step-son still lives here.  Of course the village is miles away in the interior of the island and we cannot visit it.   The villagers get periodic supplies from the mainland and make do with fishing for subsistence. Floreana also has the distinction of having a unique post office which operates very differently from those elsewhere in the world. Visitors would drop letters into a wooden barrel left by 18th century whalers to be delivered to their destinations mostly in Europe or the United States by ships that would dock on the islands en route to other destinations.


Today, this practice still continues and we are encouraged to use this facility.  In fact, there is a stack of picture postcards, available free of charge for anyone wanting to mail a letter from here. The letters in the post box are then sifted through by subsequent visitors who take away letters addressed to people nearer their own homes, affix stamps and post them through their national postal system.  Ivan assures that many letters reach their destinations although some could take as long as a year or so. We sift through several bundles of letters in the hope of finding some destined for India, but no such luck. But we leave our own letters hoping that one day these will be picked up and delivered to addressees in India.

Tortoises and mocking birds are extinct on Floreana. Only lava lizards dart here and there, showing off their red tails.  Though small, these creatures match the iguanas in the vibrancy of their colours.  But they have to ensure that they stay out of sight of the hawks which are the only predators in these islands.  Although the hawks usually eat locusts and insects, occasionally they would pounce on a lava lizard or even a Galapagos constrictor.  Like all other animals on the islands, the hawks are unafraid of humans and make no attempt to fly away even as I point my lens at its nose.

In recent times, flamingos have started to visit Floreana which has a brackish lake. Flamingos are not native to this islands, but are attracted by the brine shrimp. Poison apple, passion fruit and waiyabeo are three fruiting trees, apart from the incense tree which is native of Floreana. It is in Floreana we spot sea turtles. They wash ashore looking for nesting sites. During nesting season, they invade the islands in their thousands, dig into the sand with their flippers, lay their eggs and without a second glance, the mother goes back to the ocean, leaving the young ones to fend for themselves when they hatch.

Bartalome, although almost bereft of wildlife, is possibly the most scenic island in the Galapagos, with Pinnacle Rock adding a touch of drama to the landscape.  The soil of this island is jet black and there are smoking cones, this being a recent island to have been thrown up by volcanic activity. From the top of this island accessed by steps specially erected for the purpose, one gets a panoramic view of many islands in the archipelago.

Despite the prolific sightings of varied wildlife, the Galapagos penguin, the only penguin that has forayed to the equator, seems to elude us. Captain Pablo phones Letty’s sister ships Eric and Flamingo and rapidly turns course towards Chinese Hat, another island, so named because of its hat-like shape.  Here we sight a single pair, moulting in preparation for the breeding season. Smallest among South American penguins, these birds now number around 2000 pairs.  Galapagos penguins marry for life and if they lay two eggs and both chicks hatch, will feed and nurture only one, in order to give it the best chance. We are lucky to glimpse the pair from our panga and click away furiously. But later in the day, when we go snorkeling, they join us and swim playfully around us.

In fact, one of the highlights of the Galapagos trip is the daily snorkel which reveals to us a kaleidoscope of underwater marine organisms.  Mor often than not, playful turtles, sea lions and penguins swim with us while reef sharks circle around us out of curiosity. Getting into and out of tight snorkeling wet suits requires enormous will power, but with such a colourful panorama on offer, we don’t mind at all.  The water in these parts is never too cold and one is reluctant to climb out of these magical waters.  But we are coaxed out of the water with an array of delicacies rustled up by assistant chef Roberto Urgiles and chef Xavier Moncayo, who go out of their way to indulge the few vegetarians on board.  After dinner, every night is spent on the deck under a starry sky.


The mother Nazca booby looks at me quizzically as I inch towards her offspring, a fluffy white featherball, in order to get a closer shot. She makes no attempt to block my way or panic, secure in the belief that no harm will come to her chick.


The chick stares straight into my lens, perhaps bewildered by its own reflection in the glass. Like all other animals in the Galapagos islands, the birds too are fearless.  Early visitors to the islands captured many birds for food and sport, by simply grabbing them. Bishop Tomas de Berlanga of Panama, one of the earliest visitors to these islands, remarked that the birds were “so silly that they did not know how to flee and many were caught by hand”. Darwin also noticed how tame the birds were and came to the conclusion that fear of humans is not “acquired by individual birds in a short time, even when much persecuted; .. in the course of successive generations, it becomes hereditary.”  From what we see, it is obvious that the fear has not yet become ‘hereditary’ and quite happily so.


We are on Espanola island, the ideal refuge for a host of nesting birds. There are chicks everywhere on the island as we pick our way through colonies of Nazca boobies, blue-footed boobies, gulls and Galapagos hawks, all with hatchlings of different vintages.  Many birds are nesting on the ground with nary a shelter to protect them from the elements. Water shearers circle and hover in hundreds around the rock faces. That the islands should support such fecund wildlife when the terrain is apparently barren with only a semblance of vegetation, may seem a mystery.  But then, the nutrient-rich ocean that surrounds these islands provides an unending supply of fish, squid and algae to these plumed residents.

Galapagos islands were thrown up when the Pacific plate and the Nazca plate collided with each other to form an ecological hotspot.  The ocean currents that flow in this region have enriched the surrounding waters.  The Humboldt Current is a cold, low-salinity ocean current that flows north-westward along the west coast of South America from the southern tip of Chile to northern Peru. It can extend 1,000 kilometers offshore. The Humboldt Current Large Marine Ecosystem, named after the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt is one of the major upwelling systems of the world, supporting an extraordinary abundance of marine life. When it runs into the steep continental shelf, it dredges up cold, nutrient-rich water from the ocean floor and brings it to the surface. The nutrients support abundant microscopic life, which in turn supports a chain of ever-larger creatures.

Anchovy Paradise

Galapagos and its surrounding waters harbor large shoals of anchovies and account for a fifth of all the fish caught and consumed on our planet. The fisheries have held up pretty well despite increasing pollution and possible overfishing. But from time to time, this tropical paradise is threatened by the El Nino factor. El Nino’s warm waters — which bring rains to the American southwest — prevent the Humboldt Current from rising to the surface. When that happens, the number of fish plummets. And it can take years for the fishery to recover. Ivan, our guide remembers how a few years ago, the El Nino had led to a virtual rout of the marine creatures and consequently, of nesting birds as well.

Untropical Island

The ocean currents also give Galapagos its balmy climate. Charles Darwin was surprised by the untropical weather in these islands located in the heart of the tropics. He wrote, “[It] is far from being excessively hot…excepting during one short season, very little rain falls, and even then it is irregular.” Being a scientist, he also pinpointed the main reason, “[T]his seems chiefly caused by the singularly low temperature of the surrounding water, brought here by the great southern Polar current.”

During our visit, it seems to be the start of the Garua season marked by cooler temperatures and misty rain in the highlands. On the beaches though, it can get quite dry.  As we sprawl on the powdery white sands after a satisfying swim, a pair of canary yellow warblers check out our waterbottle for drops of water.

In fact, they seem to know instinctively that the nozzle is the place to look for lingering droplets. Since we have been advised not to oblige wildlife, we curb the urge to slake their thirst.  But soon they discover a puddle in which they not only drink, but even have a splash.  After sloshing about a bit, they come to check us out again. They flit from bag to waterbottle to our bags. One bird perches on my outstretched foot.  I hold my breath and enjoy this unique privilege of proximity to wildlife.

To spy a mocking bird

Even the hood mocking bird is curious enough to come close to humans. This bird has mottled gray and brown plumage with a white underbelly. A long tail and legs give the bird its distinctive appearance. The species has a long, thin beak, useful for tapping into the eggs of seabirds. The species has the largest bill of any of the Galápagos mockingbirds. Incidentally, this is the only bird that Darwin missed when he visited the islands and it did not figure among the species transported to England for further study.

Elsewhere in Bartolome, pond herons scratch the parched surface of a brine pond looking for insects.  We could spot a few orange flamingos which are not native to the islands, but which, in recent years, seem to have made this island their breeding ground. They have not yet arrived in full strength, but we do spot a handful of them foraging in the salty waters.  A yellow-crowned night heron crunches a snail and delicately scoops out the flesh, unmindful of the circle of human admirers watching its every move.


The island of Genovesa, northernmost in the Galapagos archipelago, is the breeding ground for red-footed boobies which flock here in their tens of thousands. But it is not season yet and so we settle for the stragglers on Floreana. The unique mangrove-like vegetation on Floreana provides a suitable perch for at least a few pairs to build their nests. Some are perched on rock ledges.  The red colour of their webbed feet comes once again from the squid and algae that constitute their diet. The red-footed booby chicks are just hatching and the parents are busy ministering to them. Both male and female take turns to attend to the chick. Red-footed boobies are strong flyers and can travel up to 150 kilometers in search of food. They often hunt in large groups, and are nimble enough to snare flying fish from the air. Boobies are well adapted for diving and feature long bills, lean and aerodynamic bodies, closeable nostrils, and long wings which they wrap around their bodies before entering the water. Red-footed boobies use these attributes to plunge-dive and capture fish that they spot from above with their sharp eyes.

An entire frigate of birds

The frigate bird, of which there are two varieties – the great frigate bird and the magnificent frigate bird – is truly a unique species. Related to the pelican family, the frigate is also called a pirate bird.  A fish-eater, this iridescent black bird rarely hunts its own food, but has honed to a fine art, its skill in snatching fish from the beaks of other birds like pelicans, sea gulls etc. In fact, frigates perch on mastheads of boats and wait for a hunting bird to appear. Even as the hunter plunges into the blue waters and emerges on the surface, the frigate dives to snatch the fish from the hunter.  Unlike pelicans or boobies, frigate birds are not strictly aquatic which is perhaps why they adopt this technique. The wingspan of the magnificent frigate bird can reach 2.3 meters. Frigate birds in flight are recognized by their forked tails.

There have been frigate birds galore ever since we landed in San Cristobal, yet one fascinating spectacle seems to elude us. The male frigate bird puts up an extraordinary courtship show, its bright red neck pouch inflated to the size of a big balloon as he tries to impress his female. Ivan, our guide tells us that the mating season is a fortnight away.  Even enterprising Ecoventura cannot fast forward seasons to oblige eager visitors, he jokes.  In all probability, we will be missing frigate birds in action just as we would miss the waved albatross and the flightless cormorants both of which are also expected to arrive a few weeks later.

Not to be dissuaded so easily, we march to the bridge to request the captain to check with the other islands just in case an odd male frigate bird got a bit impatient with the slow change of seasons. After a few calls to other boats, Captain Pablo swerves Letty towards North Seymour where a huge colony of magnificent frigate birds has decided to make haste in order to attract the best females. Their translucent pouches puffed up to capacity, the males are comically bobbing their heads up and down with great difficulty since their pouches get in the way. They make funny gurgling noises in the hope that the females would take notice although most females feign supreme indifference. She can be very fastidious. The bigger the pouch, the more attractive the mate, no doubt; but he still has to establish his credentials by building a sturdy nest in an unassailable location before she will condescend to notice him. So between collecting twigs for a nest and putting up a show of display for his favourite female, the male frigate bird is kept very busy throughout the season.

Raucous gulls

North Seymour abounds in other bird species too.

Swallow tailed gulls are having a raucous argument as to the best nesting sites on the island.  Naturally, they baulk at any intrusion from camera-wielding visitors.  Hundreds of gulls are flying around the steep rock surface looking for better nesting sites. The blue-footed boobies though, don’t seem to be so fussy. They are quite happy to be nesting even on open ground. But the courtship season is just beginning.  Blue-footed boobies are elegant birds and their courtship ritual is graceful.  Their footwork is as fancy as those of ballet dancers.  The male raises one foot first, intently looks at his female, waiting for her to approve. Then he shifts to the other foot and conducts a complex manoeuvre of fancy footwork;  from time to time, he raises his beak to the skies to let out a love cry. First she seems not to notice, but after a while, she becomes interested. Soon she mimics him tentatively at first, and then follows his foot movements diligently as if moving to an invisible choreography. And soon both the boobies are dancing in step, occasionally stretching their slender necks skywards in unison and letting out a chorused call. We watch this ageless ritual mesmerized by the extraordinary beauty of this unique display. Our lenses are extended to their full length and our tape recorders stretched to capture their mating calls.  Happily, the booby pair is oblivious to all else and moves to some primordial rhythm of their own.  It is difficult to tear ourselves away from this lovely pair, but like all good things, our Galapagos trip also must come to an end. We turn back reluctantly to board Letty for one last time.

(Published in 3 parts in Frontline dated May 3, 2013, May 17, 2013   & May 31, 2013)


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