Wildlife Watching in Darwin’s Zoo

by Bjorn Lynggaard Olesen

The Galapagos, originally known as the Enchanted Isles, is located some 1,000 km off Ecuador’s coast; Galapagos consist of 13 main islands plus 115 small islets, all of volcanic origin, amounting to 7,900 square km, around 10 times the area of Singapore.
Sullivan Bay and Pinnacle Rock, Bartolome Island


This archipelago is universally viewed as one of the most unusual and precious ecosystems on earth, first recognized in 1835, when Charles Darwin stopped there on the HMS Beagle as a part of a 5-year expedition.

Lunar landscape on Bartolome Island

Environmental Challenges

Since the late 1980’s the Galapagos Islands have had to cope with a variety of complex problems, new immigrants, introduced species, industrial over-fishing, and conflicts between development interests and park management that have all come in the wake of the eco-tourism boom.

One of the most worrisome environmental threats to the Galapagos Island has been the introduction of non-native species – accelerating over the past 50 years.

Goats, for example, were introduced in the 1850’s and immediately began to take food away from tortoises and iguanas. On the island of Isabella, there are more than 200,000 goats, which are extremely adaptable and hard to exterminate.

There are many others: cats kill young iguanas and chicks of birds; dogs eat turtle eggs and hunt adult iguanas. Pigs destroy bird nests; donkeys devour vegetation; rats eat eggs of the giant tortoises. Invasive species also include insects and plants, which are equally threatening.

But eliminating one species at a time is not practical. The vegetation that goats eat provides cover for feral pigs. Cats eat rats. Dogs kill cats. There need to be an integrated, well-designed programme. Eradicating introduced species and keeping new ones from arriving is a never-ending and enormously costly struggle.

By 2007 scientists have indentified introductions of 36 species of vertebrates (including donkeys, cattle, goats, dogs), 540 species of invertebrates (various ants, wasps, flies), and 740 plant species, and the numbers continue to rise.

Getting There

I look forward to the day that Singapore Airlines will fly to South America; at this point there are no easy ways of getting there.  Wanting to avoid transiting in the USA, I found the best value solution was KLM airlines that have daily flights from Amsterdam to Quito the capital of Ecuador.  However, this involves a long stopover in Amsterdam. The domestic flight from Quito to Galapagos should also been booked in advance as flight capacity is limited.

I recommend that you go for at least a 8d/7n tour to Galapagos, longer if you have the time. Each Island you will visit is quite unique with it own ecosystem and wildlife distribution, and many species are endemic to each island.  Try not to combine too many things into your trip, I had a 3-day extension to the rainforest of the Amazonas, but got stuck in a place in the middle of no-where, because of bad flying weather, so do all the most exciting stuff in the beginning of your trip, leaving a couple of buffer days in the programme as delays may happed.  That being said Ecuador has a lot to offer, and is a most delightful place to visit

While in the capital Quito do try the local delicacy Guinea Pig, called Cuy,
originating from the sound the animal makes, it has been domesticated as a farm animal
for several thousand years. To be treated to a Cuy feast is considered quite an honour
in Ecuador culture, as it is a delicacy often reserved for special occasions like
christenings or weddings.  Roasted Cuy is quite delicious, and at US$ 20-25 it is a
must-try for all foodies, a little bit more gamey, but a lot more tasty than roast pork.

 Photo courtesy of Aaron Leong

Photo courtesy of Aaron Leong

The better boats in Galapagos operate with groups of no more than 20 passengers, landing them in small rubber dinghies once in the morning, with lunch taken on board, and then another trip in the afternoon.  They have English-speaking guides who are qualified naturalists.

The larger boats have the advantage of covering a lot of territory by night, easily reaching the more remote islands without unduly rough passages.  However, we had no problems in this respect during our weeklong stay during the month of June.

The only places that boats may land on the islands are at 56 designated visitor sites, and even then a guide must accompany visitors.  The landings can be either wet or dry, if wet you may have to jump into the knee-deep water; in our case this was no big problem, but using dry bags for your equipment is probably a good idea.

Regarding equipment I am mostly saying the obvious.  Have back up and a plan B for whatever you do.  Two camera bodies are ideal, a 14-24 mm zoom, 70-200mm, and lastly a 300mm with a 1.4 and 1.7 teleconverter should do most of the jobs.  Take lots of rechargeable batteries and memory cards, and take your laptop with and external hard drive for 2 x back up of your photos.  My 10×32 binoculars were also very useful.  Don’t forget your battery charges, and recheck that you can use the chargers on board.

As all landings are in the mornings and afternoons I did not do much after-dark photography in Galapagos.  The harsh strong daylight is often a problem, as you may not have a 2nd chance to shot a lot of the species.  Unless you go on a dedicated tour for photographers (which I did not), you may at times be under time pressure to get shots of that very special situation, however, generally this is a paradise for photographers as most of the wildlife is complete oblivious to humans, and often nest close the tracks where visitors are allowed to walk.

The Galapagos year can be divided into two seasons: the ‘hot’ or ‘wet’ which lasts from January to early May with an average temperature of 28 degrees C, while the ‘cool’ or ‘dry’ season from May to December has an average of 18 degrees C.

Wildlife Watching

Half the birds, more than half of the insects, a third of the plants, and all the reptiles are endemic to Galapagos, and are found nowhere else on the planet.

A total of 58 resident bird species have been recorded here, of which 28 are endemic, among which are the famous Darwin finches, mocking birds, the Galapagos dove, and the endemic Galapagos hawk – in addition to the ones mentioned below: –

Galapagos Flamingos
Galapagos Flamingos are a subspecies of the Greater Flamingo, and the total populations here is likely to be no more than 500 birds, breeds in colonies of 3-50 pairs, and deserts the nest as soon as disturbed, and they move around the islands.

Waved Albatross
Virtually the world’s entire population of 12,000 pairs of the yellow-billed Waved Albatrosses nest on the single island of Espanola.  These magnificent creatures are famous for their extraordinary courtship displays, dancing about and ‘fencing’ with their beaks, standing face to face and clicking their beaks together. They weight around 4 kg with a wingspan of close to 2.5 meters.
When they arrive at Galapagos in April there is no time to waste and the order of business is breeding, followed by single egg laying, hatching, and rearing, as the young albatross (the bird of the year) needs to be fledged by December, when food supplies starts to be scarce.
Blue-footed Booby

Blue-footed Booby

One of the most common birds is the Blue-footed Booby, which is not endemic.  They are an unforgettable sight, as their feet really are a bold, striking blue.  The can be seen diving into the water from heights of 20 meters to catch fish. They have an almost comical courtship ritual, in the male displays his brightly coloured feed in order to attract a mate.  2 or 3 eggs are laid and both of the parents share the task of incubating them.  Once they have become independent, the young birds leave the islands and do not return to breed until some 3 years later.
Brown Pelican
The Brown Pelican, like other Pelicans, is clumsy and vulnerable on land, and being among the heaviest of flying birds, they require a runway – land or water – to gain momentum for takeoff.  But once airborne they are elegant and acrobatic.  Brown Pelicans are the only pelicans that regularly feed by plunge-diving: selecting a fish from as high as 15 meters, they plunge headfirst with mouth open and wings folded, thrusting back the wings and feet just before impact to increase speed into the water.
Great Frigatebird

Great Frigatebird

The Great Frigatebird has an aerial supremacy that few birds can match; they are famous for waylaying other seabirds such as the blue-footed boobies. With a streamlined body, massive wingspan and ultra light bones, frigatebirds are highly manoeuvrable and harass other birds in midair – often grabbing them by the tail – until they drop or regurgitate their catch, which they then scoop up in midflight.  They can also expertly snatch fish from the surface without landing, and they are also adept at snatching flying fish in midair.
Swallow-tailed Gull
Forming the night shift of the working class sea birds, the Swallow-tailed Gull is endemic to the Galapagos and some 10-15.000 pairs nest around all the major islands.  Often touted as being the world’s only nocturnal gull as it feeds mainly, but not exclusively, at night.  Some of the nocturnal adaptations include retinas with more rods than cones, enabling them to see contrast rather than colours.
Sally Lightfoot Crab
The Sally Lightfoot Crab is common on all islands.  Although terrestrial animals, such as lizards, have tended to evolve into distinct island species throughout the Galapagos, the same species of Sally Lightfoot occurs on all islands because its eggs hatch into the sea, and the larvae drift at sea until they are large enough to settle on a rocky shore and develop into juveniles.

With lower metabolic needs, the ‘cold-blooded’ reptiles can survive on a poorer diet than the warm-blooded birds and mammals. Thus, the remarkable and unique marine iguanas can survive on seaweed and land iguanas on spiny cactus pads, both of which are nutritionally poor foods.

Marine Iguana
The endemic Marine Iguanas often found sunning themselves on cliffs and shorelines.  These creatures have developed unusual glands connected to their breathing systems that accumulate the excess of salt in their bodies.  Every so often the salt is snorted out through the nose – not so an attractive sight, I tried but never managed to capture it.  They are the world’s only truly marine lizard and lives only in the Galapagos, they can stay submerged for up to an hour, and males have been observed to dive to a depth of 10 meters.
Land Iguana
Land Iguanas
The rarer-to-spot Land Iguanas are yellow in colour and often larger than their sea-going relatives.  They are one of the species that was hardest hit by the animals introduced by man.  Despite their large size (males can weigh up 13 kg and measure 1m), Land Iguanas are harmless vegetarians; they have a low energy requirement, and can survive on comparatively little for long periods.
Giant Tortoise
No doubt the most famous of the Galapagos reptiles is the Giant Tortoise.  There were 14 subspecies of giant tortoise here, but three are now extinct. The giant tortoise is one of the most ancient of reptiles; it exists only here and on the island of Aldabra in the Indian Ocean. Saving these magnificent creatures has been a major success of the Darwin Research Station re-releasing more than 100 specimens to the island of Espanola, after breeding them in captivity.

Life is a beach for the Galapagos Sea Lions

The local Sea Lion, related to the Californian species, is one of the favourites with visitors.  Clumsy on land but super agile underwater.  The young are incredibly cute and playful, when snorkelling, the youngsters often pretended to charge straight at you before turning away in the last minute, they also come up very close to you staring into your goggles.  But be careful sometimes the currents can be strong.

The water is reasonably clear so it is possible to get some unique underwater photos here of the Sea Lions, and with a bit of luck of the Black Marine iguanas feeding on seaweed.

I visited the islands in June when the water was absolutely freezing; some people bring their own  wetsuits, however, sometime they are available on board.  Reserve them early, or you will risk freezing your balls off, or whatever.  There are more than 300 species of fish recorded in the Galapagos, and new ones being discovered every year.

So for those who have the opportunity, I strongly recommend a visit to the Enchanted Isles, where you can still find those unique pieces of nature that is absolute pure magic!

Bjorn can be contacted @ www.bjornolesen.com


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