Close Encounters of the Galapagos Kind

July 22nd, 2009 by Gene Feldman

I would be less than honest if I said that my first impressions of the Galapagos were everything that I’d hoped for and that I’d felt transported back to the world that I had read so much about in Darwin’s and FitzRoy’s journals. Try as I might, I think I only managed to spot a solitary Booby, perched alongside the ferry that we took from Baltra to Santa Cruz, and although at times I thought that an overturned mound of lava rock along the road might actually be one of the giant tortoises that I had read so much about, it was in fact, sadly just a rock.

However, the creatures that Darwin so vividly described and that left such a strong impression on him and which have become the iconic symbols for the islands did indeed make their appearance known very soon after we dropped off our bags and headed for a walk towards the Darwin Research Station, which is literally at the end of the road on the east side of Academy Bay. The first stop we made was along a little wooden walkway that extended out through the mangroves along the shore of Pelican Bay, which was quite accurately named because no sooner had I entered the mangroves than I was surrounded on all sides by pelicans, perched on every possible branch and close enough to touch if I were so inclined. They seemed to have absolutely no fear nor interest in humans and carried on preening themselves as happily as could be.

Pelicans minding their own business.

Pelicans minding their own business.

Occasionally, one would spot something appealing in the water and would leap from its perch and with beak open, dive under the water and float to the surface with the pouch under its beak extended much like one of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloons. Along the shore, covering most of the rocks were the “innumerable crabs” that FitzRoy wrote about, which I learned were known as Sally Lightfoot crabs. They were really quite striking in color, especially in contrast to the stark black lava rocks that glistened under the equatorial sun as each successive wave washed over them.

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Pelican with its pouch puffed out like a Macy's parade ballon.

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Crabs add color to the black lava backdrop of Galapagos' beaches.

Proceeding into the Darwin Station we made our way towards the shore and there, looking as prehistoric as all the descriptions made them out to be were several dozen jet black marine iguanas. Perhaps I’ll let Darwin and FitzRoy’s words set the stage for what I saw;

marine_iguana

“The black Lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large (2-3 ft) 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.” Charles Darwin, 17 September 1835

“…hideous iguanas started in every direction as we scrambled from rock to rock. Few animals are uglier than these iguanas; they are lizard-shaped, about three feet in length; of a dirty black colour; with a great mouth, and a pouch hanging under it; a kind of horny mane upon the neck and back; and long claws and tail” Robert FitzRoy, 16 September 1835

Iguanas

"imps of darkness"—marine iguanas—jockey for the best sunning spot.

The good gentlemen were indeed quite accurate in their descriptions except that they neglected to mention one little thing – the stench that several dozen marine iguanas give off. These guys were really foul and seemed to have an attitude that let the world know that they knew it. They seemed quite fearless and about as unconcerned about my presence as they could be and spent most of the time that I was watching them, crawling over each other trying to find that most perfect spot in the sun.

In addition to the marine iguana, Galapagos also is home to a terrestrial iguana which Darwin found equally “unimpressive”;

“These lizards, like their brothers the sea-kind, are ugly animals; and from their low facial angle have a singularly stupid appearance. In size perhaps they are a little inferior to the latter, but several of them weighed between ten and fifteen pounds each. The colour of their belly, front legs, and head (excepting the crown which is nearly white), is a dirty yellowish-orange: the back is a brownish-red, which in the younger specimens is darker. In their movements they are lazy and half torpid. When not frightened, they slowly crawl along with their tails and bellies dragging on the ground. They often stop, and doze for a minute with closed eyes, and hind legs spread out on the parched soil.”

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Bright yellow/golden—and according to Darwin, "lazy"—land iguanas.

I must admit that I found the land iguana quite stunning looking and while their behavior and appearance may not have impressed Darwin, there is something really appealing about a bright yellow/golden lizard of epic proportions contentedly munching away on a cactus while ignoring the craziness of the world around it.

The Darwin Station, as part of their conservation activities, maintains a number of that most iconic of Galapagos creatures — the Giant Tortoise. There were several enclosures that, amazingly, visitors were allowed to enter and get very up close and personal with these most incredible of creatures. As I approached the two lumbering giants in front of me, the centuries vanished, and the words of Darwin filled my head as I watched them; they acted as if they had indeed memorized their lines from the Voyage of the Beagle;

“In my walk I met two large tortoises, each of which must have weighed at least two hundred pounds. One was eating a piece of cactus, and when I approached, it looked at me, and then quietly walked away: the other gave a deep hiss and drew in its head. These huge reptiles, surrounded by the black lava, the leafless shrubs, and large cacti, appeared to my fancy like some antediluvian animals.”

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Docile and enormous, tortoises are the iconic Galapagos creature.

However, just like the marine iguanas, Darwin also neglected to comment on the overwhelming smell that several hundred pounds of giant tortoise can create. Due to a misplaced step while taking one of the photos above, I carried that memory with me for the rest of the day.

Later that night as we all gathered at the Darwin Station for the official opening of the Darwin Symposium, I stepped out on the deck overlooking the bay and watched as the sun set over a landscape that I could honestly believe was pretty much the way it looked when Darwin walked these shores.

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A golden sunset as Darwin might have seen it.

8 Responses to “Close Encounters of the Galapagos Kind”

  1. Peter Curia says:

    Looking forward to more! Wish I was there!

  2. Kim- L.A. West says:

    What a fantastic adventure you had in the Galapagos! We had a grand time years ago, exploring Charles Darwin’s Down House home, near Bromley, England. Everything is kept as if Charles could walk in at any moment & continue on with his many experiments.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Down_House

  3. Rebecca Lindsey says:

    I can excuse Fitzroy’s unflattering description of the marine lizards–he wasn’t a scientist, was he?–but shame on Darwin! What self-respecting naturalist labels any of the amazing creatures this planet has evolved “disgusting”? I say they look delightfully sly and mischievous! And look how they climbed all over one another without breaking into biting or clawing. What an admirable display of good temper!

  4. Lesley Dewar says:

    Thank you for your lovely description of your visit and the wonderful photographs. We hear that the islands are suffering under the weight of tourist numbers and the way you write, I feel as though I have actually been, seen and smelled!

    The photographs of the pelicans, especially, are exquisite.

  5. gene carl feldman says:

    thanks so much and i have plenty more pictures yet to post and am thinking of putting together a little gallery of “galapagos impressions” over the next day or so – stay tuned.
    regards from galapagos,
    gene

  6. Cristina Bories says:

    I will faithfully follow your trip Dr. Feldman. You’ve put so much care in the blog and you are very well informed about Darwin. This is a pleasure!

  7. tia murphy says:

    Ahh! This missive brought back such fun and impressive memories of my “vacation” to the galapagos 2 years ago. On my lifelist since I was 4 and an avid turtle lover, I had almost forgotten the magic of the place, the animals, in the mindless duty of daily life. I sat for a while recalling memories, then watched an abreviated slide show I put together from all of our excursions on land and sea. Thank you for your personal observations. Saw today on the news that Lonesome George may have actually produced offspring. Score one for life.
    Ta
    T

  8. gene carl feldman says:

    tia,
    everyone in galapagos were anxiously awaiting the news on whether or not lonesome george will indeed become a father for the first time and therefore, no longer be lonesome but the proud father of what hopefully may be the start of a new line of pinta giant tortoises.
    regards,
    gene

Notes from the Field