creatures strange and beautiful

A galapagos penguin shares a rock with marine iguanas on Isabela Island in the Galapagos.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.–Charles Darwin

I don’t consider myself a nature photographer but I have spent perhaps some of my happiest moments in the wilderness–in South Africa as a child, on assignment in India and Tanzania and, in a less dramatic sense, on daily walks in the woods with my dog, Winnie the Pooch. I find it comforting to know that the animal world exists outside of human control. While we may have an impact on the habitat or health of wild animals, their daily rituals are played out completely independently of our actions or will. I was reminded of this recently when I spent a week in the Galapagos and had the honor of observing and photographing the unique and extraordinary creatures that have evolved on the islands over millions of years.

Looking at the unusual animals I saw in the Galapagos, I could not help but be profoundly aware of the role they played in leading Darwin to his understanding of natural selection and his theory of evolution. Darwin’s discovery that almost all the animals and plants in the Galapagos were unique to those isolated islands catalyzed one of the most revolutionary ideas in history and changed how we think of ourselves as human beings. Below are some of the strange and beautiful creatures that Darwin saw on his visit in 1831.

A galapagos land iguana carries a cactus fruit before eating it on South Plaza Island. Because there is very limited fresh water in the Galapagos, the iguana gets most of its moisture from the cactus plant. Darwin described land iguanas as “ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance”. I personally think they are quite beautiful.

A swallow-tailed gull wings over the ocean on South Plaza Island. Strangely, this gull forages at night and their white forms appeared quite eery and ghost-like as they plunge into the ocean in the darkness.

A juvenile swallow-tailed gull practices flapping its wings in preparation for flight. While it is still to young to get off the ground, we watched it repeatedly jump while flapping–clearly enthusiastic to get to the next step.

Three marine iguanas, found only on the Galapagos Islands, lounge on a rock on Isabela Island. The marine iguana is the only modern lizard that lives and forages in the sea and its primary food source is marine algae. Because they have to rid their bodies of excess salt, one can often see marine iguanas making a sort of sneezing sound and expelling water and salt from their noses!

More marine iguanas.

A Galapagos sea lion mother snuggles with her pup on Espanola Island. I was struck by how affectionate and social the Galapagos sea lions are. One rarely sees a sea lion that isn’t spooning or teasing or playing with another sea lion. As with so many of the animals in the Galapagos, they seemed utterly unafraid of our human presence. If anything, they seemed more curious and there were numerous snorkeling experiences in which we were surrounded by playful sea lions swimming and dancing around us, often coming so close we could have touched them.

A Galapagos sea lion barks, perhaps summoning her pup, on Isabela Island.

Two sea lions share a nose-to-nose moment on Fernandina Island.

A Galapagos sea lion jumps playfully out of the water off the coast of Florian Island.

Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttle around on a volcanic rock on Isabela Island. While the adult crabs are brightly colored, young crabs are very dark and camouflage well on the lava rocks.

Two black-necked stilts forage for small crabs, fish and snails in a brackish pond on Dragon Hill Island.

A female lava lizard makes a meal out of a dragonfly on Isabela Island.

A male blue-footed booby tries to catch the attention of his female partner by performing a courtship ritual on Isabela Island. Apparently, the name “booby” comes from the Spanish word “bobo” which means “clown” or “fool” or ‘stupid”. They earned this name because of their clumsy movements on land. Famous for their mating dance, the male booby will spread his wings and lift his blue feet high off the ground to impress his female partner with whom he mates for life.

A great blue heron calls out loudly on Isabela Island. I was so struck by how unafraid this heron was of us. I see great blue herons all the time on Cape Cod but one cannot get anywhere close to them before they fly off with a harsh croak, as if expressing their dismay at one’s presence. The great blue herons in the Galapagos primarily eat marine iguanas, lava lizards and common fish.

A beautiful yellow warbler eats an insect on South Plaza Island.

A Galapagos giant tortoise–the creature for which the Galapagos Islands were named–raises it extraterestrial-looking head on Isabela Island. The Galapagos giant tortoise is the largest tortoise species in the world and can weigh up to 880 pounds. It is also known for its longevity, living over 100 years in the wild and almost 200 in captivity. Sadly, the tortoises nearly became extinct after whaling ships took them in great numbers for food. Because they were able to live without food and water for almost a year, they were brought on board and kept upside-down until they were ready to be eaten. The image of these beautiful creatures lying upside-down for months is heartbreaking. Breeding and release programs, which started in 1965, saved them from near-extinction and their numbers continue to grow today.

Whale bones are left undisturbed on the lava rock on Fernandina Island while in the distance, a rainbow arcs up dramatically.

2 Comments on “creatures strange and beautiful

  1. So wonderful see these animals in their natural habitat! Beautiful! You have really captured the the amazement of it all!


  2. These photos are incredible! To see the animals so close up and in their natural environment blows me away. Go Darwin!!


%d bloggers like this: