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Islas

Incantadas:
Incantadas
The Enchanted
Galapagos Islands
P hot ography an d Text
© 2008 Mic hael L u stbader

“Islands lost in time”, “Enchanted


isles”—all of these phrases have been
used to describe the islands off the
coast of Ecuador called Galapagos.
I had heard about the Galapagos
islands all my life, had watched Marlin
Perkins, the host of “Zoo Parade”,
land there in the 50’s and step over
iguanas, and had read the books and
wondered at the photographs of others
who had made the journey.

None of these things, however, truly


prepared me for the liquid gaze of a
sea lion pup, quite unfazed by my
presence, the rather myopic once-over
given me by a tortoise who had
already lived two of my lifetimes and
was probably headed for one or two
more, or the curiosity of a warbler
who perched totally unconcerned on
my lens, complaining raucously when
I gently shooed him away so I could
ABOVE: Galapagos Giant Tortoise (Geochelone resume photographing.
elephantophus)
I invite you to accompany me on a
UPPER RIGHT: Marine Iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus), brief introductory journey to a magical
Espanola (Hood) Island.
place off the coast of South America.
“Their limbs and strong claws are admirably adapted for
crawling over the rugged and fissured masses of lava.”
Charles Darwin
2

The Galapagos Archipelago consists of a cluster of 17 Islands, located 600 miles due west of the
ISLAS INCANTADAS: THE ENCHANTED GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

coast of Ecuador. Originally the tips of submerged volcanos, they rise as much as 10,000 feet from
the floor of the Pacific Ocean.
Although the Islands had been used as a stopping-off
place since the 1500s by sailors, whalers, and pirates, they
did not become “famous” until the 1800s. In September
of 1835, HMS Beagle visited the Galapagos on a fairly
typical (for that time) mission of exploration, carrying on
board a young naturalist named Charles Darwin.

Only a small part


of the voyage of
the Beagle (less,
in fact, than the
month of
September) was
dedicated to the Galapagos Islands, which were named
after a species of tortoise found only here. The segment of
Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” devoted to his time at
the Galapagos is actually a rather small part of the book.

Imagine yourself then, on the deck of the Beagle, approaching dry land for the first time in weeks.
One might think that after countless days on board, young Mr. Darwin would be thrilled to see
any land. Darwin’s reaction was somewhat different, however.

“Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black, basaltic lava,
thrown into the most rugged waves and crossed by great fissures, is everywhere covered by stunted,
sun-burnt brushwood, which shows little signs of life.”
Charles Darwin
He was greeted by the sight of cactus growing on bleak
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lava fields, a far cry from the verdant green of England,


many weeks behind him. An almost-desert
environment, complete with an unrelenting equatorial
sun.

Darwin’s reaction was not unique; his initial


impression echoed that of the first Europeans to
become involved with the Islands--the Spanish.

“I do not think there is a place where one might sow a bushel of corn, because most of it is full of very big stones.
so much so, that it seems as though some time God had showered stones...”
Fray Tomas Eps. Locastelli Auril 26 April 1535
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Below: Rocks and patterns in lava on some islands, as far as the eye could see.

Above: Lava Tube, formed by cooling of lava. As a lava flow cools, the outside
forms a hollow crust as the molten rock on the inside is still flowing.
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There were typical endemic plants, adapted to


the desert environment most common to these
Islands:
Opuntia cactus
saltbush
carpetweed (Sesuvium)

All adapted to surviving in an environment


with limited rainfall.

Many islands had rugged rocky sea cliffs, and


there were sand and lava beaches. The one
below is adorned by the skeleton of a whale,
either beached or a remnant of one of the
earliest of the Islands’ industries--whaling.
But what fascinated the young naturalist most was the varied and unique wildlife inhabiting the
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Galapagos Islands.

The most famous resident of the Islands--the Galapagos Tortoise. Total population about 15,000.
Almost wiped out by sailors (tortoises survive for months without food or water--an ideal
unspoiling source of protein for long sea voyages). Their current enemies include rats, feral cats
and pigs (egg-eaters). They survive 150 and 200 years if undisturbed.
Darwin was not alone in his fascination
with these unique animals.

“The great feeling inspired by these creatures was that of


age:
–dateless, indefinite endurance.”
Herman Melville wrote in his magazine serial of the
Galapagos, “Encantadas”, in 1854.

Like all reptiles and amphibians, tortoises


are poikilothermic, or cold-blooded. Their
body temperature is determined by the
temperature of their environment. They
wallow to keep cool in in a tropical
environment.
“The tortoise is very fond of water, drinking large quantities
and wallowing in the mud.”
Charles Darwin
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Left: “The larger islands possess springs, situated in the central portions at a
considerable height. Tortoises frequent the lower parts and when thirsty are obliged to
travel from a long distance.”
Charles Darwin

A stroll of two days for a drink would not be unusual.

Right: They also provide a local


taxi and buffet service. The
cattle egret feeds upon the
insects stirred up as the tortoises
lumber along.

“As I walked along I met two large tortoises, each of which must have weighed
two hundred pounds: one was eating a piece of cactus, and as I approached, it stared
at me and slowly stalked away; the other gave a deep hiss, and drew in its head.”
Charles Darwin

Darwin writes of one


incident where 700
tortoises were carried to
the beach and packed into
the hold of one whaling
ship, to provide food for
the crew on the long
voyage home. We had
ample evidence of how
unafraid and defenseless
these ancient creatures are.

Left: Nancy and friends at


local watering hole.
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From one extreme to another. The


tortoise is inexorably connected to the
earth. The Frigatebird (also called man o'
war because it’s a pirate) lands only to
breed and take care of chicks (both
parents).

Frigatebirds seen here riding the


thermals and easily keeping pace with
our ship. They may spend months at
sea.

Two male frigatebirds,


displaying their throat
pouches to attract females.
(one case where size does
matter...)

“Eyes, beak, and feet were dull, but


out of this somberness, like fire out
of lava, billowed the burning scarlet
of the enormous breast pouch.”
William Beebe
The Galapagos hosts other extremes of nature, from the Frigatebird, which has an essentially
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airborne life, to the Flightless Cormorant, which cannot fly and whose short stubby wings are
adapted only for swimming. It is shown here incubating its eggs. Most seabirds care for their eggs
as a pair, with both male and female taking
turns sitting on the nest and fishing.

Below: Galapagos Mockingbird.


Fearless and somewhat difficult to
photograph because it kept trying to eat
my tripod.

Below: Nazca or Masked booby

A rather iconic image

Feeding baby is a dangerous occupation.


Again, both parents fish and then return
to take over child-rearing responsibilities.
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Species often intermingle, alone or


in breeding colonies. This marine
iguana is a seaweed feeder and
harmless to the birds, their eggs
and young.

American oystercatcher--a frequent


and common visitor to the islands.

Brown pelican and buddy


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Right: Galapagos Flycatcher


(Lustbader’s Taxonomy: LBB “Little Brown Bird”)

Above, left: Greater Flamingo is attracted to saltwater lagoons. It stirs the water with its feet and
then uses its beak to filter out shrimp and small crustaceans. The color intensity of its pink feathers
is diet-related, specifically to small pink shrimp.

Right: As the flamingo walks, it


swings its beak back and forth,
snapping it shut when it senses
something within.
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Above: Great blue heron at sunrise.

Right: Blue footed booby on cliff face

Right: Blue-footed booby


with egg on ground--no
nest. Will often lay its egg
right in the middle of a
path. The name”booby” is
not an exaggeration.

Black-necked stilt. Unlike the oystercatcher, an


uncommon visitor to the islands.
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Left: A Sally Lightfoot crab


(Grapsus grapsus). No one
seems to know who Sally
Lightfoot was. One of the
few animals of the
Galapagos to show fear of
man. Perhaps because our
vertical posture is similar
to that of the Great blue
heron--its principal
predator.

“Hosts of Sally Lightfoots were the most brilliant


spots of color above water in these Islands,
shaming the dull drab hues of the terrestrial
organisms and hinting of the glories of colorful
animal life beneath the surface of the sea.”
William Beebe

Below: Their natural habitat is the intertidal


zone. They are seaweed and algae eaters as
well as scavengers.

Right: The Sentinel


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Among their enemies (herons, gulls, seals) they must number their own kind as well.
They are cannibalistic. The loser becomes lunch.

These are all the same


species, at different stages
of growth. They range
from the dark green,
almost black of the young
crabs, to the bright
crimson and blue of the
adults.

“When such an outburst of crabs


occurred…, darting out of all
possible and impossible cracks and
crevices of the lava, they
appeared…as reminders of the
sparks and flames which once
reddened these great beaches and
these plains with mountains of
lava.”
William Beebe
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Below: The crabs remove excess salt from their systems by shooting it
out of glands on the underside of their carapace

Below: Sally on a volcanic beach. They certainly don’t believe in protective coloration.
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Another creature found only in these islands:


“The Amblyrhinchus, a remarkable genus of lizards, is confined to this archipelago: here are two species, resembling each other in
general form, one being terrestrial, and the other aquatic.”
Charles Darwin

The marine iguana’s claws


keeps the animal attached
to the undersea rocks
where they dine on algae
and seaweed in spite of
crashing waves and strong
undertow. The coloration of
the marine iguana varies
according to the Island it
inhabits.

Unlike modern naturalists, who try to be objective in descriptions of their subjects, Darwin showed
no such concern.

“It is a hideous looking creature, of a dirty black color, stupid and sluggish in its movements.”
Charles Darwin
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He was however impressed with


their adaptation to a hostile
environment and admitted that
they didn’t taste badly. Darwin was
so repulsed by these animals that
he later, in another monograph,
called them “imps from hell”.

“A group of six or seven of these hideous reptiles may oftentimes be seen on the black rocks,
a few feet above the surf, basking in the sun with outstretched legs.”
Charles Darwin

Left: Marine
iguana in nursery
burrow

Above: a moment of tenderness.

This is an example of the “other”


creature Darwin referred to--the land
iguana

“Like their brothers of the sea-kind, they are ugly


animals: from their low facial angle they have a
singularly stupid appearance.”
Charles Darwin

“They inhabit burrows which they sometimes


make between fragments of lava,
but more generally on level patches of the soft
sandstone-like tuff.”
Charles Darwin
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Left: The Opuntia cactus represents shade, food, and drink


to these animals.

“They can scarcely taste a


drop of water throughout the
year, but they consume much
of the succulent cactus.”
Charles Darwin

Above: They also graze on the white


flowers of sesuvium (carpetweed)

Right: Lava lizards are also adapted to


life on the rocks and mingle with their
larger but harmless vegetarian cousins

“Another feature in these isles is their emphatic uninhabitableness….


Little but reptile life is found here…No voice, no howl is heard;
the chief sound here is a hiss…”
Herman Melville (who obviously never visited a nesting bird colony).
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We were here at sunrise, but still too late to glimpse the creator of these tracks...

A sea turtle

NEXT...
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There are mammals living on the islands, one of the most captivating being the Galapagos sea lion.

Napping in a tide pool


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Quality time...

Beachmaster with harem


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Right: Galapagos fur seal, almost decimated by


hunters, now on the comeback trail.

Below: This little one posed for me for almost an


hour.
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Thank you for accompanying me back to this magical and fascinating place.
The “Enchanted Islands”, indeed.
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On a technical note, 90% of the images shown here were taken with the Nikon 70-200mm F2.8 G IF-ED VR
AF-S lens on a tripod. I used the 1.4mm telextender sparingly, and the 300mm F4 even more sparingly.
There were times when I pined for a longer lens for smaller birds, but for the most part, I was satisfied with
my lens choice. My other workhorse lens was the AF-S DX VR Zoom-NIKKOR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-
ED. (You have to love a lens whose name is longer than the lens itself...). I was satisfied with the results as
long as I took care to stop down and watch which filters I used at which f-stop. I used the medium Really
Right Stuff ball head (BH40) with the lever release and found it excellent with the 70-200 and adequate with
the 300. I left my beloved 200mm MicroNikkor at home to save weight (I figured this wouldn’t be a macro
trip) and regretted it almost every day.

Other precautions:
After spending most of every day in a saltwater environment, I wiped down my tripod head and legs with
fresh water. Yes, I know--carbon fiber doesn’t corrode, but salt water makes everything sticky.

Back-up: Super-redundant. I backed up to:


1. Laptop
2. Flashtrax by Smartdisk--an 80GB battery-powered external drive. I feel more comfortable with a
back-up which is NOT dependent upon the laptop, as the bus-powered drives are.
3. DVD (This was especially vital for my second trip because almost 30% of the files became
corrupted somewhere along the line, but the images burnt to DVD were fine).

Another thing I learned the hard way was not to travel with long lenses attached to camera bodies. When my
pack strap broke in the Quito airport and the bag hit the concrete from about 4 feet up, the lens plate on one
camera was almost pulled off of the camera. I finished the trip without a back-up and considered myself very
fortunate to do so.

Thanks to Ronn Patterson, of Dolphin Charters, for putting together


a great itinerary, and to Nancy for allowing me to participate.

“‘Bye, ‘bye...”