It’s nearly noon, the sun stifles the humidity in the air. A dark lizard moves in a languid fashion. I walk closer, mesmerized by its strange yet beautiful appearance. Its eyes slowly blink as I walk closer again. The lizard quickens his movement, its razor spines slithering past the harbour wall.
It’s my first view of an ancient lizard, commonly known as the marine iguana. They are only found on the Galapagos Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean, 900 kilometres off the west coast of Ecuador. It’s a young volcanic archipelago; geologists rewind time about four million years ago, thanks to a hotspot that has formed 18 main islands and many more rocky islets seen today. Each island is diverse in flora coverage, from thorny cacti to lush tropical plantations. So too is the terrain, some islands being far more barren and rocky than others.
There are three land species of iguana and one marine – the only seagoing lizard in the world. The marine iguana wears a dark reptilian suit to blend in with the rocky shoreline. In fact, his attire is rather trendy, with colours of red and a turquoise spine camouflaging nicely in the water. However, Charles Darwin, famous for his evolution theory on Natural Selection, says otherwise in his journal aboard the H.M.S Beagle in 1845:
“The rocks on the coast abound with great black lizards, between 3 – 4 feet long. It’s a hideous looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in its movements” – Charles Darwin
San Cristobal Island
I gazed about, soaking up the heat at the harbour of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island. Blue-footed boobies skydive with full velocity into the water as sea lions laze about on rocks as casual spectators.
In the distance the Santa Cruz boat sits with grandeur in warm, equatorial waters, my home for the next five days to explore five eastern islands of the Galapagos. Danny, our guide was from the mainland of Ecuador and has been a naturalist for over ten years.
“How long will you continue to be a guide?” I ask.
“For some time, it’s a great lifestyle!” he said with a grin.
The Galapagos hawk flies closely above us, forever eyeing new crowds of tourists. Proudly at the top of the food chain, this hawk feasts on lizards, land and marine iguanas. A mockingbird struts past.
“It’s common for the mockingbird to squash iguana eggs for a source of liquid,” said Danny pointing towards the bird. “He even dances in front of tourists for some water.” I am keen to watch.
Santa Fe Island
The Santa Fe iguana can only be found on the island of Santa Fe. A wrestle livens the afternoon as two Santa Fe iguanas spin around in circles. He dines on yellow flowers, his bulging yellow appearance shows off his greed. The more yellow his reptilian skin, the more yellow flowers he has feasted upon.
My eyes scan the rocky terrain, the land iguana camouflages nicely with the carpet weed, his reptilian skin in shades of brown, red and yellow. He is equally just as greedy, feeding on the cacti and other succulent plants.
“Scientists predict the prickly pear cactus will go extinct with time,” said Danny. “It’s thought to be the iguana – he loves eating the fruit from the cacti.” Danny pointed into the distance, “Scientists are running experiments to determine this.”
South Plaza Island
The low-lying terrain appears almost extraterrestrial on South Plaza Island. The colourful carpet weed stretches across the ground as thorn bushes and cactus forests set the stage for taller flora. Small, yet bright yellow flowers sit high in the prickly pear cactus. I see a hybrid iguana hiding underneath a succulent plant – the offspring from a marine and land iguana. He wasn’t nearly as colourful being dark with a few white spots, but he can parade across more territory. I was seeing iguana evolution in action – literally.
“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
Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz island is the most populated island in the Galapagos; souvenir shops are in abundance. Tourists amble about, no longer under the watchful eye of their guide on a trail. I am keen to buy some souvenirs; there are strict rules for tourists not to remove anything from the wild. Santa Cruz is also home to Charles Darwin’s Research Station. I walk about the research station eyeing scientists and volunteers at work. ‘Super Diego’ has become quite a superstar for a saddleback tortoise. He is from the San Diego Zoo and has triumph in breeding up well in the Galapagos. I watch Super Diego tug at vegetation, keen to entertain his audience, at tortoise speeds of course.
The last island to see is Espanola Island. As I disembark from the zodiac boat, Sally light-footed crabs are flashes of bright orange as they scuttle amongst the iguanas basking on the rocks. Sea lions yelp to say hello, their necks toss back with an occasional bark at each other. The smell of sea lion dung immediately stings nostrils and I gingerly tiptoe across the rocky shoreline.
I follow Danny along the coastline of Espanola, walking straight past the Nazca boobies and their chicks, totally unfazed by our presence and camera gear. Sea lions and pups frolic along the beach shoreline, one continues to roll in circular delights for morning playtime.
By the afternoon the expedition lost momentum, and Danny relaxes on the sandy beach. Sea lions also relax as finches and oystercatchers patrol the white sandy fringes. But I don’t underestimate the sea lion – he can race the Galapagos shark as I saw the night before. Flying fish would occasionally smack against the boat ending their life abruptly. A small feeding frenzy would follow. The sea lion’s agile swimming abilities proved staunch competition for the shark in the flying fish feast.
Following in Darwin’s footsteps has long been an inspiration – the Galapagos celebrated its status as a national park 100 years after The Origin of Species was published in 1859. Darwin’s theory of evolution will continue – just seeing the spiny thorn bushes and hybrid iguana proves this. I had been most captivated by the wildlife, just how unafraid and peaceful their existence was. As Darwin had written “Extreme tameness… is common to all the terrestrial species…”
Let’s keep that spirit alive.