From 2012 to 2014 we went to the Galapagos Islands each year to collect samples from marine iguanas.
Though the scenery is dramatic and beautiful, the real draw is the famous endemic animals.
“a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour” – Darwin, on marine iguanas
On most islands the marine iguanas have very little fear. This one sleeps peacefully despite the families and surfers nearby. He probably also knows I don’t have a permit to sample him.
The tameness of the animals on the islands makes a strong first impression. It’s important to look where you’re walking because there’s a genuine risk of standing on animals when you don’t. They do not move.
Darwin’s finches, and sometimes mockingbirds will fly right into a room and proceed to explore, almost completely without fear. This one wanted to eat my breakfast.
The animals are so fearless, they come very close and make you feel like a Disney princess.
I find the female finches a little comical; I think it’s because their beaks remind me of the big nose that comes attached to comedy glasses.
In the capital of the Galapagos there are many benches along the sea front. I have never sat on one because you aren’t allowed to sit on sealions.
They rarely share the slide.
And they outright refuse to form an orderly line at the fish market.
Maring iguanas are pleasant animals to work with due to thier calm nature (and pleasant faces).
Here you can see the pronounced crest on this adult male. We use this feature and other to identify the gender of the marine iguanas.
The small dorsal crest indicates that this adult is female.
Female, from front.
Marine iguanas are pretty gregarious.
In the large, healthy colonies on Isabela island, you can find dense congregations of young iguanas,
On San Cristobal, where we mainly work, the iguanas can be hard to find. Following tracks in the sand is one way to locate them.
Though they occasionally try to hid from us, the tell-tale-tail often gives them away.
With the young iguanas it takes quite some skill to get a good blood sample. Fortunately we work with talented veterinarians.
Measuring the body length.
In 2012 we surveyed by boat. This is our research vessel, the Pirata. It flies a pirate flag and the captain welcomes you back from the field with a gin and tonic.
During the voyage we picked up plastic litter that washed up on the beaches, such as this rescued shark.
Isla lobos is a tiny islet which is free from invasive mammals like rats and cats. This helps to support healthy breeding colonies for birds.
The lack of invasive mammals is also good for marine iguanas since the young iguanas are vulnerable to predation.
This is a colony at Cerro Brujo. This photo shows how low the density is in some of the colonies on San Cristobal. Finding iguanas here is a challenge, and often necessitates a long game of “iguana or rock”?
A pelican and the sleeping lion (leon dormido) of San Cristobal.
Standard day for a sealion.
They’re pretty relaxed around people and sometimes shuffle close to you to soak up some body heat at the beach. You have to shuffle away since there’s a 2m exclusion rule around the wildlife. They tend to follow you though…
Pillow lava, better than the rope lava for walking on but can be like a skating rink when covered in biofilm.
An elderly sealion regards us sleepily.
As we worked at Cerro Brujo, we heard the weak mewling of the thin pup. As the hours passed we supposed that it was lost or abandoned (fairly common), the arrival of the mother was quite a relief.
Radioing for a pick up. Phones do not work out here.
Drying the blood samples that we collected for stable isotope analysis.
As the sun starts to set, the temperature drops and the nights can be fairly cold (for the equator, at least!).
At the Galapaguera colony, this sealion seemed very unaccustomed to humans. Very curious, it followed me up and down the beach as I sampled iguanas. When we left, it followed us out to the boat. They are so dog-like.
Our boat waits in the bay at Playa Cafe.
The well-worn path to Playa Cafe.
Though there are a decent number of marine iguanas at Playa Cafe, you still have to work to catch them. Since they congregate on the cliff edges, catching them can be hair-raising stuff.
The cross indicates an iguana that we have already sampled, this avoids us sampling it twice and the mark washes/wears off in a few weeks.
Iguana at Playa Cafe.
Iguana at Playa Cafe.
There are often Nazca boobies at Playa Cafe.
At Playa Blanca there are many nesting birds. This absurd looking creature plans to be a red-footed booby when it grows up.
Growing out of the ‘awkward’ phase.
Though they never quite get there.
Islotte Pitt is my favourite sampling location, though landing a boat there safely is a difficult task.
The sealions at Isolotte Pitt make the boat landing even more awkward.
Isolotte Pitt is a very atmospheric tiny islet. Sadly the photos fail to express the eerie whistle of the wind combined with thousands of screaming gulls
The islet supports breeding colonies of many birds including swallow tailed gulls, tropic birds, frigate birds and various species of boobies.
A female frigate guards the nest and the iguana team have some lunch.
Islotte Pitt is also a good nesting area for marine iguanas. Here you can see that this female has been digging or maintaining a burrow for her eggs.
Male frigate birds blow up their throat poaches to attract females. This one seems to have given up trying to impress.
Swallow tailed gull and a Nazca booby in the background.
Searching around Rosa Blanca, no iguanas, but nice bleak scenery.
Cacti around Rosa Blanca. One looks fairly gnawed, perhaps by some roaming tortoise.
This place had a strange, foreboding atmosphere.
Even if we failed to get any iguana samples, we always got a good haul of washed-up rubbish.
In 2013 we set up camp at Punta Pitt in order to sample intensively at this remote location and run a project to monitor feral cats in the area. This is the office tent with solar panels to charge the equipment.
We lived at the camp for 7 weeks, without returning to the town once.
The stars were often spectacular since we were so far from artificial light sources.
We were the only humans around, it took a 2 hour boat ride to reach us and there are no roads to Punta Pitt.
Our closest mammalian neighbours provided little conversation.
We often watched passing cruise ships on the horizon and dreamed of boarding for the night to eat pizza and wash with fresh water.
Camp sofa + widescreen TV.
This path barely existed when we arrived.
With just two humans for company, no internet, phone or TV, the entertainment comes mainly from the environment. Fortunately we were there for green turtle hatching season and got to watch hundreds of hatchings make their first journey to the sea.
The mocking bird was resident at our camp and was so young when we arrived that I think it accepted us as part of its extended family. It sometimes waited at my feet, catching the occasional swatted fly (flies are also tame in the Galapagos and sometimes you just have to smack them).
The lava gull is an endangered Galapagos endemic, and their call sounds a lot like the laugh of the mechanical clown in creepy old fashioned fairgrounds. I like them a lot.
What do you eat in a camp with no refrigeration and no resupply? Dried beans. Every day.
The National Park warden was cleaning some meat in the water and attracted the attention of the frigate birds and pelicans
The frigate birds often fly so close you can hear the sound of their wings beating. We called them pirates, on account of their plundering behaviour.
I think they suceeded in some plundering.
We named all the landmarks, this was forbidden mountain (since we were told not to climb it).
Here is camp, all packed up and ready to load on the boat. Due at 11am, the boat arrived at 4pm.
The finches survey our packing boxes as we break down the camp and await the boat home.
I was a bit sad to say farewell to our mockingbird family.
Our 7-week home packed into a boat.
In 2014 we stayed in the town and surveyed by boat. As morning commutes go, this one was pretty good.
Occasionally our boat captain would motor through this cave on our way to the iguana colonies.
The sleeping lion of San Cristobal was making no waves on this day. The sea was sometimes so still it was almost surreal to see, like a CGI ocean.
These calm days provided good opportnity for whale spotting, we think these were minkes.
In 2014 we also set off to survey the East coast of San Cristobal. Nobody goes here, the locals call it “el otro lado” (the other side). This image shows why – landing a boat on this coastline is challenging at best.
On days like this, the boat landing spots were the biggest worry, but we had a skilled captain and were accident-free (boat landings being a major hazard of fieldwork on the Galapagos). And luckily, we didn’t get seasick.
It was quite an exciting way to survey since we really had no idea what would be around the next cove.
Sometimes a dense mangrove swamp on the coast would force us into the hinterland, increasing the walking time by an hour or two and making our days quite unpredictable.
I would have loved to explore this islet, sadly time did not allow it.
After walking the volcanic coast for 2.5 days we found our first iguanas there. We nicknamed him ‘Mr Christmas’ on account of his extravagant (red and green) coloration.
The iguanas here were quite strong and required careful handling. This one was attempting to eat my glove and steal my GPS at the same time.
We came to prefer wet landings as they provided fewer rock vs wave landing scenarios (lava rock is very sharp).
Getting towards the end of the walk, this beach was close to Playa Cafe.
Climbing the hill of Punta Pitt and marking the moment we had successfully survived ‘el otro lado’ of the island. I don’t know what the intended function of the cross is, but it’s apparently prime sitting territory.
The last stroll back to the boat and a well-deserved day off.
Counting and cataloging our haul of samples in 2014, before starting the paperwork odyssey to bring back to samples to the lab in Germany.