By Rachel Kramer, Program Officer, Wildlife Conservation and TRAFFIC
My husband and I are scientists. We are fascinated by species and their habitats. When it came to selecting a place for our honeymoon, the Galapagos Islands—visited in as low-impact a manner a possible—was our dream.
For fourteen days we lived onboard a small vessel, waking at dawn to explore diverse terrestrial and marine niches of this dynamic island chain with a group of incredible friends. For two scientists who are also photographers, it was an amazing journey. Our 11 favorite wildlife sightings included:
1. Marine iguanas
Marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) have always had a special fascination for me. A threatened Galapagos endemic, the marine iguana is the only species of iguana that has evolved to feed underwater on algae and seaweed. In our time in the Galapagos, we snorkeled with large males as they wove through the surf and marveled at mounds of lizards camouflaged against the hot porous rocks, expelling shots of salt into the air from glands in their nostrils, like little spiny volcanoes.
2. Galapagos tortoise
We were also eager to see Galapagos tortoises. Nineteenth-century whaling vessels collected tortoises from many Galapagos islands, storing them in their hulls as a fresh food supply. This and other threats decimated many populations, necessitating extensive conservation efforts.
3. Galapagos green turtle
The waters around the Galapagos Islands are one of the few places in the world where marine turtles like this Galapagos green turtle (Chelonia agassizii) are largely sheltered from the threats that face sea turtle populations globally—including bycatch, egg collection from nesting grounds, and illegal harvest for meat and shells.
I recently delivered expert testimony on the illegal trade in wildlife, including trade in marine turtles and turtle products, to the Federal Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking. WWF and TRAFFIC have been working for decades to reduce threats posed by trade to global sea turtle populations. As my husband and I free dove along Tower Rock, dozens of turtles, white tipped sharks and hammerhead sharks drifted in and out of walls of fish around us. It was a glorious feeling.
4. Galapagos sea lions
While free diving at many islands, we couldn’t help but fall in love with endangered Galapagos sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki). Smaller than their California cousins, these sea lions were our welcoming committee on any swim. Inquisitive juveniles would glide alongside us and forage in reef and sea walls.
5. Blue-footed booby
Another iconic species that we were eager to see in the Galapagos was the blue-footed boobie (Sula nebouxii). A plunge-dive feeder, blue-footed boobies fold their wings close to their bodies and shoot into the ocean like arrows, after fish.
Foot color in blue-footed boobies comes from carotenoid pigments that the birds obtain from eating fresh fishes. Carotenoids act as antioxidants that stimulate its immune system. The level of blueness in a booby’s feet is an indicator of the bird’s immunity, females favor bluer feet for sexual selection.
6. Red-footed booby
Unlike its blue-footed cousin, the red-footed booby (Sula sula) mainly feeds on flying fish, which it catches mid-air.
7. Nazca booby
The Nazca booby (Sula granti), on the other hand, mostly favors sardines. One afternoon, we noticed a pod of dolphins swimming alongside our boat. The pod was joined by Galapagos sea lions and Nazca boobies, all feeding on a school of sardines beneath the surface. When the dolphins had had their fill, they formed a pyramid along our prow. We lay prostrated along the nose of the boat, listening to their singing in the water beneath us.
8. Waved Albatross
I became a bird fanatic on the morning we first observed the courtship displays of the critically endangered waved albatross (Phoebasstria irrorata) on Espanola Island. The largest breeding colony of the world’s only tropical dwelling albatross, these majestic birds can be seen honking, sighing, and bill-clicking in a choreographed dance of beaks, wings and feet.
Generally forming bonds for life, these magnificent birds feed on the open ocean, coasting on winds with their 8 ft wingspan, and returning each year for as many as 40 years to nest together on Espanola’s cliffs. Although conservation efforts are underway, waved albatrosses continue to be caught in fishing nets and long lines, and never return home.
9. Frigate bird
As we navigated through the islands, we were escorted by frigate (Fregata spp.) birds that coasted on warm updrafts above our boat. Frigates have the largest wingspan to body weight ratio of any bird, and are able to stay aloft for more than one week at a time, landing only to roost or breed on trees or cliffs. They’ll catch fish, baby turtles, and marine iguanas, as well as steal food from gulls and other birds.
10. Lava gull
On Santa Cruz Island we caught a glimpse of the lava gull (Leucophaeus fuliginosus), which is among the rarest gulls in the world. The entire population of this species lives in the Galapagos Islands and is estimated to be just 300 to 400 pairs. As we walked down the beach on Santa Cruz, watching juvenile sea lions play in the blue surf, these two clearly decided it was time to make more.
11. Brown Pelicans & brown noddy terns
One of the most remarkable things about visiting the Galapagos is observing animal behavior and inter-species interactions at close range. We watched from a dingy as brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) treaded water around us, plunging their great beaks beneath the surface to catch small fish. Brown noddy terns (Anous stolidus) often perch on the heads of pelicans, waiting for the giant birds to feed, and stealing small fishes as water drains from the pelicans’ bills. We spotted these noddys nesting in small colonies on indentations of cliff faces and in coastal caves.
Our intimate encounters with so many remarkable marine and terrestrial Galapagos species reinforced why I do what I do each day. We couldn’t have imagined a more perfect honeymoon.
To learn more about WWF conservation activities in the Galapagos Islands, visit https://www.worldwildlife.org/places/the-galapagos
Rachel Kramer is a Program Officer for Wildlife Conservation and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network. Her husband, Stephen Eckel, is a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.