The Galapagos Marine Iguana
Up close and personal with the Galapagos marine iguana
The Galapagos Islands are renowned for the incredibly relaxed attitude that animals have to people. An archipelago in the Pacific ocean far off the coast of Ecuador, where Charles Darwin spent time musing over the concept of evolution, it's one of the few places on the planet where just about every animal you encounter shows no fear of people. The Galapagos marine iguana is said to be no exception. But is it true? Do they, as with the other Galapagos animals, really just sit there and stare at humans without running away? The answer is a resounding yes. I was lucky enough in March 2012 to spend some time on the islands, and the photo below shows just how close you can get to the Galapagos marine iguana without it seeming in the slightest bit perturbed. The stories are true. The myth is true. You really can just sit there and play blink with the animals there.
A Galapagos marine iguana holding its ground in typical Galapagos style
The Galapagos marine iguanas of Tortuga Bay
The above photo was taken at Tortuga Bay, on Santa Cruz island - a great place to see the Galapagos marine iguana. It is the largest white coral sand beach in the Galapagos islands and it is truly stunning. To get there involves a beautiful 2.5 km walk from Puerto Ayora - the main town on the island. What we found was that the iguanas would slowly work their way from the black volcanic rocks on the left hand side of the beach across the sand and then into the sea. You could see the footprints of the Galapagos marine iguanas across the sand that had already found their way to the sea, which indicated that they all followed roughly the same path. Once in the sea, they feed almost exclusively on algae and seaweed. They are known to be able to dive for up to 30 minutes, and at a depth of up to 15 metres.
Following in the footprints of the earlier risers
The route into the sea is even better illustrated in these next 2 photographs, where you can see the Galapagos marine iguanas following one another along the beach.
The daily march into the sea
3 Galapagos marine iguanas playing follow the leader in Tortuga bay...
The Galapagos marine iguana is a cold-blooded animal, and so it spends a great deal of it's time warming up in the sun, which can be quite intense in the equatorial heat of the Islands. In Tortuga Bay, the two principle spots for doing this were either on the black volcanic rocks, or close to the edges of the mangroves or other foliage. Around midday we even saw many of them moving into the shade, prompting us to wonder whether the heat was too much even for them. With their generally black coloration, spotting them in the rocks was sometimes quite a surprise as they were so well camouflaged. The next couple of photographs show just what I mean by how well they blend in to their natural habitat.
Spot the iguana
Human introduced predators
The Galapagos marine iguana also seems quite at home with many other species of animal. They have few natural predators on the Island and so have not developed very good defenses against introduced animals such as rats, cats and dogs which will eat the eggs, attack the young and even attack adults respectively. This has been a problem for many animals across the Islands, for example the introduction of goats by humans resulted in a staple cactus of the land tortoises being destroyed in large numbers and therefore led to a decline in tortoise numbers. There is no real conclusion as to how many Galapagos marine iguanas remain on the islands, with estimates ranging from 50,000 to hundreds of thousands.
Up close and personal
Many photographs of the Galapagos marine iguanas make them look like they are absolutely enormous. The truth is though that although they are big, with some males reaching up to 1.7 meters, much of that length is in the tail. They are not huge dinosaurs! However, they still look stunning. Charles Darwin took a strange dislike to them though, calling them disgusting. But really, they look quite majestic and have a way of holding a pose that oozes confidence. Across the different Islands, there are different subspecies which you can find with different colors. Here are a few examples:
The Galapagos marine iguana underwater
This video is taken from a BBC episode, with none other than the great David Attenborough presenting it. It gives a great insight into the lives of the iguanas and has some fantastic footage of the iguanas swimming underwater. In Tortuga Bay one afternoon I was snorkeling along the rocks, and was amazed to see half a dozen iguanas swim right past me, with their heads poking above the water. It looked very much like they were doing the doggy paddle! They kept swimming in the same direction with their heads to the side keeping an eye on me as I tried hard to keep up with them, as they were actually really quite fast swimmers.
At one with nature
So I hope this article has given an insight into what it is actually like to spend time with these animals. And it really does feel like you are actually spending time with them rather than catching a brief glimpse. You almost feel that they are sharing their habitat with you, and as long you as you respect them, the Galapagos marine iguanas will respect you too.