The Galápagos Islands are a paradise to the weird and the wonderful. From giant tortoises to flightless cormorants and blue-footed boobies, there are dozens of bizarre biological stars inhabiting this fertile volcanic landscape. However, there is none more peculiar, nor more charismatic, than the marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus).
When you are born on one of the 21 islands sequestered 1000km (800mi) from the continent of South America, nestled within the rich equatorial currents of the Pacific, there is nowhere else to go but blue. Wake up, sunbathe, go for a dive, chew on some plants, repeat. Not the busiest life for the actual Godzilla.
Drawn to the intersection of land and sea, marine iguanas have everything a happy reptile needs to thrive. Warming their hides on the porous molten rock that pervades the Galápagos coast, they prepare their bodies for mealtime. Not only are these lizards strict vegans, but they only have eyes for algae.
Eating algae is rather unusual for a reptile, and marine iguanas have had to evolve a unique suite of submersible traits to do so. Young iguanas can be seen clinging to half-submerged rocks during the morning low tide, pecking away at exposed algae using their specially evolved short snouts.
The biggest dragons take things further, and dive down some 20m to reach the tastiest morsels, staying submerged for up to an hour. Once out of the water, specialised nose glands clean salt from their blood and expel it through their nostrils as great sneezes, which land back on their head and form great colourful crusted crowns.
Even in nature's nirvana, life starts rough.
From the first blinking glimpse of the outside world through the lost sanctuary of their cracked eggshell, marine iguanas are on everyone’s menu. If it isn't devil snakes emerging from hellholes to the tune of an Attenborough narration, then it's the stabbing beaks of feathered lunatics. To persevere, baby iguanas must make a break for the freedom of the waves. They must sneak, scamper and weave their way from landmark-to-landmark, in the most important game of hide-and-seek in their lives.
Get caught and you’ve got one of two options: freeze, or run like the wind. For the baby iguana below, along with several who found themselves on a barren outstretch of beach that day, luck was not on their side. A sharp-eyed gull snaps its beak with savagery, grabbing the condemned and slamming it into the ground, again-and-again, until it moves no more.
For those gritty or lucky enough to pass this cruel filter of natural selection, life as an adult sea monster becomes a snooze. With no large native predators, an adult can reach a metre in length from snout to tail, and fears no one (not even a budding photographer).
Marine iguanas are the only seafaring lizard alive today, carrying the mantel of the sea monsters of old, but they are also at risk. Their chill demeanour is an ill-matched defence against introduced mammals such as cats and rats, which prey on the iguanas and their eggs. Abnormal sea level and temperature fluctuations caused by climate change interferes with nesting, heat regulation and egg development. Sound familiar?
To echo the words of Charles Darwin, marine iguanas are “an imp of darkness… a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in its movements”. They may be all these things, but they are also peaceful, algae-eating, reptilian leviathans that deserve recognition and respect.
Behind the Scenes
As a long-time lover of lizards with a childhood history of reptile keeping, observing these lizards lazing around the beach, shrugging off the continuous striking of waves, and nibbling rocks, was a very strange experience indeed.
From the get-go I knew I wanted to take a series of images that showed off their sea monster side. What I didn’t realise was how easy it would be to find them. From the very first day I had reliable and instant access to iguanas. On almost any beach they will be there, along with sea lions and sea turtles, an amazing testament to the biological richness of the islands, and cherished memories I now constantly day-dream about. Finding them is easy, but the hard part is waiting for them to do… anything.
Waiting in a pool of seawater at the end of a beach that could easily win “world’s most beautiful coastline”, I watched as a dozen iguanas made their evening commute from the submerged, sun-heated rocks, to the land. I waded up to my waist and levelled my lens flush against the water. Serendipity struck and the light turned crystal, casting beautiful reflections that emanated the colour of their strange diet.
It is my favourite photo from the entire Galápagos trip, and all further attempts to emulate this photograph failed to replicate the lighting and stillness of the water.
Underwater photography can be completely inaccessible to those on a student budget, but can also provide one of the most fascinating angles of which to view wildlife. Compromising utility with cost, I bought an underwater housing that I will affectionately call, a sturdy plastic bag.
This protected my camera beautifully, but increased the element of fumbling in my photo-taking process by 2000%. I sat for four hours trying to get a shot as dozens of iguanas passed me, but in the end I did not get what I was looking for. Instead, I ended up with a minimalist-style shot that has slowly grown on me to become one of my favourites, along with a nasty sunburn.
Isabella, the largest yet least occupied of the four human-populated islands, is by far the best. There is only one street and penguins are around the corner, but make sure you don't trip over the giant tortoises.. Along one side is a long track that follows the coastline along a series of small landmarks, and is customarily traversed with a hired bicycle. With days to spare, I spent three of them doing just this. Unlike other islands, I was alone with my camera. I could stop, explore the beach, and compose freely without interruption. On one such stop, I found a rather large and photogenic iguana sunning himself against the crashing waves. This is the Galápagos, so I switched to my wide-angle and moved close and low. The strength of the waves was just right and I got into the rhythm of stretching forward, snapping quickly, and stepping back. Everything going to plan.
Then, of course, a disproportionally huge wave exploded behind him, soaking me and my poor camera. Lens dead, aperture coupling destroyed, my camera never recovered. Luckily(?), someone chose to steal it and the lens shortly after, but that’s another story ∎