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Galapagos Rainbow

By Chris Kassar

Twenty years ago, I graduated college, moved to Alaska and met my “soul sister”—one of those rare people who you know, almost immediately, will be a friend forever, no matter what twists and turns life throws your way. She introduced me to the idea of a “life list,” and we wrote ours together. Mine had some lofty goals—raft the Grand Canyon, climb Denali, get my master’s degree, find true love—and some simpler ones—learn to knit and ice climb, train to do five pullups, stay close to my family, laugh once a day, introduce someone to the outdoors.

Over the last two decades, I’ve held onto my life list, and once a year, around my birthday, I pull it out and ponder how I’ve been spending my time and energy. I’ve chipped away at my list here and there, but it’s not something I ever expect to finish because with each journey, with each experience checked off, I seem to add at least five new goals.

Only a few entries remain from the original 1998 iteration of the list: go to Antarctica, have an at bat in Yankee stadium, write a novel and travel to the Galapagos.

Marine iguana in mossy rocks.

As a biologist, Darwin fan and nature lover, the Galapagos had always called my name. I never really thought I’d make it there until this spring, when the opportunity arose to join a Classic Galapagos Photo Adventure with Nat Hab.

It was very surreal: even while planning, preparing, booking and packing, I didn’t actually believe that this dream of mine was coming true. It wasn’t until I was actually sailing through the crystalline waters of this mysterious place that it actually felt real….and even then, I still felt as if I were floating through it all in a dreamlike state.

Bird with chick in the Galapagos.

Every aspect of this Galapagos nature adventure exceeded my expectations—the crew, the snorkeling, the people, the photography advice, the ship, our guides, the food—and of course, the scenery, the wildlife and the countless intimate encounters with creatures I’d read about but never thought I’d actually experience.

Around each bend, a new surprise awaited. I felt like a small child, in awe of everything I encountered, especially the endless array of colors delivered by these magical islands. Here’s a small glimpse into what I started to call the “Galapagos Rainbow.”

Red

Frigatebird in the Galapagos.

When I saw a great frigatebird soar overhead for the first time, I stopped in my tracks. With wings built for speed, a forked tail, and a brilliant red splash on his black chest, they’re impossible not to notice as they hang in the sky. It’s also incredible to see a great frigatebird inflate his brightly colored, heart-shaped gular pouch in an attempt to attract females.

Frigatebird flying in the Galapagos.

Red footed booby preening.

The scarlet feet and blue bill of the red-footed booby, one of the most famous residents of the islands, help it stand out. This creature lives only on the most outlying islands, so even though it’s the most numerous of the Galapagos boobies, it’s seen less frequently.

Red footed booby on a branch.

Orange

Iguana sunning in the Galapagos.

One hot, sunny afternoon, we spent a couple hours exploring a colony of Galapagos land iguanas. Periodically, we’d see a huge specimen creep slowly across the ground. When one stopped to rest for a moment, we got a good look at his wrinkled orange-yellow skin, sharp claws, and the spiky crest running along his back.

Darwin finch in the Galapagos.

Though tiny, and not as loud in color as some other creatures, seeing Darwin’s finches like this one—with his orange beak and his ability to perch amid delicate, spiny branches—was a highlight for me, merely because of how they helped shaped Darwin’s theory of evolution. With 13 different species of finches that share many similar characteristics and are endemic to the islands, they can be challenging to differentiate.

Fur seal stretching his flipper in the Galapagos.

A colony of Galapagos fur seals greeted our pre-dawn arrival on Santiago Island. Our presence didn’t seem to disturb them at all, as they went on sleeping, playing, stretching and swimming.

Galapagos fur seal sleeping.

Small orange land lizard in the Galapagos.

This minuscule, shockingly orange land lizard scurried over my foot and startled himself! He then darted away and perched on a rock to get a better look at me.

Yellow

Nazca booby in the Galapagos.

Defined by a set of sparkling yellow eyes against a black face mask, the Nazca booby lays two eggs every year. While visiting this very active colony, we witnessed a female who was still incubating her second egg, protecting a newly hatched baby. It’s likely that this baby, the older sibling, will push the younger one out of the nest. As we further explored the island, we saw adults interacting with each other and younger fledglings squawking at their parents.

Nazca booby with chick in the Galapagos.

Yellow warbler in the Galapagos.

Common in North America, I was surprised to find the yellow warbler down south. Somehow, it looked more exotic below the equator.

Though we tend to focus on wildlife, the plant communities of the Galapagos are remarkable. One of my favorite scenes was this one: lava cactus, backlit by golden light from the slowly setting sun, set against the stark backdrop of dark, wavy lava rock.

Though we tend to focus on wildlife, the plant communities of the Galapagos are remarkable. One of my favorite scenes was this one: lava cactus backlit by golden light from the slowly setting sun, set against the stark backdrop of dark, wavy lava rock.

Green

Fernandina, the westernmost island of those usually visited and the youngest of the main islands, has a stunning, recently formed volcanic landscape dappled with green vegetation.

Fernandina, the westernmost island of those usually visited and the youngest of the main islands, has a stunning, recently formed volcanic landscape dappled with green vegetation.

Sea lion with pup in the Galapagos.

This sea lion and her pup napped, played, swam and fed along the rocky, mossy shore.

On Fernandina Island, marine iguanas stretch as far as the eye can see.

On Fernandina Island, marine iguanas stretch as far as the eye can see. Totally unphased by our presence, the iguanas allowed us to observe them as they swam, played, fed voraciously on green algae, and moved back and forth seamlessly between land and sea.

On Fernandina Island, marine iguanas stretch as far as the eye can see.

Blue

While it’s easy to focus on the red feet of this colorful creature, I became obsessed with the variation in beak color—here you see blue and pink—found from one red-footed booby to the next.

While it’s easy to focus on the red feet of this colorful creature, I became obsessed with the variation in beak color—here you see blue and pink—found from one red-footed booby to the next.

We saw the blue-footed booby, perhaps the most famous bird of the Galapagos Islands, while exploring the coast of Isabela by boat.

We saw the blue-footed booby, perhaps the most famous bird of the Galapagos Islands, while exploring the coast of Isabela Island by boat. We watched as they courted, nested and mated on black lava cliffs.

We saw the blue-footed booby, perhaps the most famous bird of the Galapagos Islands, while exploring the coast of Isabela by boat.

Blue footed boobies courted, nested and mated on black lava cliffs.

Black bird perched on the lava in the Galapagos.

The Galapagos Islands straddle the equator. Cool and warm ocean currents intersect to create a unique situation where temperate and tropical climates coexist on the islands. The deep blue waters of the ocean shape the diversity of wildlife and plant communities and, of course, play a huge role in any Galapagos adventure.

Here are a few images showing the beauty of the blue water and the critters that rely on it.

A wild fur seal puts on a show.

A wild fur seal puts on a show.

Marine iguanas stretch as far as the eye can see on the ocean’s edge on Fernandina Island.

Marine iguanas stretch as far as the eye can see on the ocean’s edge on Fernandina Island.

A marine iguana’s tail leaves a track through the sand, as it returns to the blue ocean waters.

A marine iguana’s tail leaves a track through the sand, as it returns to the blue ocean waters.

Though we didn’t see any Pacific green sea turtles here, we knew they had just been on this beach because of the obvious tracks they left behind on their journey from the ocean to the sand where they bury their eggs.

Though we didn’t see any Pacific green sea turtles here, we knew they had just been on this beach because of the obvious tracks they left behind on their journey from the ocean to the sand where they bury their eggs.

Violet

We didn’t encounter many insects, but the coolest one was this purple spider who was just finished work on his intricate web, which hung right above a resting land iguana.

We didn’t encounter many insects, but the coolest one was this purple spider that was just finished work on his intricate web, which hung above a resting land iguana.

Thanks to its shockingly red top, the Sally Lightfoot crab stands out against the black lava rock found along many beaches.

Thanks to its shockingly red top, the Sally Lightfoot crab stands out against the black lava rock found along many beaches. However, what struck me most was that it almost forms a complete rainbow on its own because of its blue underside, orange and yellowish extremities, and purple eyes.

Here’s another example of the kaleidoscope of colors I found in the beak of the red-footed booby.

Here’s another example of the kaleidoscope of colors I found in the beak of the red-footed booby. I know the predominant color here is blue, but the purple caught my eye and kept it!

All photos © Chris Kassar 
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