LIFE IN THE GALAPAGOS


The Wild and Wonderful


An appreciation of the natural life of the Galapagos Islands as witnessed by resident author and conservation photographer, Tui De Roy.


The gallery is now open to all artists and writers, amateur to professional, to submit their Galapagos-inspired work for consideration. Please use this Submissions Form.


As the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library begins 2021 and The Good Earth: Vonnegut and the Environment, we look to the other-worldly beauty and balance of the Galapagos Islands for inspiration to practice environmental care the world over.

600 miles off the western coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos are one of the most alluring places on planet Earth. A UNESCO World Heritage site straddling the equator, this volcanic archipelago — uninhabited by humans throughout most of its history — is home to thousands of plants and animals. Shielded by their extreme isolation for millions of years, most of these are found nowhere else in the world. Wild and wonderful, yes. But not immune to human impact. Despite the isolation barrier now breached, the Galapagos ecosystem remains an opportunity to strive for balance between humans and the natural world.



The Blue-Footed Booby


Show and Skill

Native to just a few regions of the eastern Pacific Ocean, this marine bird is one of seven species of boobies that live in the subtropical and tropical oceans. Blue-foots are one of three boobies that call the Galapagos home, along with the Nazca and Red-Footed boobies. Easily recognizable by their bright blue feet, a sexually selected trait, both males and females display their dazzling webs to each other in an elaborate courtship ritual.

The blue color of the booby's webbed feet comes from pigments obtained from its diet of fresh fish, and is an indicator of an individual's health. The brightness of the feet also decreases with age, so females tend to mate with younger males who have higher fertility and a greater ability to provide paternal care compared to older males. Here a male blue-footed booby, smaller and therefore more acrobatic in flight than females, performs a courtship landing stunt on Santa Cruz Island, showing off his feet to a potential mate sitting on the ground.

A pair in full courtship dance perform graceful moves, including high-stepping and sky-pointing. The male (left) is recognizable by his smaller size, shrill whistle and smaller pupils, while the female is larger, has a trumpeting voice and black rings around her pupils that make them look larger. The pair may also present nesting twigs to each other, a symbolic gesture, as they won’t actually build a nest but instead will incubate their eggs on the ground. These courtship dances serve to appraise each other’s physical fitness and behavioral compatibility. They may dance with many different partners before making their final choice to raise a family together.

Blue-foots feed mostly on small schooling fish, plunging into the sea in full flight from as high as 30 meters and at speeds of 100 kilometers per hour or more, often in coordinated flocks. Once underwater, they use their feet as well as their wings to give chase, and can swim to depths of 25 meters. Usually the birds will swallow their prey instantly underwater, but with larger fish, they sometimes try to steal from one another.

Cool currents bathe the shores of Isabela Island from June to December, bringing with them deep-sea nutrients that form the base of a rich food pyramid. About half of all blue-footed boobies in the world nest on the Galápagos. Monogamous, they are opportunistic breeders, meaning that pairs begin their breeding cycle whenever feeding conditions are optimal, on average every 8 to 9 months.

The Galapagos Penguin


“You probably didn't know there were penguins on the equator. They were skinny little things underneath their headwaiter's costumes. They had to be. If they had been swaddled in fat like their Antarctic relatives they would have roasted to death on the Galapagos. Like the Flightless Cormorants, these birds had abandoned aviation in order to catch more fish.” - Leon Trout (from Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut)

The only penguin found north of the equator, most Galapagos penguins inhabit Fernandina Island and the west coast of Isabela Island where the cool, upwelling waters of the Cromwell Current allows it to survive despite the archipelago’s equatorial latitude. The Galapagos Penguin is the second smallest species of penguin in the world, and because of its warm environment, it has developed many techniques to stay cool.

Galapagos penguins are confined to the Galapagos archipelago. They forage in the cool currents during the day, returning to land mainly at night, and normally range only a few kilometers from their breeding sites. Here a group of hunting penguins dart under the waves of Isabela Island snacking on tiny fish larvae.

After filling their bellies on schooling fish, a group of Galapagos penguins rest on Isabela’s lava outcrops. During El Niño events food becomes less abundant in the Galapagos, which makes the chances of raising offspring unlikely. To cope, the penguins defer breeding. During the 1982-83 El Niño, the population of Galapagos penguins declined by 77%, but have since increased again. The latest census (2020) estimated a total population of 1,940 individuals, the highest number since detailed records began in 1977.

The Marine Iguana


Life on the Edge

The mythical-looking Marine Iguana, the only marine lizard in the world, dominates the archipelago’s coastlines. Capable of drinking seawater and feeding on algae underneath the waves, their huge colonies sprawl over the sunbaked lava shores where little else can survive.

Despite their intimidating looks, marine iguanas are genial and placid creatures most of the year. Come breeding season, that story changes. Here a large male stakes claim to a prime territory, prepared to do battle with other males if necessary.

Large marine iguanas dive to forage on seaweed beds up to 30 feet deep, where they seek out red and green algae nurtured by cold upwelling currents. Feeding trips last at most an hour before their cold-blooded metabolism slows down, after which they must bask in the sun to warm themselves. Unable to withstand the cold, smaller individuals feed mainly in the intertidal zone. During El Nino events their food source can become scarce, and many may starve to death.

In tune with the moon cycle, an ebbing tide signals feeding time, with best access to feeding grounds. Here a colony on Fernandina Island heads out at sunrise.

Ancient Tortoises


Where Giants Roam

Home to the largest tortoises in the world, the Galapagos are named for the ancient tortoises that can weigh close to 900 pounds and live over 100 years in the wild. Species of giant tortoise have roamed the Galapagos Islands for millions of years. During this time they diversified into 14 species, each evolving a shell shape and size best adapted to the ecological conditions of their island. Today, 11 of these survive in the wild, while the others are the subjects of intense conservation efforts.

In the arid scrublands of Espanola Island, male saddleback tortoises aggressively defend the best areas of giant cacti, a vital source of moisture. Apart from duels where the tallest one wins, their raised shells and extremely long necks and forelegs enable them to reach cactus pads, fruit and flowers that grow high off the ground. Sixty years ago only 15 individuals remained and the island was overrun by feral goats. Today the goats have been replaced by several thousand captive-raised tortoises, and their island is once again pristine.

Three thousand feet above sea level on Isabela Island’s Alcedo Volcano, dome-shelled tortoises feed on lush carpets of grass and herbs on the caldera floor. During long droughts, tortoises gravitate to condensation surrounding the steaming fumaroles active on the volcanic rim. More difficult to reach by human foot, the tortoise population in this caldera has largely escaped human impact, unlike some of their cousins on other islands.

Some of the oldest giant tortoises still alive today could predate Darwin’s visit to the Galapagos in 1835. With no predators to fear, here a group of giants sleep in a mud wallow atop Alcedo Volcano, a timeless ritual underneath the night sky. Human exploitation has caused the disappearance of two known species of giant tortoise on other islands, but genetic work has revealed the survival of escapees accidentally transported between islands. Now intense breeding efforts aim to restore those lost breeds.



KVML is now accepting your submissions of original art, photography and writing inspired by the Galapagos: Submissions Form.

Tui’s most recent photography book, A Lifetime in Galapagos chronicles her life of the islands and five decades documenting their natural history. It is available to purchase here. Or, if you don’t mind long-distance shipping, copies can be ordered from the author by writing to: [email protected]. Her photographic work is also represented by www.Mindenpictures.com.

All images within this virtual gallery, Life in the Galapagos, are copyrighted and owned by Tui De Roy/Roving Tortoise Photography. Images may not be used for any other purpose. 


About Tui De Roy

Tui De Roy is an award-winning wildlife photographer, naturalist, and author of 21 books, and magazine articles published in 40 countries. Tui’s unique style of large-format, natural photography books cover topics as varied as the world’s albatrosses and penguins, the natural history of the Andean mountain chain, and an ecosystem-based exploration of New Zealand.

In 2020, Princeton University Press published her landmark photographic anthology, A Lifetime in Galapagos, reflecting 50 years of photography, immersed in the natural life of the Galapagos Islands. Since the age of two, Tui has lived on the Galapagos, and because of her work as an educator and conservationist, Tui was named Honorary Park Warden by the Galapagos National Park. For more on Tui’s life and work, please visit RovingTortoise.com