Day Of The Iguana

I love reptiles. The bigger the better. However, I have no interest in meeting a Komodo Dragon, which would probably kill and eat me. The next-best thing is the Galapagos land iguana. Land iguanas are pretty big— they can grow to over a meter long and weigh up to 30 pounds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANorth Seymour Island was a desolate, wind-swept place during our mid-October visit, mostly covered with dry grasses, dead trees, and the occasional cactus or small shrub growing amongst piles of broken brown or grey lava rock. The calls and whistles of frigate birds as they wheeled overhead or courted in the dead brambles, the rise and fall of the morning’s breeze, and our own footsteps were the only sounds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was in this environment that we enountered land iguanas. Huge, beautiful, golden monsters with scaled skin and spines down their backs. They looked prehistoric, walking slowly and deliberately with clawed feet across the nearly-barren land. Stop, a few bobs of the head to ward off competitors, walk some more. We were nothing to them, spectators in their distant world.

The Galapagos Islands feature two types of iguanas: Land iguanas and marine iguanas. The only place we saw land iguanas was on North Seymour, though they are also native to a few other islands that we didn’t visit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll Galapagos iguanas are vegetarian. On North Seymour, there is little for iguanas to eat other than prickly pear cactus fruit. They will sometimes camp near a fruiting cactus for weeks, waiting for something to fall. When a fruit finally does drop, they will roll it around to remove the spines before eating it. In drought years, land iguanas may not find enough to eat; even during our visit, we saw some that were obviously starving.

The iguanas ignored us completely. It was as if they didn’t even reconize that we were living beings. They just walked right through our group, even over our feet:

Interestingly, land iguanas aren’t actually native to North Seymour; In the 1930s, a population was relocated from nearby Baltra Island (once known as “Iguana Headquarters”) when a scientific expedition there noted that the plentiful iguanas seemed to be starving. This saved the species: When a military base was built on Baltra during World War II, construction unintentionally destroyed the iguana nesting areas. With no offspring, the Baltra iguana was extinct by the 1950s.

Unlike land iguanas, marine iguanas were on most islands we visited (duh, they can swim). Their diet is the algae found on rocks and coral underwater, so food is plentiful. Though not as big as the land iguanas, they are still satisfyingly large.

Yum, tasty algae! This jet-black feller was about 2 feet long.

The first one I saw was walking in the midday sun on a beautiful spit of beach we visited the day after North Seymour. I followed him (her?) as he headed into the low tide’s damp algae-covered rocks and began scraping off algae with the side of his mouth. But it was rare to see marine iguanas in the middle of the day, because they usually head into the sea after they’ve warmed up in the morning sun.

This beautiful, big iguana greeted us when we landed on Española. Different island, different coloring.

We took an early morning walk on Española Island near the end of our trip. Our guide told us only that it was going to be special. As we approached the landing point in our Zodiac, we saw a couple of iguanas in the water swimming purposefully to destinations unknown, only their heads visible above the surface. When we landed, there were hundreds of them: On the beach, on the rocks, everywhere we looked.

Whereas the land iguanas are very solitary and maintain territories, marine iguanas cluster in enormous groups like retired New York “sunbirds” on Miami Beach. Many were piled on top of each other, comically posing as if for family photos. Every once in a while, one would head off toward the water, climbing over others who were still warming up. Sea lions were also on the beach, and everyone seemed to get along quite well. 

As we began our hike, the oblivious iguanas were strewn on the path like dark grey driftwood. Trying to pass them was challenging. I had to look carefully before taking each step, trying not to crush a tail or a foot, because they were not going to move out of my way. Walking was even more difficult once we moved to higher ground; their coloring blended perfectly with the rocks. Further up the trail I nearly fell as I lurched to avoid crushing an iguana who sat camouflaged right in front of me, calmly sunning himself. Here’s Yvonne trying to avoid stepping on iguanas as we set out on our hike:

When we finished our two-hour hike around the island, watching albatrosses kissing and Nazca boobies nesting, we returned to our starting point. Not a single iguana was there; they had all headed out to sea for the day. We climbed into our Zodiac and headed back to the boat. The only remaining residents of the beach were sea lions.

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