The world of wild animals by Andrey Gudkov

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Galapagos iguanid. Hidden life of the colony

Galapagos Islands are one of few places in the world where animals and humans while being close to each other do not intrude upon each other.

When I was planning my trip to the Galapagos archipelago, I looked through many photo albums where flora and fauna of this unique place was presented. And amongst all I earmarked one — the iguanid. Perhaps, Galapagos is exactly the place where they are represented so numerously. Two species of iguanid, these strange and mysterious animals, inhabit there: sea and terrestrial.

The aim was set to show as far as possible what is usually hidden from tourists’ eyes, to give iguanid opportunity to get accustomed to my presence in a colony and to imprint several aspects of behavior, to make shots which have not yet been done by other photographers, namely the process of eating Opuntia cactus at Plaza Island. For all visual accessibility of the animals at Galapagos Islands, this place still remains very difficult for a photographer’s professional work. A whole bulk of restrictions and prohibitions of movements exists practically everywhere at Islands. All actions must be governed and agreed with guides. You have to move together with everybody on a road laid in advance and if you try to take a couple of steps sideways, you will be immediately asked do no leave a pathway. Individual visitation of Islands is categorically prohibited. There is no way to concert. Nobody wants to lose a license of a guide-naturalist.

Nevertheless, there are no unsolvable situations and the shooting presented is a proof. Though you must study carefully features of behavior of your photo heroes to make it happen. Then luck, probably, will smile upon you.

Iguanid look as sluggish and not charismatic animals. Lying lazy on stones or at the very water edge they do not show any visible activity. If you try to come closer iguana unwillingly though quite promptly crawls away from her place. An iguana seems to be a shooting subject of little interest for an inexperienced photographer as far as it is very difficult to wait till any story begins. Besides, you have to shoot iguanid from the lowest point possible, lying on stones and holding camera directly on stones. A technical difficulty is to build a shot correctly and make focusing on an object. And then, sea iguanid are of the almost same color as coastal stones. Therefore the task of photographer is to separate them from a background by making a picture of maximum volume.

I chose two places to shoot iguanid: southern part of Santa-Cruz Island, long and wide beech Tortuga Bay with snow-white sand, here and there changing to stony lots consisting of detritus of clinker; and Plaza Island to the east of Balstra Island – absolutely flat and waterless area with thickgrowing carpet of lichen and Opuntia cactus of two-storeyed house height. Tortuga Bay Beach teems with iguanid of different sizes. This place is one of the massive colonies of these animals at Santa-Cruz Island.

Iguanid creep out of water straight after sunrise, during morning rising tide, to warm on stones. I was already at the place by this time. I had to wait quite long for a moment when any activity showed up amongst iguanid. Morning warming up gave notice about. I had to wait again until main bulk of tourist calmed down.

Perhaps it was funny for tourists and their guides to watch this scene when, in the middle of iguanid colony, a lonely figure of a photographer was hanging around for already a few hours, having lied prone on stones and roasting on the sun. A Japan tourist even took a few photos, apparently having seen in this scene a specific local colour.

The beach and neighbourhood became deserted close to noon. It became very hot. Ebb began. Agile red crabs appeared and started to run around me, paying no attention at all to my presence. They climbed at iguanid’s backs and this vicinity quite suited the last. A few hours of motionless sitting are finally bearing. Accustomed to my present, iguanid started their active life – they were ascended on stones, yawning, showing out their tongues, putting up territory fights, gathering together a few, climbing on each other, and constructing low pyramids of their bodies. One very big male even allowed stroking him and making a few close-up shots of him. Ebb revealed stones with adhered seaweed – a food of iguanid. They eat seaweed round stones, clipping it off by their mouths as a gardener clips off a lawn. All this life is going on around you and your task is to pull out the most interesting and unusual moments out. Yet just a couple hours before this place look absolutely insensate, with lazy and motionless iguanid resembling beams.

It is totally different at Plaza Island in comparison to the colony of sea iguanid at Santa-Cruz Island. Plaza Island is the small island with very intensive tourist stream. It is remarkable first of all for a big colony of terrestrial iguanid, a sea lions colony and colonies of sea birds. Giving this intensity of tourist stream, it becomes very difficult for a photographer to work here, as groups follow one by one. Noise, squash, constant present of deflecting attention factors makes a shooting to be very tough. I had to agree with the guide and organize visitation of the island early in the morning, when bulk of tourist had not yet arrived. It is near to impossible to land on the island without a guide. Assurances that you are the photographer and will make no harm to the nature of the island have no effect. The guide will anyway stand over you and watch each of your movements. This time the guide turned out to be understanding and led me to the remote corner of the island, as further away as possible from tourist pathways and annoying eyes.

There are so many iguanid on the island that you have to watch your steps in order not to tread on them. The basic food of terrestrial iguanid is gigantic Opuncia cactuses which are abundant on the island. The problem is that Opuncia’s sprouts which iguanid like so much, grow high and iguanid are not able to haul up to them. Therefore iguanid suffer from constant hunger. Sometimes strong wind gives a present to them: a small sprout of Opuncia, looking like thorny ball, fall on a ground and all nearest iguanid throw at it with a hope to snatch a slice of food. Naturally, it goes to the agilest. One can see with one’s own eyes the main Darwin postulate of evolution theory – fight for survival and natural selection – on a sample of terrestrial iguanid at Plaza Island.

Scenes are not infrequent when iguanid starved to death in very intricate poses.

Salty wind and rains do their work with bodies of unlucky animals. And in a short period of time they change into mummies stiff in very unthinkable attitudes.

But we do not simply watch the landscape – out task is a photographing. We had to stock up slices of Opuntia cactus with sprouts on the mainland and brought it to the island. Guides’ help was required to throw the sprouts to iguanid at the right moments. It was amazing to watch how these animals swallowed whole big pieces of Opuntia not paying attention to sharp thorns.

Engulfment of such specific food raises adrenalin of people around. It’s wild and rude. I chose low cactus with patulous branches to show how iguanid tear off sprouts of cactuses. The cactus was shown to iguanid and the same moment about 15 of them made a rush on storm for their lunch. Iguanid stood up on hind legs, stanching at Opuntia and furiously tearing off young sprouts. Iguanid were so fascinated by the process of eating the cactus that paid no attention on me and the guide. They were pushing each other, starting fights, falling on our legs. They were living their ordinary life. After a while iguanid satiated themselves and lied down on stones to digest the food. After the shooting I had a feeling that we did manage to half-open a veil of mystery of these amazing and enigmatic animals’ life.

My time limit at the island was coming to an end. First motorboat with tourists appeared at a distance. Iguanid, lazy as usual, were watching what was going on. An ordinary “tourist” day began.

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Special thanks to designers Dmitry and Vladimir Jakovlev for professionalism and original creative decisions;
to translator Irina Kharakterova for qualified texts translation.