The Galápagos and I Witnessing the Galápagos as a scientist, environmentalist, and human being.

A showcase of the world’s most unique biodiversity and inspiration for Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution, the Galápagos Islands stand as a landscape of beauty and a living museum to all. For me, it is also the birthplace of my scientific journey.

One of the very first things to be learned in biology is evolution, and this scientific concept resurfaces in almost every course in biology. In addition, Darwin’s methodical study imprinted the importance of observation, critical thinking, and recordkeeping that I have carried with me ever since.

Not only was I captured by Darwin’s intellect and the Galápagos’ scientific contributions in the classroom, I also worked as an intern at the California Academy of Sciences. There, I learned and worked with researchers who went on expeditions to the Islands, handled specimens collected throughout the years from the Islands, and also taught concepts of evolution under giant tortoise specimens to people of all ages from all around the world. Since then, the Galápagos carried a special weight in my personal and career journey.

Galápagos exhibit in the California Academy of Sciences. Image by Otto Gelderman.

Yet, even with all that history of engagement with the Galápagos, I was still overwhelmed when I disembarked the boat, stepped onto the vegetated lava flow, and experienced the beauty of the natural environment, pristine biodiversity, and evidence of adaptation. Unlike everywhere else I’ve been to, the wildlife was unbothered by our presence, one usually threatening to animals. Not only do Galápagos hawks and blue and red-footed boobies not scurry away when our footsteps alert them of our power of influence, they curiously wander over to see us as just another animal.

Galápagos land iguana feeding on cactus. Image by Vicki Deng.

These unbothered creatures are of course a sight to behold. But it is not just that they stay put when you walk by, but also that they continue with their life. I got to observe a blue-footed boobie fly over to greet another boobie and slowly pick up and put down one foot to then do the same to the other. In this mating dance, the next step was a little flick of the wings, and then repeat. Despite all efforts, this male was unfortunately a no-go for our future mama bird.

Blue footed boobies. Images by Vicki Deng.

But this was barely the only evidence of life. Just a few minutes after, a mama blue-footed boobie flew back from the sea to its baby bird. In its beak were the bountiful catch of the day. But the feeding wasn’t so easy as two frigate birds were tailing the mom to try and join the feeding. These red-chested seabirds don’t have the waterproof feathers needed to catch their own fish, so they take advantage of other birds trying to feed their young. And right across from this feeding frenzy was another baby blue-footed boobie trying really hard to catch wind and learn to fly. As it furiously beat its wings while still grounded near its nest, I realized just how interconnected everything is, including humans.

Male great frigate bird swooping in on blue footed boobie feeding. Image by Vicki Deng.

It is easy to forget that we too are just another organism on this planet, and how important it is to sustain and preserve our ecosystems. As I walked through the Galápagos and witnessed animals caring for their children and juveniles learning how to be independent, I saw the familiar will to survive and felt more connected to these other creatures in our environment. This left me inspired me to better conserve the natural habitat that provides for us.

Galápagos sea lion at golden hour. Image by Vicki Deng.

The unique creatures of the Galápagos opened our eyes to how survival is obtained through adaptations. But today, it reminds us that survival also comes with the need to protect all the land, flora, and fauna we live in and with.

Galápagos hawk (left) and female great frigate bird (right). Images by Vicki Deng.

-- Vicki Deng


Vicki Deng