Gallery of Underwater Photographs from the Galapagos

Gallery of Underwater Photographs from the Galapagos

Galapagos Wildlife

Hammerhead wall at the Landslide, Wolf Island, Galapagos
Photograph © 2016 Josef Litt

I look forward to going to the enchanted archipelago again in the next few days, hoping for extraordinary encounters with the spectacular fauna of Galapagos.

Watch this space, new imagery coming soon!

In the meantime, check the stories from the islands in my blog.

Join me on one of my trips and bring back your own photos!

Whale Sharks, A-bombs and the Hubble Space Telescope

Whale Sharks, A-bombs and the Hubble Space Telescope

Galapagos Wildlife

Pregnant whale shark female at Darwin Island in the Galapagos. In 2014, members of the Galapagos Whale Shark Project reported sightings of 27 whale sharks, all females, all but one pregnant around Darwin Island in the Galapagos archipelago.

Photograph © 2011 Josef Litt

We know very little about the biggest bony fish in the oceans, the whale shark.

Whale sharks are the world’s most giant fish, growing up to twenty metres in length – more than a bowling lane and almost as long as a passenger train coach. We don’t know how fast they grow and what is their maximum age. The best estimates are that the big ones may be more than one hundred years old.

The Atomic Bomb Method

Scientists determine the age of sharks by counting growth rings in their vertebrae. This method seems to provide reliable results for younger animals. However, one needs an atomic bomb to make the reading more precise in case of the older sharks. The nuclear tests performed in the 1950s and 1960s increased the amount of radiocarbon in the atmosphere. The radioactive material entered the oceans and imprinted a timestamp in the whale sharks vertebrae. Today, this timestamp helps to establish the age of older individuals.

Juvenile whale shark. We encountered this juvenile on top of the shallow platform underneath the Darwin Island in the Galapagos.

Photograph © 2011 Josef Litt

The world is round… The expectation and anxiety grow on the way to the northern islands of Wolf and Darwin in the Galapagos.

Photograph © 2011 Josef Litt

The Hubble Space Telescope Method

To paraphrase Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘Whale sharks are big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big they are.’

From that slightly facetious perspective, it is no surprise that the scientists use the Hubble Space Telescope to identify individual whale sharks. The spots behind their gills form an ornament as unique as a fingerprint. Jason Holmberg, the co-founder of WildMe.org, adapted an algorithm used by NASA with the telescope to recognise and compare the patterns. Thanks to that anybody who photographed a whale shark anywhere in the world can upload their images to the Wildbook for Whale Sharks. Almost 8,000 people identified more than 10,000 whale sharks during close to 60,000 sightings. The data give scientists information about the distribution and movement of the gentle giants, hopefully leading to their adequate protection.

‘Whale sharks are big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big they are.’

An evening at San Cristóbal marina, Galapagos The crews are preparing for their journeys to Darwin and Wolf islands.

Photograph © 2011 Josef Litt

million US$ a year

The Value of a Whale Shark

Since 2016, IUCN describes the whale sharks on its Red List as Endangered. The reason is the demand for shark fins in Asia and the nature of whale shark meat, often referred to as ‘tofu shark’. Infuriatingly, despite their size, they also end up as bycatch. Since early 2017, whale sharks enjoy protection as migratory species in more than 125 countries. A number originating from research in 2004 estimates their value to tourism at over USD 47.5 million a year – an amount that is indisputably higher today. Hopefully, governments will realise the species’ importance and enforce the protection they committed to.

Darwin’s Arch a mile away from the Darwin Island. The deep sea surrounding Darwin Island may serve as a breeding ground for whale sharks.

Photograph © 2016 Josef Litt

Magic sunset in the Galapagos

Photograph © 2011 Josef Litt

The Whale Sharks’ Birthplace

Members of the Galapagos Whale Shark Project in 2014 reported sightings of 27 whale sharks, all females, all but one pregnant around Darwin Island in the Galapagos archipelago – this seems to be a typical situation confirmed by tourists’ observations. Jonathan R. Green, the leader of the Galapagos Whale Shark Project, explores a hypothesis that the deep sea surrounding Darwin Island serves as a breeding ground for whale sharks. However, nobody has ever seen a whale shark to give birth or breed.

I heard a fisherman speculate about the reason why the whale shark males avoid the Galápagos. Their little cousins, the silky sharks, frequent the islands waters in search of food. Remoras belong to their favourite staple. An attacked remora would hide among the whale sharks’ claspers to protect itself. The ferocious silky shark will hardly differentiate between a remora and a clasper. The poor male whale sharks are afraid that they may get hurt in such a sensitive place, so they avoid Galápagos at all cost. I wonder whether there is a scientific base to this speculation.

Claspers of an adult male whale shark are formed from the rear end of their pelvic fin. They channel semen into the female’s cloaca during mating.

Photograph Simon Pierce https://www.simonjpierce.com.

Buy GALÁPAGOS on Amazon now.

Ending with a Hairy Story

Whale sharks were never seen feeding at Galapagos, which gives the following story* a whiff of a fairy tale. ‘As with any other animal on the Galápagos, and it should be a good practice anywhere in the world, touching whale sharks is strictly forbidden. This was not a well-observed custom some time ago, perhaps ten or twenty years back when, according to a local legend, one of the naturalist guides nicknamed Zorro Plateado, or Silver Fox, used to ride the whale sharks holding on to their dorsal fin. As if this was not enough, he supposedly dragged himself from the dorsal fin and then plunged headfirst over the animal’s upper lip into its gaping mouth. Disappearing into the poor whale shark’s maw, he was gushed out after a moment in a shroud of his bubbles, in slight disarray, but unharmed. The animal seemed to be unperturbed, it turned slowly and swam away. The diver’s equipment could have easily injured the whale shark, and I indeed believe that such acts would not be tolerated today.’ I was pleased to be contacted by the family of Zorro Plateado in reaction to this story. I welcome first-hand information rather than an unconfirmed narration by somebody else. Zorro declines the story featuring him and a whale shark as untrue. The truth is that he was honoured with a plaque from the Charles Darwin Foundation for his constant efforts in teaching the children the importance of conservation. He also plays an important part in CDF’s Shark Ambassador Program. I hope I will have a chance to meet Zorro in person soon. *A spoiler citation from Litt, Josef. GALÁPAGOS. Mostly Underwater Books. The United Kingdom, 2018. A similar story was also mentioned in Bantin, John. Amazing Diving Stories. United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2012.
A diver, small camera and a whale shark. Touching whale sharks is strictly forbidden.

Photograph © 2017 Ivan Jiskra

Freezing for Galapagos Wildlife

Freezing for Galapagos Wildlife

Galapagos Wildlife

Island Wolf. Aerial view with the Anchorage dive site to the right.
Photograph © 2016 Kevin Hanson

Varied underwater environments in different parts of the archipelago offer stunning encounters with Galapagos wildlife in both, warm and cold waters.

The night settled on Wolf Island in the Galapagos. My teeth chatter, and there is nothing I can do with my whole body shivering in the pitch-black underwater darkness. The sandy bottom, thirty meters under the surface, is as empty as beach chairs in Greenland. You can pretend you are a fur seal. But it will not help you in 13°C degrees water which in my numb mind is just above freezing point. I would love to sit in the boat lounge with hot tea in my hand. But I am down here as cold as a frozen herring, and my lamp flickers in search of the elusive red-lipped batfish, Ogcocephalus darwini, a quirky representative of peculiar Galapagos wildlife.

The book I am writing about the Galapagos would utterly fail without a photograph of the batfish. And, I will run out of the air in the next fifteen minutes. Ah, but wait! Something just moved on the sand in front of me!

Red-lipped batfish. There was only a little exaggeration when I compared the batfish to my grandma.
Photograph © 2016 Josef Litt
Fishing boat at Wolf Island. This image was taken in 2011 when local fishermen could visit Darwin and Wolf island. Ecuador pronounced the northern expanse of the Galapagos Marine Reserve a sanctuary in 2015, where no fishing is allowed.

Photograph © 2011 Josef Litt

What do you see looking at the batfish? I imagine my grandma after a heavy night. The night when she did her makeup by herself – without a mirror and while thinking about mass extinction. She was not a conservationist, but her gentle hand helped many unlucky farm animals back on feet. When her hand did not help, her colourful swearing certainly did.

The bottom-dwelling batfish spend their life crawling more than swimming, using their modified pectoral fins to walk. When disturbed, they swim in a comical waddling movement. Although it is strange-looking, this species is harmless to humans – unlike my grandma. Batfish are anglers, using a particular body part called an illicium, which extends outward above their head to lure prey. I believe this species is also proof that water absorbs the colour red first. Otherwise, this example of Galapagos wildlife would starve to death, because no self-appreciating fish would come close to that hungry, bright red mouth.

“I imagine my grandma after a heavy night. The night when she did her makeup by herself – without a mirror and while thinking about mass extinction.”

Panorama of Punta Vicente Roca. The penguins and the cormorants inhabit the small beach to the right. The tip of the rocky outcrop to the left marks the dive site to spot the sunfish.

Photograph © 2016 Josef Litt

5 AM, two days later

Still dark, only small waves splashing against the volcanic rock of Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela. We repeat in low voices the rules for an encounter with Mola alexandrini, the Southern Ocean sunfish: Wait until the sunfish comes to the cleaning station near a platform at 30 m depth. Do not use strobes until the cleaning starts.

The cold oceanic Cromwell Current upwells on the western side of Isabela, bringing from the depths nutrition to a whole food web of fish and marine animals. As a result, Punta Vicente Roca brims with life and even hosts a colony of Galapagos penguins, Spheniscus mendiculus. Did I mention the Cromwell Current is cold? Well, it is penguin-cold!

Harlequin Wrasse. These spectacular wrasses are frequently seen at Punta Vicente Roca.

Photograph © 2016 Josef Litt

We descend to 30 m and wait for the sunfish to appear from the depths. The visibility is poor, maybe five or six meters. The dawn is rising, and there is no sun to speak of. Depth and cold quickly kill our determination. After twenty minutes of idle waiting, my buddies start leaving one by one, either because of hypothermia or running out of the air. But I stay put.

Suddenly two flecks below us take on a darker shade of blueish-green. Two sunfish rise to the cleaning station and let the Mexican hogfish perform their cleaning duty, picking parasites from their skin.

No, we did not stick to the rules. Being excited, cold, and intoxicated with nitrogen, we did not wait for the sunfish to settle and we fired our strobes too early. Both animals disappeared in a few seconds. Only a single viable image remained from this encounter with this elusive specimen of Galapagos wildlife.

Southern Ocean sunfish. It is a challenge to differentiate between the oceanic and the southern sunfish species without an x-ray or a dissection. I believe that it was the Southern Ocean sunfish, Mola alexandrini, we encountered at a small platform at 30 metres (100 feet) depth at Punta Vicente Roca early in the morning.

Photograph © 2016 Josef Litt

Writing a well-illustrated book about Galapagos took me to the islands multiple times. I travelled twice to photograph the underwater scenery and fauna of the northern islands, Darwin and Wolf. On another occasion, I visited thirteen islands during a two-week trip. I would recommend extending each trip with a stay on one of the main islands, Santa Cruz or San Cristóbal. Both offer a plethora of snorkelling and Galapagos wildlife spotting opportunities.

Galapagos offer one lesson. Despite being on the equator, their unique climate means that one is cold more often than desired.

Excuse me for now, please. Defrosted, I got to go and apologise to my grandma.

Camera Icon

Subscribe To My Newsletter

Join my mailing list to receive the updates on books, photographs and holidays.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest