Galapagos Sketchbook

Posted on March 10, 2011

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Ever since the days of Darwin, the Galapagos Islands have captured the imagination of dreamers. A global ecological jewel, today the islands are at a critical crossroads in preservation. What volcanoes and tsunamis could not destroy, man has threatened with ignorant importation of invasive species. Perhaps it is only due to their isolation that this unique ecosystem has been spared wholesale human-induced mass extinction.

Inspired by the need for greater understanding, I purposed to spend my second visit to the Galapagos illustrating an interpretive journal — with my long-range goal being to use my art collection and my art-inspired products to draw attention and raise funds to support continued preservation efforts. I would like to commend the Galapagos Conservancy and the Darwin Foundation for the fine work they are already doing.

The Galapagos are made up of approx. 100 islands, nine of which are large. I spent most of my time on Santa Cruz (the most populated island) and Isabella (larger, but more isolated.) As Darwin’s famous research demonstrated, many islands have species unique to them. The adaptations and symbiotic relationships between species are extraordinary.

We arrived at Baltra airport, situated on a desolate volcanic section of a small island next to Santa Cruz. It was covered with giant cactus trees which play an important part of the food chain.  Ecuadoran authorities disinfect arriving aircraft and search everyone’s baggage thoroughly to prevent unwanted stowaway plants, animals and insects from entering.

While I did spend some time snorkeling, the majority of my art reflects terrestrial situations. My aim was to draw from life as it was happening, and you can imagine the additional challenges on-site illustration of sea creatures would present. (They don’t call it “plein AIR” for nothing.) I’ve attached a representative selection of my studies which preview the larger and more descriptive work I anticipate completing for  a  show in early summer.

As an experiment, I decided to sketch on black paper with colored crayons. I thought it would be a nice departure from my normal, tightly controlled watercolors. The thick color sticks forced me to stay loose and focus on broad gestures. Little did I realize how appropriately the black paper reflected the volcanic rock everywhere, lending an air of igneous drama to my subject matter.


The most famous of the Galapagos birds are Darwin’s little finches. Not only has this modest little bird evolved adaptations customized from island to island, but there are also variations for each micro-climate within an island. The finches are among the most prolific pollinators of the delicate flowers growing on huge cactus trees.

Their showy cousins are the flamingos wading in the tannic acid estuaries catching the pink shrimp that give them their signature color.

Male frigate birds complete nests among the trees and cacti before inflating their red throats and crowing for the attention of females. Together with their mates they will take almost two years to raise the next generation of chicks.


Globally there are more than 100 species of iguana, and some of the most unique ones are found only in the Galapagos. Huge black, ocean-going iguanas inhabit much of the shoreline. These docile creatures can grow up to four feet long eating only seaweed. Colonies often sun themselves in heaps, almost invisible on the ancient black lava flows. During mating season, the skin on the males turns mottled colors. Large mud crabs with vibrant colors run among them undisturbed.


Speaking of docile vegetarians, there are few more impressive creatures than the giant Galapagos land tortoise. No one knows how old these creatures grow in the wild, since no person has been living in the islands long enough to see one survive to its natural old age. The ones in the photo are upwards of 140 years.Weighing in at half a ton, the greatest danger they pose is stepping on your toe.

This tranquility has not always serve the giant tortoise well. Once they were frequently attacked by invasive dogs and kidnapped by sailors for meat on their long voyages. Where once half a million giant tortoises roamed, today only a few thousand remain.


Many species in the Galapagos are referred to as “endemic” because they live in a defined geographic area. In an effort to control the impact of tourism and development, the Ecuadoran government has had to restrict the roaming of visitors on the islands – thus making our species somewhat endemic. At one time the local population consisted mainly of prisoners and misfits, but modern natives are friendly, eco-conscious individuals trying to live in harmony with their land and sea.

Fishermen bring in abundant harvests of deep ocean fish, and have lots of eager assistance from the local sea lion and bird population when the catch is dressed for market. This on-site sketch doesn’t begin to capture the commotion and competition – but look for a future rendition of this fish market in my next round of artwork.

And every island story needs an island bar – and this one was mine. Actually, Beto’s Bar is only REAL bar on the Isla Isabella. The jazz and refreshments are open to the elements and shared with all manner of species. There were times when it felt a little like the bar scene from Star Wars with so many iguanas, boobies, crabs and gulls bellying up to the bar. It’s probably because Beto promotes his “Endemic Drinks.”


The moral to the story is this: Everything in Life Changes. In the Galapagos the veneer is simply stripped away. Evolution does not begin with the end in mind. It experiments and sometimes fails, but eventually it always figures out how to plug every hole in the food chain. I take that as a clear indication that creative adaptation is the key to survival – not controlled strategic plans. Hmmmm… it might be fun to try on those sexy flamingo feathers for awhile?