Freezing for Galapagos Wildlife

Varied underwater environments in different parts of the archipelago offer stunning encounters with Galapagos wildlife in both, warm and cold waters. An entertaining account of encounters with Galapagos wildlife on their rather cold side.
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!

Galapagos wildlife: Red-lipped batfish at The Anchorage, Wolf Island
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.”

Punta Vicente Roca
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.

South oceanic sunfish at Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela, Galapagos
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

Galapagos Front Cover

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.

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