Artist follows in the footsteps of Darwin

Robert Fuller surrounded by marine iguanas during a trip to the Galapagos Islands.

Robert Fuller surrounded by marine iguanas during a trip to the Galapagos Islands.

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I’ve just returned from a tour of the Galapagos Islands where I was amazed by the incredible wildlife sightings. I haven’t been able to put my paintbrushes down since I got back.

The unique species that roam these Pacific islands inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and it’s easy to see why. The Galapagos is host to the only waved albatross breeding colony in the world as well its very own endemic penguin, the Galapagos penguin, and each separate island is home to a different species of giant tortoise.

Remarkable creatures such as blue-footed boobies and magnificent frigate birds fill the skies whilst Sally Lightfoot crabs, named after a nimble Caribbean dancer for the way it deftly tiptoes across the sand, scuttling across the beaches.

I couldn’t help imagining what it must’ve been like for Darwin to see these creatures for the first time when he landed in 1835. Apparently there was no artist to record the species that he saw because the expedition’s official artist had been made redundant shortly before Darwin arrived in Galapagos.

As I traced his footsteps across these incredible islands, I felt inspired to make up for that lack of images and vowed to bring back many drawings, photographs and plenty of video footage of my own trip.

Even the landscape is other-worldly. On some islands the sand on the beaches was a volcanic black; on others it was a deep red colour cut through with jutting black lava rock. The effect, on seeing a flushed pink greater flamingo picking its way across a brackish lagoon or a group of marine iguanas crowding the black rock, is almost surreal.

But one of the most exhilarating things about the entire experience was the way in which you could walk among the wildlife. Right from the first moment we arrived, we were in amongst the throngs of weird and wonderful creatures.

There’s supposed to be a rule that you’re not allowed within 7ft of wildlife and that you must stick to the paths, but try telling that to the land iguanas or giant tortoises sunbathing on these marked trails. You have a job not to stand on the mocking birds, lava lizards, land iguanas and sea lions that team underfoot – you even come across them in the town fish markets as they jostle for titbits while fishermen gut their catch. In the water the wildlife is so unperturbed by human presence that turtles glide round you and sea lions brush against your legs as you snorkel in the clear waters.

My two children, five-year-old Lily and Ruby, two, delighted at seeing sea lions jumping the waves like porpoises as they swam in the shallow surf.

My family had joined me on a tour of the islands that I was leading in conjunction with the Beverley-based tour operator, Think Galapagos. My group and I were snorkelling in James Bay, on Isabela Island, which is notable for its black sand, when we came across five sea lions in a large crevice in the reef.

Peering down, it looked like a roofless cave that ended in a point. The two youngest sea lions waited in the overhangs while the others corralled their prey, lunging at them and herding them with their fins. They also blew walls of bubbles to cause confusion.

They drove the fish to the point of the triangular crevice and then caught them once they were trapped against the walls. The fish were small, only a few inches long, and must have constituted a small snack for the sea lions.

The hunt caused so much confusion in the water that it took us a while before we noticed that all around us was an unexpectedly high number of onlooking predator fish, including pacific creole, flag cabrilla and young barracudas - all taking advantage of the sea lion hunt and the concentration of small fish being crowded into the cave.

At times the sea lions would come up for air just inches away from us, before quickly diving back down and sometimes they even bumped into one of us. Mostly, however, their movements were precise. One sea lion jumped over one of our guests and when another headed towards me, I opened my legs and it swam between them.

We watched spellbound for what seemed like ages and then the sea lions sped off towards the open sea. I tried keeping pace with them, snorkelling as fast as I could. But they can reach a considerable speed effortlessly. Soon they lost me and I watched as they disappeared into the deep blue. It’s funny to think that on land our roles are reversed and they become the clumsy ones.

I noticed them suddenly veer over to the beach where my wife and daughters were playing in the surf and when I caught up with them again I was amazed to see them all swimming around Ruby who was in a yellow inflatable ring. Curious about the ring, they had stopped their hunt to investigate.

It wasn’t long before they began corralling shoals of small fish back towards their underwater trap again and this time I kept pace as they herded their catch a distance of about 150 yards back.

It was easier following them this time as they were slowed down by the job in hand and I watched as we rounded a rocky corner and the cave came into sight. One sea lion swam ahead to direct the shoal into the trap. It was fascinating to watch and I was grateful of the opportunity.

Painting the Galapagos

Those who haven’t had the chance to see the Galapagos wildlife for themselves have a chance to get up close the creatures that roam the Pacific isles at Robert Fuller’s ‘Drawing for Darwin’ exhibition.

The artist will be sharing his footage of the sea lion hunt and a film of a waved albatross pair performing their elegant mating dance and of blue-footed boobies courting at his gallery in Thixendale from June 21 until July 13.

The display also features paintings inspired by his trip and The Galapagos Conservation Trust will hold a workshop on Galapagos wildlife for children.

Mr Fuller presents a talk and slideshow on his experiences on June 28. For more details, visit www.robertefuller.com

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