Watercolours Reveal the Wonders of the Galápagos

Grandpa Chan began sharing his paintings with his grandchildren—now he shares them with the world.  
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“My favourite animal was the sea lion,” says Grandpa Chan. “They spend their day swimming, fishing, and napping a lot. They have a variety of facial expressions, and I tried to capture them in my drawings.” By: Grandpa Chan

Dear Arthur, Allan, and Astro,

Believe it or not, Grandpa is on an expedition! Because of the daily drawings I share with you on Instagram, National Geographic invited me and Uncle Ji aboard the National Geographic Islander so that I can explore the Galápagos and share them with you.

The Galápagos are an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, more than 800 kilometres west of Ecuador in South America. These islands are famous for the large number of endemic species that British naturalist Charles Darwin studied on the second voyage of H.M.S. Beagle from 1831 to 1836. Darwin explored the land, discovered fossils, and collected specimens. Later these observations served as a foundation for his theory of evolution by natural selection, which changed the world forever. Darwin said that when plants and animals adapt to their environments, they are more likely to survive and reproduce. I was excited to see this place for myself.

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The Galápagos archipelago includes 13 major islands and more than 100 smaller islands, islets, and rock formations such as León Dormido (Kicker Rock). By: Grandpa Chan

Our first excursion took us to North Seymour, a small rocky island near Baltra. On a walk guided by naturalists, we caught sight of a young sea lion resting on the beach. All of us gathered around the pup and started to take photos. We were told we can’t be closer than three feet from any animals. I had never seen such a wild animal so closely, and I was surprised that the sea lion didn’t show signs of fear. I thought about you, Astro, because you love sea lions. You’re only two years old now, but later I hope you’ll read this and know my thoughts were with you in this moment.

We observed a fleet of frigate birds. The males made loud rattling sounds, and each had a large red gular sac that expanded like a giant balloon to attract females. It reminded me of when I was a university student in South Korea and I used to dress sharply and sing American pop songs in public. This technique works; your grandma noticed me, and we fell in love.

Kids, today I tried something new. We rose early on board the ship, and after breakfast we had two options for water activities on Isla Isabela: snorkelling deep-sea or near the beach. I had to confess I had never snorkelled in my life, and it had been a long time since I’d gone swimming. So Uncle Ji and I chose the beach.

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While snorkelling, Grandpa Chan glimpsed a turtle and a school of fish: “At least I can say I tried snorkelling, and I have a drawing to prove it!” By: Grandpa Chan

We put on our wet suits, took our snorkelling gear, and headed out. Giant volcanic rocks looked like modern sculptures, and the water was crystal clear. Uncle Ji patiently taught me how to snorkel, but it wasn’t as easy as I thought. Standing up on the ground with the fins was even harder. Maybe it’s because I’m 75 and have a hard time with balance. Or maybe it’s because fins are made for water! After our excursion, I felt exhausted, so I just sat on the beach and admired the landscape. I was a bit envious of the other people on the trip who seemed so at ease in the water. I wished I could snorkel better, but as an immigrant to Brazil I was busy working to raise your parents. I mentioned this to Ji, who seemed to appreciate my sentiments.

On another day I went kayaking for the first time in my life. This was much easier than snorkelling. Later we went to a coffee plantation, sampled artisanal rum, and headed to a local centre where hundreds of giant tortoises roamed around freely. It was inspiring to be near these majestic creatures. They moved slowly and seemed old and wise. I think they were wondering why humans are always doing things so fast.

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Clockwise from top left: frigate bird, baby Galápagos sea lion, blue-footed boobies, Galápagos land iguana. By: Grandpa Chan

Marine iguanas are scary-looking beasts from afar. We saw thousands of them sunbathing atop black lava rocks. But when you look at them closely, their faces are docile and cute.

Marine iguanas eat algae, while land iguanas eat plants, and because I visited in the cooler, drier season (June to November), food was scarcer than in the warmer, wetter season (January to April). We came across one big iguana hanging on a tree branch while trying to reach the last leaves of an otherwise barren tree. Iguanas are very slow, so it took him forever to get to those leaves. We all thought there was no way he could get there without falling, but to our amazement he did indeed manage to reach them and gobbled them up happily. Life is hard for these animals. They struggle every day for food and survival.

I know what it is to feel hungry. When I was a young boy, the Korean War broke out and everything was destroyed. There was no food at all. Once I went three days without eating anything. It was one of the hardest experiences of my life, so I felt sorry for this iguana. At least he had his meal that day.

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“One of my favourite things during this trip was to sit on the deck of the ship. In the evenings Uncle Ji and I would relax there.” By: Grandpa Chan

Birds are important animals in the Galápagos. On his visit Darwin identified several species of finches that varied from island to island, which helped him develop his theory of natural selection. He observed that different finches had different beaks depending on their habitats. The sizes and the shapes of their beaks adapted to their need to find and eat their food. This finding helped Darwin realise that animals evolve over time.

Before Darwin, Europeans believed God created humans and animals and they never changed. So what Darwin was saying at that time was controversial. Thanks to him and these tiny finches, now most people know about evolution and the idea that everything, and everyone, is constantly changing.

My favourite bird was the blue-footed booby. Their feet have a glorious turquoise colour thanks to their fish diet. The bluer their feet are, the healthier they are, so female boobies are looking for males with the brightest blue feet. When you grow up, boys, make sure you wear colourful shoes too!

 

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Zodiac boats take passengers to Punta Vicente Roca, a promontory on Isla Isabela where brown noddies nest. By: Grandpa Chan

One of my favourite things during this trip was to sit on the deck of the ship. In the evenings Uncle Ji and I would relax there. This is the first father-son trip that just the two of us have taken, and I was happy to share this time with him. We would feel the wind on our faces, admire the passing islands, and watch the frigate birds that would fly above us following the ship. Sometimes we would sip a glass of whiskey and watch the sun set, surrounded by the immense ocean. Everything was so quiet and peaceful, and I felt far away from everyday life.

I’m not used to this because São Paulo is always so loud and packed with cars and people. At night on the ship, we would look up at the sky and see billions of stars and the Milky Way. It had been a long time since I had seen such a bright sky. It made me realise again how small we are. Earth is as tiny as one grain of sand in the entire beach of the universe.

Did you know Grandpa was an earth science teacher in Korea? I hope one day we can look up at a brilliant sky like this together so I can tell you everything I know about the stars and the universe. Sometimes I think that we humans don’t know much about our own planet, but then I remember that we learn more with every generation. We each have a role to play in discovering new things and sharing our knowledge.

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“I thought the Galápagos would be hot—they’re on the Equator after all,” says Grandpa Chan. “But it’s precisely because of cold water that rich marine life flourishes here, though climate change and commercial fishing are the two biggest threats.” By: Grandpa Chan

On the next-to-last day of the trip, we went to Isla Santa Cruz, where we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station, founded in 1964 to preserve several species of tortoises in danger of extinction. They’re magnificent and gentle animals that can live more than a hundred years. But they are threatened, partly because pirates and conquistadores would eat them as food. We were told that tortoises were a convenient food source that could survive months without nourishment. Sailors stacked them in their ships and gradually ate them. Thousands of Galápagos tortoises were killed throughout the years.

Back on our ship it was time to say goodbye to the crew and all our fellow passengers. For the past week we’d gotten to know one another, and we grew closer as we did everything together. Several passengers, who learned that Uncle Ji and I were there as guests to document my journey for this magazine, asked us if we could share some of my drawings. So we made a short presentation, and people seemed to enjoy it.

After the last dinner, as I sat on the deck of the ship to look at the bright stars for one final time before heading back home, I thought about you—Arthur, Allan, and Astro—and I remembered when I was about your age. Back then I used to look at the night sky all the time, and I would count all the stars and learn about constellations from my own grandparents.

Watercolours Reveal the Wonders of the Galápagos

“One night, after a day of activities, you will come out to the deck of your ship. Maybe you’ll be alone; maybe you’ll be with loved ones. Then you’ll look up to the sky and be in awe of its immensity brightened by the infinite number of stars.” By: Grandpa Chan

At a certain point in my life, for reasons I don’t understand, I stopped looking at the sky. Maybe because I lived so many years in a big city with tall buildings and polluted air. Maybe because I was too busy working. But tonight, on this ship, I felt alive and awake as I found myself looking again at my old friends.

I hope you too will come to the Galápagos one day and experience this place for yourself. I hope you’ll sail the same waters, walk the same trails, hold the same grains of sand and let them run through your hand. I hope you’ll watch the same birds, sea lions, and tortoises and see for yourself all the splendour and fragility of nature. One night, after a day of activities, you will come out to the deck of your ship. Maybe you’ll be alone; maybe you’ll be with loved ones. Then you’ll look up to the sky and be in awe of its immensity brightened by the infinite number of stars. I hope you’ll remember that your grandpa was looking at the same stars in the same place. At that moment, my gaze, travelling past galaxies right now, would have touched the stars and travelled back through the universe, and will be reaching your eyes. And we’ll be connected in the beautiful mystery of life and the universe.

Essentials

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Grandpa Chan set out on an expedition to explore the Galápagos. By: Grandpa Chan

When to go

The climate is unusually dry for the tropics. June to November is the cooler, drier season. January to April is the warmer, wetter season. November/December and May/June are transition months. But the Galápagos are a year-round destination with much of interest, no matter the month.

What to Pack

The atmosphere on board Nat Geo ships in the Galápagos is casual, so leave the formal wear at home. Do pack water sandals/shoes for wet landings, as well as closed shoes with good soles for hiking over rugged lava and uneven terrain. Bring a pair of knee-high socks to wear with the provided rubber boots for tortoise viewing on Isla Santa Cruz. Good binoculars add immeasurably to enjoying wildlife.

Getting there

International flights arrive at Guayaquil, Ecuador, where guests spend a night before flying to the Galápagos. There are no direct flights from India to Guayaquil. All flights generally have two stops, with one being in a South American country.

Must-see Animals

Galápagos giant tortoises are an iconic species for all visitors. You can see them reliably in the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz. The nesting blue-footed booby, Nazca booby, red-footed booby, frigate bird, and several species of Darwin’s finches are widely distributed among the islands. The waved albatross nests exclusively on Isla Española, and the flightless cormorant is found only on Isla Isabela and Isla Fernandina. Galápagos sea lions, Galápagos fur seals, and Sally Lightfoot crabs are consistently seen, as are the Galápagos penguin, green sea turtles, and marine and land iguanas.

  • Grandpa Chan (@drawings_for_my_grandchildren on Instagram), aka Chan Jae Lee, recently moved back to South Korea with his wife after having lived in Brazil for 36 years.

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