By Marc Cappelletti, Director of Expedition Development, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic
The instant I locked eyes with that iguana I was in love -- or as close to it as one can be with a reptile. I couldn't stop staring, and couldn't help thinking that these were the eyes of a modern day dinosaur. It was my first day in the Galápagos Islands and, energized by the abundance of wildlife and proximity to it, I looked closer. The iguana squinted, her pupils dilated. She was looking closer too.
From tortoises to finches, sea lions to iguanas, the creatures of Galápagos are remarkably unafraid of humans, or at least indifferent to us, hence this bizarre staring contest. It is a unique privilege for the traveler to behold -- peering into the eyes of wildness. And it enables us to have a window to the soul of the animals, a scientifically-proven one.
Studies have shown that our natural instinct the instant we come into contact with a person or animal is to seek out the eyes. The behavior is courtesy of the amygdala, a small but powerful cognitive region of the brain that "tells" us to find the eyes, interprets what we see, and then decides how to respond. In a split second of eye contact, an incredible amount of information is shared.
"Fearful eyes," the studies show, elicit the most powerful response, and unfortunately for the animal enthusiast, flight is the most common reaction. Therefore, in 99% of the wild world, we typically don't get to go beyond a glimpse into the eyes of wildlife and that singular feeling of fear.
In Galápagos, with fear and flight an ocean away, we are privileged to sit and ponder the eyes of the animals for a prolonged period of time. The result is profound and complex, one that left me lying on the ground for minutes in front of an iguana and trying to solve the mysteries of the universe. While it may be a sense of curiosity or confidence, or a multitude of indescribable qualities that we find in their eyes, the impact will be felt and won't soon be forgotten.
Here are my favorite eyes of the Galápagos, starting with those of my dear iguana. Let your amygdalae run wild. What do you see?