Blue-footed boobies in action

It was 6.30am on a Saturday morning, and I was stood in a dinghy floating quietly in a mangrove forest in the Pacific Ocean, in my pyjamas, with two cameras round my neck squinting up at the brightening sky. A baby spotted ray swam underneath the dinghy, shortly followed by a huge green turtle. It was one of those moments where you are enjoying a wonderfully rare experience in an extraordinary situation, when suddenly you stop and compare the present to your seemingly mundane life back home in London.

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The mangrove roots broke the wind and the waves of the ocean, and the tangle of foliage made it almost impossible for any large sea predators to enter. This silent saltwater mangrove forest was the perfect nursery for juvenile sea creatures and the perfect viewing platform for us. We watched a juvenile oceanic white tip shark glide by. I felt as though we were in the real life Garden of Eden.

Blue-footed boobies began to gather on the horizon in the pale morning light, the numbers increasing by the minute. Suddenly, hundreds of birds appeared, flying in a grey cloud around the clearing. After a few laps a thin, breathy whistle was let out by one in the crowd, appearing to be a signal to dive. The first booby folded its wings and began to dive towards the water. The others soon all followed suit; they wheeled around, whistled and fell towards the sea. Wings folded in and necks out-stretched, they became arrows, speeding towards the inky black waters at a speed that looked as though they should break their necks. Plunge diving in unison right in front of us in their hundreds, making almost no splash.

To catch their prey, blue-footed boobies can dive deeper than 20m and for longer than 30 seconds, but their dives usually are rather shallow and short. They plunge into the water from as high as 100m. The females are slightly larger than the males and can dive deeper as they are heavier. They enter the water like knives, nipping fish in their beaks just below the surface and swallowing underwater. They bob to the surface and shake the water from their eyes, spread their wings ready to instantly take off to repeat. 

Adapted for diving, blue-footed boobies have a long, thin body and nostrils hidden underneath their bills in order to save their trachea when diving. Their wings are brown, their underside pale and their facial skin a dull grey. The booby’s primary diet is small fish, in Galapagos the blue-footed boobies most frequently dine on sardines, which is where they get the carotenoid pigment from, which makes their feet blue.

The name ‘booby’ comes from the Spanish term ‘bobo’, which means ‘stupid fellow’ and although boobies look comical, they are very intelligent birds. Boobies can live up to 17 years and only come to the shore to breed, spending almost all of their lives at sea.

The cause of the recent decline in numbers of the blue-footed booby population in Galapagos is currently being researched. GCT is working with the Glapagos National Park to understand why the numbers of the population are falling. So far, the indicators lead to an aging population, climate change and lack of food, especially sardines, due mainly to the El Niño event and over fishing.

By Jenny Vidler, Communications Volunteer

Video filmed by Debbie Vidler