Ultimate Galápagos 2013 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Jun 25, 2013

Once a nature photographer begins to travel internationally, just the word “Galápagos” conjures an almost obligatory photography pilgrimage to Nature’s Mecca—the birthplace of the Darwinian theory of natural selection. So it was when our group of 16 “pilgrims” headed to this archipelago of history and legend. And what a marvelous trip we had!

Our “Ultimate” Galápagos voyage was an “extended” tour—two weeks on a spacious live-aboard yacht in the “Enchanted Islands.” These days the “normal” Galápagos trip is only seven days in length and barely scratches the surface of the wonder of these islands. On a typical trip you would only visit 50% of the most photogenic locations and see only 50% of the most popular landing/snorkeling sites. Not so, on our Ultimate Galápagos tour!

Our group met in Quito, Ecuador, and stayed in a beautiful boutique colonial hotel just a stone’s throw from the main city square. The overnight ensured all participants arrived safely—and their luggage also arrived—before flying to the Galápagos to meet our boat. There were no problems! We had a day of interesting photography in the capitol city, including a cable car ride high into the mountains for a commanding view of the city. The next day, we checked in for our flight to the Galápagos as a group—impossible to do at many locations these days—so our luggage was ticketed en mass and we all escaped the excess baggage charges we would have, no doubt, encountered by checking in individually. About five hours later we were on the yacht enjoying balmy Galápagos weather as we headed to sea on our short shakedown cruise.

Cruising in the Galápagos is a leisurely affair as the boats are required to keep their speed at 8 knots or below to avoid hitting the archipelago’s numerous green sea turtles and occasional whales. Every day we made two landings and/or snorkeling trips in quiet lagoons. In the Galápagos, no one is allowed to go ashore before 6 AM and all must be offshore by 6 PM. Because we were on the equator, this schedule allowed photography at sunrise and sunset. A pre-dawn breakfast usually had us on shore at 6 AM to enjoy the early morning light. No more than 16 people, plus a certified park naturalist, may comprise an on-shore group. Landings are “wet” or “dry.” A wet landing could be accomplished by stepping into the water while wearing a pair of sandals. Wet landings were usually done on sandy beaches and the walking on the trails was relatively easy. Dry landings normally required hiking boots and often involved walking on sharp lava or soccer-ball-sized cobbles and were often longer walks with gradual inclines on the lower slopes of the archipelago’s volcanos. Though you see some tourists walking on these trails in flip-flops, I would always recommend wearing hiking boots on dry landing excursions to protect feet and support ankles.

Virtually every landing supplied photo opportunities, but each site provided something special as well. One location would have easily accessible and photogenic land iguanas; another, a close-by Galápagos hawk. Others had nesting red-footed, blue-footed or Nazca boobies, waved albatrosses, courting frigatebirds, endemic swallow-tailed and lava gulls, or lots of brown pelicans. Our frequent Zodiac cruises allowed access to excellent shoreline wildlife photography in areas where it would have been impossible to walk. These Zodiac cruises also gave us our best access to Galápagos penguins and flightless cormorants that like to roost and nest in those inaccessible or “off-limits” areas on shore.

One highlight was a Zodiac cruise amidst a brown pelican/blue-footed booby feeding frenzy. The birds were excited by a large school of anchovy-like fish swimming near the surface and plunge-dived all around us. Pelicans were diving so close to our Zodiacs they actually soaked passengers sitting nearby! It was glorious and lasted for almost an hour. We photographed the birds in all forms of contorted diving positions well into the late afternoon light. Great silhouette shots!

Who knew that our snorkeling excursions could result in such great photo opportunities? Photographers who brought underwater cameras had great photo sessions with Galápagos sea lions, numerous sea turtles and shoals of colorful tropical fish. In one instance we snorkeled in a small lagoon that, much to our surprise, had over 100 green sea turtles feeding and resting in it. I had the memorable privilege of floating with several large turtles just past the intertidal zone. The ocean waves pulsing on the shore moved all of us in and out as we hung (me with a snorkel) in the water column. It was like being at a sea turtle slumber party—we were all chillin’ (the water was a bit cool), hanging out and enjoying the company. It really reminded me of actually being in the turtle scenes in the movie Finding Nemo! Many photographers who brought underwater cameras had small Canon G series cameras in a specially-made Canon housing. I will definitely do that next year!

Our group had a lot of fun and shared many great experiences. Besides being a congenial group, a number of other factors also made this trip special. Our 14 nights on board the yacht, a very comfortable boat, a crew who couldn’t have been more accommodating, the relatively calm sea, a sky that was often sunny in the early morning and overcast midday—almost perfect conditions for photography, great meals that accommodated those of us with “alternative” diets, AND we were there at a perfect time for seabird courtship/nesting! Ultimate Galápagos, indeed!

Here are a few tips when planning your photo pilgrimage to the Galápagos:

1. Go with a photo group. As we were finishing our morning/good light session, the general interest groups were just going ashore.

2. Go for two weeks. Galápagos is a place you will probably only want to visit once in your life! It’s an exciting photo destination, but lacks the drama and wildlife variety of places like Masai Mara in Kenya, Brazil’s Pantanal or Antarctica/South Georgia. I could shoot at these other locations forever!

3. Choose a good boat. A boat with lots of space promotes group activities and allows you to comfortably spread out in your cabin. Some of the relatively inexpensive boats in Galápagos have roach infestations, which takes the edge off of the experience—especially in the dining room.

4. Bring your own wetsuit if you can. Boats do supply them but if you do not fit the “universal’ size designed for a 140-pound woman you may be out of luck. If you get cold in 65 degree (+/-) water, a long (not a shorty) wetsuit would probably be better. I bought one through Amazon.com from Tommy D Sports in Florida. They have every size! I’m a big (hard to fit) guy but I’m sure they could easily outfit a sumo wrestler! And buying my own wetsuit cost me exactly the same as renting one from the boat for two weeks! Snorkels and fins are usually free on the boats.

5. Bring hiking boots!

6. Bring sun protection. You will need constant sun protection, so bring sunscreen, hats and other protective clothing.

The Galápagos Islands are among the most heavily regulated national parks in the world. Participants MUST stay on designated trails and move with their group! It’s a good thing photo groups move slowly! This may sound restrictive, but you get great shots like those in our slideshows when you do move slowly—so go-with-the-flow! The yachts and sailboat routes are as regulated by the national park as US air space is by Air Traffic Control. There is no landing flexibility and your group MUST land at its designated landing site—and no other. This keeps tourist pressure down at popular spots and gives visitors a better sense of “wildness” if boats are kept apart on exact schedules. However, it is rare to be onshore without seeing another group nearby.

Approximately 100 boats carry tourists in the Galápagos. During 2013 almost 200,000 people will have traveled to the Enchanted Islands.

(Click on map to enlarge)
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