Ultimate Galápagos 2015 Trip Report

By John Shaw on Jun 09, 2015

If you're seriously interested in nature, then a trip to the Galápagos Islands is undoubtedly on your "bucket list." The Galápagos are famous not only for being the birthplace of Darwin's theory of natural selection, but as a location where visiting photographers can have relatively close encounters with a wide variety of birds and other wildlife, including many endemic species.

Our group of 16 participants met in Quito, Ecuador. An extra day is scheduled at the start of the tour to allow for any travel delays. The flight out to the islands is a morning departure, and any glitches en route to Quito can result in major consequences. This year there were no real problems; all of our group and all luggage arrived safely and on time. Our extra day was spent touring the colonial heart of Quito, which dates back to the mid-1500s. The old city is dominated by cathedrals, one seemingly on every block, many of which exhibit a blend of Christian and native themes.

The next morning we left the hotel early for the airport, hoping to beat Quito's notoriously difficult traffic. Thanks to the early start we had no problems getting to the airport and checking in as a group. Five hours later we were in the Galápagos, getting settled on our comfortable boat and enjoying the first of many great meals. Now the real adventure began. Because our trip was an "extended" tour—twice the "normal" length of a Galápagos tour—we would have 14 full days of discovery. On each of those days we made two landings, and/or Zodiac cruises, and/or snorkeling trips. According to my count, by the end of the trip we had actually visited 23 different sites on twelve different islands, taken nine lengthy Zodiac cruises, and had at least a dozen snorkeling opportunities.

Landings in the Galápagos are either "wet" or "dry." Wet landings usually meant stepping from the Zodiacs into shallow water while wearing a pair of sport sandals. Most of the wet landings were onto sandy beaches, with easy trails. Dry landings were often onto lava areas with rougher trails, requiring good footwear such as hiking boots. Zodiac cruises offered photographic access to shorelines and species not approachable otherwise.

Due to a combination of the extremely fragile environment, the number of visitors (right now, roughly 200,000 people per year), and the number of tourist boats (currently capped at 80 boats), all visits to the Galápagos are tightly controlled by the Galápagos National Park Service. You cannot just bounce around between the islands, landing wherever and whenever, and staying ashore however long you wish to do so. Final itineraries are regulated by the park service, and groups must land at their designated landing sites at designated times, and depart from those sites at designated times. No more than 16 people, plus a certified guide, may be in any one onshore group. Everyone ashore must stay on the marked trails, and stay with their group. As I said, all visitation is tightly controlled. While this sounds very restrictive, in terms of photography it hardly matters in practice. The trails lead to prime locations, and subjects—birds, sea lions, iguanas, giant tortoises—are well within photography range. I cannot think of any one time that I felt I needed to be closer. The images in the accompanying slideshow should illustrate this point.

FYI, I used lenses from 24mm to 500mm on a "full-frame" body, with cameras mounted on a sturdy tripod whenever possible. When working from a Zodiac, I used my 80-400mm exclusively.