Ultimate Galapagos 2018 Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on Jul 09, 2018

While traveling around the world on the HMS Beagle, British naturalist Charles Darwin spent five historically significant weeks in the Galápagos Islands studying the flora and fauna.  His research during this short visit would define the future of science and the theory of evolution.  Aside from his discoveries of natural selection and adaptation to the environment, his observations on animal behavior struck a chord with me and with fellow travelers on our tour.  In 1845 Darwin wrote in his journal that “the birds cared no more for me than they did for the great tortoises.”  Darwin’s observations on the tameness of the animals still holds true today.  A place where animals have no fear of humans could only be described as a living Eden!

San Francisco Church Quito EcuadorOur group met in the ancient city of Quito, Ecuador, where we stayed a block from the historic city center.  On our city day tour we visited several churches built in the 15th and 16th centuries.  Of special note was La Iglesia de la Compañia.  Here, we obtained a special permit and permission to photograph inside the church, which is not normally allowed.  This is one of South America’s most ornate churches and one of the best examples of Spanish Baroque architecture.  Taking 60 years to build and containing 53kg of gold leaf, the church is an architectural wonder.  Other stops on the tour included the equally ornate San Francisco Church (Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco) and the “Virgin of Quito” which sits on El Panecillo hill overlooking the entire city of Quito.

Then we were on our way to the Galápagos Islands, where we spent the next ten days sailing over 1200 miles on a luxury catamaran yacht.  Our photographic adventure took us to thirteen key islands of the archipelago.  Most tours will cover fewer than half of these destinations—so we were fortunate to visit many that are not visited as frequently.  Each day was fully packed with activities starting with wet or dry landings using our Zodiacs (pangas) to explore the incredible animal and birdlife of these islands.  We checked out numerous bird rookeries, saw various subspecies of land and marine iguanas, and encountered many tortoise species.  Every landing gave us close-up opportunities to photograph several species of boobies, waved albatross, frigatebirds, the famous Galápagos finches, swallow-tailed gulls, the rare lava gull, brown pelicans, yellow warblers, Galápagos hawks, short-eared owls and Galápagos penguins, to list just a few. 

Waved albatrosses Galapagos IslandsThe weather on this trip was different than usually expected and we had many overcast days.  At first this was slightly discouraging, but it really became a blessing in disguise.  The harsh equatorial light throughout the day is hot photographically and overcast skies allowed us to shoot birds in their natural habitats without contrasting light.  Perfect for shooting wildlife in the shrubs and mangroves surrounding some of the islands.   

A couple of our landings brought us to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island and to San Cristobal to photograph tortoises and the Charles Darwin Breeding Center.  As these are also the (human) inhabited areas of the archipelago, it was the only opportunity to connect to the outside world via the internet and for a few hours of shopping before boarding our boat for the next destination.

Sea lion underwater Galapagos IslandsSome of the most memorable times on the trip for me and for many of the participants were the numerous snorkeling excursions offered.  We did about ten trips in the water and seeing all the underwater marine life was nothing less than breathtaking.  Sea turtles, yellowtail surgeonfish, parrot fish, Galápagos sea lions, Galápagos penguins, and occasional sharks filled our point and shoot underwater viewfinders.  Over half of the group went snorkeling at every opportunity and I think I can speak for everyone that the highlight of the snorkeling experience was swimming with the Galápagos sea lions at Espanola Island.  For about an hour the sea lions performed incredible acrobatics around our group of snorkelers.  They came very close, even touching us as they performed their underwater dances.  This underwater performance was breathtaking to witness and photograph.  It left us speechless.  At one point I found my forearm in the mouth of a sea lion—my initial reaction was to freak out, but when I relaxed I found out in short order that the incident was all part of the playful behavior these magnificent marine mammals display.  They seemed happy to swim with us and the feeling was mutual.  For me and the others snorkeling, this was one of those experiences with nature never to be forgotten or matched in our lifetimes.

Baby iguanaAs I sit and write this report while looking at the images I took, I am in awe of the photos obtained on this trip.  My co-leader and seasoned veteran of the Galápagos Islands, Eric Rock, often mentioned that the Galápagos is the place to visit no matter if you are a seasoned wildlife photographer or a novice.  The animals have no fear of people so it is a perfect place to hone your photographic skills—and bring home jaw-dropping wildlife images.  

There is a song that has been playing in my head since returning from this moving experience to the Galápagos—"Back to the Island” by Leon Russell, one of my favorite artists from the 70s.  In the beginning of the song you can hear ocean surf hitting the shore and then later there’s a line to “watch the sun go down, hear the sea roll in.”  The tune is on a continuous loop in my mind.  All I can conclude about this trip is that somehow, some way, I have to “go back to the island.”  But enough words!  Check out some of the stunning imagery from the trip.  I hope to see some of you in the Galápagos at a future date.

NOTE: My friend and colleague Wayne Lynch will be leading the Ultimate Galápagos trip June 5 – 22, 2019, so don’t lose out on another magical mystery tour of the captivating Galápagos.  

Related Tags:  ecuador, galapagos, quito