Ultimate Galápagos 2016 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Jun 15, 2016

The very strong El Niño phenomenon of the winter of 2015‒2016 did not seem to have the same devastating effect on wildlife that our group experienced when traveling to the Galápagos during the El Niño of 1997–1998.  At least this seemed to be true from what we could see on land.  As we traveled around the archipelago during the 1997 event, many Galápagos sea lions and hundreds and hundreds of marine iguanas could be found dead or dying on the beaches and ocean side lava flows.  This year, even though the phenomenon was very strong, there were some iguana casualties, but things for the most part seemed okay.  Presumably the Galápagos had dodged the El Niño bullet.
Our trip is called Ultimate Galápagos for good reason.  And it is “ultimate” because we see virtually all of the famous wildlife on this tour during our two-week voyage—as opposed to those trips with a short itinerary that spend only one week in the islands and miss some of the more interesting and noteworthy wildlife species and some significant islands.
What made this trip great could be easily summed up in a very short list.  We had a comprehensive itinerary.  Our spacious catamaran provided a perfect platform for our very congenial group of 16 participants and leaders to explore the archipelago.  We had a wonderful Galápagos native-born national park naturalist guide with us—a guy we have worked with for a number of years.  He is the best!  We had an excellent cook on board.  And, to top it all off, we had an enthusiastic captain and crew who made it easy for us to get ashore early and often with all of our photo gear.  Who could ask for more?

Many people who travel to the Galápagos go there partly for the sunshine and blue skies.  But for photographers, the best photography comes with a bit of bright overcast or puffy white cumulus clouds.  Fortunately for us we had a bit of both.  On one critical day when we went to Española (Hood) Island to photograph waved albatrosses we had almost perfect conditions to shoot these spectacular birds during their courtship display.  It was, for me, a rare event since most every other time I have been there I photographed the birds in blazing sunshine. 
Up in the north on Genovesa (Tower) Island we were treated to nesting Nazca boobies as well as courting great frigatebirds with their inflated bright red gular pouches.  These, of course, are another major highlight of bird photography in the Galápagos.  Genovesa, like Española, is one of the premier islands for wildlife photography in the archipelago—and one of these islands is almost always excluded when traveling only on a one week itinerary.  We had the best of both.
Other memorable encounters included an excursion into the cool highlands to photograph wild Galápagos tortoises.  Here we also did extremely well and it was another significant highlight of our photography adventure.  Throughout our trip we had great opportunities to shoot plenty of land and marine iguanas, Galápagos hawks—one eating an endemic Galápagos snake—flamingos, shorebirds, herons, the famous Darwin’s finches, and Galápagos sea lions and fur seals.
Whenever we charter boats in the Galápagos for our photography voyages we always charter 16-passenger vessels because that is a manageable group size for photography on shore.  Due to the amount of tourist traffic these islands receive during the course of the year, it is understandable why there are many restrictions placed on where you can go and how much time you can spend at each location.  But we were constantly surprised to watch boats (ships, actually) that discharged 50 to 100 passengers.  It is hard to imagine how anyone interested in serious photography on those trips could have accomplished much quality shooting as their groups (even though divided into smaller groups of 16 people each when on shore) would tightly circulate around the small landing areas.  We were often finishing our morning photo shoot as the light got harsh just as these groups were beginning to land on shore.  For photographers, bigger boats/ships are clearly not the way to go!
On a final note, if you’re heading to the islands it’s best to have at least one extra day in Quito or Guayaquil at the beginning of the trip in order to make sure you and your luggage arrive before you fly out to the islands.  Our trip always schedules that extra day and we use it for a tour of Quito and its environs. 
One notable event happened this year—we were able to get permission to photograph in the spectacular Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús, a remarkable 17th-century Jesuit cathedral where photography is usually prohibited.  We were given a 30-minute permit to photograph what is considered to be one of the most significant works of Spanish Baroque architecture in South America.  The church is profusely decorated with gold leaf, gilded plaster and wood carvings, and we spread out to shoot its architectural features as efficiently as possible.  It was a great privilege and a fantastic experience—and a few of those images can be found at the end of the accompanying slide show.