• Tom Lee

A Galapagos Adventure

In this post I wanted to share some of my experiences about #Galapagos, the islands, its #wildlife, and some options and tips for photographers....

As an #experienced traveller and someone who ‘dabbles’ a bit in nature photography, I always love going to regions of the #world where we don’t see the everyday diet of animals and scenery! This year it was the Galapagos islands. I don’t know of one serious naturalist/photographer that doesn’t want this on their #bucket #list. The first thing to sort out was if we could afford it….getting there wouldn’t be cheap, and when you are there you don’t want your vision to be spoilt by (dare I say it) hundreds of tourists!


The logistics.

Galapagos is formed of a total of 21 #islands (only 4 of which are inhabited), and lie approximately 862 miles west of #South #America, in the Pacific Ocean on the equator line, and forms part of the Republic of #Ecuador. So, the first stage was organising flights to #Quito as you can’t fly to the islands directly. In our case this meant Manchester to Amsterdam then onward to Quito. You can only fly direct to Quito from London. So, 14 hours after boarding we finally arrive and transfer to the ‘local’ hotel. Traffic is manic in Quito and the 20-mile trip took over an hour! You will need to stay at least 1 day in Quito due to flight departure timings to the Galapagos and to be honest you will need the rest and some of the city is well worth checking out.

Galapagos Legend expedition boat

You now have to decide how you’re going to see the islands and there are really only two options, each of which has its own price tag and logistical difficulties. The cheapest option is to fly to one of the inhabited islands (San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana), each of which have good hotels of varying standards. You can see most of the common animals such as #seals and #iguanas just by being close to the jetties and beaches, and you don’t need accompanying. To see any of the other islands and the more #endemic birds and #wildlife, you need to charter a tour which will include a #naturalist (necessitated by law) if you want to visit one of the #remote islands.


Kicker Rock through Cerro Brujo (Witch Hill)

Although these tours can be booked after you arrive you may be disappointed at your choices as all the best ones will have been pre-booked before arriving. The other thing to consider is travel time between your base on the island to your destination. It may take three to four hours to get to some areas, and then time ashore is limited to possibly three hours max, due to number restrictions on the remote islands.


The second option varies in price due to levels of comfort and amenities you require, but both will usually offer the same itineraries. You still need to fly from Quito to one of the islands airports; #Baltra is approximately 1.5hrs flight time. The #cruise option (to call it a cruise is stretching it), is more like a military exercise or scientific #expedition and needs to be run to a timetable due to the number of ships in the area and limitations placed on the companies over how many people can access the islands at any one time. This is an effort by the Ecuadorian government to control overcrowding and protect the environment from human erosion. Something that they have been criticised for mis-managing in the past.


  • Only 100 people are allowed on an island at any one time.

  • Groups are limited to 16 max and a naturalist.

  • Only two slots (am or pm) and limited to 3 hours.

  • Cannot be on the island at midday or overnight.

  • As one ship comes in another leaves!

Marine Iguanas, San Cristobal

The cruise ships vary from small (16-30 person #catamarans) to large (100 person max expedition ships). We chose the latter for various reasons….. The variety of itinerary is greater and there are more naturalists available. Levels of #comfort and #amenities is usually higher and there is more personal space available should you need it. If you are susceptible to sea sickness, you may want to stay away from smaller vessels, particularly around the northern islands where the waters can be unpredictable at certain times of the year. My wife is in this category; however, she was not troubled on this trip.


A benefit of the cruise option is that there is no time wasted getting between islands. Usually repositioning at midday or overnight, you are already at your location ready to disembark. A typical day would comprise of:

  • Wake up call (ships tannoy) at 6:30.

  • Breakfast at 7:00.

  • Disembark via zodiac (sometimes referred to as a panga) for a dry (or wet) landing at 8:00.

  • Island exploration until 11:00 (16 people max, sometimes less).

  • Back onboard for lunch

  • Reposition ship if necessary over lunch.

  • Disembark via zodiac again at 14:00.

  • Island exploration until 17:00 (16 people max).

  • Back onboard for dinner.

  • Dinner 19:00.

  • Briefing for next day’s itinerary 20:30.

  • Evening drinks and head down by 22:30……(knackered).

There are four main cruise itineraries (A, B, C and D), which separate the islands into groups of northern, southern, east and west, lasting between 3 day and 4 days each. We chose C and D back to back as I thought 3 days wouldn’t be long enough even allowing for some overlap in the wildlife we might see. My costs were steadily rising, but hey, when am I likely to do this again! The reverse journey was another day stopover in Quito and a visit to the famed #Otavalo market, followed by a route back through Amsterdam and back to Manchester.


Expectations.

So, we’re all fans of Sir David Attenborough and love his natural history series on TV, after all that’s what drew us to this type of adventure in the first place. It’s at this point we all need a reality check! The guys making the images for those films have been on the spot for up to two years and are not restricted in the same way that we are, so it’s reasonable to assume that we are not going to get the same results as they are (no matter how good a photographer we think we are). OK, anyone can get a lucky shot, and it is comparatively easier than any other form of wildlife capture, but there are so many #restrictions placed on tourists such as when and where we can access, and if we’re #fortunate we may have two weeks at most to get our shots. Preparation is the key to any successful expedition ashore and knowing the realities of what is possible will help.

Pelican

Equipment.

Carrying a lot of gear around in a heavy backpack is not recommended. The #temperature can reach well above 30ºC and there will be no room for a tripod. #Water is far more important and you need to take plenty of this to remain #hydrated on what could be a 3 hour trek. If you must take a support, then get a walking stick with a quick release camera mount fitted to the top to use as a monopod. Some of the treks can be on very uneven ground/boulders with slippy surfaces. Generally speaking there is so much light around you can hand hold anything and get away with it even at small apertures.


#Lenses are a difficult one. Having taken my 100-400 and 1.4x teleconverter, I found it almost too much for the situation (apart from being heavy). Most of the time getting close to the wildlife is not an issue, unless the track you are on keeps you from straying into a restricted area (of which there are many). The #tracks are quite #narrow in many places (single file only) and clearly marked. There are stiff penalties for anyone incurring the wrath of the naturalists! I found myself taking off the teleconverter and restricted my #zoom to 200mm which was more than #adequate for most situations. I found myself resorting to my phone camera on many occasions because I was too close!

Yellow Warbler

Lens choice is always a personal one however, but one body, one zoom and one wide angle will be more than enough for your needs. I also took my DJI Osmo pocket for video purposes. You’re not allowed to use a flash so don’t even think about it.

Sally Lightfoot Crab

You are constantly surrounded by water, climbing on and off zodiac’s and there are many wet landings. Consider how you are going to keep your gear dry and safe. Whilst the crew always assist with your bags, there are accidents. You can even get a #waterproof bag for your phone (about £10) that allows you to use it underwater and will float if you lose grip. Some of the images I saw from guests on the snorkelling trips were great!


In practice.

It may sound as if my preamble is overthinking what should be an enjoyable trip to one of the most beautiful places on earth (and it was), however, I have learned from experience that when you’re spending a large quantity of your yearly disposable income in one go – be prepared! Many is the time I’ve ended up in a spot that I could have spent hours at, only to be told: ’10 mins, back on the bus’, and spent an hour at a location where 10 mins was way too long.

Lava Lizard

The uninhabited islands of Galapagos require that your group must be escorted by a naturalist guide. Although these groups are #limited to a maximum of 16, the group must at all times stick together (unless in a beach area). This means that the group must keep at the same pace as the guide dictates. Whilst this is not an issue for most guests, it could be for serious nature photographers. Wildlife photography is not my main genre but even serious photographers of any sort would be a little disappointed not to spend longer at every location on the trail. The #practicalities of a 2.5 mile hike in 30 degree heat over rough terrain carrying a heavy pack and time restrictions on a 16 man party make this an impossibility. However, such is the abundance of subjects and their proximity to the group, I won’t say ‘it’s like shelling peas’, but there is ‘time enough’ when they are not ‘afraid’ of humanity and it becomes a lot easier to get your shot.


Summary

So, was it worth it and did it tick all the boxes? For me, yes. It cost in the region of £14k for my wife and I, including, flights, transfers, hotels, cruise and expenses, not an insubstantial amount for 10 days! We got to visit one of the most #remarkable places in the world with first class guides and itinerary. I got some #tremendous images of wildlife (many endemic only to these islands) that I will treasure forever.


I hope that my experience of this trip will inspire others to visit (before the Ecuadorian government really clamps down), and if this place is not on your bucket list – it should be.


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