Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Some places on this earth offer the perfect answer to my vanishingly short attention span. I find myself sitting in front of the computer, doing something ostensibly useful when some random synapse fires and I feel the need to flee the office, the state, the country. If Africa’s too far, China’s too confusing and Europe is too expensive, there’s always a week in the Galapagos. It’s a (relatively) short flight. No jet lag since it’s nearly due south. Decent weather. Not too spendy. And since you’re living on a boat the entire time, there’s a finite amount of trouble you can get into. You’re there for a week and then it’s back to Quito and an altitude-induced headache and home again before the creditors even notice you’re gone. The islands are quite a magical place as well. Outside of the high arctic and Antarctic, it’s one of the only places on earth filled with naive wildlife. And generally speaking, wildlife photography is a lot easier when the stuff isn’t running away from you.

The animals there simply have not yet learned to hate and fear us. Watching the hordes that come to gawk and natter, they may yet come around to it.

On the Galapagos, it’s a chore not to stumble over the abundant birdlife and reptiles there. And the critters themselves are astonishing. Blue-footed boobies and red throated frigates and marine iguanas basking on the black lava shore like dinosaurs in miniature.

The downside of all this Darwinian fauna is its overwhelming popularity. More than 150,000 tourists visit each year, and all those sensible shoes would reduce the islands to dust if not for stringent guidelines. Every island tour group is escorted by a trained guide and must keep to the prescribed paths and landing sites. It’s all perfectly sensible, unless you’re me and bristle a bit at all the adult supervision.

Best Bits: I love Marine Iguanas. Can’t get enough of the evil looking bastards. Swimming with the sea lions is a very close second. Diving with schooling hammerheads and whale sharks are pretty frickin’ cool, too.

Worst Bits: Expect a lot of adult supervision. Outside of the immediate environs surrounding Puerto Ayora, there is not much in the way of independent travel on the Galapagos. You will spend a week with a dozen or more strangers with varying levels of fitness and curiosity. I found I needed to adjust my enthusiasm level down a few notches. The presence of a bar onboard helped markedly.

How to Get There: It’s a simple matter to get to Quito and Guayaquil and then on to the islands’ airports at Balta and San Cristobal.

When to Go: (Pinched from a travel company website) June to December is generally called the “dry season”, and usually offers blue skies and mid-day showers. During this season, sea mammals and land birds are most active. This is a good time to observe sea birds’ courtship displays. The waters of the southern flowing Panama current warm the Galapagos waters again around December.

The time period between December and May are considered the “warm season”. During this warmer season, the Galapagos’ climate is more tropical with daily rain and cloudier skies. The island birds are especially active during that season. Also, the ocean temperature is warmer for swimming and snorkeling.
My trips were in April and December, and were pretty much the exact opposite of conventional wisdom. April was hot and sunny, December cool and cloudy. Go figure.

Don’t Forget: Two words. Knee Pads. The black lava is murder on unprotected flesh, and given the vanishingly small amount of time you have in any given setting, it’s handy to plop down and blast away.

Also, I love shooting with a 1:1 150mm or 180mm macro lens. The critters aren’t shy, but they’re not stupid either. Even the most serene iguana gets tetchy when you stick a camera lens inches away from its eye. A long lens gives everyone some breathing room. I use a 90° angle finder attachment on my Canons, an overpriced but invaluable tool for shooting at ground level.

Finally, some sort of underwater camera is ideal. Nearly all of the trips allow some sort of snorkeling and swimming excursions, and the opportunity to swim with Sea Lions is simply brilliant.

Who to Call: I enjoyed a week-long scuba trip with Peter Hughes Diving in 2007. Decent boat, good staff, a surprisingly fun group of fellow divers and amazing critters.

For shore excursions, I don’t have much advice on specific boats to charter. Going on a photo specific trip might be helpful, but it’s generally more expensive and the thought of spending a week with scrumming with a dozen photo enthusiasts makes my stomach hurt.

I’d strongly advise going with one of the smaller boats though, no more than 15 passengers. I sailed on the MV Beluga back in 2005, and had a lovely time of it. Not perfect for photo work, but I decided to avoid being a bigger pain in the ass than strictly necessary.

The times I went, I looked online for last minute cancellations. My first trip involved a Tuesday email inquiry, a Wednesday confirmation and scoring a cheap plane ticket and a Thursday departure. I was on the boat Friday feeling very pleased with myself.

Photographed December 15, 2007 with a Canon EOS-1Ds camera and 16-35mm f/2.8 lens using a Seacam underwater housing. Exposure 1/100 second at f/4.5.

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