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A Photographer's Guide to the Galapagos

by Philip Greenspun, December 2004


The volcanic Galapagos Islands rose from the sea floor starting around 5 million years ago. They are separated from the continent of South America by 600 miles of ocean and therefore the species have evolved separately from their forebears on the mainland. The islands were not visited by humans until approximately 500 years ago. Thus the wildlife has not had time to evolve a fear of human beings and can be approached and photographed very closely. Here is a place where you can take a bird's portrait with a 50mm lens.

Even if you're not interested in the specific oddities of the Galapagos, the biogeography of islands is worth studying because to a large extent that's what all of Earth's biogeography will look like in 100 years or so. Ecologists distinguish between two types of islands. The first are volcanic oceanic islands such as the Galapagos that sprung up from nowhere and collect species only by immigration from the air and water. The second are "land-bridge" islands such as Madagascar or Bali that were once connected to a continent but split off with a sampling of whatever wildlife happened to be around at the time. Because they are small and have small populations islands are subject to vastly more extinctions than continents.

There are four ways to see the Galapagos:

  1. for seasick-prone people: staying in hotels in the three inhabited islands and hopping among them in airplanes or small fast boats
  2. for people with a lot of time and not much money: arrive on a Thursday in the low season in Puerto Ayora and ask around until you find a budget boat that will take you on a 7-day cruise for $500-700 per person.
  3. for most Americans: book a $2000-3000 per-person trip on a reasonably nice 16-20-person boat
  4. for people who want maximum comfort: Celebrity Cruise lines started operations in the Galapagos in June 2004 with the Xpedition, a 94-passenger ship (about $3500 per person for a 7-night cruise)

Note: the sailboat at right looks nice but very seldom are sailboats able to sail in the Galapagos. The winds are not strong or reliable enough and therefore you get a comparatively cramped cabin and end up listening to a noisy diesel engine all night.

I booked my cruise as part of a multi-week trip through Wildland Adventures. They put me on the Eric, a 20-person boat run by one of the oldest and best companies in the Galapagos business. The naturalists on my cruise were former rangers from the Galapagos National Park and had a superb command of geology, geography, biology, and the English language.

Landing locations and times are regulated by the national park authorities. Generally the schedule looks something like the following:

  • 7:00 am: wake up
  • 7:30-8: breakfast
  • 8:30 am: board dinghy for landing at an island and a hike
  • 9:30-10:00 am: get back into dinghy for trip to snorkeling site
  • 11:00 am: back to main boat, which immediately weighs anchor and starts moving to the next island or a different site on the same island
  • 12:30: lunch
  • 2:00 pm: board dinghy for landing
  • 7:00 pm: dinner
  • 11:00 pm: anchor chain comes up and the boat starts moving to the next island through the night

A standard Galapagos cruise is fine for getting magazine-quality animal portraits. If you want to take landscape photos near sunset and sunrise you may want to investigate a special cruise for photographers where you get up earlier and jump right into a dinghy before breakfast.

Gear

Because it is so sunny and you tend to be out in mid-morning and mid-afternoon, you don't need to bring a tripod if you're using standard 35mm or digital cameras. You'll definitely miss a few photos without one but most of the time handholding will work just fine. For capturing birds in flight and headshots on the ground you'll want at least a 400mm lens (35mm perspective). The images on this page were taken with an Olympus E1 5-megapixel single-lens reflex camera and two zoom lenses with a total range of 28-400mm (35mm equivalent). Often it would have been nice to have a 20mm or wider lens and sometimes it would have been nice to have a 600mm lens. On the other hand, plenty of the best images were made closer to 50mm.

For want of having anything more profound to say about these islands, here are some favorite pictures from a weeklong cruise, arranged by island. Notice that the emphasis is on tourists in the landscape as opposed to pristine picture-postcard views. The objective here is to show the Galapagos as a tourist would be likely to experience it rather than as an idealized wilderness.

San Cristobal

Genovesa

Santiago

Fernandina

Isabela

North Seymour

Lots of blue-footed booby mating dance action...


South Plazas

Santa Cruz

The capital of the Galapagos, and the place SCUBA divers go when the cold water has given them the bends and they need a hyperbaric chamber.

Espanola





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Text and pictures copyright 2004 Philip Greenspun. The photos in this region were taken with an Olympus E1 camera..

Article created December 2004

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