The Galapagos – In the footsteps of Darwin

The Galapagos Islands lie on the equator 563 miles west of Ecuador, of which they are a part. This pristine archipelago is home to a vast number of isolated endemic species that were studied by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle. His observations contributed to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. For those interested in wildlife photography this is a trip that you should start saving for.

In July 2016, fotoVUE Director Stuart Holmes went on a trip to the wildlife paradise of Galapagos Islands with his partner Lucy Dickinson. 

• click on an image to get a slide show of photographs •

Our voyage of discovery

I was excitedly telling a friend how my girlfriend had bought us flights to the Galapagos Islands to celebrate my 50th birthday, how amazing is that? My friend replied: ‘Oh, I only got B and Q vouchers.’

So, the Galapagos Islands – I’ll cut straight to the chase – if you can, just go there, you will not regret it. Even if you are not particularly into wildlife photography, you cannot fail but be impressed by the variety of wildlife and its apparent lack of concern at your presence. That’s before talking about the stunning landscape.

We read a lot about the place before we went and decided to ‘wing it’ with regards to organising a boat trip, by far the best way of seeing what’s on offer. It is possible to just rock up and fill places, last minute, for much reduced prices compared to booking from home. This worked out perfectly, being low season we were given the choice of a number of itineraries and opted for an eight-day cruise on a 16-person boat; the Guantanamera.

Our trip took us on a tour of the islands from Santa Cruz, up to Genovesa then down and around Isabella stopping off at Bartolome, Fernandina, Rabida and Seymour Norte before returning to Baltra. Each island has its specialty due to the way it has been colonised by the various creatures, and its isolation. Some islands are better for birds, others for iguanas and others for sea life including hammerhead sharks and even penguins. We took a GoPro for the snorkelling which we did every day. The camera quality was very impressive and it’s great to look back at the variety of sea life and how close we were to it. With the right kinds of underwater camera kit there are amazing possibilities. Highlights underwater were undoubtedly the inquisitive and playful sea lions who we would spend ages swimming with, the large turtles, various sharks and the fast-swimming penguins.

On each island we would take an inflatable boat to the shore then walk along marked trails, accompanied by a guide who would fill us in on the names and behaviour of the flora and fauna. For the majority of creatures on the islands there are no predators meaning they are not scared of anything and it is easy to approach. This was demonstrated one afternoon when we arrived on a beach for a swim and a snorkel. There was a Galapagos hawk on a branch at the back of the beach about 100m away. Eager to get a closer photo I put on my 100-400mm lens and slowly started to inch towards it. The guide walked straight past and told me to follow. We walked right up to the bird and it didn’t flinch (it wasn’t stuffed by the way!). I had to change lenses as it was so close.

These volcanic islands are very ‘new’ geologically speaking and are still being formed. Some of the lava flows are very young and the plant life is only just starting to colonise. The bare ‘pahoehoe’ or ‘ropy’ lava makes for some excellent compositions, like isolating solidified rivers of lava. The blue sky, turquoise water and green vegetation also made for some great contrast. From the boat we got some beautiful sunsets with conical volcanic islands silhouetted and birds wheeling up above.

Eye-level with iguanas, full frame frigates, finches and flightless cormorants, splendid sea lions and Sally Lightfoot crabs, pink-footed, blue-footed and Nazca boobies, and much much more. I filled memory cards full of incredible creatures, it was indeed a trip of a lifetime.

Planning A Trip

There are direct flights from the UK to the cities of Quito and Guayaquil on mainland Ecuador, from where you fly to either of two airports in the Galapagos Islands, either Santa Cruz or San Cristobal. Whilst it is possible to travel independently and visit a few limited sites without a guide, by far the best way to see the islands and the wildlife is to go on a boat trip. These range from budget trips on small boats of typically 16 passengers to luxury trips on boats of all sizes up to cruise ships. You can book cruises and tours in advance or take a chance and organise once on the islands. Most tours start from Isla Santa Cruz.

We paid approximately £1000 for flights and our last-minute ‘budget’ 8-day boat trip around the islands cost $1200 per person. Despite being at the cheaper end of the scale our boat was spotless, the crew were superb, the guide was informative and the food was plentiful and excellent. 

I would say you could do it for £2500/person. The eight day boat trip is all in – food and accommodation. We stayed in other accommodation in the small towns at a cost of around £20/person/night with say £20/day on food in restaurants.

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Stuart Holmes

Author of Photographing The Lake District
Stuart was fortunate to be brought up around Keswick in the Lake District, an ideal playground for anyone who is into outdoor adventures. Having had various point and shoot cameras from the age of 11, the photography got a bit more serious on his first climbing trip to the...