Photographing the Diverse Wildlife and Nature of the Galápagos Islands
The Galápagos Islands are high on most wildlife photographers’ bucket list, and for good reason. While photographers may not find intimidating predators like lions or larger than life land mammals like elephants, there is a reason the Galápagos is known as a “living museum and showcase of evolution.” After all, this is where Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was formed following his visit in 1835. From blue-footed boobies to giant tortoises, the Galápagos Islands are a spectacular location to visit with Lindblad Expeditions for photographers and nature enthusiasts alike.
Full disclosure: This article was brought to you by Lindblad Expeditions
Located 600 miles off of the western coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands remain remarkably wild, thanks to the government’s conservation protections that began in 1930. Today, almost 98% of the archipelago’s land area is part of the Galápagos National Park. In order to preserve the unique ecosystem of the Galápagos, tourism is tightly controlled. Tourists must be accompanied by a government certified naturalist at all times, and only a handful of expedition companies are licensed to bring people onshore.
For more than 50 years, Lindblad Expeditions has been at the forefront of expedition travel to the picturesque Galápagos Islands. In fact, Lars-Eric Lindblad, the father of Lindblad Expeditions founder Sven-Olof Lindblad, was the first person to bring non-scientific travelers to the Galápagos Islands in 1967. Today, the luxury adventure tour company operates two ships that traverse the calm waters between the 19 volcanic islands, showing their excited passengers why Charles Darwin was so enthralled by the diverse wildlife and landscapes.
Arguably, May is one of the best months to travel to the Galápagos, so I was pleasantly surprised when I heard there was one cabin left on the expedition set to depart on May 21st, 2022. Knowing that the seven-day Wild Galápagos Escape trip onboard the Lindblad Expeditions’ newest ship, the National Geographic Islander II, would be the grand prize of our Wild Personalities photo contest, I packed my OM SYSTEM OM-1 camera and boarded a flight to Ecuador.
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At a Glance
Day One – Bachas Beach, Santa Cruz Island
After being greeted by the Lindblad Expeditions team at the airport on Galápagos’ Baltra Island, we took a quick van ride to the local port where our first experience on the company’s famous Zodiacs awaited. Being one of the most carefully managed and protected national parks in the world, the ship that I would call home for the next eight days would not be able to dock on any of the islands. Like countless other Lindblad Expeditions, the solution is to ferry passengers to land via small, 12-person Zodiac boats. It was hard to contain our excitement as the Zodiac’s talented captain zipped across the clear blue waters towards the National Geographic Endeavour II.
Once onboard, we were able to meet the smiling faces of the ship’s crew, including the Captain Eduardo Neira and the Expedition Leader Carlos Romero. As our luggage was being brought to our cabins, we had the first of many incredible meals that would keep us energized for the adventure to come. After lunch, as the ship headed towards Santa Cruz Island, we were briefed on the slate of activities that awaited us in the days to come. Little did we know just how much adventure we were going to pack into the next seven days.
As the afternoon golden light began to descend on the remote archipelago, we boarded the Zodiacs to make a wet landing on Las Bachas. Luckily, I had brought my water shoes, as a wet landing is exactly what it sounds like. If the shoreline is protected or rocky, the Zodiacs will come to a stop a few meters from shore and your group’s naturalist will help you out of the boat into knee deep water. Since the equator runs through the Galápagos Islands, this momentary jaunt through the tepid ocean water is a refreshing welcome in the humid climate.
While some onboard chose to unwind from their long journeys with a late afternoon swim, I had come to the Galápagos to photograph every wild moment that I could, so I set out with my naturalist and a small group to find the beach’s wildlife. Bachas Beach is home to marine iguanas, land and lagoon birds, and depending on the time of year, flamingos and the East Pacific green sea turtle, who come to the beach at night to nest.
While the turtles, flamingos, and iguanas never materialized on this afternoon, we were treated to several beautiful birds who seemingly would pose for my OM-1 camera under spectacular late afternoon light.
As twilight descended and our first land adventure came to an end, we boarded the Zodiacs to return to the National Geographic Endeavour II for a ‘Welcome Aboard’ cocktail party and the first of many incredible dinners. Just a few hours into my adventure to the Galápagos Islands with Lindblad Expeditions, I was already dreading the moment we would disembark and return home.
Day Two – North Seymour & Rabida Islands
After a restful night of sleep thanks to the gentle rocking of the National Geographic Endeavour II, I awoke refreshed, ready for another day of wildlife photography in one of the most unique locations in the world. After a hearty breakfast, we shuffled into our Zodiacs for a dry landing on North Seymour Island. This morning’s two kilometer hike would introduce us to one of the Galápagos’ most iconic animals, the blue-footed boobie.
Even though I had seen countless pictures of these magnificent birds, I was awestruck when I laid eyes on my first blue-footed boobie as it spread its shockingly massive wings and took flight right in front of me.
Amazed at the unique look of this Galápagos staple, I quickly ventured along the lava rock trail in search of opportunities to capture more blue-footed boobies. In pure Galápagos tradition, it didn’t take long, as I almost immediately stumbled upon another as it warmed its eggs with its vibrant blue feet.
Impressed at how easily accessible the wildlife in the Galápagos was, I continued photographing this proud parent as it shifted its brightly colored feet, completely unfazed by my presence. I could not tell if this particular blue-footed boobie was a male or female, as both parents will take care of their nest.
After taking what I can only imagine was hundreds of photos, I ventured back towards the beach where I would get my first glimpse of the adorable sea lions that seem to vastly outnumber every other animal on the island chain.
I check my watch. 8:30am. I had taken more photos on my first morning walk in the Galápagos than I had in months. Feeling the adrenaline rush of being able to capture wildlife just mere meters away, I continued walking along the ridge that overlooked the beach and saw a rare photo opportunity unfold in front of me.
A recently hatched blue-footed boobie curiously looked out from the comfort of its nest to examine the small group of us who were walking past. The watchful eye of its parent made sure that the young chick stayed where it was warm and safe, but before it retreated back into the nest, we were able to see the excited look on its face as it heard us laugh.
As the short, early morning hike continued, we were treated to more wildlife photography opportunities. Iguanas and Great Frigate Birds, distinguishable by their giant red inflatable throat pouch, nestled among the countless rocks and trees of North Seymour Island.
As we returned to the ship, I excitedly looked through the photos on my camera’s LCD screen, in awe at the unique and unspoiled nature and wildlife that I was witnessing.
Back onboard, as the National Geographic Endeavour II raised anchor and sailed to Rabida Island, I made the first of many lifelong friendships that would be forged on my trip. Overhearing a man discuss golf on the way to lunch, I excitedly mentioned that I myself was a golfer. This casual encounter with Mike Pluemer would wind up being one of my favorite moments of the trip. From that minute on, I was inseparable from Mike, his wife Hilary, and their two 20-something children, Allison and Drew.
Being used to traveling alone, I rarely feel awkward when it comes to meeting new people while I travel. However, the close confinement and casual, family-like atmosphere on the ship made what was supposed to be a wildlife photography trip into something even more meaningful and enjoyable.
As lunch ended, we would return to our Zodiac for a late afternoon wet landing on Rabida Island. This island has one of the most stunning and unique beaches in the Galápagos. The sand is made from lava with a high iron oxide content, which gives the beach a vibrant, dark red glow.
The overcast skies helped even out the lighting, making it easy to capture the lazy sea lions as they basked in the warm, humid air. In addition, we also found over 10 flamingos and their eggs in a small pond behind the beach, which provided a euphoric ending to an incredible day.
Day Three – Fernandina & Isabela
Proving just how unique of a location the Galápagos Islands are, the National Geographic Endeavour II crossed the equator as its passengers enjoyed a well earned sleep. In the night, the ship traveled north around the island of Isabela to enter the westernmost land of the archipelago. In this location, the frigid waters of the Equatorial Countercurrent rise along the western edge of the undersea Galápagos Platform. This often creates dramatic fog and much cooler sea temperatures, which bring a host of different species than the rest of the islands, including frequent whale and dolphin sightings.
This provided my first opportunity to wake up early and catch sunrise from the ship’s top deck. Joined by the Pluemers and another family that I had met, Jay and Liz Starks and their grown children Delany and Caitlin, we watched as sun rays breached through the thick, low cloud layer.
After breakfast, a dry landing took us to Fernandina Island, which houses an imposing active volcano that rises to almost 5,000 feet above sea level. The evidence of this volcanic activity is everywhere, as dried lava flows cover the island, ending only when they meet the ocean.
Walking around the otherworldly island, sea lions, snakes and birds inhabited the black lava flows that doubled as our hiking trail. The rounded volcano was impossible to miss, as its gentle, but opposing presence was never far.
This island is one where the famous Galápagos marine iguanas call home, and it’s impossible to not see hundreds as they stack on top of each other, warming their bodies on the hot lava rock.
After an incredible morning with the marine iguanas on the lava filled shores of Fernandina Island, the National Geographic Endeavour II crossed the Bolivar Channel on its way to see Isabela Island and the Ecuador volcano that consumes the land. The equator passes through the shield volcano, which collapsed away into the ocean, leaving views of the inner caldera wall and the caldera floor.
This landscape provided an opportunity to take the Zodiacs along the cliffs to search for the Galápagos Penguin, which we found on the rocks in between playing sea lions and a group of marine iguanas lazily huddled on a rock in the background.
The spectacular cliff faces yielded dramatic wildlife photographs, as the blue-footed boobies, sea lions and the flightless cormorant lived among the jagged rocks.
As the day grew dark, we returned to the National Geographic Endeavour II to find the crew throwing a party on the top deck. Unlike the previous night when we slept across the equator, Captain Eduardo Neira guided the ship back across the equator as the sun set on another fantastic day in the Galápagos.
Day Four – Urbina Bay & Tagus Cove, Isabela
Isabela Island is by far the largest island in the Galápagos, covering over half the surface land of the archipelago. The island got its unique seahorse shape by the fusion of six enormous shield volcanoes, showing the effect that volcanic activity has had to shape the Galápagos over millions of years.
As sunrise approached, the National Geographic Endeavour II made its way to Urbina Bay, which lies at the base of the Alcedo volcano. In 1954, one and a half square kilometers of the marine reef off the coast of Urbina Bay was uplifted 15 feet almost instantly, leaving marine animals displaced.
A short one mile hike would give us the opportunity to finally see the animal that makes the Galápagos a one-of-a-kind destination for wildlife enthusiasts.
The Galápagos Giant Tortoise is one of the most remarkable animals on the planet. The biggest of the 13 subspecies can weigh over 900 pounds and live well over 100 years, making it one of the world’s longest living vertebrates. The 13 subspecies of Galápagos Giant Tortoise can vary in appearance. The higher elevation tortoises are bigger in size and have domed shells with short necks, as opposed to the lowland subspecies which are smaller and with saddleback shells and long necks.
Our afternoon excursion brought us back to the rocky coastline along Tagus Cove, where we were able to photograph Galápagos penguins and blue-footed boobies from the Zodiac before returning to the ship for yet another delicious dinner and drinks on deck.
The Underwater World Of the Galápagos Islands
Perhaps one of the aspects I enjoyed most about my trip to the Galápagos with Lindblad Expeditions was that there were always activity options. For those who might not enjoy a longer hike, there would be options to take a shorter walk, or a Zodiac tour instead. The ship had a plethora of kayaks and stand up paddleboards for a leisurely exercise along the beautiful shoreline. My favorite activity, however, was the almost daily snorkeling expeditions. While underwater, curious sea lions would swim towards me before quickly changing course and circling around and repeating. Whether it’s a waterproof case on your cell phone or a GoPro camera, it’s not hard to capture some incredible photos below the surface of the Galápagos.
Day Five – Santiago Island
The fourth largest island in the Galápagos, Santiago Island has a verdant highland region and Espumilla beach is one of the archipelago’s most important marine turtle nesting sites. While we didn’t find any marine turtles on our early morning walk along the pristine beach and accompanying mangroves, we did catch an amazing show as the blue-footed boobies dove into the water at remarkable speeds, reappearing with a fish for breakfast.
After lunch onboard the National Geographic Endeavour II, a casual kayak and paddle board session turned into play time as a group of curious sea lions decided to follow the group as they moved along the flora-filled coastline.
Riding high from the sea lion play session, we spent our afternoon exploring Puerto Egas, where deeply carved sea-level grottos are home to sea lions, marine iguanas and coastal birds. Up until this point, I had thought I had seen the best of what Galápagos had to offer, but Puerto Egas wound up being one of my favorite locations on the expedition.
The views were incredible, the grottos were teeming with activity, and we were lucky enough to see two American Oystercatchers with their two young chicks. I could have stayed happily photographing Puerto Egas for days, but there were other adventures to be had.
Day Six – Puerto Ayora and Highlands, Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz island is the second largest island in the archipelago, and where human impact, although still limited, is most noticeable. 18,000 residents live in the town of Puerto Ayora, making it the central economic hub of the Galápagos. In order to support the local community and provide education on how to best preserve the islands, The Lindblad Expeditions – National Geographic Fund was established. In addition to environmental education and community outreach programs, the fund has also established scholarships for local students and built a local school.
The town is alive with both locals and wildlife, who co-exist by their shared love of seafood.
After a brief walk through town, we headed to the Charles Darwin Research Station, where scientists gather information to assist in conservation efforts. Inside the research station, the Fausto Llerena giant tortoise breeding center helps to keep the Galápagos tortoise population healthy.
This is also the home to Lonesome George, the last of the Pinzon Island tortoises that died recently after living for more than a century. His body was preserved and displayed to help educate the public on the constant threat of extinction that the tortoises face.
A 30-minute drive into the highlands brought us to a private ranch, Manzanillo, which is located in the middle of the migratory route of the giant tortoises of Santa Cruz. Seemingly everywhere we turned, another massive creature was found, casually feasting on the abundant greenery that covers the Santa Cruz Highlands.
Day Seven – Punta Pitt & Cerro Brujo, San Cristobal Island
And just like that, the final day of an incredible adventure awaited the passengers of the National Geographic Endeavour II. San Cristobal Island is the easternmost island in the Galápagos archipelago and was the first of the islands that Charles Darwin visited.
Our first stop on our final day was Punta Pitt, an impressive volcanic landscape at the northeastern end of the island. This would also be our most strenuous hike of the trip, as we ascended the mountain in search of all three species of boobies nesting together, the only place in the Galápagos where this is possible. Passing by patches of red Sesuvium, we continued up the mountain until we found what we were looking for.
Both blue and red-footed boobies could be found at almost every turn. As opposed to earlier in the trip when I photographed a very young blue-footed boobie chick, the families that I found here had much older offspring. The abundance of fluffy feathers on the rapidly growing chicks often make them look much bigger than their parents.
Back on the beach, I took photos of the lazy sea lions resting on the pristine sand before we boarded our Zodiacs and prepared for the last stop on our whirlwind tour of the Galápagos Islands.
Cerro Brujo, which translates to ‘Wizard Hill’, is a stunning landscape featuring a bright white sand beach, volcano views, and a perfect look at the most iconic rock formation in the Galápagos, Kicker Rock.
The wildlife opportunities here were more limited than what I had become accustomed to, so I took advantage of the break to photograph the smiling faces of the knowledgeable naturalists that had expertly guided us for the week.
As the cloud layer began to lose light, we returned to the National Geographic Endeavour II for a farewell party of champagne toasts, music, and an up close look at Kicker Rock as the sky lit up in vibrant colors. And just like that, my adventure to the Galápagos Islands ended, but the once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I had will live in my memory forever.
The Experience of a Lifetime
To say I am not used to organized, comfortable travel is an understatement. The words ‘itinerary’ and ‘schedule’ are usually not a part of my vocabulary, so I was not knowing what to expect on the highly organized trip experience that Lindblad Expeditions provides. The Lindblad Expeditions experience is truly unique, and one that I will never forget. It was a welcome change to my usual travel style, and I found myself feeling much more immersed in the beautiful nature and wildlife of the Galápagos thanks to a well designed trip schedule that constantly put us in the best locations in the archipelago at just the right time of day. The expedition team was very thoughtful to make sure there were plenty of options of activities to choose from. Having traveled to the Galápagos in pursuit of adding to my wildlife photography portfolio, I almost always choose the longest hikes that would have me covering the most ground, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thrilled to take a relaxing break to kayak or swim among the jagged cliffs full of unique wildlife.
Yes, I checked a destination off of my bucket list. Yes, I got plenty of photos of the unique wildlife that I am very happy with and will look back on for years to come. However, the best part of the trip was the experience, and the lifelong friends that I met along the way. In addition to the two families whom I shared these experiences with, I also became close friends with fellow travelers Laura and her daughter Zsa Zsa, as well as the naturalists who guided us, all of whom I still share nearly daily communications with. From the first moment I stepped onboard the National Geographic Endeavour II, I truly felt like I was among family. Traveling alone, this was a welcome feeling.
That feeling of family was not only felt by me, but also all of those onboard this trip. I met a man named Mike Dowell who, in 2017, traveled onboard the National Geographic Endeavour II to experience the Galápagos with Lindblad Expeditions. Back on the ship after a morning of kayaking, Mike recognized the symptoms of a heart attack and began to receive medical treatment from the ship’s doctor. The quick actions of the ship’s captain and crew allowed Mike to be transferred to a hospital in the mainland city of Quito before he was flown home to Atlanta to undergo single bypass heart surgery before receiving a pacemaker.
After months of rehabilitation, Mike and his wife returned to the Galápagos Islands in 2018 before returning a third time in May 2022, experiencing the same adventure onboard the National Geographic Endeavour II as myself. As luck would have it, Captain Eduardo Neira was not only the man at the helm on that fateful voyage, but also the captain on our voyage.
This led to an emotional reunion, as Neira recounted the story for all to hear and thanked Mike for returning. The captain told this story in between singing songs, as Neira is also a talented musician. During his voyages, he takes time to put on an intimate concert in the ship’s lounge after dinner. Some of us were lucky enough to also see Neiro perform Beatles cover songs on a pristine beach as the sun set, making for just one of many surreal moments throughout the adventure.
For me, this speaks volumes about the family-like experience of traveling with Lindblad Expeditions. Whether you are traveling with your family, your significant other, a friend, or by yourself, you will never be alone on an adventure with Lindblad Expeditions. You may even walk away with thousands of great photos, a new checkmark on your bucket list, incredible memories, and lifelong friendships.
If you’re interested in more of my photography, make sure to check out my website and Instagram.
Full disclosure: This article was brought to you by Lindblad Expeditions. Lindblad Expeditions is a global provider of small-ship expeditions and adventure travel experiences recognized as the category leader for its pioneering, cutting-edge programming and conservation commitment. Lindblad Expeditions works in partnership with National Geographic to inspire people to explore and care about the planet. The organizations work in tandem to produce innovative marine expedition programs and to promote conservation and sustainable tourism around the world. Guests interact with and learn from leading scientists, naturalists and researchers while discovering stunning natural environments, above and below the sea, through state-of-the-art exploration tools.
Image credits: All photos by Michael Bonocore