When two of my favourite photographic guides, Jonathan and Angela Scott mentioned to me that they were going to be leading a trip to The Galapagos in 2013, I leapt at the chance to sign up as it had long been a bucket-list destination for me.
The trip was organised by upmarket UK events company Prestige Promotions, who were chartering a ship for up to 40 passengers. Having travelled with Prestige Promotions before, I knew their attention to detail would make for a special trip. The Scott’s are also patrons of The Galapagos Trust and knowing the destination well, I knew they would prove excellent guides when it came to making the most of the photographic opportunities.
We flew in during April, supposedly the best time of year to visit the islands, with a couple of days initially in Ecuador’s capital Quito to get over the jet lag. Although Quito has a reputation for petty crime I saw none of that and found it to be a charming city and its historical centre, where we stayed at the newly opened and very trendy Casa Gangotena, was particularly attractive. Narrow streets, restored colonial architecture and an abundance of historic churches meant there was plenty to explore. A few of the group felt the effects of the altitude but thankfully I felt fine and was able to make the most of our time there.
Our flight to the island of Baltra (where we would join our ship and home for the next seven days) took just a few hours so we were able to be on board for lunch on our first day.
I had long dreamed of visiting The Galapagos and yet felt totally unprepared when I arrived for what I encountered. I can best describe it as like visiting Jurassic Park, unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. The islands feel remote, often barren, forbidding and of course virtually unoccupied apart from the wildlife and therefore eerily silent.
The national parks has a finely-tuned system of organising the schedule for every ship and yacht, dictating a strict timetable of which island your particular vessel can visit when, which means you rarely encounter people from other groups. This gives the wonderful feeling of exclusivity and isolation, that it is just you and the wildlife when you land each day by panga. You can almost imagine how the original sailors felt when they first visited the islands they were reputedly scared of.
The wildlife experience is of course literally like nothing you’ll encounter anywhere else in the world. Totally unfazed by human contact due to careful preservation and many generations of isolation, they allow you unprecedented closeness. From giant tortoises (though sadly the famous Lonesome George had sadly passed away before I visited) to Sea Lions, Iguanas, Blue Footed Boobies, the list was endless of unique species I could finally see in real life, in a proximity I had never really even imagined. It is a wildlife lover’s paradise and I imagine even more exciting for those twitchers among us.
One of my favourite moments each day was getting up on deck early enough to see the sun rise and see the mists part on whichever new island we were exploring that day. We were woken gently by the sound of music coming through the ship's speaker system each day at 7am, with breakfast at 7.30am and most landings around 8.30am. Our ship La Pinta* was comfortable and staffed by an incredibly enthusiastic and knowledgable team who made our stay on board a pleasure. I felt that the size of the ship, which was neither too small or too large, was just right and food was plentiful and delicious.
For every landing (there were usually two a day, each in different destinations) we were accompanied by highly-trained naturalists who were able to answer each and every question and impart priceless knowledge about both the wildlife but also the flora and fauna unique to each island. They also held frequent and fascinating presentations on-board in the evenings or when we were at sea. Landing usually involved being ferried to the island in large inflatables known as pangas where we either had a wet (get your feet wet) or dry landing if their was a suitable place to pull alongside.
For many of our group the highlight was the chance to snorkel with Sea Lions for the first time. Incredibly friendly, curious and playful, they provided hours of entertainment whether you decided to venture into the (slightly chilly) waters with them or just observe them from the pangas.
Being as I am particularly keen on photography it was a must for me to be on a trip with an emphasis on that side of things. No-one is allowed to be left behind while a group walks around a destination, so we were able to have a naturalist with our group of photographers, which allowed us to keep our own pace. Considering the size of the lens I was hauling with me (a Nikon 200-400 f/4) I was thankful that we hiked less and spent more time close to the landing spots taking our photos. That said, I possibly missed out on some of the sightings of others in the group who chose to linger less.
Overall this trip totally exceeded my expectations and the longer I've been back the more I marvel at what I actually saw out there. For anyone considering a trip to The Galapagos I'd say jump at the chance. It certainly isn't a relaxing holiday but it will be a trip of a lifetime for sure.
Please see below a further selection of my photos from the trip.
An iguana resting on a tree root
*Although in this case La Pinta was chartered privately for our group it can also be booked individually.