In 1835, Charles Darwin sailed around the Galapagos Islands on the
, part of a mission to chart this volcanic archipelago located 600 miles west of Ecuador.
Struck by the variation between the animals of the different islands, the British scientist began forming his theory on evolution, which he described in his landmark 1859 book On the Origin of Species.
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Today, more than 100,000 visitors trek to Galapagos every year to see the progeny of the creatures that inspired Darwin cavort in their natural habitat. Taking a cruise around the islands offers a trip like none other: The native animals are resplendent, exotic and indifferent to humans.
Galapagos, which consists of 13 major islands spread over 28,000 square miles of ocean, is a series of active volcanic peaks. Heavy, iron-rich basalt rock covers much of the landscape. Volcan Wolf, on the island of Isabela, is the highest point in the archipelago, at 5,600 feet above sea level.
While the Galapagos geology is striking, its wildlife is the main attraction. During my week's stay, my family and I saw 36 different species of birds, 40 types of fish and seven varieties of reptiles.
We watched Galapagos penguins watch us, blue-footed boobies perform a ritual mating dance, sea lions playfully blow air bubbles in our face while we snorkeled, bottlenose dolphins swim next to the bow of our ship, sally lightfoot crabs climb impossibly steep cliffs and male frigate birds balloon their crimson chests to attract mates.
At the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, we even had a chance to visit Lonesome George, a giant tortoise, 60 to 90 years old, who is the only one left of his species. So far, George has not produced any heirs, despite repeated efforts.
Realizing its geologic and biologic treasure, in 1959 Ecuador created the
Galapagos National Park. Now, 90% of the islands are protected from development, and many well-marked trails provide exceptional views throughout the park. Most trails are less than two miles long, and are over sand, lava rock or small boulders. You'll need to pay close attention -- you may step right into a pile of marine iguanas, whose coarse black skin matches the color of the dark basalt.
A Week at Sea
Since Galapagos consists of many islands, the best way to get around is by water. We toured on
, a 237-foot ship with a crew of sixty. A 10-day package -- seven nights aboard
, two nights in Guayaquil, Ecuador, port charges and park entry fees -- is $4,150 to $7,120 per person.
A typical day on the Polaris begins with a hearty breakfast, then it's all to shore for a nature hike. In the afternoon, explore the waters with snorkeling and kayaking. Back on the ship, before dinner, passengers gather in the lounge for a relaxing cocktail hour and to review the day's sightings. There are also photography shows, featuring the best images snapped by the guests during the past few days.
Although it's not a glitzy, luxury ship like you'd find on a Caribbean cruise, life on the
is still far more pleasant than Darwin's excursion on the
. The cuisine features fresh, local fruits and seafood; the staff is knowledgeable and child-friendly; and there's even a spa and gym on board, which I used to keep in shape for an upcoming
Even though you're far out in the Pacific Ocean, the ship still has email and a Wi-Fi network, as well as a phone in every stateroom -- so you can stay connected, if you want.
Galapagos straddles the equator, so the weather is warm year-round. High temperatures average 85 to 90 degrees and the water is balmy, but
can provide wetsuits if desired.
During my trip, it was photography week. We had four professional photographers on board, including Mark Thiessen from
, whose helpful guidance made museum-quality shots easily attainable.
The Decisive Moment
Galapagos truly offers spectacular opportunities for photographers of all abilities, from point-and-shooters who buy their camera the day before the trip to professionals laden with the latest technology. Whatever your experience level, bring a camera and take lots of pictures.
If you are new to photography, it's worth your time to learn about shutter speeds, F-stops, white balance, ISO and the histogram before your trip. The technical aspects should be second nature to you by the time you get to Galapagos, which will enable you to well document the unique, stunning sights.
Here are some further composition tips:
- Get at eye level with the animals. Much more detail will be revealed -- the most boring shot is when the image is taken from five or six feet off the ground.
- Use a flash to create a "catch-light" in the animal's eyes. The tiny white circle of light that an animal's eye catches from the sun or a flash can give your image more appeal. If the flash startles the animal, however, then don't use it.
- Be patient. It may take a while for an animal's personality to emerge. I photographed a pelican in its nest for 20 minutes, and then was surprised when a baby's head popped out of the nest, followed by a second baby several minutes later. The mother pelican then opened her enormous mouth so the babies could eat the fish she had just caught for them. If I had not invested the time in this picture, I would have missed so much.
- Try creating a double image by including an animal's reflection in water. If the reflection is clear, then rotate the image 180 degrees before showing your friends. The reflected image will have a liquid, dream-like quality that will contrast nicely with other, more standard, compositions.
Or, follow Thiessen's advice: As he says, the easiest way to take better pictures is to get closer. Many amateur photographers do not shoot close enough to the subject, and then they have to crop later. "You have all these megapixels in your camera ... use them," he advises. If your budget allows, buy an image-stabilized telephoto lens (70-300 mm is a good choice) and a tripod, which will help you get as close to the animals as possible.
Galapagos is truly a zoo without bars. If you want to experience one of the last bastions of untouched wildlife, then plan a visit to these enchanting islands. Leave the tuxedo and Cartier Tank watch at home -- all you need is your camera, a desire to explore and plenty of sunblock.
Galapagos Conservation Trust for further information on booking your unforgettable journey.
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