Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Galápagos Diary, Day 1

How long does it take to reach the Galápagos Islands? In my case it feels like I’ve spent most of my life getting there. As a geeky kid whose interests included reptiles and evolutionary biology, that remote island chain had an almost mythical presence in my mind.

In my teens and twenties, as my interest in wildlife photography grew to a lifelong obsession, I dreamed of one day photographing Giant Tortoises, Marine Iguanas, and Blue-footed Boobies. I also noticed a curious fact - nearly every published photograph from Galápagos was made by the same photographer. Her name was Tui De Roy and her photos were stunning. Over the years, those photos influenced and inspired my own work while at the same time adding to my desire to visit the islands myself.

But it would be decades before I actually got there. Each time I got serious about planning a trip I was stopped by a combination of the high cost and the feeling that whichever tour I was looking at wasn’t quite right for me. I needed a trip that was centered on photography, not luxury travel, gourmet meals, or even scientific lectures. Just get me there and give me as much time as I need with the wildlife. (It’s possible to visit Galápagos on your own - there are hotels on a couple islands - but you’ll still need a tour boat with a licensed guide if you want to see the rest of the islands.)

Blue-footed Booby

What finally made up my mind, I think, was a combination of being unable to travel at all during the Covid years and realizing that I’m not going to live forever. Around my 70th birthday I started researching tours and asking for recommendations from other photographers. One company that was mentioned frequently is called Galápagos Travel. (Who would have guessed?) Checking their web site, I found they have tours designed especially for photographers, where you’re shooting from sunrise to late morning and again from mid afternoon to sunset. The middle of the day, when the light is harsh and the animals less active, is for lunch, snorkeling, downloading photos, and maybe a nap. They also had the longest trips, with up to two weeks in the islands. Best of all, and the one factor that influenced my choice more than any other, was the name of the photographer who would lead the trip: Tui De Roy. I booked my trip for April 2024, almost a year in advance, and got the last available spot. 

Day 1, April 12: Photographers meet Galápagos

The day started at about 4:00 am when our group was picked up at our hotel for the flight from Quito to Baltra, with a brief stop in Guayaquil. Our ride to the airport was a small bus that could barely fit the 15 of us and our luggage (yeah, photographers carry a lot of stuff). Once at the Quito airport we had a chance to start getting to know one another while waiting for our flight to board. 

Galápagos is part of Ecuador but arriving there can feel like you’ve crossed the border into another country. You pay an entry fee and get your passport stamped, and then there are forms to fill out, luggage x-rays and inspections, and prohibitions on bringing food or plants into the National Park, which comprises about 97% of the land area in the islands.

Tui was waiting for us outside the airport, along with Monica Reck, a Galápagos native who will act as our official Naturalist Guide, trained and licensed by the National Park. It will be her job to help us understand the islands and make sure we follow the rules. A short bus ride took us to the dock, where we boarded two pontoon boats - they’re called pangas here - which delivered us to the Tip Top IV, a 125-foot yacht that will be our home for the next two weeks. Once we were all on board there were a few practical items to take care of: a general overview of the trip, a safety briefing and evacuation drill, and, of course, lunch. After lunch it was time to unpack and get our cameras ready for our first photo session.

At about 3:30 we all piled into the pangas for a tour of Black Turtle Cove, a maze of inlets and channels among the mangrove forest on the north shore of Santa Cruz Island. I don’t like shooting from a boat but for some locations and subjects there’s no other option. 

Brown Noddies

Brown Pelican diving

There was a lot going on here. Brown Pelicans and Blue-footed Boobies were all around us, plunging into the water from as high as fifty feet in the air and usually coming up with a fish. The pelicans look a little clumsy, flipping around in the air and diving straight down beak first with their wings and feet splayed out awkwardly. It looks weird but in fact they are in complete control of their speed and direction. Boobies have a different approach, hitting the water at about a sixty degree angle and up to sixty miles a hour, looking like a Peregrine Falcon with their wings pulled in and back.

Pelican and Noddy

The star of the show was the Brown Noddy, a type of tern that has a feeding strategy unlike any I’ve seen before. When a pelican comes up from a dive it will float there long enough to drain the water from its pouch before swallowing the fish that it’s caught. That’s when a noddy will land on its head. When a small fish escapes from the pelican’s pouch, the noddy will grab it out of the water. The pelicans don’t look especially happy but they tolerate it.

Other birds we photographed were Lava Herons, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Cattle Egrets, and one lonely Tricolored Heron, several hundred miles outside of its normal range. In the water were Black-tipped Reef Sharks, Golden Cow-nosed Rays, and our first Green Sea Turtle.

I’d say it was a pretty good first day in the islands.

Lava Heron

Cattle Egrets

Brown Pelican

Day 2: We meet some new species


  1. Beautiful shot of the cattle egrets! Did you snorkel, too? or do you plan on it?

  2. Hi Dan - the snorkeling starts on Day 2, so you’ll have to wait for the next installment!

  3. Karen Fleck HardingJune 21, 2024 at 6:36 AM

    Dan, I'm so happy for you that you've followed your dream! I have fond memories of our time together as teens when you were into birds of prey. Your photos are stunning!

  4. Beautiful work, as always Dan!