Returning to Galapagos

A very sandy sea lion pup at Gardner Bay.

We always love returning to the Galapagos Islands. It’s a place that never fails to amaze first time visitors, and it continues to inspire us year after year (this was our 12th year of Photo Expeditions there). As a photo destination, Galapagos always delivers with starkly interesting and beautiful lava landscapes, a fantastic array of wildlife so close that anyone with any kind of camera can capture wonderful photos, and with the pleasures of the astounding undersea world. There are not many places in the world where you can take photos of penguins while snorkeling.

The Galapagos are great any time of year, with most of the wildlife species present in the islands year round. Nonetheless, there are definite highlights in certain seasons. In addition to seeing the resident birds, land and marine iguanas, we particularly enjoy visiting the islands in November and December to photograph giant tortoises in the lush green vegetation of the highlands on Isla Santa Cruz . It’s also a time when there are oodles of new sea lion pups – terminally cute!

Here in the Pacific Northwest when we think of crab, we usually think of delicious, freshly cooked Dungeness crabs. In the Galapagos, however, the best crabs are only for looking at. And those are the dazzling Sally lightfoot crabs that always make intriguing photo subjects. Against the black lava rocks, hiding in a crevice, or adorning a wave-washed shoreline, they add a brilliant spark to photos.

Sally lightfoot crabs dot a wave-washed shore on Isla Santiago.

Clockwise: swallow-tailed gull, red-footed booby, reb-billed tropicbird, magnificent frigatebird.

Pelicans crowding the local fish market.

One of the unexpected pleasures each week is pausing at the local fish market by the docks in Puerto Ayora. As the purveyors clean and sell fresh fish hauled from the local boats, a throng of avid brown pelicans follow their every move waiting for scraps to snag. At times there’s also a resident sea lion waiting patiently at the fish cleaner’s heels, or even standing beside him like a friendly pet dog. Only in Galapagos!

The Galapagos seems to always find ways to surprise us, even after many years of visiting the same areas. A peaceful morning on Isla Fernandina became charged with action for Rikki’s group as they watched a scene unfolding with pelicans, a great blue heron, and a gang of sea lions in a large but shallow tidal pool. As Rikki describes it, “The young sea lions were playfully chasing each other and the pelicans (it must have been driving the pelicans nuts). The heron was quietly fishing off to the side. It snagged a fish but suddenly a pelican flew by and snatched it away, right out of its beak. Then the sea lions joined in chasing fish, but now the pelicans were chasing the sea lions trying to steal their catch. One sea lion chased its fish right up onto the rocks in front of us but the heron promptly stole it away. This particular sea lion was quite determined and went after another fish, deftly eluding the pelican in chase, and wound up at my feet with its prize. Hard work for one fish.”

In November and December the water here is cooler, green and rich with nutrients. We have frequent opportunities for snorkeling, and it’s common to see sea turtles, sea lions, and Galapagos penguins in the water with us. Always a highlight is the opportunity to see and photograph sea lions while snorkeling. They are extremely fast and graceful, playful but elusive. We never tire of trying to capture them with stills or video.

You can see more underwater photos from the Galapagos, as well as find our underwater shooting tips with examples of the magic of optimizing underwater photos on our latest PHOTO TIP: Getting Started with Underwater Photography.

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