The Galapagos

December 27, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

The Seed

People make statements and grand statements at that. When we make them, they make sense to us, but rarely do we foresee the impact they will have. Of course we can’t see into the future, but that doesn’t stop us.

I once said the following

‘…..back from the Enchanted Isles aka ‘The Galapagos Islands’…it has been an immense, powerful experience and has forever left an indelible footprint on what makes me who I am…’

A few years ago, I made the executive decision that I wanted to be out of the country on my 30th birthday.  I didn’t want to be in pub or bar somewhere watching people get pissed and inebriated. I wanted to be somewhere other than London. Having travelled the globe, I knew there were still a few places on the planet left for me to go.  The prerequisite for this trip was that;

  • ·         It had to be amazing

  • ·         It had to be memorable

  • ·         I had to come back with amazing photos to share with the world

  • ·         I had to be at the destination on my actual birthday, not in transit

  • ·         It had to be an ‘experience’

With those guidelines in place there were only two places I had in mind, either Antarctica or somewhere along the Trans-Siberian Railway.

When looking into Antarctica, I found a few trips that were of interest and researched them further, emailing travel companies to get more information. Eventually due to escalating costs and logistics, this expedition concept was shelved. The idea of doing the Trans-Siberian stemmed from the adventure of ‘the journey’. Travelling nearly 6000 miles on a train and having the ability to step off at any stop and stay in remote towns and villages sounded very appealing to the adventurer in me. Many people take to the skies to cover huge distances. When I’m in a plane travelling over land, I always wonder what it’s like ‘down there’, the people, the smell, the food, the culture. You don’t get to sense that from the air.

Having decided on the Trans-Siberian, the research into the trip began costs, time, etc. the general checklist I do when planning big trips. Early on, the trip got me buzzing with excitement.  Being a photographer, I was thinking of all the photos I’d come back with from the towns I would visit, the idea alone was powerful. Not only photographs but the HD footage I would capture.  This was only possible because I had already decided that I would upgrade my camera especially. That meant the cost of this trip was going to be big … there was no denying that!

I managed to book a place on a free talk about the trans-Siberian journey at Pushkin House, the Russian cultural centre in London. Actually talking to the travel company I’d be going with and seeing photos and video of the trip, asking questions made me feel more at ease and now fired up. As I wanted to go in January, the average temperature for the journey would be roughly -15 to -20 from Moscow to Beijing. My initial thought was ‘damn, that’s cold!’, but then the creative side of my brain kicked in and I started thinking about the photos, the white and at times desolate landscapes that would be captured.

…..I’d read much about the Trans-Siberian and had bought a few books on the subject. Just the sheer adventure of travelling roughly 6,000 miles by train sounded pretty awesome. To my friends, travelling on a train was not a trip they deemed worthy of the word ‘holiday’, but that was them … not me.

The other issue with this trip was the notion of the climate. The temperature was going to be -15 to -20 all the way to Beijing, and that’s cold even by British standards. A few window shopping trips to the likes of Snow+Rock, Cotswold, Blacks etc. and online browsing scoping out winter gear proved that I’d be spending a lot just to keep me warm, and that’s before I’d even booked the trip!

Even though I’d already chosen the travel company, it didn’t stop me comparing the package to what other companies were offering.  I wanted to make sure they were value for money, and overall no one company was trying to sell the holiday at an extortionate premium. My advice if you’re looking to plan this trip or indeed any other is always research the travel companies offering the trip. Phone them; ask them questions until you’re completely satisfied that they will be the right company for you.

I wasn’t going alone on this trip, I was going with my friend, but as he lived in another country, I paid him a visit to discuss the trip in more detail

The Reason

I would like to point out a few years prior to me turning 30, I spoke to my friend about wanting to be away on my 30th, so he knew what to expect.  Much of the planning thus far was only possible thanks to the wonderful world of emails, Skype, msn messenger and Google talk. Though we’d set our sights on the Trans-Sib, we hadn’t actually physically sat down to talk it all through face to face.  Going to see him also gave me the chance to escape London life and get away from the hustle and bustle of city zombies.

After dinner, we all sat down in the living room to chillax, and discuss the trip. That evening would be the turning point and would change everything.

As we were sitting, talking about the Trans-Siberian, the topic changed to the photographic aspect being the primary reason for the trip. The trip was in part to celebrate my 30th but also to push my photography on a personal level with the added advantage of filming in HD for the very first time. As we sat there talking about the trip and the excitement of travelling by train, my friend joked that I was a real ‘train nerd’ due to my fascination with the Japanese Bullet Train which we rode on 5 years prior.  He was right, Wweergghhhhh.  We then talked about the photography aspect of the journey and the types of shots I would get, the cold, snow-capped mountain-scapes, the remote villages, shots of a desolate landscape. The HD footage that I would film, it was an immense feeling. He in passing mentioned that I’d already got some fantastic landscape shots from our travels to Peru when we did the Inca Trail and also from a trip to Iceland.  I really couldn’t argue with him, and slowly doubt crept in. If I really wanted to push my photography then I would need to go somewhere truly unique or do something truly amazing, and whilst we were discussing the subject a voice said ‘What about the Galapagos Islands?’. Looking back, this was when the seed was sown.

The Galapagos was not in our list of possible destinations and had never even occurred to us as a possible destination. The thought of wildlife photography and the appeal of taking photos there was now growing. I’d never done any wildlife photography before, and I was literally throwing myself into the deep end. Over the years I had read many photography articles with the overall consensus being that a photographer should choose a specialism and work solely in that field.  I always believed that school of thought was restrictive, as it does not allow one to be truly creative in their photography and approach. So with the rule book thrown out (truth be told, I’d never actually owned a copy!) … it was settled

Choosing the tour operator

Whilst searching for a good tour operator for the trip, I knew early on that this was also going to be expensive.  I didn’t mind too much though, as trips to the Galapagos being costly were a good way of minimising the impact of tourism on the unique wildlife and fauna. We came across many companies offering the trip, but although they had the same itinerary, some were charging a few thousand more for what was an identical itinerary. The main difference what the type/size of boat, and the length of the sail around the islands. There were two options a 3/4 and a 7/8 day boat tour. Straight away without hesitation we went for the 7/8 day tour.  Were we going all that way just for a few days? …that idea didn’t fly with me. If I was going to be in the most unique place on the planet, I was going to maximise my time there not just for my photography but also to have some time to appreciate what it meant to be in the Enchanted Isles.

When it comes to travel, people have various levels of comfort. Some like to travel in style and have all the creature comforts, while others are happy travelling to their chosen destination by whatever means necessary, so long as they get there. That’s the way it is now, choice at all levels, the decision is up to the consumer. 

Ok, back to choosing the tour operator. To cut this story short we went with Llama Travel, a company which we had used previously for our visit to Peru & the Inca Trail. Llama Travel was great (just to add I am not being paid by Llama Travel for talking them up).  From start to finish, they take care of everything.  They have representatives waiting for you at the airport to take you to your hotel, give your tour details, explain how everything is going to work etc.  To top it off, their price was also amazing. They offer like for like tours in South America at a price that makes other tour operators look like they’re majorly overcharging. For example when we went to Peru, another company was charging an extra £1200 for essentially the same tour, even staying in the same hotels! So it’s best to always shop around. For this trip Llama was charging £1000 less than rival tour operators. It isn’t about going for the cheapest but rather the fairest price for what you want, not just for you but also the community you visit.

With the deposit paid and confirmed, the trip would take place 6 months later; I would embark on an adventure that would forever change me and my outlook on this planet.

Check out Llama Travel for amazing trips in South America www.llamatravel.com

14th January 2011

The night before we were to head out to Galapagos, I did my ritual gear checking over and over again. Counting everything, making sure I had all the lenses, batteries, cables etc. I ran them off against a checklist. The hotel was near the airport and you would hear airplanes landing and taking off, the hotel was overlooking a football field with the hillside of Quito in the distance.

The next morning, we were picked up by the travel rep and taken to the airport. When going to Galapagos from Quito, there is a separate area for you to check your luggage.  Once all the formalities were done, and we had got our tickets, we went through to departures and waited for our flight.

I’ve always said this to people but for some reason I don’t get the giddy rush of excitement when traveling to new places anymore. It’s a sad thing to say but it’s true. Since travelling around the world in 2005, the excitement associated with going to the airport, checking in, passport control, boarding the plane etc. has evaporated. Saying that, there was a ‘sense’ of where I was going, and that it was going to somehow change me. How much it would change me, I didn’t know.   The departure board updated, and we were ready.  We quickly passed through the ticket desk and walked onto the tarmac, the sound of the plane engines was overwhelming, as was the distinct smell of jet fuel. We all meandered through the set path outlined on the tarmac, guiding us round parked planes and keeping us clear of moving ones. Once round the terminal building, I saw the plane that was going to take me to the Galapagos.

After my nap, I woke up to the sounds of the food cart being moved down the aisles, with the air stewards giving out light snacks. I looked out and saw the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The shimmering reflection of the sun’s light on the ocean surface. I didn’t know what to feel, but something was slowly happening to me, I couldn’t place it, but I knew it was happening.

The captain told us we were 10-15 minutes from landing and instructed us to sit and fasten our seat belts, and he told the crew to check doors and then follow suit. We then heard the strange mechanical noise of the airplane wing flaps being extended, and after a short while the sounds of the wheels being deployed, and then the feeling of the plane going into a gentle descent. I looked out the window and didn’t see any islands. I was looking for some glimpse of the ‘Enchanted Isles’, but as the plane veered right all I could see was the sky.

As the plane was approaching, I saw land, well more specifically, waves crashing onto land. Once the wheels touched down and slowly came to taxi speed, I knew we were somewhere pretty special. An iguana was walking along the tarmac and heading for a trolley cart on the tarmac. It was heading for shade. I’ve never seen anything like it, it was so bizarre yet so cool. Another thing that I had noticed was the terminal building and straight away it reminded me of Kona International Airport on the Big Island; it looked like an out building, a big shed of sorts. Once the plane came to a standstill, what appeared to be jets of gas came out through the air vents over the cabins; it looked like white mist. We were told by cabin crew, this was to kill any bacteria in the air, and with that the cabin staff sprayed inside the overhead lockers as well. All this was to prevent contamination and the influx of foreign viruses that might have a devastating impact on the islands and kill off the indigenous species. This carried on for a good 10 minutes.

Getting off the plane to be hit with the cool warm breeze was soothing to the skin, but it still hadn’t hit me that we were on the Galapagos. After going through customs and getting my bags checked, we were met by our guide William who helped us with our bags and made sure we got onto the right bus. With the bags loaded, we were off.

15th January 2011

…With the windows down, the summery breezy air going through the bus, I sat there just looking out, seeing what looked like a desolate landscape going by, the gentle hills and slopes covered in light shrubbery. I didn’t know what to think at this point. Should I be excited, happy, amazed, I just didn’t know, but what I did know was that what I was doing was big, I was sure of it.

The bus didn’t seem to be going fast, but that was probably because we were going down long straight roads with a landscape that had no discernible markers. Of course there’s always the ground to look at, but if all you’re seeing is the same type of ground, your mind plays tricks on you. Off in the distant I saw what looked like distant mountain ranges, but in fact they were hills.

It was wonderful to see the landscape go by, I had my ThinkTank camera bag by my side, I didn’t go for my camera, though I placed my hand firmly on the bag, and was slowing tapping with my fingers, as if i was waiting for the right moment to photograph, I didn’t want to ruin the experience of being somewhere wonderful, I just wanted my eyes and mind to soak it all up and to prepare myself for what was to come.

William stood up and said in about 15 mins we’ll be visiting the National Park Tortoise Reserve. It was slowly dawning on me that this was really happening (after a short while the bus made a right turn and we were not on paved roads anymore but on gravel and mud. It was shortly after going down this road that the bus slowly came to a halt, and this was the moment when it all hit home. At first I couldn’t see why we had stopped. Eventually I made my way to the front with some of the other passengers, and it was then I laid my eyes on a Giant Galapagos Tortoise sitting in the middle of the road.  William told us that they have right of way and we would have to wait until it crossed the road, so the engine was turned off and we all just stared. This is when I took my first photo of these gentle animals, so serene with a majestic quality about them.

…..William told us that the tortoises had the right of way, and in no way could humans move or touch them. There was no room for the bus to go round so the driver switched of the engine and it was like an old western stalemate. Who would make the first move? Everyone on the bus was amazed, our emotions were high on the sight of our first tortoise, we were like children on a school trip, it was that kind of feeling. Trying to jostle with each other so we could take a good photograph

After about 10 minutes, the tortoise moved out of the way. We carried on down the beaten path. Looking outside the window, all you could see was lush vegetation, hills, and trees. 

The bus stopped and William said to get ready, and reminded us to bring our cameras. While everyone had their camera ready in no time, I was thinking what gear I should take with me, by the time I decided on the lens, everyone apart from me was already outside, after a quick few seconds, I was ready to go with my canon 5dmk2 in hand.

William told us a few ground rules before we went in the reserve. The first was to not touch the animals, second was not to feed them anything, and the third was to follow him around the reserve and not to deviate from the path. He also mentioned sunscreen due to the strong rays from the sun. After the talk we made our way, and I looked over to my right across the fields to see if I could see any. Within a few seconds, I caught glimpses of the tops of their shells. It was as though the tortoises were taunting me. I knew they were there, but they didn’t want me to see them. As we walked we all had our ‘woah’ moment. To see a Giant Galapagos Tortoise in front of us was unreal. It was big, it was huge. It’s one thing seeing these creatures on TV and another seeing it in real life, in its natural habitat. It was just slowly eating grass. It was beautiful to see.

Walking round the reserve was at times just overwhelming for me. To think I was actually there and not dreaming, I was actually there with my camera; to see & smell what was around me … it was a pretty crazy feeling. What at first I thought was a rare sight was now becoming the norm, to see these magnificent creatures, a group there, another over there it was immense. As we were walking around, I had the sense of ‘Jurassic Park’, seeing these Giant Tortoises surrounded by trees, grass and vegetation, I was expecting to see some rustling of the leaves from the bush nearby and suddenly see a small yet nimble dinosaur run past. There was an air of history, a sense that time had stood still here for thousands if not millions of years. We walked past more Giant Tortoises and up a slow banking path; you couldn’t really see what was ahead.  William was talking about the vegetation and then we came across something I could only describe as ‘the pool of life’. A pool which had roughly 8 Giant Galapagos Tortoises just chilling out in the water and another 3-4 around the edge. Seeing the shells pop out of the pool, some drinking the water (albeit sipping), slowly bowing their heads just below the surface of the water. It was amazing to see and experience. 

…being completely immersed in another world and having the thought in my mind that any moment another fantastical creature will slowly reveal itself from the surrounding bushes. I’d noticed noises and ruffles of sound from bushes and after a while you hone your hearing and sight and realize it’s another Giant Galapagos Tortoise chilling out. Walking around the park, seeing the rolling hills and the other Tortoises’ slowly going about their daily routine was just magnificent to witness.

Our short time was up, but it seemed like we were there for a few hours.  This goes to show that you can slow down time when you’re experiencing something that will change your life. William rallied us all back to the bus.  It took a while.  Our group was somewhat dispersed, as we were all trying to take in what we were seeing in our own way and wanted to hold onto the special moment.

Next stop was the Charles Darwin Research Station.   This is a biological research station that conducts scientific research and promotes environmental education for conservation.  First though we made our way to the marina to get onto our boat, the Galapagos Voyager.  This would be my home for the next 8 days.

We were waiting at the marina with everyone else and more people who were waiting to be picked up by their tour operators. Looking out to sea, there was a slew of boats of all sizes, and in the distance there were cruise ships which were anchored in deep water. I couldn’t really see our boat. The radio crackled and William told us to get ready, our bags were already on board … all that was left were the passengers.

It was a tight squeeze, there were about 9 of us on the panga as it swerved and cut through the waves. It was hot and it felt great. As we went past boats, we slowed down and then we saw her, the Galapagos Voyager, she would be the one who would take us around the Galapagos.

We were greeted by the crew who all looked sharp and dressed in their uniform.  They welcomed us warmly and had drinks waiting for us, after a brief introduction we were given our keys to our rooms and told to be ready in about 1 hour as we would be heading back to Puerto Ayora for our afternoon visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station.

As the coach pulled up near the entrance, we all got off and made our way in. I noticed a few buildings dotted around, but we didn’t go into them…. we headed to the enclosures.. After seeing the Giant Galapagos Tortoises beforehand, I was anxious to see them again. William took us around and explained the breeding program the CDRS were doing and how it had been a difficult process.  This was particularly true for their most famous resident ‘Lonesome George’, who was the last known individual of the Pinta Island tortoise species.

As we walked around the enclosures seeing other animals such as the land iguana’s we were told by William to meet by the pier for the trip back to the boat.

‘Lonesome George’
Knowing his history, it was humbling to see both George and the efforts made by the park rangers to find another like him. To think he was alone for all that time on Pinta, just going about his daily business without a care in the world. Doing what he does day in day out. It somehow puts life in perspective.

Our boat ‘Galapagos Voyager’ was great. It had all the things that I wanted on the trip. It wasn’t too extravagant nor was it sub-standard, it was just right. Each cabin had en-suite showers with hot water. From the brochure it was difficult to gauge the size of the cabins, and the photos didn’t help either as the perspective didn’t give anything away. However I was really surprised by the size of the cabin, it was more than ample for my needs, and even had electricity sockets to charge the armada of batteries that I had brought with me.

16th January 2011

Another day … well it was 16th Jan to be precise…early wake up call. Had breakfast and got my gear ready and we all jumped in the panga for the ride to Plaza Sur, which from a distance looked like some alien world.  Patches of red vegetation and cactus trees standing tall, it just didn’t seem right, but it was there.

Upon landing, we came across a family of seals of all ages, some playful and some just chilling on the rocks. This was my first encounter with seals, and wild ones at that. It was weird yet wonderful at the same time. Slowly walking past them and stopping once in a while to take photos and capture footage on my camera we all converged on an open piece of rock where William talked about guidelines.  These were (in his words) follow me, do not touch the animals, never wander off the path we’re walking, and his key point … was that we stayed together as a group.  This last point was for safety and safety was a key issue for William during our time on the Galapagos Islands. To our left were a pair of Swallow-tailed Gulls beside a cactus, further up from them, was a pair of iguanas motionless, just getting some heat from the sun. We all slowly followed William; I was towards the back taking photos.  As I walked slowly I made sure I wasn’t too far away from the group. The landscape was weird … Strange cactus’s amongst a desert landscape … but in the middle of ocean. The days of thinking cactus’s only grew in desert was wiped swiftly from my brain. But this was a desert of sorts, very hostile with the midday sun beating down and without sun tan lotion, you’d be in some serious trouble.  William would always talk about staying protected, it may be beautiful but the sun is also dangerous he would warn us. 

This was the first real taste of island wildlife in the Galapagos, standing on the rocky cliffs, all you see is ocean, the vast expanse of the pacific and look the other direction, you’d see another island. It was at times surreal and I had to keep thinking, ‘I’m really here.   This is the Galapagos’. It was one of those pinch yourself moments in case you woke up from a crazy beautiful dream. I would go on to have more of these moments as this trip progressed.

Our afternoon excursion was to Santa Fe to see some land iguanas. It was here I took a photo of one eating a cactus. You wouldn’t think that an iguana would touch a cactus, let alone eat one.  However here, in front of me nature has through natural selection enabled this iguana to eat cactus’s. This was mind blowing. You see these nature documentaries talking about evolution and natural selection, but to see it in the wild, with your own eyes, is mind-blowing.

We headed back to our boat due to the sun being at its most extreme, the heat was strong, the rays burning. Once on the boat we all had time to relax, some went to sleep. William said that we could go snorkelling if we wanted, and to meet him at the back of the boat in an hour if we were interested.  The hour passed and I took the chance to snorkel.  First I had to get a wetsuit in my size, and then I actually had to get the thing on!  There was only about 5 of us snorkelling as we headed out on the panga into the blue waters of the Galapagos. I’ve swam before, not just in a pool but in the open seas, but this felt different, as I put on my fins and adjusted my snorkel, I just went in, the blue waters bubbling around me and then seeing the underneath the water, the coral, the fishes and the colours, it was amazing. It was then that I accidentally let go of my snorkel, luckily it was tethered to my mask, but I didn’t realise, so had to get back on board the panga to sort it all out. I went back in again, the water was cold at first but with the beating sun you didn’t notice it nor worry about. 

In the evenings when the sun went down, we would all gather for dinner followed by a brief talk by William about the next day, what we would be doing, what we would be seeing and he would give us the general overview as not to give too much away.

17th January 2011

For some reason you wake up early without looking at your watch.  The crew tap on the doors to let you know that breakfast will be served in 30mins. To wake up and see the expanse of sea scattered with islands, is something I will forever remember. It’s something I’ll never tire of seeing in my mind and again through my photography and films. Today was 17th Jan and the excursion for this morning was to visit the island of Espanola and in particular Punta Suaraz. Like past adventures, to come to these islands and step upon the rocks and see new wildlife, the likes of which most people have and never will see up close, was humbling.

The panga slowed down before approaching the landing, there was another boat ahead of us dropping of another load of visitors. It dawned on me when seeing them get off, that somehow we had all made the same choices and decision to travel here, to the Galapagos. Every one of us was drawn here for some reason, destined to visit these aptly named ‘Enchanted Isles’.

Once off, we slowly made our way to a small beach, which had sea lions, iguanas and Sally Lightfoot crabs around and about. There seemed to be a small audience of tourists admiring and taking photos of a family of sea lions who were gleefully playing just on the water’s edge. William gathered us all and we began following him along the path and he again reiterated the importance of staying together, not to touch the animals and to not stray off the path. As we made our way, he began talking about the plants and answering questions that arose by our group. As we were walking, William pointed out a Blue Footed Boobie. It was a male.  As we walked further, we came across a mother and a young Boobie, it looked cute with its white afro hair. The mother was just keeping an eye on the chick.  As we casually walked by, neither of them even flinched.  They were just going about their business, even though there were people walking past. I took a few photos and managed to film them but there were other people doing the same, so I grabbed what I could and caught up with the group. We came across an opening which leads to a rocky beach with the ocean waves crashing. We slowly made our way across, closely following William staying clear of the nests which needed to be protected. By now the heat was tough, the sun’s onslaught is something which I have never experienced in my life, it felt ferocious at times.

We climbed over rocks and slowly made it above the beach. We could hear the waves crashing and hissing and decided to take a break. We sat overlooking the pacific, just taking it all in. The view was just breath-taking, to see as far as the eye could see, the ocean, the waves.  It was then we noticed what appeared to be small red creatures moving over the rocks.  It took a few moments for us to realise that these red things were in fact Sally lightfoot crabs. It was truly immense, seeing all of this. I think William knew we would all be blown away by this vista, so he chose this spot deliberately. To hear the sounds of the waves crashing over the rocks was immense, the sort of loudness you’re not scared of, it was pulsating with every wave. To see the huge spray when the water was forced into the cracks and pushed through, up into the air was something to see. I watched it happen at least two dozen times and never got tired.

Sitting there admiring the view, a few of us walked further on but always in sight of William, one of the group noticed a group of iguana’s perched on a rock, just bathing themselves in the sun, heating their bodies up. In the air above us was a Galapagos Hawk, gliding past and using the thermals to keep itself aloft. Again, amazing to see. After our respite, William told us it’s time to move on, and we made our way into the land away from the seas. We came across an area which was a nesting ground and saw some Waved Albatross chicks. They seemed to be in clusters, a few families at least, tending to their young.

By now the sun was directly above us and it was hot. Even with my cap and long sleeves, it was becoming unbearable. We made our way back to the beach quickly, and boarded our panga and headed back to our boat for some lunch. After lunch, the crew asked if anyone wanted to go snorkelling and a few of us took the offer up. We got our wetsuits on and headed out on the panga.  We were about a mile away from the boat and in waters where we were told that there was an array of marvellous wildlife under the waves. With my snorkelling gear on I was told the water was warm, so I jumped in. At first, it was cold but with the sun overhead, that soon changed. Dropping your head into the ocean and seeing life underneath the waves was beautiful. The last time I felt like this was when I went snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef. Here in the Galapagos, after your eyes adjusted, you could see immense shoals of fish, so vivid in colour, all passing by one after the other. It was then I started to feel dizzy and nearly lost my balance in the open water. I managed to swim to the panga and climb aboard. Whilst I rested on the panga, the rest of the group finished off their snorkel. Shortly afterwards we went back to the boat where I had a shower and took some paracetamol. The afternoon visit was to Gardner Bay where there was a beach covered with sea lions. I stayed on the boat and rested while the rest of the group went.

The headache was still there and the paracetamol helped a little. I was annoyed with myself. I’d come all this way and couldn’t go on the excursion to Gardner Bay. Trivial it may sound, but for me, it was truly was one of those moments where you can’t help but think ‘when will I ever come back here again?’ The rational side of my brain kicked in and, deep down my health and well-being is paramount above everything else. That evening, at 7.30 (as always) we had dinner and after that we sat in the lounge and listened to William talk about the next day. He said it would be an early start, so we could see the sunrise.

That evening the skies were clear, and the stars and moon were out.  Just standing on the deck, on calm waters, looking out into the dark blue yonder was a tender moment of reflection. With all that goes on in the world, to look up and see the night sky made me wonder about the scale of things.

18th January 2011

It was a very early morning wake up call.  After quickly getting ready, I made it to the top deck, and in the distant we were graced with Leon Dormido, a sheer walled tuff cone where Boobies and tropic birds nest. It was like seeing Uluru but on water. As the boat slowed, it moved along a semi-circular path,  to our left out on the horizon the sun was slowly waking up and bathing the Leon Dormido in a warm glow, full of the hues of orange and yellow. Just pure bliss to see. There were wisps of clouds in the air, the skies were blue. This was one of this picture moments and I had my camera ready and was taking photos from all angles and filming. It was like when you have one of those dreams of a landscape so ethereal you think it can only ever exist in your imagination.  But here it was … real, and I was seeing it with my own eyes, and sharing it with other like-minded people and the crew. It was magical. As the sun was climbing, we circled it a few times and after we had all had the chance to pick up our mouths from the deck, we made our way downstairs to breakfast.

Today we would be visiting the interpretation centre on San Cristobal, to learn more about the islands and their history. Afterwards we had time in the town for some souvenir shopping and generally relaxing. I took this time to stock up on some batteries (just in case) and sun tan lotion, as I was worried I would get burnt in the searing heat. The excursion today was to visit Loberia for those who wanted to go. I decided to hang around on San Cristobal till the late afternoon.  It was also today that I phoned and wished my sister a very happy birthday, all the way from the Galapagos.

Today we would be visiting the interpretation centre on San Cristobal, to learn more about the islands and their history. Afterwards we had time in the town for some souvenir shopping and generally relaxing. I took this time to stock up on some batteries (just in case) and sun tan lotion, as I was worried I would get burnt in the searing heat. The excursion today was to visit Loberia for those who wanted to go. I decided to hang around on San Cristobal till the late afternoon.  It was also today that I phoned and wished my sister a very happy birthday, all the way from the Galapagos.

In the evenings on the main deck where we would have dinner, we’d watch movies and generally hang out, on the wall at the back next to the bar was a whiteboard on which the crew would draw a daily picture depicting what and where we would visit. It was a nice touch and always made us smile. The artwork was amazing, I was impressed, and it was something to look forward to when you woke up each day.

19th January 2011

To have consistently great breakfast every day was amazing. For someone who doesn’t have breakfast, it was rude not to tuck in; after all it was fresh and damn tasty. Today’s excursion was to Santa Cruz and in particular to Bachas Beach.  We were told by William that it’s on this beach that sea turtles come to lay eggs and we may see some if we were lucky.

So as the boat laid down its anchor in the deep ocean, the ones who wanted to go went out on the panga and straight to the beach. This would be a wet landing as there was no jetty. Looking back out into the ocean we could see the Galapagos Voyager, our boat.  This was a small group this time as a few people wanted to rest back on board.  There was four of us plus William. The first thing I’d noticed was the Sally lightfoot crabs and a few Iguanas perched on the rocks. William casually guided us across the beach and over a small sand dune, to which he noticed sea turtle tracks, everyone was actually excited but that excitement dampened as William said the turtle had already come and gone, but the tracks were still clearly visible. This showed us that nature has its own timetable and doesn’t wait for paying tourists. It was a shame we didn’t see any sea turtles but we had already seen so much it wasn’t too much of a downer.

We followed the turtle tracks and William was explaining to us, how the female comes ashore and makes her way inland, finds a spot and digs a hole so she can lay her eggs. He mentioned that a sea turtle will always come back to the same island to lay her eggs. As we crossed the ridge, about 50ft away was a lagoon and this is where we were told the Flamingos usually hang out.  There were none to be seen though, but William suggested we wait a while to see if any turned up. Whilst we waited, just on the water’s edges were some iguanas, which I filmed and just watched as they stood motionless with their bodies facing the sun. We all knew that seeing flamingos would be a stretch. After about 40 minutes we made our way back to the beach.  It was there we found out that one of our number had fallen ill and had to be taken to the hospital on the main island.  This meant we would be stranded on the beach until they got back. William explained to us what was happening and that everything was going to be fine, the only downside was that we would be on the beach longer than planned. We were worried about our friend but were told he would be fine.   With such assurances, we were on a beach, the sole humans on this island in the pacific ocean for a couple of hours.  I decided to wade through the water and capture the waves on the rocks and some iguanas.  Pelicans gently glided past us, no more than 3ft above the sand. It was magnificent to see. Just watching the wildlife, made the time pass so quickly and as soon as it was over, the panga was on the beach ready to take us back to the boat. We were informed that our fellow traveller would be kept overnight for observations and would join us the next day

After lunch, I sorted my camera gear out and changed the batteries, putting two on charge and taking the rest with me. The afternoon excursion today was a visit to Black Turtle Cove, it was a 10 min ride on the panga across the ocean and once we entered another 10mins to reach the cove. On our way through the mangrove swamps, William was telling us about the wildlife and fauna that grows and exists here. It actually felt like a BBC nature documentary, passing through the mangroves, ducking your head and pushing away branches so we could pass. The waters were calm as we made our way through, slowly turning with paddles so as not to disturb the wildlife; everyone on the boat was looking out intently for any sign of life. William would every now and then ask for the paddles to stop and he would scan his surroundings like a hawk, squint and see if he could see any movement in the mangroves. It was hypnotic to see (https://vimeo.com/27832880), and over time, we would mimic him and in doing so learn how to look for wildlife. As we made our way twisting and turning, we came to a place which seemed like a dead end, and just then underneath the water we saw giant sea turtles swimming. Collectively we all felt a sense of humbleness.   Soon after we saw two sea turtles in a mating embrace swimming. It was one of those ‘wow’ moments. It didn’t stop there; two rays went gliding past followed shortly by some white tipped sharks. William made a point to say that it was rare to see all of these in one excursion.  We must have been ‘the chosen ones’ he quipped.

Later that evening, and like most evenings before, I went out on deck to see the sunset. I’ve seen a few sunsets around the world but here it’s different, it’s special, it adds purpose. Collectively we all felt a sense of humility.. As the light was slowly fading, a lava gull landed and casually walked across the deck. The lava gull is one of the rarest gulls in the world, the entire population lives on the Galapagos Islands and is estimated at 300-400 pairs, so to see one was pretty amazing.   As it was walking back and forth, I also noticed a Frigate bird perched on the railings, I had my 70-200 f2.8 attached and with a steady hand and pose I fired a few shots, followed by filming it (https://vimeo.com/album/1593075/video/29011764) , then I just watched while the sun set.  It was a fantastic feeling with the gentle sway of the boat on the water

20th January 2011

First thing I heard was, ‘Happy Birthday, you’re old’ followed by laughter. So this was the day, my birthday, my 30th and here I was waking up on boat, moored in Darwin Bay, Genovesa Island in the Pacific. That’s something to tell people when you tell them how you celebrated your 30th.

Like days before, we had breakfast to fill our stomachs and got onto the panga and off we went for our morning excursion which was a ride along the sheared wall cliffs, looking out for red footed boobies and seals. The jagged cliff face was covered in bird faeces, almost making it white rather than the dark lava grey colour of the rocks. As we contoured the cliffs, we noticed a pair of seals. They seemed to be sleeping in the shade; in fact they were just resting …. If you looked you’d notice their eyelids move, followed by a few small shuffles. After a few more minutes watching the seals, we turned the panga round and headed to Prince Phillip’s Steps in the southern part of Darwin Bay. The night before we were told by William that we’d be walking along a 1.5km trail on the cliffs and we should expect to see Red Footed Boobies, great frigate birds, Nazca Boobies, Galapagos Storm Petrels, and short eared owls.

We took caution climbing up the steps which were at times steep. We all gathered round William for a brief group talk and then we were on our way, walking past nests and seeing Red Footed Boobies. Someone in the group asked the question as to why they have red feet and William response was that they don’t know, he also remarked that the red and blue footed species of boobies never crossed paths.

I noticed a Red Footed Boobie perched on a branch,  the webs on the feet are more flexible than the other species, because they perch on, and nest in, trees. I was no more than 3 feet away and with all my encounters with wildlife here at the Galapagos, I was just entranced. It’s unlike anything else…this is wildlife that is untamed and has not suffered at the hand of humanity. The wildlife has no fear of us, and thus the interaction is more personable. The wind would slowly move the boobie’s feathers, so every now and then it would stretch its webbed feet to get a greater hold on the branch.  It was truly a magical experience.

As we continued walking, I caught sight of two Nazca Boobies.  They appeared to be checking each other’s feathers making sure they were clean, fit and proper. It put a smile on my face, as it mirrored the sense of love that some of us humans have for one another and here it was, in nature.

https://vimeo.com/album/1593075/video/29561363

Next we came across what seemed like a sea of Galapagos Storm Petrels; William said there was probably a few hundred, flying just by the coastline above the waters. It was hypnotic to see, just following the dark shadows in the air and tracking the huge swarms move was an experience. You see it a lot in nature programmes and may see it in your local park, but out in the pacific, with nature as raw as this, was awesome. While our gaze was fixed on the swarms, William caught sight of a short eared owl through his spotting scope. It was an impressive spot to say the least; the bird was at least 600 ft. away, perched inside a small cave. He quickly gathered us around to see it through the scope as it was rare to see and he was quite happy with the find… I think we were all amazed.

Later on when we got back to the beach, we had some time to ourselves and for those who wanted to there was the option to snorkel.  William decided to snorkel today, it was the first time we had seen this and it was great.  I took this moment to have some time to myself and and walk round the marked path near the beach. It was emotional at times not only because it was my 30th but i was thinking back over what I had achieved up to this point in my life and also where I was heading. I thought about my family and the fact that my dad wasn’t alive, and that he would never know what I’d done and achieved.  He passed away when I was 11. All the emotions were strong, but there was an immeasurable scope of joy and a great sense of achievement, to be standing and looking out at the sun, with sea lions no more than a few feet away and birds flying overhead, it was truly heartfelt and it meant so much to me. It’s moments like these that you truly can’t describe in words.

That evening back on the boat the crew made me a birthday cake. An actual cake …. a sponge cake, with icing. It really took me by surprise but was such a great thing; they all sang Happy Birthday to me in Spanish which is something that I will remember forever.  We all had cake and spent the evening celebrating my birthday. The crew and my fellow travellers were just amazing and to celebrate with me meant a lot, we were merely strangers when we first met but for that evening, we were family.  Before we all went to bed, we met with William to discuss the excursions for the next day. A long cruise to Sullivan Bay to see strange lava formations and lava lizards.

21st January 2011

The sounds of the engines and the slight rocking of the boat made me aware that we were on the move, and had been throughout the night. After breakfast, we all dispersed some going to the top deck to relax on the sun loungers, others to the bow to watch the world go by. It was nearing the end of this magnificent adventure and it felt like we all needed time to ourselves just to take it all in and appreciate what we all did, witnessed and experienced.

As we approached Sullivan Bay, from a distance you could tell it was a strange land, with contrasting colours of sand and dark charcoal with brushes of vibrant green dotted around. It looked surreal, like a strange painting. The boat stopped in deep water and we all climbed aboard the panga for a closer look. We made our way towards the rocky coastline where we saw penguins! Penguins which normally live exclusively in the southern hemisphere, most famously Antarctica. Yet here they were in Galapagos. Just when you thought you knew everything about the enchanted islands, they would show you something new. The Galapagos Penguin is the only penguin that lives north of the equator in the wild.  William told us they can survive due to the cool temperature of the Humboldt Current and cool waters from great depth brought up by the Cromwell Current. Another fact learned was that these were the third smallest species of penguins. As we circled the outcrop of rocks where there were two birds, I managed to grab a few frames, but being on the panga it was difficult to get a clear photo.  It didn’t matter though as just seeing them with my own eyes was amazing. After this we went on land and walked over the lava formations. William said we should keep moving as the excessive heat being generated by the sun was heating the black lava up to ‘beyond hot’.  He told us that if we had arrived a few hours after midday then the rubber on our shoes and sandals would melt. So with that stark warning, we moved swiftly following William over the lava, jumping over cracks and over folds in the rocks. The landscape was ‘alien’ with very little life. It reminded me of the lava fields on the Big Island in Hawaii. Eventually you’d spot small signs of life in this harsh environment.  Small cactii sprouting up between the cracks. The walk eventually went around the lava fields and back to where we started, just in time for lunch. After lunch it was a short sail to Bartolome, where we would climb to the summit and witness that postcard view that I’d seen so many times in my pre-trip research. It was such a great day, blue skies with wisps of clouds, the views from all around were just stunning, it was a visual orgasm. It took about 40 minutes to reach the summit, stopping a few times along the way to catch our breath and take in the view.

At the summit the views were breath-taking, the way the islands were in view surrounded by the water was a sight to behold. As far as the eye could see, lay the majestic constantly changing Galapagos landscape that had formed over the millennia. We spent about an hour just taking it all in, snapping photos, and every couple of minutes just staring out into nature’s wanderlust.  This was the beginning of the end of this life changing trip for me and my fellow travellers whom I shared this once in a lifetime experience with. With our emotions high in the clouds, we all merrily walked down from the summit, talking, laughing and smiling, deep in thought knowing what we’ve all witnessed and seen throughout our time here on these enchanted islands.

After lunch we were on a long sail to Puerto Ayora. A few hours went by and a few went to sleep whilst others were on deck. William quickly rounded those on deck to the bow as the captain had noticed a group of dolphins swimming with the boat. We all rushed and leaned our heads to catch a glimpse and there they were, a pod of dolphins, jumping out of the water and some swimming very close to the boat. It was truly magical and to have been witness to it was amazing. Just when you thought you’d seen most things, the Galapagos would surprise you once again. Everyone was ecstatic.  With the emotions running through us all, we were elevated to a new state of mind.

I decided to stay on the boat that evening; a few went to the island to sample the night life.

22nd January 2011

So today was the final day of this amazing trip and a great 30th, our last excursion was going to be a brief one with a short visit to the Gemelos craters. Twin craters located opposite each other on both sides of the road leading from Puerto Ayora to Baltra, the name is only figurative, they are not real craters. These were created by the collapse of surface material into underground fissures and chambers.

The view was breathtaking with the lush green vegetation everywhere. After spending a few moments at the large sink holes it was time to leave for the airport where we started this great adventure 7 days earlier.

At the airport, we thanked William for everything and for being the best guide anyone could have hoped for.  He had truly made the whole trip memorable, a bitter-sweet  ending to one of life’s great adventures of self-exploration.   We went through passport control and waited in the departure area for our flight back to Ecuador.

 

Conclusion

It’s been 3 years since I went to the Galapagos and yet a day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about what I saw and how amazing it was. I’ve talked at length to people about it, so many times that they get bored of me talking about the same ‘old shit’ every time.  But the mere fact that I still talk about it, must mean that it has somehow changed me, why else would I talk about this trip like no other. I’ve been to many amazing places on this planet but none captured the sense of adventure, the sense of exploration, the sense of knowledge, the sense of discovery better than the Galapagos. A place so vivid in its landscape that you know before you even go there, that you will fall in love with it. It will change your DNA and what makes you ‘you’. There are not many places on the planet that can do this.

From a young age, the nature of planet earth has always been on my mind. Learning about the dinosaurs in primary school, learning about the sciences, going on school trips to the Natural History Museum countless times right through to visiting the Giant Sequoias in California.  All these things strengthened my desire to see the new and experience the wonder of nature.

Growing up and watching countless nature programs on the BBC, one could dream of seeing creatures of such colour and variety in their natural habitat. Seeing the wildlife in the Galapagos was a humbling experience for me. I was raised to believe in religion, but to keep sane, I had to let it go so I could stay on the path that I’m on now. It’s been liberating to say the least.  Being a person of science, and seeing things before me which at times were just jaw dropping, exquisite and majestic, is ….. what life is about. Being there, and going from island to island, you learn much about yourself. Being away from civilization, the hustle and bustle of city life was comforting for me. To have time to think beyond the realms of barriers, boundaries and borders…… this is what the Galapagos did for me..

Being a photographer in the Galapagos was liberating. Years of reading and people telling me what you should and should not do was all washed away. I was free to be me, free to  pursue my photography as I saw fit.  I was doing it for me, and it was a bonus that people liked the resulting photos and videos.  Since then many more people have viewed my photos and videos and I’ve been getting humbling emails from people all over the world. To have brought a sense of joy to a wide variety of people through my work is an amazing feeling.  The notion that we as humans can connect through visual representation, and that these in turn can break down barriers of race, creed and religion is powerful. To connect with people through photos is a wondrous feeling.

The journey to the Enchanted Isles has made me even more aware of cultural subtleties that divide and split people.  It’s made me more aware of the love that we have inside of us, the power it has to enable us to do great things in life and also to help others. But more than that, it has opened my eyes and mind to the wonders of the planet.  Now more so than ever, I wish to travel, to photograph, film and document the places I visit

We live in a world where we want things quickly and instantly, and that’s a shame. I’ve learned to be patient in my life and will take my time with my projects so that they’re only shared when they’re ready to be shown to the world. Admiring the nature of the Galapagos gave me a sense of slowing things down, appreciating those moments a little longer, long enough so that it still lingers in your mind when you hear a piece of music or see a photo.

I will for the rest of my life talk about the Galapagos.  I will show and share my photos and films of it with everyone and anyone, because it is truly a unique place on this planet from which we still have much to learn. Only by doing this, will we learn to appreciate each other.

 

So the Galapagos Islands, it has been an immense, powerful experience and has forever left an indelible footprint on what makes me who I am….

Still unsure to go or want to really get a sense of what's it like? All I ask is 5 minutes of your life to watch this video I filmed! (if you'd like to watch it on Youtube, then head over to my channel to view it or click here )

 

Read my interview I did with Detour Destinations about my experiences at the Galapagos here http://bit.ly/Js1Y7N

To see my photos from this amazing trip, head over to https://www.flickr.com/photos/moon24/sets/72157625758754443

To see my videos that I shot out there, then please head over to https://vimeo.com/album/1593075

Prints from my trip to the Galapagos are available to purchase from http://www.m24instudiophotography.com/p134219154

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Mamun Humayun
www.m24instudio.com


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