We recently came across a traveler’s photo journal from his Ultimate Galápagos journey…10 years ago! These images prove just how timeless this unique archipelago is, with its dramatic landscapes and wildlife that has no fear of humans. Read more to gain insight into the story behind each shot. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did.

During the two weeks I spent in the Galápagos—a group of 15 islands on the equator, about 500 miles west of Ecuador—I shot more than 8,000 images, kept less than 300, and am now sharing 12 of them for this blog. The extended photo-essay format can work well as an online gallery on a single subject such as this one, or even as a self-published photographic book. 

Frigatebird flying in the Galapagos

Flying Frigatebird | Punta Carrion, Isabela Island

The brilliant inflated red throat pouch draws the eye into this image. The pouch also is designed to attract a potential mate. There were many Frigates drifting along the hills, using their seven-foot wide wingspans to ride the air currents and soar over the stands of palo santo trees that covered this area. The energy of this image comes from the dueling diagonal thrusts of the wing angle and the contrasting slope of the hill.

Molting land iguana in the Galapagos

Molting Land Iguana | South Plaza Island

This closeup of a land iguana speaks of the prehistoric past. This one is molting—I could see its skin peeling away from its back. I noticed many photographers taking pictures of these iguanas from a standing position, which diminishes them in scale and de-emphasizes expression. I moved my camera as low to the ground as possible, and framed the image in my fold-out LCD viewfinder, stressing the impassive expression and the effect of the peeling skin.

Sea lion resting on a rock in the Galapagos

Sea Lions and Crabs | Santa Fe Island

These rocks were about a half-mile offshore of Santa Fe Island. I framed the image so the foreground was rich in waves and spray that bathe the rocks behind them. The rocks are covered with red Sally Lightfoot crabs. Two Galápagos Sea Lions seem to own these rocks—one sleeps while the other stands guard. Life in and around the Galápagos resides on both land and sea, and places such as this represent a blend of both. I was shooting from a raft that was being tossed about by the waves. In order to stabilize this 200mm focal length shot, I had to use a shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second—ten times faster than normal in order to avoid blur due to camera shake.

Waved albatross in the Galapagos

Nesting Waved Albatrosses | Punta Saurez, Espanola Island

The sole nesting ground for Waved Albatrosses is here on Espanola Island. It is vast, accommodating over 12,000 pairs at a time. The scene is chaotic, and demands photographic simplification. I chose to concentrate on just one pair, and made this family portrait as one member of a pair sits on the nest in the foreground while the other looms over it in the background. The male and female split the next sitting duties, so I was unable to identify the gender roles here. But that is not important—instead, I try to express the bond between the two as defined by their deliberate positioning and the matching placid expressions that tell the story of nesting albatrosses. I also stress the subtle yellow feather coloring that matches the colors of their beaks.

courtship dance blue footed booby in the Galapagos

Dancing Blue Footed Boobies | Punta Saurez, Española Island

The behavior of the blue footed booby is most clown-like during courtship. It appeared to me that this pair was engaged in a courtship dance, as they shuffled their huge blue feet from side to side, virtually mimicking each other’s moves. I photographed them above, something I rarely do with birds, since a high vantage point often tends to diminish them in scale. But in this case, an overhead viewpoint was warranted—I am able to stress the color and position of the feet, which tell the story here.

mating dance waved albatross in the Galapagos

Mating Waved Albatrosses | Punta Suarez, Espanola Island

Our visit to Española Island was capped by this opportunity—allowing me to capture what appears to be a gesture of affection expressed by a pair of waved albatrosses during its mating dance. Only the heads and necks are visible, as they emerge from the tangle of vegetation to join beak tips with a gentle tapping sound. Wildlife photography can often express human values, even though the subjects themselves may not be human. This image offers a good example of this. As human beings, we can see and feel and understand a universal gesture such as this one, incongruously expressed by creatures quite unlike ourselves. This gesture is no more or no less than a kiss—a token of affection anyone can relate to.

Landscape in the Galápagos

Landscape and Trail | Central Highlands, Santa Cruz Island

The power of landscape photography rests largely in the relationship between light, color, and composition. On this day, the light was flat, offering no emphasis. Yet this landscape, made from the top of an observation tower in a tortoise habitat in the hills of Santa Cruz Island, still works well. The saturated greens energize the image. I composed the image around the brown path running from the foot of our observation tower to the forest in the mid-distance. That forest, in turn, points the eye towards the distant hills in the background, and the gray sky, tinged with blue, frames the image at the top.

Giant tortoise eating grass in the Galápagos

Galápagos Giant Tortoise | Cerro Mesa Plantation, Santa Cruz Island

About 3,000 Galápagos Giant Tortoises live in the wild on the vast coffee and banana plantations in the highlands of Santa Cruise Islands. We had to hike for a half hour to find this one having lunch in the high grasses of Cerro Mesa Plantation. I am not interested in describing the appearance of an entire tortoise. Instead, I zoom in on the point of the image—the taste of grass. It is believed that these reptiles can live up to 150 years in the wild. The most famous tortoise in the Galápagos, known as Lonesome George, died in captivity at Santa Cruz’s Charles Darwin Research Center the day after we visited the center. (I did not photograph him because he was virtually obscured by the bushes in his pen.)

blue heron and crab in the Galápagos

Great Blue Heron and Sally Lightfoot Crab | Santa Cruz Island

These large herons are seen on the beaches and lagoons of most islands in the Galápagos. I returned with numerous photographs of them in flight, stalking through the surf, and perched on the ledges of their rocky dens. I made this image, however, under strikingly different circumstances, and it proved to be my most expressive Great Blue Heron image of the entire visit. I never expected to find this magnificent bird standing on the rocks adjacent to the busiest location in the largest town in the entire Galápagos. Yet there it was—perched next to a boldly contrasting Sally Lightfoot crab at the main entrance to the most important pier in the Galapagos, the pier where all of the tourists visiting Puerto Ayora by sea arrive and leave from their ships and boats. I was spending a few hours on my own in the town and devoted a full half-hour to watching this bird move around these rocks. When it leaned forward, almost as if it were about the converse with the crab, I made this image. It speaks of coexistence between various species—both the crab and the heron feed off these same rocks and the sea around them and share the space in mutual respect. This image shows us that expressive images can be made under all conditions, even those where we might least expect to find them.

Female vegetarian finch in the Galápagos

Female Vegetarian Finch | Urbina Bay, Isabela Island

There are 13 species of finches in the Galápagos, collectively called “Darwin’s Finches.” No other group of creatures is as important to learn how we have come to understand our place in our world. And all because of Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galápagos on the HMS Beagle in 1835. While all of those species are different from each other, Darwin concluded that all of these little brown and black birds were also similar, and had descended from a common ancestor as a result of isolation and lack of predation. Darwin’s conclusion has been confirmed by modern DNA testing, and makes it possible for us to see how life itself has developed and evolved. These finches are at the very essence of the Galápagos story, and we saw different species on the various islands we visited. Finches are very difficult to photograph, since they are small birds that are constantly on the move, and often screened from view by trees and bush branches. However, I was fortunate to make at least one expressive image of a “Darwin Finch,” which I’ve identified as a female Vegetarian Finch. Its chest and head markings are unmistakable, and I caught it with one of its wings fluttering and its translucent beak illuminated by backlight.

Giant tortoise in the Galápagos

Galápagos Tortoise | Urbina Bay, Isabela Island

While the finch may be the most significant creature in the Galápagos, the 15,000 tortoises that roam the islands are among the most unique. I’ve tried to express just how unique they are in this close-up image of a tortoise, made as it was drawing its head back under its protective shell. The armored treads on its huge legs tell us that these tortoises move not only by foot, but also by knee and thigh. There is also armor on the chest, and of course, it carries a massive shell on its back. Perhaps all of this protection is why some of them have lived to be 150 to 200 years old.

Sea lions lounging in the Galápagos

Sea Lions | Punta Espinosa, Fernandina Island

This pair of female Galápagos Sea Lions seemed to be posing for the cameras as they basked in the evening sun at the water’s edge. They are massive—sea lions are the largest animal on land in the Galápagos. There are somewhere around 50,000 sea lions in the Galápagos, mostly found on its sandy beaches. They are well adapted to humans, and often are the first creatures to welcome tourists as they clamber ashore. This particular pair, which I photographed side by side in profile, one with its nose to the sky, the other with its nose to the beach, symbolizes the hold sea lions have on the human imagination. We study this image and wonder what they must be thinking at this moment.

Diving booby in the Galápagos

Diving Blue Footed Booby | Espumilla Beach, Santiago Island

Espumilla Beach, an important nesting site for sea turtles, is also one of those magical places where Galápagos sea birds regularly feed. One of my pre-trip goals was to photograph a diving blue footed booby about to strike the water, and this beach proved to be the best place in the Galápagos to do it. These birds soar high into the air, spot a fish, and plunge straight down to the ocean, entering the water like a knife. It is a very difficult photograph to capture—to frame, expose, and focus on a plunging bird takes great skill and a good deal of luck. I also wanted a well-composed image, one without a lot of blank sky or empty water as context. I spent a half-hour here, shooting several hundred pictures of diving boobies in order to make this particular image. (Thankfully, I was granted the luxury of time here—our group was hiking on the island, and our guide made it possible for me to stay behind on the beach, accompanied by one of our boatmen, in order to concentrate solely on photographing diving boobies.)

I used my smaller camera, zoomed to its maximum focal length of 90mm, to get this shot. It allowed me to place our group’s ship, the barquentine Mary Anne in the background, as well as add a layer of clouds between the ship and the ocean. The birds were plunging through my frame regularly, and I used a fast shutter speed of 1/800th of a second to freeze this one just as it began to furl its wings and retract its feet so it could enter the water with the least resistance. Its body was already stretched out to its limit. I was able to place the bird in the upper left-hand corner of the frame to counterbalance the sailing ship in the lower right-hand corner, creating a diagonal composition. It took both time and a lot of “misses” to make this photograph, but the result was well worth the effort.

Mother and chick blue footed booby  in the Galápagos

Mother and chick | Seymour Island

As I roamed Seymour’s huge nesting colony of blue footed boobies, I found one cradling a tiny chick between her large blue feet. Because of the size difference, the eye goes first to the large adult bird as it casts an eye over its sharp blue bill pointed downwards towards the chick. The bill acts as a pointer, and following its flow, we come to the tiny chick, resting comfortably under the great brown feathers of its mother’s wing. This image is all about scale incongruity. It was also a difficult shot to make. I had to play with about twenty images until I was able to get one with both the mother’s bill pointing downwards and the chick’s body visible. 

pinnacle rock at sunset in the Galápagos

Pinnacle Rock at Sunset | Bartolomé Island

The most famous promontory in the Galápagos is bathed in the golden light of a reflected sunset, which makes a beautiful subject for a photograph. I usually avoid taking pictures of famous places, because they often resemble postcards. What makes this scene so special is the set of three cloud streams that seem to explode from not only Pinnacle Rock itself but also from the two huge hills that flank it on either side. I place the waterline near the bottom of the frame to increase the length of those cloud streams, all of which reflect traces of the setting sun as well.

—Text and photos by Phil Douglis, Ultimate Galápagos. Phil has been teaching photographic communication as well as pursuing his passion for travel photography for more than 50 years. He is the retired director of The Douglis Visual Workshops in Phoenix, Arizona, a training resource in expressive photography for organizational communicators, photo-editors, travel photographers, and hobbyists.

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