Saturday, 2 May 2015

Galápagos Islands - Travel and Photographic Notes

It's taken a few weeks to put together the previous 27 posts (see links below) from our travels in the Galápagos Islands. Along the way, I've been asked a lot of questions about our travel planning, the tour and how I went about photographing the experience, so here goes...

Planning and Preparation
There are two ways to visit the Galápagos Islands: via an organised tour or DIY.

DIY
I have no personal experience of travelling independently in the Galápagos but, if you are considering this as an option, you need to weigh up the pros and cons.

The downside is that day trips from the major centres are restricted as to which islands they can visit, both by geography (you can only get so far on a half-day or full-day trip) and by National Park restrictions (many of the islands have limitations on the number of groups that can visit in a day and some locations are only available for cruises). Day trips are not set up to get you to any of the locations early in the morning or late in the afternoon so you'll be there in the middle of the day: hot, humid, probably crowded and the light will be poor for photography (if you care about that). There are ferries to and from the major centres but they are primarily for public transport not for wildlife watching.

The upside is that you can visit the locations available when you want to (within the limitations noted above) and, probably more importantly, revisit them if there's something you missed or want to see again. With a guided tour, you only get one crack at each location.

Choosing a tour
I spent a considerable amount of time investigating the various options for Galápagos cruises and weighing up the options to suit the needs and personal preferences of the four of us who were travelling together. We all met while studying zoology at university in the 1970s so, for us, it was the wildlife that was the primary focus - as much of it as we could fit in. We wanted the longest trip we could get, visit the most islands and locations and spend as much time as possible on the islands and had a strong preference for a small boat. Many of the tours did not meet these criteria so they were quickly off the list. In fact, most of the tourists we spoke to once we arrived in Ecuador were returning from the Galápagos and all said they had a fantastic experience. However, when we dug deeper it was obvious that some of the tours focussed more on the luxury cruising than the on-island 'roughing it'. So you need to choose a tour that suits the level of luxury as well as the activities you want.

The tour that seemed to best fit our criteria was the Galápagos Travel 15 day tour - even the wording on their website hinted at what we were after:
"Our trips are different...About half a dozen expeditions each year spend 15 days in the islands. These are the longest regularly available tours of the Galapagos."
Then I looked at the schedule for their 2015 tours and noticed that they offered 'photo intensive' tours led by Tui de Roy. Jo and I have been fans of Tui's work for a long time. Tui has spent much of her life living in, leading tours, photographing and publishing books on the Galápagos, as well as co-writing books on Penguins and Albatross (check out her work at www.rovingtortoise.com). So, for me, the decision was made. I just needed to convince my travel mates that a photographic tour would suit them - wildlife photographers can be a fun bunch to be with but we can be just a little obsessive...

In hindsight, usually a fairly good place from which to view decisions, it was the perfect option for us. Being a photographic intensive tour, with a photographer (particularly Tui) as the tour guide meant that the itinerary was designed by a photographer for photographers, which, selfishly, suited me. However, even for those not as photographically fanatical, the early starts, late finishes and extra time on the islands and in the water gave us all time to see more and do more, time to contemplate and observe things in detail and all at the best times of the day. Other tours did not seem to offer the same level of wildlife intensity as we got. While on several walks on the islands, it was also obvious that many of the tours restricted their on-island experiences to tightly managed guided walks. Many times we were on the islands before and left after the other groups, some of which spent less than an hour on a walk that took us three hours. The other groups were tightly regimented on the trails with the guide talking non-stop. While we were 'managed', in that we kept to the marked trails and stayed within sight and hearing of each other, both Tui and our NP guide guide were informative but non-intrusive and we were allowed to spend time (sometimes more than half an hour in one spot on the trail) observing and photographing the wildlife.

All that said, there would be many people for whom the trip we did would have been less attractive. We were up every morning before 5:30 and while none of the individual walks was particularly strenuous (I missed the only really steep one on the morning I was ill), there was a lot of walking, swimming, paddling, scrambling in and out of pangas onto rocky shores and into and out of knee deep water: exactly what we were looking for but probably not for everyone. While everyone on our trip coped with the exertions, most people had retired for the night before 9:00 pm and one couple did comment that they "wished they'd done this ten years ago!"

Our trip
We visited 26 locations on 14 islands (not including Baltra where we landed and took off)

Tour map, Galápagos Islands
(from the Tip Top Fleet trip guide book: The Galapagos Islands Aboard)

Santa Cruz

Genovesa
Santiago
Isabela
Fernandina 
Santa Fé



Floreana
Española
San Crisóbal


Photographic gear
Most of what I had read when planning this trip said:
  • long lenses were not necessary
  • don't bring a tripod
advice I chose to ignore (eventually, after a lot of vacillating).

Lenses
I took 4 lenses: 10-20mm, 16-50mm, 70-200mm, 300mm with 1.4x and 2x adapters [I use 1.5x crop-sensor cameras so these equate to a range from 15-900mm on a full frame camera.]

While the wildlife is often close - indeed, sometimes you have to be careful not to trip over iguanas, lava lizards, boobies and sea lions on beaches and trails - and a mid range zoom, such as 70-200mm is ideal for many shots, I used wide angles and longer lenses sufficiently often to justify bringing all 4 lenses. Of the nearly 4800 images saved (from approx. 14,000 clicks of the shutter - see below for daily routine for managing cards and photographs), I used the lenses in the following percentages:
  10-20mm zoom  6%
  16-50mm zoom  11%
  70-200mm zoom  51%
  300mm  30%
  300mm with 1.4x or 2x adapter  2%

So, if I'd followed most of the advice about not requiring long lenses, I'd have missed almost a third of the shots I took, in particular the albatross and tropicbirds in flight and the flamingos and shore birds. The only lens that I did miss was my macro lens which would have been good for some close-ups of flowers and barnacles but I probably only missed a handful of shots and it would have significantly compromised what I carried and how I managed it on the daily walks.

My best advice is take whatever you think you'll use and whatever you can comfortably carry, keeping in mind that you'll be in and out of pangas, often to and from knee-deep water or slippery, wet rocks.

Tripod - yes or no?
I took a tripod and used it about 10% of the time, This was exclusively with the 300mm lens, mostly the few times I had the 1.4x or 2x adapter on but generally for shots of small birds where handholding was not quite steady enough, especially in low light - we had lots of early morning starts in rainy and overcast weather.

Me photographing finches, Urvina Bay, Isla Isabela, Galápagos
Photograph courtesy of Joanne Smissen

Our trip did offer opportunities for landscape shots but mostly these were in good light or in circumstances where a tripod is not much use, e.g., on a boat. You are not permitted on the islands before sunrise or after sunset so there were no opportunities for very low light shots. If we had been land-based and spent evenings in the towns, then I'd have used a tripod much more for low light shots.

Would I take a tripod again? Yes! Even though it is more to pack and carry, I prefer carrying a long lens on a tripod over my shoulder than on a strap or handheld. When I stop, the tripod is holding the weight of camera and lens and I don't need to worry about putting the lens down on rocks, sand or mud and changing lenses is much easier. However, others on the trip did not bring a tripod and managed to survive.

Accessories
The only additional equipment that I purchased especially for this trip were knee pads - nothing fancy, just a pair of plastic tradesmen's knee pads with foam lining (gardener's knee pads would also work). They were really useful enabling me to kneel down comfortably on rocky shores and lava flows, to get shots of birds and lizards that I'd otherwise have missed.

Photographing Marine Iguana, Puerto Egas, Isla Santiago, Galápagos
Photograph courtesy of Joanne Smissen

I took a spare camera on this trip. I often have both cameras in operation at the same time, e.g., on pelagic birding trips where you usually don't have time to change lenses (and don't particularly want to if there's salt spray around) I have one camera with the 300mm (and maybe a 1.4x adapter) and one with 70-200mm zoom. On this trip though, there was not really a need for two cameras to be used simultaneously so the K-5 remained in the bag as a spare. I did not take any shots with this camera the whole time in the Galápagos but I was glad I brought it for peace-of-mind. I also brought a waterproof compact camera, mostly for underwater photography while snorkelling and it stopped working after day 2! While disappointed that I didn't have a camera for the rest of the snorkelling trips, I would have been devastated if I'd only brought one DSLR and it had died.

Both my cameras have battery packs attached which gives me 4 identical batteries. I recharged batteries every night and never need the extras - two batteries in my K-3 will usually last about 3000 shots (as long as I don't do a lot of reviewing). Regarding charging, I always carry a 4 socket power board with me so I can survive with one AC adapter and I have a 4 outlet USB adapter which means I can charge 2 phones, 2 iPads, 2 camera battery packs and a laptop from one AC outlet - I just need to remember to bring all the right cables).

For filters, I really only carry ND and polarising filters. I had ND filters in my main pack but did not carry them onto shore unless I thought I would need them. Ironically, and predictably, I did make the mistake of NOT taking them on the evening walk on Isla Fernandina where this shot would have been better with an ND filter enabling me to slow the shutter speed much more than I did here. When I did carry them, I did not use them. I used polariser filters sparingly, mostly because they cut 2 stops of light out and, in many cases, I was already shooting in low light and didn't want to compromise by having to bump the ISO even higher to compensate for the polariser. A polariser was useful on a few occasions where reflections off water needed to be reduced. All my zooms take a 77mm filter so it was easy enough to carry one polariser and swap it around when I needed it. However, if we had been out in the middle of the day, I would probably have used polarisers more frequently.

Punta Espinoza, Isla Fernandina, Galápagos
Pentax K-3, Pentax 16-50mm f/2.8 @ 18mm, ISO 100, f/32, 1.6 sec

Carrying the gear
I have a LowePro back pack that I use to pack and carry my cameras and lenses (+ flash and other bits and pieces that did not come on this trip) on planes, in cars and for short walks. For this trip, I also brought a 30 litre waterproof pack that I used as a day pack, leaving the bigger back pack on the boat. It provided waterproof protection when travelling on and getting in and out of pangas as well as when walking in the rain and could be put in sand and on wet ground when stopping at photographic locations. It also carried a small first aid kit, toolkit and water bottle. I generally pulled the extra lenses out and carried them in a sling over my shoulder while on land, making it easy to change lenses without having to get into the pack on my back. In heavy rain, the sling (packed with the three zoom lenses) could be put quickly and easily into the waterproof pack and the longer lens and camera wrapped in a plastic poncho.

Lagoon crossing, Urvina Bay, Isla Isabela, Galápagos
Photograph courtesy of Joanne Smissen

Photo management
Each night I copied the contents from the cards to a laptop, added the photographs to an Adobe Lightroom catalog and ran a quick deletion edit, culling out the obvious non-keepers. At 8 frames per second, it's easy to create a lot of useless copies of effectively the same shot and I don't see any point in keeping anything that's badly exposed or out of focus. I also find that I take a lot of photographs of subjects that I subsequently get much better shots of later in the same shoot, e.g., when stalking a bird, I will have a lot of shots of it at a distance that by the time I get closer and better shots are not worth keeping. Once culled and labelled with locations, I copied everything to a back-up hard drive (that I store and carry separately from the laptop). Once I have two separate copies, I reformatted the cards and placed them back into the camera. I did carry a bunch of spare cards, which only ever got used by other people, but the peace-of-mind in knowing you have plenty of storage is worth the extra few grams of weight to carry around...and other people are always very grateful when you can come to their aid.

Evening editing of photos with all my friends, Tip Top III, Galápagos
Photograph courtesy of Joanne Smissen

Conclusion

I can thoroughly recommend* Galápagos Travel and Rolf Wittmer Tip Top Fleet. I am sure many of the agents and operators provide a great service but our experience of the whole process, from our initial booking enquiry, payment, information provided, pick ups at airports and hotels and the side trips we did in Quito was seamless. The Galápagos Travel staff were friendly, professional, responsive and proactive - all you could ask for in a travel agent. The boat crews (we had a partial change of crew halfway through our trip) were excellent. Nothing was too much trouble. The food was great and  and I even learned a little more Spanish. Most importantly, our guides, Tui and Enriquez made the trip what it was - the experience of a lifetime.

*Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with either Galápagos Travel or Rolf Wittmer Tip Top Fleet other than as a satisfied customer.

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