This is my photo-indulgent post. I have been pretty restrained up until now, but one of the main reasons I went to the Galapagos was for the wildlife, and the photo-opportunities for this. As a garden photographer it’s not what I’m used to at all, and I missed a lot as I learnt new ways of using my camera. Burst mode – what’s that?! But I also caught some pretty special moments.
So can you get up close and personal like all the websites say you can? Well the short answer is yes, because the animals and birds don’t fear humans; they are protected by a strict code and regulated by the National Parks Service. (This may be as a result of the historical fate of the tortoises, which were severely depleted by pirates and whalers, and even by Darwin’s expedition in the Beagle. Tortoises can live for months without food and water and the seamen used to stack them on deck in piles for a supply of fresh meat during their time at sea.) But I digress.
But should you get as close as you can? I watched one young couple from a different boat walk right up to within touching distance of a pair of blue-footed boobies for their obligatory selfie. Silvia, our guide, remonstrated with them in no uncertain terms. ‘If you do this, do you think the birds will continue to be comfortable around humans? Have some respect and move away!’
Respect is key, I think, and a long lens very helpful. I used a 70-200mm zoom for almost all my wildlife captures. It has a stabiliser which meant I could handhold down to around 1/80sec on a good day. Tripods and boats definitely don’t mix, and neither do tripods and moving tour groups. Apart from in Puerta Ayora in Santa Cruz, landings on the islands are strictly timed, and you must be accompanied by a guide, always. There are pathways or areas of permitted walking which are marked out, and you must stay within these, and keep together as a group.
This was a real challenge for a photographer used to spending unlimited (well it often seems that way) time parked behind a tripod with a macro lens and cable release, waiting for the millisecond when a miscanthus grass or an angel’s fishing rod is perfectly still. All of my captures were handheld, apart from a few before and after the boat trip. Another completely new experience for me.
Let me talk about comfort. I can no longer deal with scuzzy camp-sites, taps hanging off walls, mosquito nets with holes on, walls with holes in, resident geckoes, or any other wildlife inside my bedroom. Don’t ask me to, I really can’t.
I need a toilet that works, a shower that pushes out a consistent stream of at least tepid water, a bed with some kind of linen, and if it’s really hot, an air-conditioner that works and doesn’t sound like a Boeing 747 taking off. I need food that I can eat with confidence and a supply of potable water. In other words I am a namby-pamby, middle-aged westerner.
So the next few days aboard the Mary Anne were kind of interesting for me. To cut a long story short, the generator was only working partially from when we boarded, and on the afternoon of the fourth day it stopped. Completely. The engine was ok, so we were still able to move, but no power for lighting, cooking or air-con, and for a few hours even the water stopped. I refer you back to the beginning of my last para. We were on the west side of Isabela island, about the furthest we could be from the main port on Santa Cruz. It was not good.
However. The crew were amazing, working so hard through the night to try and fix it (they didn’t). On the first night without power they took our dinner by panga (aka dinghy/zodiac) to our sister ship, The Passion, cooked it and brought it back. We ate dinner under the stars with no noise apart from desultory chatting. It was stressful (what’s going to happen, how do we cope with this) but beautiful. At the end of the evening, though, even the emergency lighting failed, and we felt our way gingerly down the steep steps to our cabins. At this point it was very, very quiet and very, very dark. I was glad of my £2.50 LED camping torch, thrown into my luggage at the last moment.
The following morning a power line is somehow rigged between us and the Passion, and the emergency lighting and water are back on. Huge inward sigh of relief. In the afternoon a spare part arrives by speed-boat. But will it work?
By the evening, still no power, so we are panga’ed over to the Passion and for a joint meal with the passengers there, the wine flowing freely in more than one sense. It was really interesting to see the inside of a modern boat: very beautiful, a lot more spacious than ours – but, to me, Passion-less. As a fellow traveller murmured to me,’ It’s just like being in a large apartment’. Our boat is a proper boat – if only it was working. Then, the lights flicker on across the water. It’s fixed! Another, happier, panga ride under the stars, spotting the southern cross and enjoying the breeze on our faces, and a release of tension as we boarded and made our way to cabins with lights and taps and toilets that worked.
Those two days were an object lesson in how much I rely on creature comforts. I wasn’t the only one, there were others arguably more stressed-out than me. But I have to acknowledge that this is how I am now, no matter how much I would rather believe otherwise. That’s a challenging pill to swallow, particularly when I look at the wider world and how much hardship others are enduring on a daily basis. I am not proud of myself. And maybe I can change in the future. But perhaps, for now, I can just accept that I am who I am, and that’s ok.
Over the next few days the time seemed to expand and contract simultaneously. The days went fast but we saw so much, did so much, ate so much… the food on the boat is really good. So much for the diet. But with two walks and a snorkel most days, at least I’m balancing the calories to some extent.
Did I mention I learned how to snorkel for the first time in my life? Not so shabby for a fifty-something. And it’s so, so beautiful, moving slowly or just lying flat in the water above shoals of scorpionfish, rainbow wrasse, pufferfish and yellow-tail surgeonfish. Spotting a green sea-turtle for the first time swimming below me, and following as it rose to the surface, so effortlessly and with such grace. It looked as if it was in slow motion. A magical moment. And if I definitely had go-pro envy at this point as number as of my boat-mates had underwater cameras and videos, there was another side to it too. As a professional photographer, it was actually a real release(once I had let go of the envy) to be allowed to just ‘be’, experiencing everything as it happened without having to try for the perfect shot. Note to self: don’t let my other half know this – it’s what he’s been telling me for years, dammit.
Floreana island is one of the inhabited islands, originally colonised by diverse adventurers, including a drunken Irishman, a self-titled Baroness who disappeared in mysterious and unexplained circumstances, and various political prisoners who were shipped over here in the nineteenth century. The Wittmer family arrived in the highlands in the late 1920s, and their descendants are still living on the island: a testament, according to Silvia our guide, to the pioneering spirit of the people settling here. ‘There was nothing, only one freshwater stream,’ she told us. ‘And Margaret was five months pregnant when she arrived.’ I thought back to my pregnancies, full of complications, check-ups and medical interventions. It didn’t bear thinking about.
We docked at the little jetty, avoiding sleepy sea-lions and wondering at innumerable sally lightfoot crabs massed on the quayside wall.
Into an open-sided bus and then a bone-rattling journey up to Asilo de la Paz in the highlands, which brought more tortoises, flocks of ground finches, pirate caves and a spoof ‘primitive head’ carved by one of the Wittmer family and passed off as an ancient artefact to Thor Heyerdahl, the explorer, who was completely taken in, apparently. When the joke was explained he was not so amused.
Back on board the Mary Anne, having first swum off the beach above actual sharks – small black-tipped reef sharks, non-aggressive, so I’m told. An interesting moment.Some of the sails went up for the afternoon trip, assisted by the more able and willing of our party. I was neither, with back, knees and more recently thumb joints that come with an ageing body. It was fun watching them sweat though.
The boat was a lovely sight as we travelled to Isabela in the afternoon, although it was an abiding disappointment that the engines were never cut. But it looked beautiful. In fact, every time we anchored and went ashore, there was a little rush of pleasure on seeing our boat looking like a proper boat amidst the luxury launches and cruisers that populate the island harbours.
And as for living-on-a-boat: I wasn’t seasick, or dizzy, or dehydrated, although I did drink an awful lot of water. Turns out February is one of the hottest months in the Galapagos, which clearly I didn’t pick up online. Silvia reckoned it was actually pretty temperate at the moment, more like May. Which sparked off a discussion which recurred many times througout the trip: is this an El Niño year or not?Many experts think yes, but Silvia disagreed – not enough rain, she said.
It was great being part of a small group, having discussions and joking around. It brought a sense of belonging that is the polar opposite of the loneliness I had expected to feel as a solo traveller. For me, it was the ideal size, 12 of us plus Silvia, plus the crew. Small enough to feel familiar, large enough to be able to take time out to be alone. And with a really friendly and knowledgable Galapaganean guide available pretty much 24/7 the insight into the islands and their ecosystems was amazing. It was quite surreal to realise that it was only the end of the third day.
The Galapagos. Bucket list territory for me over many years. So when I won some money on a raffle, it seemed like a moment of opportunity. I could add it to my meagre pension savings. Or I could do something memorable.
You can stay on the main island, Santa Cruz, and take day tours, or you can take a boat tour, which travels the eastern islands for seven days and the western isles for the same time. I couldn’t afford both so I opted for the western islands, aboard the Mary Anne, an old-fashioned sailing boat, with its own tale to tell, of which more later. My other half gets sea-sick in the bath, so he declined to accompany me on this occasion. So this was a Big Solo Adventure.
The Galapagos is a collection of volcanoes erupted over millions of years from the Pacific Ocean floor, in a hotspot where tectonic plates meet. The islands each comprise one volcano (apart from Isabela which is a conglomeration of six) and they drift inexorably eastwards away from the hotspot over thousands of years where the volcanoes eventually fade and go extinct. For this reason the hierarchy of age moves more or less from east to west: San Cristobal and Espanol at somewhere between 2.5 and 4 million years old, through to Isabela and Fernandina, relative babies at around 700,000 years. These two are still active: the last eruption was from Wolf volcano on Isabela, in June 2015.
This geology is one factor which makes the Galapagos so unique; another is the different currents which bring a huge diversity of sea-life to the islands, including penguins, sharks, sea-turtles and fur-seals as well as all those beautiful shoals of exotic little fishes you see in Disney cartoons. For me, the main draw was the Darwin legacy: all that history, all that research, all that incredible science. Turns out he was only 26 when he visited the Galapagos, and he was not impressed, writing as the Beagle landed: ‘Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. We fancied even the bushes smelt unpleasantly.’
I beg to differ. Arriving on Santa Cruz, I was prepared for the barren landscape, the flatlands of lava flows and ash, but not for the lush highlands where we were immediately whisked off to see– it had to be – giant tortoises.
February is the end of the rainy season, so I was lucky to catch the islands in possibly their greenest state, although this varies from year to year. The tortoises were literally awesome, roaming around in their wild habitat with little or no regard to their human gawpers, basking in the mud of a pool, chomping on grass, and generally doing tortoise-like things. It was great to see this on the first day, almost to take the pressure off – it felt like this was the one ‘must-see’ in the Galapagos; now I could relax, anything else was a bonus.
We joined the Mary Anne in the early evening, the second contingent of the group who would be travelling together for the next seven days. This was not ideal, as the first party had already been together for a week, leaving me feeling a bit of an incomer, but I was really lucky with the group; everyone already there was very welcoming and inclusive, and us newbies soon bonded over a beer or three. So end of day one, exhausted, excited, and everso slightly anxious for the whole living-on-a-boat thing: would I be seasick? sleepless? dizzy? dehydrated? Time would tell.
I have been silent on this blog for a while now, partly because, as I suspected it would, real life got in the way, and partly because I have been trying to decide whether/where to go with it.
Although my expressed intent was to share all sides of me and what I do, after a couple of posts it seemed to me, I don’t know, a bit directionless. So, as this year is a sabbatical from the Matthew Project, and all about travelling and developing that side of my photography, that’s where I’m going with it.
In particular, I am asking the question: can I be a 50-something woman who’s not particularly strong or brave, travelling around largely on my own, lugging around camera equipment and suitcases? Or perhaps, what do I need to do this successfully?