The Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands

“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty, the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.” – Sir David Attenborough

There are few things more quintessentially British than Sir David Attenborough. Or more specifically, Sir David Attenborough’s voice emanating from a BBC documentary. His warm, soothing tones have an entrancing effect as powerful as the wonders of which he speaks. He has been captivating audiences for decades. It’s a voice as synonymous with wildlife as the British Broadcasting Company is to the programs that document it. Slow, deliberate, and with effecting power. His knowledge and experience of our natural world comes through in every syllable, every word impressed upon the viewer with a deft use of emphasis and intonation.

“David Attenborough’s voice makes it feel like he’s only talking to you and he has something very important to tell you,” Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer noted when he soundtracked the music for Planet Earth II. “His voice is more important to this world now than ever before.”

Most of us will probably remember at least one occasion when we were sitting in our family living room as children, tuning into the BBC on a Sunday evening to watch the latest episode of The Life of Birds, or perhaps Planet Earth or The Blue Planet. Whichever series, whatever episode, a hush fell across our family as That Voice took hold. Sir David Attenborough guided us to far flung corners of the world each week. We went on journeys that reduced us down to the undergrowth, where we witnessed the hidden lives of insects and invertebrates. Adventures that had us soaring on the wing of the fastest bird in the skies, the peregrine falcon. Or perhaps a trip beneath the waves and into the deep, where creatures more at home in science-fiction emerged from the murky depths amid bioluminescent marvels.

As a child these programs had me filling my bedroom with plants and fishtanks that sampled life from our garden pond. I carefully curated vivariums replicating the natural habitats of my pet reptiles. I didn’t have a rabbit or a guinea pig, I had a Turkish gecko and lizards with dewlaps.

The books I received as gifts or purchased with pocket money were about the natural world and natural history, packed with spectacular photography of exotic creatures and far flung places. These interests no doubt formed the foundation of my passion for travel, and were certainly a major introduction to photography.

One of the wonders of the natural world that has most entranced and fascinated me over the years—and a destination Sir David Attenborough frequently returns to—are the Galápagos Islands. From the Godzilla-like Marine iguanas, to the diminutive penguins, I was always wide-eyed and captivated by this awe-inspiring destination. Remember the BBC comedy classic One Foot in the Grave? It featured giant Galápagos tortoises, made heroes of the title sequence; creatures who gave their name to the islands.

Right in front of me, one of these giants lumbers across a volcanic landscape, momentarily gets his hefty shell stuck on a protrusion, and carefully eases himself over the obstacle with a practised but clumsy shuffle. There’s a resistant scrape of his shell as he drags himself onto the soil and free from the rocks. That shell is enormous. But the animal inside hangs from the great dome like a limp plastic bag. His beaky head wobbles from side to side on a considerable neck, like a string puppet from Jim Henson's Muppets. One of the lanky limbs of Elmo perhaps. He looks terribly old and frail, a perfect visual metaphor for One Foot in the Grave

Slowly, and with great plodding effort, he stretches out for a dead, dry leaf; coaxing it into his mouth with a pointed pink tongue, the only flash of bright colour in this landscape of earthy browns. As he munches on the leaf I find I’m not surprised that these animals look the way they do, all that effort exerted for a meal of such minuscule nutrition. I’d look that way too if I had to drag myself through the dust everyday just to eat dead leaves. 

But these creatures are from another age of lumbering prehistoric beasts; the miniaturised legs and feet of an elephant; great, glossy shells like a leather saddle; beady eyes that have witnessed vast passages of time. And they’re just one of the many astonishing sights the Galápagos Islands have to offer.

Right in front of me, flame and lava coloured crabs scuttle across black volcanic rocks. As I become accustomed to their presence, I notice that the rocks themselves are moving too. A sort of subtle, rhythmic rolling like the ripple of a convection current rising from sun-baked tarmac. Juvenile Sally Lightfoot crabs, as black as the rocks and barely noticeable next to their fiery parents, are also scurrying back and forth. Marine iguanas slip between the stones, matching their world in colour and texture. They nestle into crevices or sink beneath cooling pools of water. Now and then, a sea lion pup wiggles up out of the waves and looks around with big, glassy eyes, brown fur sleek and dark from the depths. 

Between these abundant pools of life, large swathes of the inner islands appear barren. An alien landscape with skeletal shrubbery, made luminous here and there by lime green lichen. Black volcanic rock like chunks of carbonated honeycomb. Great caves that have opened up in the flat ground like giant clams, ancient magma tunnels disappearing into darkness. We walk across lava fields spread over the landscape like a thick, oozing cake batter laced with chocolate and Guinness; a series of freeze-frame works of modern art. All ripples and flowing concentric folds of aerated rock, once molten and devastating.

The Galápagos archipelago was formed between three and five million years ago, by a series of volcanic eruptions that created a chain of 19 islands and dozens of islets. The islands endure a constant cycle of uplift and erosion, meaning old islands are gradually lost beneath the waves as new islands rise up with volcanic activity.

These islands existed mostly untouched for millions of years, and only the hardiest of plants and animals found their way there from the mainland. Those that did thrived in the absence of predators. Humans started arriving in the 1800s, including pirates and explorers.

I don’t get on with boats. I suffer from terrible motion sickness, and in particular, my sea legs are lacking. So I was somewhat apprehensive about spending eight days on a yacht, 650 miles west of mainland Ecuador, right on the equator. Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. Not to mention the further time either side of my nautical expedition; where water taxis and speed boats are a necessary form of transport between destinations.

But one of the most famous early visitors to the Galápagos Islands was a young naturalist called Charles Darwin. He arrived on the HMS Beagle and spent 19 days studying the flora and fauna in 1835. In 1859, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, which introduced his theory of evolution—and the Galápagos Islands—to the world. So I wasn’t going to let a little vomiting stop me.

“We’re going to see Boobies. Yes? Boobies. Blue-footed, red-footed, Nazcar.” Our Ecuadorian guide, Jorgé, hops from side to side, on one foot to the other, to demonstrate the Booby bird. He stands before us in the bar and common area on our boat, La Fragata, as it sways from side to side on the waves. His eyes are wide with enthusiasm behind thick, Heston Blumenthal glasses. His scalp, devoid of hair, glistens in the light. His skin is rich and dark. Latin accent, thick. “If we’re lucky, friends, we might see Galápagos Eagles. Eagles, yes?” He flaps his arms high in the air and bobs his head. “Galápagos Eagles,” he repeats. We become accustomed to this pantomime over the course of the next eight days. But before we’re fully prepared Jorgé lets out a thunderous, guttural sound from the depths of his throat, the sound of miming a particularly nasty case of sea sickness perhaps, literally dry-heaving: “Male bachelor sea lion.” He adopts a wide, squat, stocky stance as if to demonstrate, mouth in a tight ‘O’, tongue pulled back, and so our cruise begins; “Hueerrrrghhhhhhh!”

Fortunately, when I’m in the sea and not upon it, I feel right at home. A good thing too, as the snorkelling opportunities on the Galápagos Islands are plentiful and spectacular. We swim with curious sea lion cubs who dive and roll around us, watching keenly and mirroring our movements. We hold our breath as hammerhead sharks glide below us. Look out into the deep as hundreds of Golden rays sail by in formation, a grid of glittering diamonds in refracted sunlight. We observe sea turtles diving for food and rising for air. Swim beside Parrot fish and Angel fish, luminous in their florescent hues and greedily chomping on coral. There’s stimulation for the eyes but also the ears; a constant snap, crackle, and pop resonating from the depths below. The underwater world of the Galápagos Islands is abundant and dazzling, and never short of extraordinary.

Back on dry land there’s strange trees of cacti all around, thick trunks covered in bark that’s dark and rich and patterned like mahogany. Succulent green leaves spiked with needles and scattered with prickly fruit. A mustard yellow iguana marches towards us, the fine line of his mouth curled into a comical smile. You can’t help but chuckle as these beasts approach, prone to draping themselves over a rock right at your feet, and moving to show off their best sides for the cameras.

Jorgé guides us to a colony of blue footed boobies. They’re busy performing their elaborate, but slightly blundering, mating dance. The potential pair both hop from the heel of one webbed-blue-foot to the other, circling with slow, exaggerated gestures like miniature Morris dancers. Beaks are raised high, long necks held straight. Wings are flapped, squarks are heard, and gifts of twigs are exchanged to woo one another.

We see Short-eared owls, normally a rare sight, but one is feeling bold, sitting just metres away from us and staring with great, golden eyes. Mockingbirds search our belongings for water in pairs like master bank robbers; one opening up a bag, the other peering inside for a sign of the prize. White sandy beaches are covered in coral and Pencil urchin spines, calcified cylinders that can literally be used to write on the rocks.

Back on the boat, a pod of hundreds of Bottlenose dolphins gives chase; the surrounding sea becoming a gymnasium of flips and twists and turns and fins. Dozens of these marine mammals power through the water at the bow; side by side in a state of pure, joyful play. It’s a thrilling sight. I hang over the edge watching and photographing and I see that they too are watching me. There’s delight in their eyes and a casualness that belies the incredible rate at which they’re powering through the waves. One rolls onto his back to get a better look at me, milky-white belly bright against deep blue, his eyes meeting mine. Every so often, another whizzes forward leaving the others trailing, as well as our speeding boat. They disappear into the blackness oh-so-briefly before rocketing out of the water and landing with a theatrical splash.

And then suddenly, they’re gone. Vanishing into the darkness.

It’s not all island paradise. Our group is divided. On one side, the young holidaymakers and backpackers, jovial and relaxed, with whom I soon become great friends. On the other, a group of French seniors, bird enthusiasts with extraordinarily large lenses. We’re talking telescopic behemoths that truly justify the Canon marque. They’re dressed head to toe in beige birdwatching fatigues and have cameras hanging from every available attachment, and are also laden with specialist backpacks. It makes my mirrorless system look woefully inadequate; great, hulking battlefield beasts versus my diminutive (but perfectly formed) FujiFilm. I take some satisfaction in their apparent dismissal of anything less than an L-Series. There’s an air of superiority, a blasé attitude. But they’re oblivious to some of the most technologically advanced equipment on the market, and completely unaware of the quality possible by such an unassuming piece of kit.

I’m clearly outgunned for wildlife in the long range, but the abundance and accessibility of the animals on the Galápagos Islands means I’m not actually at a complete disadvantage. In fact, contrary to what you might expect, it’s often the case on our hikes across these islands that those long lenses are too long. We’re so close to the action that the French enthusiasts have to drop their telescopic titans to one side, only to look on as those with shorter lenses go to work, capturing creatures with ease.

There’s an unspoken tension when they’re forced to line up in the background while the young pretenders are right in the action. But we soon fall into an easy understanding, despite their demands of our guide, and eventually we’re mixing well enough. I ensure a courteous and professional respect of their distant sight lines, but more importantly a respectful distance from the wildlife. Often though, that wildlife comes barrelling towards me and I snap away at the opportunity before moving on, lest the creatures become too comfortable with our presence.

Just four of the Galápagos Islands are inhabited. Humans are restricted to specifically zoned rural and urban areas. The rest is National Park and UNESCO World Heritage. Even so, the impact of humans is painfully clear. As I hang my head over the side of a water taxi late in the trip on the way to San Cristobal (willing my breakfast to remain hidden) we glide through an area of calm water. Sailing across this mirror of deep blue, the sunlight picks out a series of coloured plastic bottles, bobbing on the glassy surface of the sea. It’s starkly beautiful in this light, somewhat eerie, and ultimately disturbing to see.

The scattering of litter, prevalent in and around the island towns, brings to mind the urban environments that I’m more familiar with as a street photographer. Not the wildlife haven for which these islands are renowned.

Thankfully most of the Galápagos archipelago is devoid of (and protected from) further urban expansion. Street photography is certainly limited, but not impossible. However, I relish the switch from urban to island life, swapping commuters for crustaceans, city streets for sandy beaches. A holiday from the concrete jungle, taking me back to those childhood passions. There’s certainly something to be said for getting away from human dominance and reconnecting with the natural world.

Although I’ve been causally snapping away with a camera for many years, it wasn’t until fairly recently that I took to street photography with a conscious dedication to the craft. Before then, though, wildlife enabled most of my photographic self-teachings. Having pursued these genres with passion, I’ve come to believe that there are many parallels between the two. I’m sure a few eyebrows will be raised by this statement. The words ‘wildlife’ and ‘street’ certainly conjure starkly different images. But consider the following.

In both, you’re searching for the right subject or subjects; an archetypal example or suitably engaging character. The environment is crucial, as is the way the light falls across it. You need to work the scene to perfect the frame; expertly isolating or skilfully anchoring the subject, improving angles, fine tuning details. Perhaps it’s a witty observation, a capture of pure beauty, or a celebration of character. A single subject or a group forming a wider scene. The sum of these parts add up to convey your intent and celebrate the story. 

All of this takes place in a matter of seconds. Each capture spontaneous, each moment fleeting. You’re seeing and documenting the world around you, either natural or man made. The results and output may be vastly different, but the fundamental skills are remarkably similar. And after all, urban wildlife often plays a distinct role in street photography.

Before leaving for my travels, I watched the BBC broadcast of Planet Earth II. A spectacular production that ends with an episode about wildlife in our cities. The closing message from David Attenborough certainly struck a chord, and lingered as I explored the Galápagos Islands.

Speaking straight to camera, perched on the roof of a skyscraper high above London, David Attenborough points out that over half of the population now lives in towns and cities, himself included:

“Looking down on this great metropolis, the ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of our planet is very striking. And it’s also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world.

“Yet it’s on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world will depend.

“It's surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth.”

As a street photographer usually more at home in that vast city, it was humbling to witness this spectacular island paradise, where nature overrules man. And it left me grateful that we still have such a commanding voice in Sir David Attenborough, to celebrate and safeguard our natural world.

I captured the Galápagos Islands using the FujiFilm X-T2 with the XF56MM F1.2 lens. This is my usual setup for street, but it’s such a versatile one that I find it easily translates across disciplines. Those who are considering the jump to a mirrorless system should feel right at home with the X-T2 when moving from a DSLR setup.

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This piece will be updated with a video showcasing footage captured during my snorkelling sessions at the next available opportunity.

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