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On Assignment: The Galapagos Archipelago

I had last been to the Galapagos 15 years ago, and I’ve been aching to return. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can still enjoy unspoiled nature in all its glory. 

My goal in going back was to build on the body of work I began all those years ago and to continue learning about their world-renowned conservation efforts.

I couldn’t wait to photograph the wildlife of the islands.

More than their stupendous beaks or flying prowess, I wanted to capture the texture of the pelican’s feathers.

The Galapagos archipelago rises in the open Pacific off the western coast of South America, some thousand miles from the outer shores of Ecuador.

The scattered fragments of ancient and remote volcanoes, this group of islands comprise the last bit of earth facing an ever-hostile ocean; beyond Darwin Island, there is nothing but the sea. Worn by the breakers and the wind and disintegrated by the merciless pounding of the equatorial sun, the Galapagos Islands are a bold, natural experiment. Composed of volcanic soils, an assortment of gravels and sands mingle and stratify its shores. Shades of red rust, ivory, and slate black are all punctuated with muted accents of sparse desert flora.

Sally light-foot crab, San cristobal, Galapagos Islands

At twilight, the rim of the islands lifts to the splendour in the west, the face of each cliff becoming a substance of shadow and light that descends to the eternal unrest of the sea. At dawn, the sun climbs out of the ocean, gilding it with a golden brightness which eventually thins and vanishes into the day.

It is not the land, however, that mystifies visitors to this archipelago, but the menagerie of unique wildlife that first surprised a young Charles Darwin on his first visit to the islands back in 1835.

Wherever sea turtles are not hunted or getting killed by long lines, they are actually pretty chill! I swam alongside this handsome fellow during an awesome dive on this trip to the in Galapagos. He let me photograph him from every angle and finally he looked me in the eye as if to say ”what do you want?” At which point, I let him be. 

Giant tortoises, tropical penguins, and flightless cormorants are among the singular and peculiar species found here.  Every island has a unique topography, flora, and cast of characters, and the Galapagos National Park casts its shadow of protection over all of them.

Why come to the Galapagos? Perhaps because it is the best example of conservation in action.

Not immune to the devastation of the climate crisis, but because of extensive protections both on land and sea, this ecosystem is much better equipped to cope. Piece by laboured piece of conservation legislation has built a blue economy here that supports both the local population of Galapagueños, as well as Ecuador’s national economy. 

This is a conservation success story that could be replicated many times over in other places. 

Only 3% of the territory of the archipelago is not protected as a National Park, and only 1% of the territory is utilized for tourism. Tremendous effort has been made to restore and protect species that were once overexploited, like the giant tortoises that for centuries were used as food by whalers, pirates, and even research vessels, including the Beagle on which Darwin traveled.  Many others have been ravaged by introduced species, from rats and mice to insects.

What remains to be achieved is creating a wildlife corridor or marine peace park that safeguards migrating fish traveling between the islands of Cocos (Costa Rica) and Malpelo (Colombia) and the Galapagos from industrial fishing vessels. Closing this area to industrial fishing would create a no-wildlife corridor along the migratory routes of sharks and fish traveling along this major underwater highway, ensuring the long-term survival of the majestic species that find sanctuary in the Galapagos Marine Park. 

The short time I spent in the Galapagos is a testament to how conservation works; protecting irreplaceable marine and land ecosystems makes it possible to build entire sustainable economies. 

I went to the islands to fill my soul but also to learn the valuable lessons that have been experienced by the many generations of conservationists who have worked for decades to make the Galapagos a haven for wild nature.

It is a place that fills me with hope. 

Thanks so much for being here,