Two weeks in paradise: A photographic tour of the Galapagos Islands

Speaker and photographer: Ian Smissen
Balwyn meeting 26 January 2016

Tonight’s main speaker was Ian Smissen, a life-long bird enthusiast who started his passion with Gould League of Bird Lovers. Ian studied at Melbourne University’s Zoology Department, and subsequently taught in High School for a few years. He was an Education Officer at Melbourne and Werribee Zoos, a university lecturer in science education, a consultant in curriculum design in science education, and is currently senior consultant in e-learning strategies at learning technology company Desire to Learn. He, and wife Joanne, recently fulfilled their lifelong ambition to visit the Galapagos Islands. They selected the longest trip on offer, 15 days with Galapagos Tours, which was billed as ‘photography intensive’, and led by Tui De Roy, renowned wildlife photographer.

Great Frigatebird at Genovesa
Great Frigatebird at Genovesa

Both Ian and Joanne are keen photographers, and we were treated to more than an hour of their journey in fabulous shots, which cannot be fully captured here. Ian gives much useful information and extensive coverage about their trip on his blog at

Each time I hear about the Galapagos Islands I learn a bit more, so let’s recap. It is a volcanic archipelago about 1000km off the west coast of Ecuador, lies on the equator and is about 150 km across. A traveller has to access the islands via the capital of Ecuador, and once in Quito you need a passport to visit the islands: your passport is stamped, and everyone has their baggage searched on entry and departure. The islands are the result of a volcanic hotspot and they vary in age, the oldest in the south and east being about one million years old while those to the north-west are newer. Some volcanos are still active. Amount of vegetation varies a lot between islands. The newer islands are virtually barren while older islands are lush with trees and shrubs. This has led to the fauna occurring on the islands to being quite different – variations within a species between islands caught Darwin’s interest in 1835.

Trip map

The trip map shows week one’s itinerary with a solid line, and week two with a dotted line. A comprehensive tour we can see, but being shipboard, much of the travelling between islands was done at night. That left the days to wander about admiring the wildlife, which they were not to approach closer than two metres but heck, many animals breeched the rule and came closer because they have evolved without fear of humans.

Tip Top III at anchor off Punta Suarez with Land Iguana
Tip Top III at anchor off Punta Suarez with Land Iguana

The group boarded their comfortable boat at Baltra Island. A marine tour has to be flexible and indeed the rough weather did cause a small change. By tour end they had visited 26 locations on 14 islands. One cannot visit the Galapagos without admiring the iguanas. Two species, Marine and Land Iguanas, occur. They encountered the oceanic species on Isla Santa Cruz and in huge numbers at James Bay on Isla Santiago. The bigger Land Iguana can reach 2.5m long, was seen on South Plaza Island. The largest tortoise in the world, the Galapagos Tortoise, was seen roaming around at the Giant Tortoise Reserve, Rancho El Manzanillo on Santa Cruz Island.

Nazca Booby at Punta Suarez
Nazca Booby at Punta Suarez

Ian worked very hard to get excellent bird photographs. Blue-footed Booby appeared to raise each foot in turn, possibly to impress a partner. Red-footed Boobies have two colour morphs, white feathers or brown. A third species, the Nazca Booby, occurs mainly on these islands. Other marine birds were also spectacular. The Waved Albatross were nesting on Española, and Joanne’s favourite, the Red-billed Tropicbirds were aloft at South Plaza. Many bird species are endemic, such as the Galapagos Hawk, Galapagos Dove, Galapagos Flycatcher, Galapagos Penguin, Galapagos Storm Petrel, Galapagos Shearwater, Galapagos Oystercatcher and the Galapagos Mockingbird. They demonstrate the amazing speciation that has occurred here: and indeed it was the variation between islands of the mockingbird features that first aroused Darwin’s attention and led ultimately to his Theory of Evolution. What an amazing place to visit!

Waved Albatross at Punta Suarez
Waved Albatross at Punta Suarez

Contributor: Daphne Hards


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