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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Last Paradise

Using photography as a conservation tool, Ralph Lee Hopkins tells the story of the Galápagos Islands

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Iconic wildlife photo opportunities are literally all around you in the Galápagos. Above: Snorkeling is like entering another world. Swimming eye-to-eye with a green sea turtle, Kicker Rock.

To see the Galápagos is to fall in love at first sight. Playful sea lions, curious crabs, indifferent marine iguanas, dancing blue-footed boobies and lethargic giant tortoises—they all welcome you in their own way. The animals capture your heart by trusting and showing no fear, all a part of the Galápagos experience that you'll never forget. For the animals, it might as well be the last paradise on earth, since many are truly unique, existing here and nowhere else. But like many wild places in the world, paradise is threatened.

As a geologist, I always dreamed of visiting the Galápagos Islands, an archipelago of active volcanoes rising from the Pacific Ocean 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, a living laboratory for science and evolution made famous by Charles Darwin. As a photographer traveling with Lindblad Expeditions onboard the National Geographic fleet of expedition ships, I've witnessed the impacts and challenges facing the islands. The increasing number of tourists each year, new arrivals of invasive species, unregulated development and a growing local population are among the serious and ongoing threats to the environment, and to the very survival of the rich biodiversity.

Galápagos Photography

1 Light in the Galápagos can be harsh, so hope for clouds and work early and late in the day.
2 Look for clean backgrounds, use the ocean or get low to include sky.
3 Experiment with wide-angle when the animals are close and curious.
4 Even though the animals are close and approachable, try backing up and zooming in to create a shallow depth of field.
5 Avoid making your Galápagos guides policemen by staying on the trail and respecting the animals.
6 Flash photography of the animals is discouraged in Galápagos National Park.
Like few places on earth, the Galápagos ecosystem is still largely intact, a big reason why UNESCO declared it as a World Heritage Site, and also why photographers flock here to see and photograph the strange and wonderful creatures that call the Galápagos home. There's just no other place in the world like the Galápagos. It spoils you.

Will The Galápagos Always Be At Risk?
On many levels, the islands are better off today than centuries ago, when whalers and pirates frequented the area, pillaging the wildlife for food and leaving behind goats, pigs and other introduced animals that decimated native species. By the time Darwin arrived in 1835, the impact of man was already being felt. In fact, it wasn't until 1959 that Galápagos National Park was established, along with the Charles Darwin Foundation. And it took several more years until the Darwin Research Station was founded (1964) and the national park began its operation (1968).

Over the years, a great deal of research has gone into understanding the Galápagos ecosystem and how to manage and conserve its resources. Recent efforts by Galápagos National Park, together with the Darwin Research Station and conservation organizations, have led to a number of major conservation success stories, including the eradication of goats and pigs on some of the larger islands. The Galápagos Marine Reserve, one of the largest marine-protected areas in the world, encircles the islands with a mission of protecting resources from over-exploitation and illegal fishing. And plans are underway to build a much needed quarantine port in an effort to control unwanted arrivals and any possible infestations.

A blue-footed booby shows off its blue feet, North Seymour Island.

Surf washes over a Sally Lightfoot crab at the public beach near the Darwin Research Station.


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