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The Last Paradise

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

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
QUICK TIPS1 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.


Compact digital cameras are ideal for making close-ups and for shooting from low angles with subjects like this Galápagos giant tortoise, Santa Cruz Island.

In an effort to bring worldwide attention to the threats facing the archipelago, on July 15, 2007, the Galápagos Islands were placed on the endangered list of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. On July 25, 2010, only three years later, they were removed from the list, recognizing the concerted efforts being made to develop a plan for a sustainable future for the islands. Although viewed as an icon for conservation success, the question still remains: Will the Galápagos always be at risk, despite everyone’s best efforts? For example, the airport on Baltra Island is currently being expanded to handle more flights, bringing even more visitors to the islands.

Adopting A Project
To better understand the issues, I set out to photograph not only the rich biodiversity and threats facing the Galápagos, but also the people. The project was an outgrowth of my travels over the past decade and also was inspired by the book Galápagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution (National Geographic Society Books, 2009). I became possessed by all things Galápagos, talking to everyone I knew and meeting new people who wanted to help at every turn. I made consecutive trips to the islands, photographing with local naturalists and videographers, and interviewing as many people as possible to understand the issues through the eyes of the locals.

Kids are always a great subject, willing and full of emotion.

Along the way, I discovered a growing network of government and nonprofit organizations working closely with Galapagueños on a number of fronts, from organic farming to recycling. With 97% of the land area set aside within the national park, there’s only 3% for the growing population. Space on the islands is limited. Conservation in the Galápagos isn’t just about the animals, it’s also about people. Galapagueños are passionate about their home, working toward building a sustainable future that preserves the rich biodiversity of the islands. With this, comes hope.

Adopting a project is a great way to put your images to work, taking your photography to the next level. Adopting a project also will help you focus on photography like never before. Make it your own by challenging yourself, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes along the way. Give yourself deadlines, make contacts, and search for venues to publish and display your work. Let passion be your guide.

From the air, everything looks different. Circling above Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, the town appears tiny and remote. The aerial perspective helps you see the big picture and how interconnected everything is—and also, how fragile.

Every Picture Tells A Story
Despite all the emphasis on video these days, the importance of still images shouldn’t be underestimated. We’re bombarded with tons of video every day, yet when you stop and think, what you really remember over time is just a few special images. Personally, the images that stick with me are “Earthrise” from the Apollo 8 mission because my Dad worked in the space program and Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” because I live in New Mexico and learned photography with a 4×5 view camera.

Over the years, I’ve met many people who live and work in the Galápagos, those fortunate enough to call the islands home. Being in the right place at the right time, I had the opportunity to initiate a conservation photography project collaborating with the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) and the Helmsley Charitable Trust, bringing like-minded groups together who cared about the future of the Galápagos.


Charles Darwin Research Station (Charles Darwin Foundation)
Galápagos: Islands at Risk
The Quarantine Chain (WildAid)

Voices of the Galápagos (iLCP)

Conservation photography is about finding ways to put images to work, helping communicate the stories that need to be told. Images from the project now exist in a digital archive maintained by iLCP, making them available to the project’s conservation partners. The iLCP also co-produced a video “Voices of the Galápagos,” featuring the people who live on the islands and their hopes, dreams and ideas about the ongoing efforts to preserve their home. Conservation partners use the video for education and outreach.

My hope is that nature photographers will look for ways to put their images to work, whether in their own backyard or some far-off corner of the world. The ultimate challenge is being in the moment and capturing images that tell a story. Pictures that tell stories make an emotional connection, so have no doubt that your images will help make a difference. The world is watching.

Ralph Lee Hopkins is the Director of Expedition Photography for Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic ( and a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers ( He’s a lecturer on tour with National Geographic Traveler’s digital seminar series teaming with OP columnist Bob Krist. His latest book is Nature Photography: Documenting the Wild World (Sterling Publishers, 2010). Visit his website at

Essential Gear For Galápagos Photography

Traveling to the Galápagos requires some extra planning. In order to be versatile and ready for any situation, I typically leave my long fixed telephoto lenses home, preferring the versatility of a 70-300mm telephoto zoom. You may laugh, but wearing knee pads will encourage you to work the angles, getting low when necessary.

 Two camera bodies, with extra batteries and memory cards
 Wide-angle zooms (16-35mm ƒ/2.8, 24-105mm ƒ/4)
 Long telephoto zoom (70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6)
 Macro (100mm ƒ/2.8)
 Lightweight tripod and monopod
 Knee pads for getting low
 Rain hood for cameras and lenses
 Camera backpack with raincover
 Compact digital body with underwater housing
 Laptop computer with card reader and cables
 Two 1 TB external hard drives