The sea lion clambers up the beach. Stopping just a few metres from the small group of camera-toting visitors, he snorts, loudly. He turns his head and peers at them with one eye. After a minute or two of camera clicks, he offers his other cheek. Then, turning back toward the ocean, he poses once more with a coquettish glance over his shoulder before slipping under the waves. It's the perfect photo shoot.
The animals of Ecuador's Galapagos Islands are unafraid of humans, as there are no land-based predators here. Some are curious about visitors. Some have grown so used to them they barely bat an eye. Others, like this sea lion, seem to want to pose for photos.
It's an ideal place for kids to see animals close up, learn about evolution and natural selection, and practice their photography skills on very willing subjects.
Sleep onshore or off
Thanks to the remoteness of this chain 1,000 kilometres from Ecuador's mainland, each of the 13 Galapagos island has a unique ecosystem, with different flora and fauna. A cruise is the ideal way to explore the area, travelling between islands overnight.
The islands are far from each other, and accommodations aren't always available, as only four islands — Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana and San Cristobal — allow hotels, so if you want to see more than one, a cruise is key.
Land-based trips are possible too, with some hotels offering day cruises on their own boats, though you won't have time to see the further islands.
You'll take a Zodiac boat, called a panga, from your ship to each island. On the way, your guide will explain what you're going to see and give details of what to watch for onshore. With the exception of the towns and a few beaches, naturalist guides must accompany visitors to most parts of the Galapagos Islands. Galapagos guides are extremely knowledgeable and happy to gear discussions to the ages and interests of their group.
They'll talk about the high-stepping mating dance of the blue footed boobies, indulging giggles with a wink. They'll escort you down into a giant lava tunnel, explaining how they formed and why people can walk in the tubes now. They'll show snorkellers how to find seahorses and demonstrate paddle strokes for newbie kayakers.
Guides teach about Galapagos' endemic and invasive species, explaining how the goats that whalers brought to the islands in the 1850s threatened the giant tortoises, since they both like to eat prickly pear cactus. They'll explain to kids why dogs, cats and pigs are also problematic, but show how dogs are helping combat invasive species too — two Labrador retrievers work on the island of Santa Cruz sniffing out the giant African land snail that threatens plants and snails native to Galapagos.
Penguins in your hair
There are rules to visiting Galapagos. For example, whether on land or in the water, visitors must stay further than two metres from animals. But the animals break this rule all the time.
Snorkellers will find sea lions turning somersaults in front of them and turtles almost brushing their fingertips. Penguins swim up to visitors with long hair — something delicious might hide in the unusual-looking seaweed.
Back on land, visitors carefully avoid the piles of dragon-like marine iguana masquerading as rocks while they sun themselves. Pink land iguana wait underneath cactus for prickly pears to drop down. Flightless cormorants perch on rocks to dry their feathers after diving for fish. Even in Santa Cruz's town of Puerto Ayora, where most Galapagos cruises end, sea lions and pelicans are within arm's reach at the fish market, waiting for dropped morsels and posing for photos.
Whether on land or sea, your young photographers will delight in their opportunities to learn about and photograph Galapagos animals.