Peru’s Little Galapagos – Ballestas Islands

AN5A0666On day 2 of our trip to Peru we journeyed 5 hours south of Lima on the Pan-American highway to Ica, Pisco and Paracas.  This post about one of the promoted signature moments of our trip “Being among tens of thousands of breeding seabirds in their colonies off the coast”.  We stayed two nights at the wonderful DoubleTree Resort which is located on Paracas Bay not far from the community of Pisco.  The accommodations were exceptional with wide-sweeping ocean views and terrific bird-watching.  On the morning after our first nights stay, we traveled a short distance to the Hotel Libertador Paracas which has a private dock for excursions to the Ballestas Islands.  The grounds and surrounding area of this luxury hotel and the Doubletree were also sources of many of the other images I took but that is for another post.

While enroute to the Ballestas Islands, the tour boats cruise past the famous Paracas Candelabra or Candelabra of the Andes, a well-known prehistoric geoglyph that is found on the north side of the Paracas Peninsula.  Like other geoglyphs (land pictures) found in Peru, little is known about the Candelabra such as who or why it was created.  Even though pottery dating from 200 B.C. from the pre-Incan Paracas people has been found nearby there is no evidence to suggest that they were involved in its construction.  Some believe that it represents the lightning rod or staff of Viracocha who was worshiped throughout South America as the great creator god in the pre-Incan mythology of the Andes.  We also saw pods of Dolphins on the way to the islands but I wasn’t quick enough to get more than a dorsal fin.

Paracas CandelabraDolphins

The Ballestas Islands are part of the Paracas National Reserve, a very large reserve that protects marine habitats including part of the Peruvian sea which is chilled by the cold Humboldt current.  According to the Peru Tourism Bureau, “This unique area is home to some of the world´s richest fishing grounds, made possible by marine upswells that bring to the surface vast masses of plankton, a vital food supply for hundreds of fish species.  Paracas is also home to guano-producing bird species and large colonies of sea lions. It is a haven for dozens of visiting migratory bird species and endangered species such as the Humboldt penguin and pink flamingos.”  In the 19th century, guano was discovered to be a highly effective fertilizer spawning a new industry and is still sought after by organic farmers.


As promised, we saw that the Ballestas Islands were home to thousands of seabirds and other marine life.  This trip was highly anticipated by the entire tour group and did not disappoint.  I was well-prepared with two separate camera body/lens combinations so I did not lose any time swapping lens.  My 1DMKIV was attached to the 600MKII and my rented 5DMKIII had the 70-200MKII with the 2xTC.  I did bring my travel tripod on board but there was no way that I could use it with all rocking and rolling action that we were experiencing on the boat.  The amount of wave action was due in large part to the many other tour boats in the immediate area so all images were acquired by hand-holding but sometimes I got help from an impromptu support, aka Dianne the human tripod.

The ‘human tripod’ image is kindly supplied by Carol Patterson, a travel writer who was part of our tour group.  It is always interesting to see how others view the same trip you are on and this photo says plenty.

The Humboldt or Peruvian Penguin is listed as threatened due to over-fishing, climate change, habitat loss and ocean acidification.  According to the International Penguin Conservation Work group, the maximum number of breeding pairs in the world is only 12,000.

First view of a Humboldt PenguinHumboldt Penguin closeupHumboldt Penguins4 of kind - Humboldt Penguins

The Peruvian Pelican is listed as near threatened as populations begin to rebound from the ill-effects of El Niño of 1998 when thousands perished.  In 1998, unusually warm ocean currents pushed southwards along the Peruvian coast and disrupted fish distribution patterns.

Flying Peruvian PelicanPeruvian Pelicans3 Peruvian PelicansPeruvian Pelicans

Like the other species that depend on the Humbodt current, the Inca Tern population is at the mercy of El Niño events which warms ocean waters and causes prey fish such as Anchovies to go deeper to find cold water.  The population of the Inca Tern is presently listed as near-threatened.

Inca TernInca TernsInca Tern2

The endemic Peruvian Booby is the second most abundant bird found along the Peruvian coast and has a large stable population.

Peruvian BoobyPeruvian Booby pair

Three species of Cormorant inhabit the coast including the Guanay Cormorant, Red-legged Cormorant and Neotropic Cormorant.  The Guanay is the most abundant inhabitant of the Ballestas Islands and most likely the reason we were advised to wear hats!  The attractive Red-legged Cormorant is listed as near-threatened and does not exhibit typical cormorant characteristics such as wing-spreading or living in colonies.

flying Guanay CormorantsGuanay CormorantsRed-legged Cormorant

We often observed American Oystercatchers along the seashore and the Blackish Oystercatcher was on Ballestas Islands as well.  Oystercatchers are specialists in feeding on oysters, clams and mussels with their bright orange beak.  Another foraging bird of the seashore is the Peruvian Surf Cinclodes and we were fortunate enough to see at least one of them.

American Oystercatcher 1American Oystercatcher 2Blackish Oystercatcher 1Blackish Oystercatcher 2Peruvian Surf Cinclodes

Finally, amongst all the birds perched precariously on the cliffsides, never laying more than a few feet from the water, were the South American or Southern Sea Lions.  The male South American sea lion  has a very large head and typically has more of a mane than other types of sea lions making it more ‘lion-like’.

Sea LionMale Sea lion and smaller femaleSea Lions

Thanks for visiting this latest post and I hope you enjoyed the image tour of Peru’s Little Galapagos.



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  1. Scott Martin November 24, 2013 at 11:13 pm #

    Fabulous post Arni and what a treat to see such superb images of birds I’ve not yet had the privilege of seeing, especially the Humboldt Penguins. One of my favourite shots was the flying Guanay Cormorants, however the absolute favourite was the shot of Dianne… are blessed beyond measure!!

    • Arni November 25, 2013 at 8:19 am #

      I was shown the human tripod image during the trip and I knew that it had to be part of my blog, I am indeed blessed! 🙂 My informal birder’s life-list increased substantially during those 2 weeks in Peru and I have many more to share in future posts. Much appreciated Scott!

  2. Martin January 5, 2014 at 11:32 pm #

    Human tripod. That thing weighs 10 lbs, I think that is assault 🙂

    • Arni January 6, 2014 at 8:41 am #

      Dianne is very ‘supportive’ of my hobby 🙂