Aura Banda’s Galapagos Islands: Protecting the Natural World Is a Family Tradition

Painted to look like a Canon SLR, Aura Banda’s first camera was a piece of wood cut by her grandfather on Floreana Island in the Galapagos. It was there, on this small archipelago off the coast of Ecuador, where she first dreamed of depicting the fragility of nature through images and inspiring travelers of the Galapagos’ uniqueness.

As a third-generation resident of the remote archipelago, her family raised her to be a steward of the islands. Banda pursued this mission in school by studying photographic arts, French and Italian, and environmental management. In 2005, she returned home to the Galapagos Islands and began her work as a naturalist guide and photo instructor.

Banda’s growing legacy begins with her grandfather’s decision to become one of the first settlers of the Galapagos. “It wasn’t easy at the time,” Banda says of her grandparents’ experience in the late 1930s. There was no airport, no airplanes; the only interaction with mainland Ecuador was a ship that came about once every six months.

Her grandfather returned to the mainland to get married. It was immediately clear to his new wife, however, that his heart lived in the Galapagos Islands, so they returned there together. Her grandfather thus began learning about living with the surrounding environment, using natural medicine and other ways of surviving in such a uniquely remote place.

Her grandfather’s philosophy was, “We don’t have to make nature get used to us; we have to get used to nature.” This doctrine of conscious symbiosis was passed down to his children, who eventually bestowed it upon Banda. Formal education beyond this worldview came when Banda’s grandmother spoke to the president of Ecuador to establish the first school on Floreana Island. But after children turned 12, they headed to the mainland to continue their education. And most of them would stay there.

The Galapagos Islands, Genovesa, Darwin Bay/Silversea Cruises

The Magnetic Pull of the Galapagos

Her mother was one of those who stayed. She eventually married a man from the mainland and raised Banda and her siblings there in the Ecuadorian capital. But, like her grandfather, Banda felt called to the Galapagos Islands while growing up in the city.

“It was difficult,” she recalls, “because my cousins were growing up and having fun in the Galapagos while we were in Catholic schools in the city. Even though we would vacation there, we were city children.” But the urban influence can only reach so far when pitted against the siren song of the Galapagos, so when Banda’s youngest brother finished school, their mother returned home.

Banda, unable to resist the same magnetic pull to which her relatives had succumbed, also now calls the Galapagos home. For her, the islands are, first and foremost, a familial place. “It was where my roots were,” she explains. That association amplified by the juxtaposition of growing up in Quito.

“When I went to Floreana, I loved how dark it is at night. You can see the stars,” she recalls, noting that in the city, she would be too busy watching her back at night to even take the time to look up. But the wildlife of the Galapagos also captured her heart. “Darwin finches will come and be curious about you. You can observe animal behavior without them feeling threatened. Most places you have to be at a bigger distance,” she muses, adding that, “being able to be so close makes you feel like part of the whole thing.”

These days, Banda’s passion for her ancestral homeland has only grown. While growing up, she and her family had to take various boats to get to Floreana, but now there are two airports with multiple daily flights to the Galapagos. There’s also electricity where once there was only a generator and candles.”Life is a bit easier now because we have more cargo, more facilities and the internet,” Banda admits. “But in another way, how many people can the island sustain? It’s starting to be a bit crowded.”

Aura first visited Floreana Island in 1984

Protecting What She Loves

The presence of more people has created a greater need for proactive stewardship, which is where Banda puts her passion for photography and the natural world to good use. In her role as a naturalist guide and Expedition Leader with Silversea, and recently as an iGalapagos research assistant for the Center for EcosystemSentinels, she’s able to focus on the identification of Galapagos Penguins, the world’s only penguin species north of the equator (albeit just barely).

Her involvement began when the world’s foremost Galapagos Penguin specialist needed help gathering photos of the species. Banda goes twice a month to the birds’ main nesting sites.

“I thought: what if I kept track for a whole year?” she recalls. “The logistics are expensive for them, but for me, it was while I was working. I was able to put the things I love together.” And now, she has been gathering photos for over three years with the help of Silversea guests.

Banda continues to fundraise for nature projects, including the eradication of rats, which remains the most significant threat to the unique species of the Galapagos.

“Galapagos wildlife is what I like to call ecologically naive— they evolved in an ecosystem with low competition. Introducing goats, rats, pigs, dogs and cats broke the balance. Our endemic species stand no chance against the introduced ones.”

Galapagos penguin
The Galapagos Penguin is endemic to the Galapagos Archipelago/Lucia Griggi

The Silversea Fund for the Galapagos

That’s one reason why Banda became involved with The Silversea Fund for the Galapagos, which launched last year. The program invites Silversea guests to join conservation efforts for the Galapagos, addressing not only environmental problems but youth empowerment.

“We need to consider that the human population in the Galapagos is growing, and living on an isolated archipelago has its challenges,” she explains. “We need to give the children of the Galapagos access to knowledge, because as Jacques Cousteau said: “People protect what they love.” And to love and care, you must understand the place where you live. We believe education is the answer because the children of Galapagos today will be the guardians of Galapagos in the future.”

If anything, Aura Banda is proof of the validity of this conviction. Three generations ago, her grandfather set out to understand and protect one of the most ecologically rare places on the planet. Today, she continues building the bridge to the future.

Silversea’s guests travel by Zodiac in the Galapagos, led by an Expedition Team member/Lucia Griggi