By Joseph Tepper and Matt Weiss
Flying over the first freckles on the Pacific Ocean that begin the Galapagos Island chain, you can almost imagine the frail figure of a balding man coming over a particularly barren bluff of Baltra Island.
After all, the islands haven’t changed much in the last 200 years since Charles Darwin traipsed about, collecting exotic flora and fauna for the western world to see. But for all he discovered on the islands’ surface, even Darwin couldn’t image what waited beneath the waves.
Swaddled by the nutrient-rich Humboldt Current, the Galapagos Islands’ unique underwater habitat attracts countless prized subjects of underwater photography – hundreds of schooling hammerhead sharks, curious silky and Galapagos sharks, sea lions, and whale sharks. It is an underwater domain unlike that found anywhere else on this planet.
Diving with the Galapagos Aggressor
Charting the same waters as the HMS Beagle did in 1831 is a serious matter. And the twin liveaboards operated by Aggressor fleet, the Galapagos Aggressor I and II, are the right combination of safety and hospitality for these rich seas.
The 100-foot boats feature seven comfortable staterooms fit with all of the amenities you would expect from a luxury boat- en suite bathrooms, fresh blankets and towels daily, and even a chocolate on your pillow every night. On the main deck, a spacious dining and entertainment area is the center of activities from the latest piping hot meals from the kitchen to thorough dive briefings every evening.
The dive deck fits 16, but is spacious enough to hold more than twice that and perhaps a compact car. Simply put on your tank at one your personal station, waddle over to the panga – the local term for dive tender – and hold on for the ride of a lifetime.
Where the Galapagos Aggressors truly shine is in their ability to cater to underwater photographers and videographers. The boats feature two large camera tanks filled daily with fresh water and a series of padded shelves with room for more than a dozen SLR setups (trust me, on our DPG expedition we tested this!). The charging station is tucked in behind the camera tables so you won’t have to worry about forgetting batteries in your room.
On the Galapagos Aggressor, it is the little things that make the difference. Expect hot chocolate and coffee, warm cinnamon rolls, and a hot towel to thaw your bones after each dive. And if that doesn’t do the trick, make sure to give the top deck hot tub a “whirl.”
Photographing Sea Lions and Turtles in The South
The Galapagos Aggressor makes port out of San Cristóbal, including a highly anticipated checkout dive at a site called Isla Lobos and the first day of diving in the archipelagos’ southern region, before making it’s way north to Wolf and Darwin.
While the initial dives on the Galapagos Aggressors’ itineraries lack the large predators and currents of the north, the calm water offers the chance to photograph the area’s unique marine environment, which features both cold and warm water species from Pacific, more than 40 of which are endemic only to these enchanted islands. It is also the best opportunity to photograph two highlight species of the trip– Galapagos sea lions and green turtles.
San Cristóbal is home to resident family of sea lions that are unafraid of bubbles or strobes, and only stop their underwater dances to further observe the far less graceful mammal in their waters– the underwater photographer. While the sea lions may be unafraid of dome ports and make close approaches, photographing them can be tricky. They move fast and hardly ever rest in one place, so your best bet is to prepare your exposure, composition, lighting, and wait for the sea lion to enter your frame, rather than chasing it with your lens.
“Cousins Rock” is another stepping-stone on the way the big boys waiting at Wolf and Darwin. A small piece cut out from the larger Santiago, Cousin’s Rock or Bartholomew Island, boasts a healthy population of Sea Lions flitting through the choppy waters when they aren’t lounging lethargically on the rock face above.
Cousins Rock provides another opportunity for photographing the Galapagos sea lions, which hang in the sun on the rocks, but often come whizzing buy to hunt for fish and crustaceans. It’s possible to spend an entire dive at a depth of just 10 feet with a single sea lion. The aerial attacks by the sea lions at Cousin’s Rock are mitigated only by close encounters with green sea turtles.
Unlike in many other places in the world, the sea turtles in the Galapagos are largely unafraid of divers. This makes photographing them a relatively simple task, allowing time for multiple compositions and to perfect your lighting and exposure.
Particulate in the nutrient-rich waters requires constant attention to lighting to avoid lighting up backscatter in the frame. Use long strobe arms, spread far apart to avoid lighting up the detritous in front of your lens. A fisheye lens is also ideal with the turtles, since they allow you to get close and remove the amount of water between your camera and subject.
Underwater Photography at Wolf Island
While the curious sea lions and turtles in the south part of the archipelago may be the amuse-bouche to your big animal expedition, the true feast waits in the far northern reaches of the Galapagos, starting with Wolf Island.
The remnants of an ancient volcano, Wolf Island is less than a half-mile wide and is the starting line to real Galapagos diving. Wolf is where the currents start to rip and the action picks up. Here the dives change from a casual swim with mild current, to descend as fast as you can and hold on for dear life.
The main stars of the diving at Wolf are the dozens and dozens and dozens of eagle rays flocking past at any given moment. While the subjects may be plentiful at Wolf, getting the prized “headshot” in the rocketing current is the biggest challenge. Coming off your rocky perch too early might scare the rays away, but too late and you’ll end up kicking fruitlessly at the tails of eagles as they disappear into the blue.
Utilize a “reef hook” to help you with you get close enough to eagle rays. By hooking yourself onto the limestone, you can use both hands to frame your shot, and kick into the current without worrying about getting blown away.
The other visitors at Wolf include scattered hammerheads, Galapagos, and silky sharks, as well as the looming possibility of seeing the “big fish.” But if you really want to see the big boys en masse, there’s only one place to go—the arch.
Underwater Photography at Darwin’s Arch
Divers traverse the globe looking for thousands of schooling Hammerheads or whale sharks. But if there is one sign of hope for finding the ocean’s bounty, it is the sign of a mighty rock arch pulling itself up inch by inch over the horizon as the Aggressor steams towards Darwin Island.
Darwin’s Arch is the pinnacle of big animal diving. Whale sharks? Got ‘em. Silky sharks? Got ‘em. Galapagos sharks? Got ‘em. Schooling Hammerheads by the thousands? Got ‘em. That’s if hunting orca whales don’t scare them off first.
Dropping into the water with the arch in the background, the first thing you notice is the simplicity of the site swiftly emerging beneath you. Like the rest of the Galapagos, Darwin’s Arch is dominated by volcanic rocks and boulders with pieces of young coral interspersed. The layout of the site is such that emanating from the arch are a series of rock ledges pushing out into the blue like a ship’s keel pointed east.
Itineraries vary, but the Aggressor will typically spend about 6 dives at Darwin, giving photographers a number of goes at seeing their desired subjects and finding the best ways to approach often timid sharks. Often times, the hardest part of photographing the sharks at Darwin is getting within strobe distance.
One proven method of shooting individual or groups of hammerheads is separating yourself from the group to minimize the noise made by bubbles and waiting patiently on one of the rock ledges until, from out of nowhere, a hammerhead ventures too close before realizing the paparazzi is watching.
Current permitting, try venturing into the blue out from the rock face and waiting for patrolling hammerheads, which often times come by the hundreds. The sharks spend much of their time swimming a calculated distance away from humans, but every once in a while, the group will allow you to get close enough to light a particular individual, which will add depth and detail to the composition.
Searching for whale sharks is often best done with the aid of one of the experienced divemasters, who can almost seem to smell the fish even before entering the water. Poor visibility and the ability of the whale shark to move silently despite being the size of a bus make it impossible to hear the fish coming until only a few yards away. The whale sharks move fast, so it might be worthwhile to turn your strobes off to avoid backscatter—hold down the shutter, and let the continuous drive do the work.
Once low on air, it is time to let go of the rock and begin a gentle ascent while letting the powerful currents that bring nutrients to the area whisk you away into the blue for a safety stop. But the dive is far from over—on several occasions, safety stops attracted Silky sharks.
The curious compatriots often number in the dozens by the end of the safety stop, making passes underwater and circling at the surface. While it can be an unnerving experience at first, it’s a terrific photographic opportunity. You will have to reposition your strobes, because unlike the other species of sharks, the silkies will be right at your dome port, and if you can your strobes spread far apart and pointed outwards, you will have a shadow on the face of the shark.
Photography at Punta Vincente Roca- Penguins, Iguanas and More
After the exhilarating diving and photography at Wolf and Darwin, you will need to relax a little before heading back home; but Punta Vincente Roca is not the place for this!
Adjacent to the largest of the Galapagos Islands, Isla Isabella, Punta Vincente Roca is the final (and coldest) stop on the Galapagos Aggressor. The water temperatures sometimes dip down to 55 degrees, which is actually a bath for Mola Molas that rise up from hundreds of feet to warm their fins. Again, visibility is not premium in these frigid waters and the Molas tend to be quite timid, so while seeing several sunfish on one dive is not uncommon, getting up close and personal takes a bit of luck!
It takes a brave photographer to sport a macro lens in Galapagos, but for those intrepid shutterbugs willing to take the heat, there is a reward—the red lipped batfish. Endemic to the Galapagos, the red lipped bat fish grow to a foot long and can even be shot as a close-focus wide-angle subject. Head on shots that illustrate the batfish unique bright red lips are striking.
While diving is limited because of current laws, there is absolutely no cap on snorkeling and free diving. Try going for a snorkel along the rocky coast looking for larger male Iguanas slipping into the water for their afternoon swim. They often like to feed on algae growing on rocks before returning to land. But you better be ready for a workout: those igys can swim!
On a trip stuffed full of special characters and rare, endemic species, the penguins of Punta Vincente Roca might just steal your heart. While these flightless fellows spend the majority of their “hectic” schedule sun bathing on the rocks besides piles of iguanas, rarely the penguins will torpedo into the shallow water of the bay in search of a sardine snack.
Spotting an easy meal, the penguins pop into the pool-like conditions and begin to fly through the shallow water, cutting through viscous blobs of sardines.
The biggest challenge when shooting the penguins is getting proper focus before the animal is out of frame. Shooting without strobes and on high continuous allows the photographers to preset a focus and “spray and pray” as the penguin fin into frame. While using strobes freezes the movement and gives a more surreal feel to the image, ambient lighting creates a more natural, grainy look and a sense of action.
Almost as humorous as the chubby penguins chugging through the water chasing down the sardines is the farce that often occurs between the birds and the lethargic turtles tiled across the sandy bottom. Frantically searching for anywhere to hide, the sardines duck underneath rocks, divers, and even turtles. This does nothing to discourage the penguins who, like the nosy photographer above, have little shame in frisking the turtle to get what they want.
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