By Joseph Tepper
Swaddled by the nutrient-rich Humboldt and Cromwell currents, the Galapagos Islands are home to an underwater habitat like nowhere else on earth: Legions of hammerheads drift lethargically in the current, whale sharks open-wide to suck in tons of plankton, and sea lions frolic freely along the rocky coastline.
But for all the hammerheads, eagle rays, sea lions, and whale sharks that have made the Galapagos a wide-angle mecca for underwater photographers, perhaps the most exciting subject in these rich waters is not one that swims, but rather flies through the sea.
Description: The Galapagos Penguin
The jagged coast of the Galapagos’ largest island, Isla Isabela, is littered with underwater photo rarities like marine iguanas, diving cormorants, and a very special breed of penguin.
The Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) stands at only 16 inches tall and weighs 5 pounds, making it the world’s third smallest species of penguins. They are a true testament to survival of the fittest. Twenty years ago, severe weather from El Nino reduced the penguin population by 70 percent—and today the remaining 800 pairs of penguins are the last of the flightless birds that can live north of the equator.
Unlike their chillier cousins to the south, Galapagos Penguins struggle to keep cool in the hot equatorial environment. Fortunately for underwater photographers, the birds combat high temperatures by tobogganing down into the refreshingly cold water for a dip and perhaps some lunch.
Photographing the Galapagos Penguin
Photographing Galapagos’ flippery friends requires the right equipment and technique, as well as a little luck.
A fisheye zoom lens combined with a little patience can produce a shot of a penguin seemingly popping out of the frame. Make sure to include on a big dome port, as split shots abound with penguins, iguanas, and cormorants moving in and out of the water and onto the surrounding rocks.
While snorkel gear is the best way to maneuver around the rocks for split shots or follow penguins bobbing on the surface, full SCUBA gear is helpful to photograph the birds as they chase down shoals of undulating bait fish in the shallow waters. The biggest photographic challenge the penguins pose is their flight speed. While feeding or just chilling in the cool water, the birds dive bomb at high speed, leaving a stream of bubbles as the only evidence of their presence.
Even though the penguins swim and hunt in water less than 15-feet-deep, having a set of powerful strobes with fast recycle time is critical to freezing the motion of the subjects against a crisp, blue background.
Getting rid of the strobes allows you to fully utilize the continuous drive of your camera and shoot the most frames per second, as you are not waiting for the strobes to recycle.
Without strobes, high-shutter speeds upwards of 1/600 are needed to somewhat freeze the flying penguins. The disadvantage of relying on high shutter speed is that you may have to increase your ISO. If it's not a really bright day, the speed needed to freeze the birds may force an ISO that is too high for your camera to handle, so ambient light is an option that should be used only on the sunniest of days.
These natural light-only images of the penguins are more blurry, which gives them a sense of motion and action. If the natural light isn't strong enough to bring out the penguins colors, the images can be converted into black and white, which works well with the bird's simple, high contrast coloration.
When you think of the Galapagos, you certainly don't think penguin, but this charasmatic bird may charm its way into your heart after a few hours photographing it in the chilly waters off Isla Isabela.
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