All images © Alex Mustard

Galapagos is a bucket list destination for just about everyone who has ever breathed through a regulator. Tough arid conditions on land shape their natural history; animals that arrived here either died or adapted, evolving over the millennia into new species. The islands support 7000 species of flora & fauna and 97% of the reptiles and 80% of the land birds exist nowhere else. It is little wonder that a curious mind like Charles Darwin’s was sparked into considering the origin of species here. The hardships that species face on land do not continue underwater. For ocean life, the Galapagos archipelago is an Eden providing almost perfect conditions, year-round, for marine species to flourish with a magnitude and vitality few locations on the planet can match. Four major ocean currents converge on the islands and supercharge the entire marine food chain. Galapagos seas churn with fish and these in turn provide for large populations of predators: rays, whales, dolphins, sea lions and the vast colonies of seabirds. Galapagos definitely deserves its reputation as the sharkiest place on Earth: hammerhead schools are on most dive sites and other species are plentiful, notably silky, Galapagos and whale sharks.

The rub, and there is always a rub, is that Galapagos diving is often very challenging. The conditions are hard to predict: the water is regularly cold, visibility is poor and strong currents are common, which can be particularly intimidating in a remote, open ocean location. Many divers find the challenge addictive returning again and again, but for others, this once in a lifetime location is one that they will tell tales of on every future dive trip, but are content to leave unrepeated!

© Alex Mustard: Scalloped hammerhead, Wolf Island – Nikon D5

For those of us who carry cameras, Galapagos presents a stern challenge. While we can expect phenomenal subject matter, the conditions make capturing it tough. At times the raging currents even make it difficult to point our camera in the right direction! As with most aspects of diving, preparation is the key to success and we should do as much of our photographic planning and thinking on the boat as possible, so we are ready for whatever comes along.

© Alex Mustard: Scalloped hammerhead, Wolf Island – Nikon D5

Gear-wise, the unpredictable nature of the diving and encounters make this the realm of the wide angle zoom lens. On my last trip I dived mostly with the WACP-1, sometimes switching it out for my fisheye. Long strobe arms are also de rigueur, because there is little close focus wide angle and most subjects are shot through a fair amount of murky water. That said, when currents are especially fierce, we might choose to dive without strobes for ease of handling the camera, a sensible option because many the larger species photograph well in available light or as silhouettes.

Although we are often instructed to settle amongst the rocks on Galapagos dives, I chose to dive in freediving fins for the extra thrust these provide when you need to move against strong currents to get into the best shooting position. These aren’t the fins for maneuvering in delicate coral environments, but are well suited to the open water of Galapagos where many of guides choose them too. Most divers wear gloves in Galapagos to protect them from the sharp barnacle covered volcanic rocks and to keep their hands warm on colder dives. Make sure you choose gloves that provide the dexterity to access the functions of your housing, or consider trimming the fingers and thumb on the right one to help. Finally, use a good lanyard or clip for the camera to enable you to deploy your SMB from depth, before drifting away from the reef.

Scalloped hammerhead sharks are the diving icon of the Galapagos and usually very abundant. They can be seen even at shallow depths, but they are not typically an easy species to photograph as they have a habitat of staying out of photographic range. The usual diving technique is to descend onto the reef in a group with the dive guide and wait close to a cleaning station, usually setup by barberfish (a yellow butterflyfish) or attractive king angelfish. Hammerheads are clearly itchy sharks, and most have scrapes and scratches that need attending, so spend much of the day visiting cleaners. We don’t really need to be able to spot a cleaning stations for ourselves, we just need to follow our guide’s instructions on where to stay!

Our first job is to get comfortable and secure from the current and then use the waiting time to get our settings dialed in. I always setup for a reasonable close pass, reasoning that I prefer to be optimized I get lucky with a good pass, than to try and get something passable of more distant action. The basic setup is strobes out wide to minimize backscatter with their power turned up and the camera’s aperture open a little more than usual to help get flash on the subject. Next we should adjust the ISO so that shooting just upwards of horizontal we end up with a shutterspeed of about 1/125th. This gives us flexibility to adjust the shutterspeed down when shooting down the slope and up when shooting towards the surface, depending where the sharks are.

© Alex Mustard: Galapagos barnacle blenny, Isabela Island – Nikon D5

© Alex Mustard: Penguin hunting baitfish, Fernandina Island – Nikon D5

Hammerhead sharks don’t like bubbles. Ideally try and position yourself at one end of the group, at times you will be at the far end from the action, but at others you will get the closest encounters. One of the things we are first taught as divers is not to hold your breath, so I cannot advise that. Instead, when the hammers are really coming in, I try and breathe so slowly that no bubbles are coming out for those critical moments!

The other species of sharks and rays are less tricky. Galapagos sharks often make reliable circles of the reef and if we hide behind a boulder on their standard circuit, we should get frame-fillers. The same tactic works with eagle rays. Mantas typically have a specific cleaning station in mind, and if we don’t chase after them, they will usually come in too close for even the widest lens. Silky sharks tend to show up in the blue at the end of the dive and come in closer as the number of divers drops, as folks surface. Waiting to the end can often yield a pleasing photo opportunity. Whale sharks usually appear with little warning and require us swimming out into the blue after them. If the shark is already alongside you, then you won’t catch it and it is often better to stay put and just enjoy the view. Whale sharks often cruise up and down the reef and regularly reappear later in the dive. The whale sharks in Galapagos are large adults, much bigger than we tend to see in other places and can look amazing surrounded by the dense fish life.

© Alex Mustard: Giant Pacific manta, San Salvador Island – Nikon D5

© Alex Mustard: Galapagos sealion, Isabela Island – Nikon D5

Galapagos offers countless other photo opportunities from endemic Galapagos sea lions to the Galapagos penguins. There is even interesting macro including the red-lipped batfish colourful nudibranchs and the characterful barnacle blennies. However, it is brave photographer who forgoes their wide angle zoom for a dive to capture these subjects! Top of many people’s wish list is the endemic and enigmatic marine iguana. Marine iguanas evolved from their landbound relatives that found the barren islands offered little food, but the rich seas were packed with tasty seaweeds. The iguanas learned to freedive, powering themselves down with their muscular tail and then gripping the rocks with large claws to feed.

© Alex Mustard: Marine iguana silhouette, Fernandina Island – Nikon D5

Photographically they are straightforward if you can get in front of them: which starts by going to Galapagos and diving in the right place. Then we have to get close and the trick is to wait until they are feeding. Try and approach one when it is looking for food and it will be off, but once they start feeding you can slowly move right in with a wide angle lens. Patience brings rich rewards. The largest iguanas are found on the western edge of the archipelago off Isabela and Fernandina Islands, where the water is cold and the seaweed grows richly. Being cold blooded, the iguanas start their day heating up, soaking up the sun with their black skin. The sunnier the day, the more head into the water and feed. Mid-morning, or dive 2 of the day, is the right time for good encounters.

You still need some luck: a sunny, low wind day is a big benefit. Iguanas feed in relatively shallow water, so the sites can be blown out by the weather. Furthermore, not all Galapagos liveaboards plan a dive with the iguanas, so check the itinerary before booking. And finally, the National Park does, periodically, close some dive sites as part of their management. All of which makes have the chance to photograph this iconic species extra special.

That said, perhaps the most addictive aspect of diving in Galapagos is that you feel absolutely anything can happen and, more often then not, it usually does. Talk to divers who have visited and they will all have a standout, jaw-dropping encounter to relate, but it will so often be different. Just about any animal in the oceans can turn up here and provide that shot of a lifetime, as long as we are ready!

Alex’s Top Tips

1. Hammerheads are abundant in Galapagos, but they won’t always come into photographic range. Set out to enjoy the show either way rather than defining your enjoyment of the dive by the photos! Once they start to come close, stay down and breathe as slowly and smoothly as you can and keep shooting.

2. Big marine life defines Galapagos diving, so make this the focus of your photography. Even when you want to capture the underwater vistas, try to incorporate the bigger animals into your images. The abundance of subjects is such that you can usually rely on something swimming into your backgrounds to help demonstrate the riot of life.

3. Speak with the guides and if they expect the currents to be raging, consider diving with just a single strobe or go without strobes at all to make the rig easier to handle. Many of the big animals: sharks, sea lions, turtles and rays look great as silhouettes or as available light shots converted to black and white. You’ll get shots while others struggle.