Galapagos: Conclusion

August 24, 2003

What a week! After finishing our last dive at Darwin, we motored back to Santa Cruz Island, which took more than 24 hours. After reaching Santa Cruz, Jane and I went to an internet cafe while the rest of the group disembarked to visit the Darwin Research Station. All of us have spent much of the last two days chatting and watching episodes of 24 (which is incredibly addictive). We spent most of today waiting for our flight out of San Cristobal, and once we reached Guayaquil, Darren, Gene and I left the rest of the group, who continued on to Quito. :(

I haven't seen very much of Guayaquil, but my initial impressions are not positive. While I really enjoyed exploring Quito, Guayaquil just sort of feels like a big, dirty city. Darren, Gene, and I walked around the Maleconga today, which is sort of like a mall, close to the river. On the way, we passed by many, many armed guards, who seem to be employed privately just about everywhere. Notable quote, by Darren, "if the local convenience store has an armed guard, we haven't got a chance!" :)

We ended up eating at (of all places) a Chinese restaurant, and it was interesting trying to translate the menu. The food was adequate, and there was enough hot sauce at the table to quench my need for some spice. When we got back to my hotel, the guard out front had his finger on the trigger of his sawed-off shotgun, perhaps because there was someone famous out front with his associated entourage. There were instruments around, and people were getting their photographs taken with him, so he must have been some kind of pop star.

I'm looking forward to going home, and am going to hole up in my hotel until the airport shuttle comes tomorrow. :)

Photography Notes

I am excited about doing more experimentation with ambient light photography using filters and custom white balance. Videographers have long been doing this to get bright colors without a strobe, so it seems natural that digital still shooters should also embrace the technique. A few notes, from my early experimentation:

  • Digital still cameras aren't as sensitive to light as are digital video cameras, so strong sunlight is necessary. Proper color correction underwater requires the use of both magenta filters and warming filters, which cut out quite a bit of light. In overcast conditions at moderate depths (40-60'), I found it necessary to shoot at ISO 400 with low shutter speeds, which is I wasn't happy with. In strong sunlight, there was plenty of light. 
  • Gelatin filters are hard to handle. I used Kodak Wratten gelatin filters cut for insertion in the rear filter holder of my Canon 15mm full-frame fisheye lens. I was not able to cut the gel filters down to size, store them, and insert them in the filter holder without scratching or smudging them. Cleaning is difficult because of the softness of the material. Furthermore, it is difficult to insert two filters and have them lay flat in the holder. If two gelatin filters are pushed together with too much force, they stick to each other in a noticeable way (looking somewhat like there is a layer of water between them).
  • A white card that can be handled easily (i.e. a small one) won't cut it for proper white balancing. Ideally, we should be white balancing on something that is the same distance as the subjects we will be shooting. And because we can't really zoom in with our wide lenses, it is hard to get a white card or slate to fill the necessary percentage of the frame without holding it very close to the camera. While it does sort of work, tweaking in Photoshop is still necessary to get "natural" colors from the resulting image. In practice, video people zoom in on white things (or better yet, slightly yellowish things, which makes the water look more blue) from far away to warm up an underwater image. The sand floor is the most common white balance subject, and I had good luck using sand when it was available. Videographers will also sometimes descend below the depth they will be shooting at, white balance there, and then ascend again (making the resulting image even warmer). I think that something like an Expodisc might work, but I haven't tried it yet.
  • I think that our advantage as digital still shooters will be that we can custom white balance on any image in our storage media. That means that we can pre-load white balance images onto our cards before entering the water. I will work on getting some sort of package together for us to use for canned situations in the water (e.g. one image for "clear blue water, bright sunlight, 30' depth," one for "murky green water, cloudy skies, 20' depth," etc.)

I also discovered that I need to become more efficient in the water. Darren was the only one in our group who could keep up with a moving whale shark for more than a few minutes, and it was a tremendous advantage. At one point, we had three whale sharks swimming together, lined up side by side. I was absolutely out of breath and managed only to snap a few shots from behind them. Darren (who had already followed one of them around for twenty minutes) simply swam ahead of them, turned around, and got the shot head on. Granted, he has more than 10,000 dives and I have something like 500, so perhaps that efficiency will come with more time in the water.

I shot with only a single strobe for the majority of my whale shark dives. Anyone who has tried swimming with a housed SLR fitted with two strobes knows that the amout of drag that a single extra strobe produces is incredible. I was able to swim comfortably with a housing and single strobe by holding the package in front of my head, pointing the extended strobe arm at my subject while swimming.

Galapagos: Life Aboard Sky Dancer

As usual for liveaboard trips, the group of passengers on board were very experienced divers (with just a couple of exceptions). Many of them have almost literally been everywhere in the world, and being American, I am not used to the company of such people, except when I travel myself. :) Also, the crew were wonderful, and our guides were nice and friendly.

Darren Rice was on board, collecting video footage for a Peter Hughes promotional video. He is so far the best videographer I have ever met, and his skill in the water was legendary by the end of the week. He was the only person any of the guides have met that could follow a whale shark around on its circuit at Darwin. Most of us ran out of air after swimming by a whale shark for not very long (actually, most of us just couldn't keep up. we would follow for awhile, and then give up, in exhaustion), but Darren would accompany a whale shark out of site, and return with it fifteen minutes later, still filming. We surmised that it was their common, tear-dropped shape that made it possible for them to swim together for so long. Or maybe it was his training in the British Navy. :)

We had two other photographers on board, both shooting film. Surprisingly, no one else on board was shooting with a digital still camera.

Galapagos: Illegal Fishing Boat

Illegal Fishing Boat at Darwin Island

This really pissed us off. Although a small amount of fishing is legal for local fisherman, this fishing boat had lines in the water -- clearly visible in the photos I took -- right at the great arch. In fact, they were fishing directly over the ledge, our drop site. A few weeks ago, a silky shark was fished out of the water and released. Divers reported immediately afterwards that the shark was displaying aggressive behavior towards them. In any case, seeing a fishing boat all the way at Darwin was really unfortunate. The Galapagos has a reputation of being a pristene preserve, but that reputation may change if illegal fishing continues.