Photography in the Galapagos of Mexico


As I prepare for another dive off the Island of Roca Partida, everything is perfect, as it has been the past five days. It is a beautiful day, sea conditions are ideal, and I am thinking about the wonders I will photograph as this amazing trip is coming to an end. I check all my life support equipment and camera gear before boarding the Zodiac (rubber raft type boat).




I dive a closed circuit rebreather. Some of the benefits are that it recycles the gas I breathe, allowing me to stay down for hours. It also does not produce noisy bubbles that scare away the marine life, the way standard SCUBA does. This is a gas mixing machine and needs to be carefully monitored. For me, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

As the Zodiac arrives at the dive site, I perform one more gear check and I roll over the side. I make my way down to 75 feet and continue to check my gear, as is good practice. Soon I see a hole in the wall with a huge green moray eel, and colorful orange fish. I position myself 18 inches away, adjust my lighting and take a photo. As always, my goal is to be really close to my subject. Although when shooting marine life, the subject may have other ideas. After reviewing the photo, I readjust the lights, change angles slightly and try for a closer 12 inches. Only somewhat more satisfied, I move in to 6 inches, change the angle, adjust the lighting, and fire the shutter. I then review the image on the Olympus E-520's LCD screen- perfect, just the photo I wanted.

I then check my primary rebreather display. It is blank and I see water inside. I immediately think to myself, " Hmm- that's bad. I wonder if the gas I am breathing has enough oxygen in it for me to stay alive?" I put in some fresh gas and check my secondary handset. This one is also blank with water in it. Now I think, "This is really bad. I could die. If my camera is not recovered, no one will get to see this great photo I just took, so I better not die!" My training kicks in, and without thinking I switch to standard scuba bailout and check my computer. I was only in 90 feet of water for six minutes, so I did not have to undergo decompression. This makes survival easy since I can just go to the surface. I have been diving a long time and have had very few "Oh, crap!" situations. It is very easy to get complacent when diving, and put the photo, artifact or whatever you are doing underwater before safety. Dying would prevent me from going to new destinations and taking more photos, so clearly it is not an option!

Photo shot just before bailing out

Now that I've discussed that experience, let's start at the beginning. Back in January I was given the opportunity to dive off the archipelago Islas Revillagigedos. This is considered to be the Galapagos of Mexico. The closest island, San Benedicto is 220 nautical miles from Cabo San Lucas. Socorro is another 40 nautical miles from San Benedicto, and Roca Partida is 70 Nautical miles from Socorro.

So why go this far? The big draw is the friendliest manta rays in the world. The mantas use this area as a cleaning station and consider scuba divers' bubbles a Jacuzzi. The mantas like to swim just above the divers, and the bubbles give them a massage. Since underwater photographers need to get close to their subjects, it is a dream come true. Other than the mantas, the area is also known for sharks. White tips, silver tips, Galapagos, and hammerheads are known to be seen in the area. Dolphins and whales are also known to swim by. Sounds like a great place to visit, despite the trouble getting there. Since sharks and other marine life don't like scuba bubbles like manta rays, my rebreather, comes on the trip.

Only three boats have permits to enter this remote biosphere reserve. I was lucky enough to be traveling on the 115 foot long Nautilus Explorer. This luxury liveaboard was built specifically as a long range luxury dive boat for the discerning and experienced diver. The boat made the nine-day trip, including the twenty-four hour crossing a pleasure. In the summer, this boat runs dive trips around Vancouver Island and Alaska. In winter, besides the trip to Islas Revillagigedos, it go to other areas in Mexico and California, including a trip to see great white sharks off Guadalupe.

My photo gear for this trip consisted of an Olympus E-520, with the 7-14mm lens. I used the Olympus PT-E05 housing along with two UFL-2 strobes. I figured much of the action would take place near the surface. For this reason, I planned on doing available light photography, along with the usual strobe work. I would do a custom white balance in order to correct for the blue cast. For efficiency, I was able to get a dome port with white balance device from a company named Nauticam. The dome is still in the prototype stage at the time of this writing. Built into the dome is an iris, with translucent material on it. You turn a knob on the outside; this closes the iris over the lens. The result is an exposed area (white) that will assist in performing a custom white balance. This is like having an underwater Expodisc. Since the material is translucent, you point the lens directly at the light source for a precise white balance.

When working with strobes, I used the Olympus UFL-2 underwater strobes. They have a remote control mode that is nothing new on land, but is a new concept in underwater imaging. The built-in flash on the camera is popped and used as a controller. Since the slaves on the UFL-2 strobes are set back, you need to connect the strobes to the housing with fiber optic cables. The Olympus PT-E05 housings have two fiber optic cable ports. This makes it easy to connect two strobes to the housing.

Fiber Optic Ports on PT-E05 housing

One of the information screens on the E-520's LCD monitor shows information for strobes A, B and C. With this system you can shoot in TTL mode, but if your images are coming out to light or dark you can use exposure compensation to raise or lower the power of each strobe individually. You can also lower the power on one light, this allows you to use one strobe as the main light, and the other as the fill. With this system you have studio type lighting underwater without taking your eye or hands off the camera. The information screen also shows your F-stop and shutter speed when shooting in camera manual mode. This makes it easy to control how light or dark the background is and then balance the strobe light, in-order to get a natural look. All of this sounds great when reading the manual, but how good is it in 120 feet of water surrounded by sharks? Sounds like a trip on the Nautilus Explorer to Islas Revillagigedos is the perfect place to find out!

Flash Remote Control screen on E-520

After a 24 hour boat ride we arrive at San Benedicto Island. Our first dive site is called The Boiler. This is a small pinnacle that rises to about 20 feet from the surface. Immediately we saw two mantas, swimming around the top of the boiler. I decided to turn off my strobes and try to do a custom white balance. The white balance device cranked into position, but the camera kept showing an error. We never really figured out why. When I tested this on the surface under both tungsten and florescent lights, it worked perfectly. It is possible that even at 40 feet I needed to use an orange filter to help the white balance feature of the camera to kick in. I then set the exposure on the camera to give me a good ambient light exposure. Since I could not get as close as I wanted to the mantas (second disappointment) I turned the power on the strobes all the way up. Although I am farther away from my subjects then I really want to be, I could still capture images. This is better then coming back empty handed. It appeared the mantas were in the area for feeding instead of cleaning. This could be because the water was warmer then usual. Being in the presence of these majestic animals was still mind blowing; even from eight to fifteen feet away, you could sense these animals had an intellect bigger than other fish.

We did two dives on the boiler, and for the last dive of the day, moved to an area called the Canyon. We swam to the edge of the wall, and then sat quietly, looking into open water for sharks, who never showed up. As we started swimming back to the boat, people started pointing; I turned around and saw eight large hammerhead sharks. I tried to swim closer to them, but could not get close enough for photos. When back on the boat, I was told there was a six foot hammerhead shark swimming eighteen inches from my head. Note to self: always look up, or you will miss photographic opportunities!

The next day we dove a site called the Lava Flow, which was very close to the Canyon. This site is 97 feet deep and came up to 45 feet. Again we saw a number of mantas on these dives. Most of the manta encounters are with females, but on this dive, we also interacted with a number of males.

Manta Rays are amazing creatures; their brain to body mass is larger then most fish. They are extremely intelligent. Seeing these giant creatures with fin spans from ten to twenty feet is an amazing experience. It is believed that they use the fins near their mouth, the cephalic fins, to communicate. Our dive guides would stretch out their arms, and move them in a circle trying to communicate with these gentle giants. Of course, if the mantas did understand, our dive guides had no idea what they were saying to them! The cephalic fins are also used as ingenious scoopers. When unfurled they guide plankton into the manta's mouth. Because of their size and the horn like cephalic fins, early superstitious fishermen called them Devilfish. Yet the manta rays don't even have a stinger by the tail like their smaller cousin the sting ray.

After the last dive, the boat was moved to Socorro Island. The Nautilus Explorer is a very stable boat; even people who tend to get seasick are fine. The crew is very helpful, and the meals and snacks are delicious. The hostesses were on the dive deck with water, juices, and fruit while we were preparing and returning from diving. The boat is a pleasure for the working photographer. The port side of the dive deck has a spacious photo work station. The table is three levels, so you can keep cameras outside the housing dry on the top level; the middle level was perfect for preparing gear and placing housings after dipping them in the near by rinse bucket. Another dry table, close by is used as the charging station. There is plenty of room for all the batteries needed for our cameras, strobes and dive lights. In the salon area, there is a long table on the starboard side that is perfect to set-up as a computer work station.

The photo work station

The next morning, we went to dive the Cabo Pierce site near Socorro Island. Since the current was about one and half knots, a grapple line was set off the zodiac to use as a down line. I thought about the amazing creatures I might photograph as I made my way down the line to 90 feet. At the bottom of the line was a bright yellow Chinese trumpet fish. I quickly got into position, adjusted lights and exposure, and pressed the shutter release. To my surprise my strobes did not fire. Examining the camera housing, I realized I forgot to pop up the camera's built in flash. The button to pop up the flash is the one button you cannot access through the housing. Again, note to self: fire the camera on the boat to make sure everything is working! Since my strobes would not fire, I think word got around, so all the interesting life came out to say "Hi!" to me. On that dive I saw clarion angle fish, octopus, Mexican hogfish, and a large green sea turtle. This was unbearable. I turned the knob on my port's white balance device and tried to do a custom white balance to no avail. I pointed the camera in every direction, but I kept getting an error message. Oh well, next time.

On the second dive I remembered to pop up the flash. To my surprise, when I went down the line, the Chinese trumpet fish was still there. As a matter of fact, diving in the same area, I was able to photograph all the marine life I missed on the first dive. I was able to capture images of the clarion angle fish, octopus, Mexican hogfish, and even the green sea turtle.

After a few days we motored another 70 nautical miles to Roca Partida. This is more a large rock than an island. The rock starts 230 feet below the surface and comes out of the water like a strange shaped building. Many birds, call this ancient volcano home.

For the last two days of diving we would be jumping in close to the island and circling the underwater wall the island forms. We would need to control our buoyancy in order to stay above the 130 foot recreational limit. We are now 264 nautical miles from Cabo San Lucas, and 70 nautical miles from the Mexican Navy base on Socorro. Getting hurt in this remote location would be bad.

Roca Partida the Rock

After descending to about 90 feet we saw white tip sharks everywhere. Some sharks are swimming in the open water, and others are resting on ledges. The white tips, with their cute faces, make great models. Besides white tips we saw silver tips, Galapagos, and the occasional hammerhead, swimming in open water. Besides the sharks, we saw tuna and jacks, off the wall. Large schools of jacks would swim around the island in a vertical formation that I never saw before.

Another behavior that the crew of the boat only started seeing the month before was that of the juvenile white tip sharks. They were cuddling up with large moray eels, as if the morays were mom. This was extremely entertaining to see and photograph. As always, we want to be as close as possible, but better to get the shot than have our subject swim off! Again, I take a photo from two feet away, then one foot- if the subject was not camera shy, I would move in to four inches and squeeze the shutter button. These were some of the most exciting dives I have done in the twenty years I have been diving.

This is where our story began. During our last dive, on the second to the last day of the trip, my rebreather tried to kill me. Eight years ago when I did my rebreather training, my instructor, Andy Driver, said one day this would happen; the goal is not to let it happen. This time, I won and the rebreather lost. I survived the dive, but now have a $6000 door stop and one more day to dive. The crew of the Nautilus Explorer set me up with standard scuba gear. The last day of the trip, my dives were shorter, but just as thrilling.

For the last twenty six hours we would be cleaning gear, editing photos, writing notes, relaxing in the hot tub and getting some sleep as we headed back to Cabo. On this very special trip we had the thrill of new exploration, and encountering creatures with different behaviors- but on a luxurious working dive vessel with chocolates placed on our pillows.


Larry Cohen has worked as a studio and location photographer since the late 70's. His clients included Baccarat Crystal, Fuji, Kodak, Sony, General Electric, Time Warner and others. His underwater photos have appeared in such publications as Sport Diver, Immersed Magazine, Sub Aqua Journal, Alert Diver and Northeast Dive News. His photos have also appeared in books such as National Audubon Society Field Guide to Tropical Marine Fishes. In order to extend bottom time and to get closer to marine life he now dives with a Closed Circuit Rebreather. Larry is a founding member of the New York Underwater Photo Society. He is the current president of The NYC Sea Gypsies dive club and is on the committee of Oceanblue Divers dive club in Manhattan. At B&H Photo, Larry is a technical writer.

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