5 Amazing Underwater Photo Encounters in the Galapagos

Find out why the Galapagos Islands should be your #1 destination for underwater photography and videography
By Scott Gietler

When I visited the Galapagos Islands in late January 2016, I was unaware that I was about to have a trip of a lifetime. I was hoping to see some big animals underwater, but I was unaware how extraordinary these encounters would be. Please allow me to share them with you, along with some tips on how to capture these types of underwater photos.

Hammerhead Sharks

Wolf and Darwin Islands offer close, intimate encounters with hammerhead sharks. Over and over and over again. The trick is to sign up for a trip that is going to *really* focus on hammerheads - # of dives, where you are going to dive, and being with a group that will "follow the rules" for close hammerhead encounters.

A lens with a little reach is essential, as is constantly doing practise shots, using a setup you are very familiar with, and using gear that can focus fast and shoot fast. Jan - June will offer clearer water for better quality photos.

Be prepared for a shot as you enter the water, because there will often be hammerhead sharks shallow where you drop in the water, and you may have 5 or 10 seconds to get a couple of shots before they decide to leave the area. Turn on your camera & strobes and set your strobe power correctly right before dropping into the water.

To photograph hammerheads, do not swim towards them, or swim in the water column, or away from the reef. You must hide behind a rock, and hope that they will swim over the rock near you. In a sense you are "hiding" a little bit. It helps if there have not been any divers swimming around blowing bubbles around your rock in the previous 20 minutes.

Galapagos hammerhead shark

Hammerhead shark underwater photography tips

Galapagos hammerhead shark underwater

Schooling hammerhead sharks

Schooling hammerhead sharks

Rays - Eagle, Manta and Mobula

The Galapagos is full of rays - stingrays, manta rays, mobula rays, marbled rays, you name it. A good ray photo is carefully composed so the shot is taken when the wings are in the optimal position. Background exposure is also important to bring in the necessary amount of ambient light. Cabo Marshall is a great area for photographing rays, but it may take several dives to get the right conditions. Don't be afraid to swim "off reef" into the blue a little bit, as that as where a ray or group of rays may appear right in front of your eyes.

Galapagos Manta Ray

Eagle Ray

Mobula Rays

Mola mola - Oceanic Sunfish

The Mola mola were the highlight of my Galapagos trip. Group dynamics are key, because it only takes one diver to scare away the Mola mola. Doing a custom photo itinerary will allow you to do more dives looking for Mola mola than a regular Galapagos dive trip will permit. Punta Vicente Roca is where we saw them.

Mola mola Galapagos

Oceanic sunfish

Birds - Galapagos Penguins & Flightless Cormorants

There is nothing that can compare to the first time you see a bird underwater. They are fast moving, fish seeking missles that sometimes act like they really don't care that you are around. "Catch me if you can", they say.

Flightless cormorant

Galapagos Penguin

Red-lipped Batfish

The red-lipped batfish is a strange looking, deep dwelling fish that just begs to be photographed. The can move swiftly and don't like posing for photos, so getting a good shot can be more difficult than you would think. This is the one dive that I decided to switch to my macro lens.Red-lipped Batfish

Bonus encounter: Yellowfin Tuna

One of my favorite encounters in the Galapagos was with a pair of yellowfin tuna at Wolf Island that continuously made close passes to myself and my dive buddy, following us from a 20ft safety stop, down to 60ft, and thern back up to 20ft, looking at us the entire time.

Yellowfin tuna

Yellowfin tuna underwater photo

Equipment Used

In the Galapagos, I used the Nikon 16-35mm F4 lens almost exclusively for my underwater photography. The lens was the perfect choice, and I will be publishing a full review of the lens soon. The exception is the red-lipped batfish, where I used a Nikon 60mm macro lens behind a Zen 4-inch glass dome port. I used a Sea & Sea Nikon D810 underwater housing, with twin Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobes.

What boat did I use

I was on the Galapagos Master, an excellent boat with nice cabins, a large comfortable lounge, and a safety conscious crew. Other great choices are the Humbolt Explorer, Galapagos Sky, and the Galapagos Aggressor. You can view more liveaboard options in the Galapagos, with live availability and online booking through my dive travel agency, Bluewater Travel.

If you are thinking about a trip, email me and I can advise you the best time to go, and I can usually get you a special deal on a group or personal trip on one of the 4 boats I mentioned, through Bluewater Travel. We are also running more trips to the Galapagos almost every year. Travel to the Galapagos is exciting but comes with some challenges, so we've prepared a list of Galapagos travel tips to help you plan.

Well I hope you enjoyed this article. If you want more information, or wish to see some land animal photos and underwater video - you can read my complete Galapagos trip report. - Scott


Scott Gietler is the owner of Bluewater Photo, Bluewater Travel, and the Underwater Photography Guide. Bluewater Photo, based in Culver City, CA is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious underwater camera stores, serving many thousands of customers each year, where nothing is more important than customer service. The Underwater Photography Guide is the world’s first website to feature free tutorials on underwater photography, and has become the most trafficked resource on underwater photography worldwide. Bluewater Travel is a full-service dive travel wholesaler sending groups and individuals on the world’s best dive vacations. 

Scott is also an avid diver, underwater photographer, and budding marine biologist, having created the online guide to the underwater flora and fauna of Southern California. He is the past vice-president of the Los Angeles Underwater Photographic Society, has volunteered extensively at the Santa Monica aquarium, and is the creator of the Ocean Art underwater photo competition, one of the largest underwater international photo competitions ever held in terms of value of prizes. He lives in California with his wife, newborn girl and scuba-diving, photo taking 4 year old son.

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