Underwater Camera for the Galapagos?

Many people have asked whether it is worthwhile to take an underwater camera to the Galapagos and if they should buy one if they don't already have one. I briefly addressed this topic most recently in Post #4 of this thread

As I said, it is not an easy question to answer without knowing your photography and snorkeling skills. I will say, that if you are not strong on both accounts it is a waste of money to buy a new underwater camera. You are better off and will enjoy it more if you just look at the fish and not try to capture them in a photograph. There are cheap U/W cameras available but they rarely result in satisfactory U/W photos. Most inexpensive U/W cameras and many of the expensive ones either do not have a viewfinder or do not have one you can see through while wearing a mask. You are left to aiming the camera body at your subjects. Even though I am a diver and have used U/W cameras many times before I continue to struggle with this. The subject of many of my photos ended up at the bottom of the frame!

If you are not a good swimmer/snorkeler, photography can be a challenge- it can be extremely difficult to get close enough- fish really don't like to be approached. And, since they need water passing over their gills to get oxygen, fish are "almost" always in motion. To get decent photos, especially with the wide angle lenses that come with most U/W cameras you'll need to get up really close- 2 to 3 feet at most. Fish don't regularly hang out close to the surface. I spent a lot of time diving 5' - 15' or more deep when trying to photograph some fish. (I was unable to do that easily while wearing a wetsuit or even with my thinner warm water 'skinsuit' so I had to wear a weight belt- if you are not a good swimmer don't try that!

Lastly, optical and environmental factors, are a big deal. Starting near the surface and more pronounced the deeper you go, water filters out the warm colors of spectrum from the sun's rays. A fish that is brightly colored (red, orange, etc.) will look nothing like it appears in a book or fish identification guide. Instead, their colors may be muted in shallow water. Go a little deeper they turn blue-green. Eventually everything looks almost gray. A powerful U/W movie light or external, high power strobe may be needed to capture the fish's true/natural colors. Since you will be diving during the day, there is always a chance the sun could be blocked by a cloud, an island, or mountain. Also, in the Galapagos the water clarity changes from location to location, day to day and seasonally. Some days we had 5' - 15' visibility at best due to turbidity mainly caused by plankton. Other days we were lucky and visibility was 75' or more! Wave action- while filming a large group of turtles in a small cove, the sea swells which were hardly detectable from the surface, caused a surge- when the surge came in the turtles and the snorkelers were pushed 2' - 4' towards the beach/rocks, then the reverse and were all pushed in the opposite direction.

That being said- here are some of my U/W photos. I used a simple GoPro 4. Until it mysteriously quit working, I also used a homemade U/W light made from a 300 LED panel. I shot video exclusively, but used the GoPro software to extract these stills. I cropped some photos (bad framing on my part- you'll notice most of my subjects are too close to the bottom of the frame). I had to re-size all the photos to work with the Forum software which caused them to lose quite a bit of detail. I did not do any post processing- absolutely no color enhancement or adjustment, etc.

Note if you look these fish up you'll see that many of them have multiple names. I make no guarantee that mine are correct. : )

A Coral Hawkfish (3") and some scenery- one of the clear days!


A Blue Chin Parrott fish, some Blue Striped Snapper, and Yellowtail Surgeon Fish


A small school of Yellow Tail Surgeon Fish- probably the most common fish I saw. Fairly clear day, taken in only 5' of water


Another group of Yellow Tail Surgeon with a King Angelfish on the left:


A female Blue Chin Parrott fish with, you guessed it:


A Yellow Tail Damsel Fish (3" - 4") (he had yellow lips as well!):


Another Yellow Tail Damsel. This area was filled with bajillion tiny little red fish (fingerlings?) I forgot their name. These fingerlings, schools of sardines, and other tiny fish also made it hard to take photos.


We were in a small cove (the one with the terrible surge) where there must have been 30 - 40 large (2' - 3' across) Green Sea Turtles. We were in only 3' - 5' of water, but the visibility was poor with a lot of plankton. I used my light with the turtle photos.



A pair of (male and female??) White Tip Reef Sharks- what is it that they say about fish needing to keep moving to breathe??? The larger one was 5' - 6' long. These guys were not aggressive. Except for the big one giving me the eye, they totally ignored me and the other fish swimming around. I was only about 3' - 4' away! A bajillion little red and other fingerlings prevented me from getting a clearer photo!:



Another White Tip Reef Shark: I swam alongside this fellow for about 15 yards. (all caught on video):


Stingray. There was a lot of turbidity.:


A Pacific Burr Fish (a type of puffer). Photo taken looking up from about 15' down


A Pacific or Guinea Fowl Boxfish (another puffer):


King Angel. I just couldn't get close to these guys! If you want to see the real colors of a King Angel click here to see a close-up photo taken with a good U/W camera with a powerful U/W photo flash.


A Large Banded Blenny (2" - 3"). Due to his coloration, I almost missed this little guy.


A Giant Damsel


Hieroglyphic Hawkfish. taken in 2' of really clear water, red sand and gravel. One of my best photos.


Blue Chin or Bicolor Parrot Fish (male adult). The adults are blue/green/pink. The parrot fish were almost as common as the surgeon fish.


Blue Chin Parrot (female). Compare the color to the photo of the other female- color differences are due to amount of light and depth of each.


Bullseye Puffer:


Chinese Trumpet Fish:


Bluestriped Snapper




Not a fish! Swallow-tailed Gull with a chick:


Panga ride to the next dive site:


Going deep


Heading into a shallow cave. That is me with the light (when it was still working- arrrggghhh)


The big box is my homemade U/W photo light. The little box on top is the GoPro.


In the "cove" there were turtles every which way we turned- a real traffic jam!



  • Alan, thanks for the great photos. It has made me even more excited about our upcoming trip on the Silver Galapagos. Knowing my own capabilities, I will be happy to safely snorkel and see the marine life without trying to take photos. I have done a stingray swim in Grand Cayman which went fine, but I think being with sharks is going to make me a bit uncomfortable!!
    As usual I am very appreciative of the time you take to post information and pics. They are very helpful.

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