Sure enough, just before the wake-up call at 6am, I heard the boat slow and the Captain drop anchor. We’re awakening this morning in a bay created from a collapsed volcanic crater, the site of all of today’s activities. We’re going to start our first full day in the islands with a bang: the island of Genovesa has two of the prime visitation sites in the islands, especially this time of year.
First, I need to explain my time references. The Galapagos is technically one hour earlier than the mainland of Ecuador. But our boat and its sister boats do a lot of communication between their Guayaquil offices and the crew, so the boats are kept on mainland time. So even though 6am is usually sunrise on the equator, for us that’s really about an hour before sunrise.
Our goal on this tour is to try to make use of the best photographic light, so we really want to be ashore at the first moment the park service allows (sunrise), and for the afternoon walks, we want to still be ashore right up to sunset so that we can work the best light. And that’s exactly what happened this morning. We hit the dry landing at Prince William steps as early as we could, so much so that the sunrise was still lingering as we topped the steps. We split into two groups, one with my assistant Tony and naturalist Cecibel, one with me and naturalist Billy (I’ll introduce you to them later). I let Tony’s group get ahead of us and out of sight, so basically we had the best possible scenario: two small independent groups that didn’t see each other, and thus, weren't competing to get the right angles for shots.
Genovesa is bird city. There’s not a huge variety of species, just a huge number of birds. We’ve got two types of boobies (Red in the bushes, Nazca on the ground), frigate birds, an owl, and a handful of other common birds, including doves, mockingbirds (that don’t mock anything!), storm petrols, and more.
The frigate birds are in full mating season, so as females fly overhead the males are blowing up their red pouches showing the ladies a little wing with their best singing.
One thing you’re going to note is that backgrounds can be quite busy (bushes, rocks, other birds, you name it). So you either have to minimize them or use them. David’s used the background in his shot; I’ve minimized it.
Once a frigate bird has his mate, they’ll stay together on the nest until the young are hatched, then take turns at feeding.
The boobies are also mostly paired up right now, so we’re constantly hearing the males whistling and the females honking. As with many birds, there’s a lot of beak-to-beak action in the mating rituals, and we were seeing it all pretty much from step one on the island. Foreshadowing: you’re going to get tired of birds mating ;~)
The highlight of the morning was an owl that had caught a storm petrol and flew over the first group to go sit eating it in full view of the group. This isn’t the greatest shot of him, as it’s a small bird that landed quite a distance from us. Here he is doing his best DeNiro imitation (“You Talkin’ to me?”):
The group in front of mine (Tony’s) saw him land with his catch:
Or maybe the highlight was the two frigate birds actually mating.
Or maybe it was some bird fights. Or maybe… well, I’m sure everyone had their own highlight. When one frigate bird has something (nest material or food) in its beak, others will come to try to get it away:
One thing I notice that the frigate birds sometimes do is that they will suddenly go from flight position to some sort of wind-aided grooming position:
Not only does it look awkward, but I don’t see how they keep from dropping to the ground when they do this. Maybe it’s helium in that big red bag instead of just air (just kidding).
One key teaching point for the morning was “eye level.” The natural tendency is to walk up to a bird on the ground and shoot down at it. Or to point up at a bird flying overhead. Sure, take those shots. But shots are much more involving and engaging to the viewer when they feel like they’re eye-to-eye with the person or animal. Hopefully you’ll see that in the illustrations in this blog. So, a tip to shooting children: get down on their level so that the camera is eye level, not standing adult level. Since we have birds on the ground here, that means kneeling, or sitting, or shooting in the prone position. And, of course, the ground is volcanic rock, so it’s hard, jagged, and uncomfortable. It’s a good idea to bring kneepads or a small cushion to help keep your body from getting all cut up and to make such low-level shooting more comfortable.
Eye level works even when you’re shooting someone’s back:
I see what David wanted to show here: while the frigate bird looks black, it actually has a set of green feathers on its upper back.
After we returned to the boat, it was time to get snorkel gear sorted out and off for the first snorkeling of the trip. Besides the usual fish you’d expect to see, the first snorkel also gave everyone their first views of the Galapagos shark and the Hammerhead shark. Now that’s what I call an introduction to the underwater world:
Yes, we’re getting that close to the sharks. Most of us were using wide angle lenses on our AW1’s (28mm equivalent), so keep that in mind as you see underwater shots from the workshop. Just as access to animals is great on the islands, it’s also great under the water.
In the afternoon, we had a wet landing at Darwin’s Landing. Ironically, Darwin apparently never landed there. Within a few feet of the landing spot:
My image of the same juvenile squawking for food:
Note that I’m absolutely at eye level here. I’ve got other images from the sequence of the parent feeding this juvenile, but I picked this one to show just what I mean by “eye level.”
Tony, as usual, starting collecting “new birds” for his collection:
Here’s another of those frigate bird males trying to land a woman.
The wet landing area here is also a site where we often are greeted by sea lions:
As light wained, I decided to go for something completely different, and started dragging my shutter speed:
Hmm. Not my best effort, but it’s day one and I’m a bit out of practice. It is “broody,” and you’ll remember that I like broody images (more foreshadowing). Just as a note, broody rarely works in small form displays like this. It works far better with large prints. On days like this where I’ve managed to get plenty of good “normal” shots I’ll try some alternative techniques like dragging the shutter and panning with moving subjects. I highly encourage experimentation. When experiments don’t work, that’s when you learn the most, by the way. One of the things I learned by dragging shutters this afternoon is that it works better on boobies than frigate birds. Why? Because most of the time the boobies don’t have any up/down motion to their body when they’re flying, while the frigate birds do. Since I’m trying to keep the head perfectly steady in the frame, any up/down motion just makes the bird’s head and body less distinct. There are moments when the frigate bird is steady like a booby, but I need to work harder at finding and exploiting them. So: failed experiment, successful learning.
At the end of the day everyone is excited, exhausted, happy, and now on their laptops plowing through hundreds of images they’ve already taken. It’s been a long day, but a productive one. Tomorrow’s wake up call? Yep, an hour before sunrise again.
Landings: Prince William Steps are a dry landing with some potentially slippery rocks on the first step or two; Darwin Bay Landing is a wet landing (usually in calm and shallow waters, though with jagged rocks/shells in the sand)
Snorkeling: typically done off the panga along one of the rocky edges in the bay as we did, but can also be done from Darwin Landing beach
Major New Sightings: Galapagos and Hammerhead Shark, Red-footed and Nazca Boobies, Terns, Owl, Lava Gull