Galapagos – Embarking on a Journey
- April 30, 2018
- Shane Hurlbut, ASC
There are certain people who are just great at setting themselves apart from the rest. Fáelán Maley has always been that and so much more. Fáelán, who was once a kickass assistant of mine, is a cinematographer on a mission. And thanks to her excellent documentation of photos, she’s going to take us through one of her expeditions to the Galapagos. There, she’s going to show us how she travels light, while also having the right equipment to get the job done. Now, gear up! We’re in for one hell of a ride!
While this isn’t a post on how to unfold a cinematic tale using lights, camera, action – it does reveal ancient origins, endangered species, a big adventure …and some really small camera technology.
I had arrived to one of the oldest geological places, within an archipelago of volcanic islands, straddling the equator. San Cristóbal Island, was to be my temporary home for an on-going research project at the Galapagos Science Center.
Using GoPros, I would be photographing both the Galapagos green sea turtles in the marine reserve and the giant tortoise habitat in the highlands. Afterwards, I continued my travel to Quito, Ecuador with two other small cameras to focus on building my stock photography while researching visuals for an upcoming job.
For the type of environment and work I would be doing, my clothing and gear needed to be multi-functional and lightweight. There are two seasons here, the cool rainy or “guara” season and the hot season. It was November so the guara would be in full swing. Cotton fabric and denim are not your friends in this climate. My preference was to dress in merino wool base layers. The hooded jacket I wore was warm, lightweight, waterproof. It was primarily for my work in Quito, which is cooler than the Galapagos. I had one pair of shoes for everything. They were waterproof for the islands and good for casual wear, but I could also hike the Andes and the rain forest in them. I also packed a small backpack for day hikes.
Everything I took was quick dry and machine washable or in my case by hand. Long pants were required for the giant tortoise sanctuary, but I also needed shorts. Convertible pants worked best for this. For diving, I brought a long sleeve surf suit and rash guard and tons of sunscreen. Sunscreen had to be biodegradable and the highest SPF. Buying personal items in the Galapagos is very expensive, so bringing everything was necessary. Snorkel, mask, fins and shorty wetsuit were provided. I didn’t bother with a towel here, but I did pack a “camp towel” for Quito, it’s like a chamois. Using non-vacuum compression bags created the space in my carry-on bag to pack it all in. The compression bags keep things dry, organized and odor free.
There was no weight limit coming back to the states, so I took a water resistant foldable duffle bag (expands to 32L) to carry whatever I bought for home.
The science center provided a GoPro Hero 4 Black with a monopod stick and Ibrought my GoPro Hero 5. It’s obviously much easier to see what you are filming with the 5, but I was only able to use that camera on one dive.
For the rest of my images I used either my Google Pixel XL or Olympus TG-5, which is also waterproof to 50ft. All the cameras had ND filters if needed. I also had a waterproof telephoto lens for the Olympus and a wide/macro lens for the Pixel XL.
Media was off-loaded to a 250GB dual USB type C flash drive. Each camera had built-in Wi-Fi to transfer images to my smartphone. The Pixel XL was set to sync to Google Photos, giving me two ways to back-up my media each night while leaving the originals on my smartphone. This set-up gave me redundancy for UHD 4K, a variety of frames rates, raw capture, underwater abilities, macro, telephoto and wide-angle lens choices.
Besides two batteries for the GoPro 5 and TG-5, I used a GoPro battery pack to charge the devices if no outlets were available. My total weight came in at 24.6lbs. for one carry-on bag. The bag has covered zippered panels for personal items, like my passport and money and a hidden set of straps that turns it into a backpack. I was able to keep everything with me for all my flights and inter-island travel.
“from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” -Charles Darwin, “Origin of Species”, 1859
Discovered in 1535, the Galapagos Islands were named after the saddle-backed tortoises discovered there. Reputed to be a “living laboratory of evolution”, it’s uniqueness under constant threat. The majority of reptiles, mammals, land birds and plants are endemic. In 1959, the islands were declared a National Park.
Like many other fragile places on our planet struggling with environmental challenges, the Galapagos is no exception. Micro plastics are one of the biggest concerns for the marine life here as well as habitat degradation. Highly complex environmental issues and political corruption make progress slow.
Photographing the Galapagos Green Sea Turtles
Kicker Rock aka Leon Dormido (Sleeping Lion)
After an early breakfast, we headed out for the first location of the day. Kicker Rock is a massive remains of eroded volcanic cones. It jets 460 feet up above water and descends 130 feet below.
After an hour boat ride, we arrive. I put my mask and fins on quickly, turn on the camera and check the settings. It’s dive time. The boat can’t anchor near the rock and won’t stay in the area, nor is there anywhere to rest once you are in the water. I take the plunge.
Once in the cool water, I feel quite insignificant. It doesn’t take long to spot their massive bodies floating gracefully through the water, ambient light revealing tell tale markings for each sea turtle. Each journey they make, embedded in their very being, each carapace uniquely scarred.
They travel to Kicker Rock to be cleaned, moss and barnacles sprouting from their shell. It is a hotbed of activity. The channel goes downs 62 ft. to the seabed and attracts sharks, eagle rays and an array tropical fish.
I found it challenging to concentrate on shooting and on being safe. I had to be careful not to forget myself and follow them out too far or I would quickly be on my own.
I was in another world, capturing their daily movements in little moments, the sea bursting with life and movement.
Yes, motion creates emotion.
Playa Punta Carola
The next site, located at Carola, had many shallow areas with sharp volcanic rocks randomly poking up. We swam in a designated zone for risk of being pulled into the strong current or smashed against the rocks. The farther I out swam or deeper I dove, the cloudier the water got.
Regardless, the marine life once again did not disappoint. Swirling groups of fish,smaller sea turtles, sharks, marble rays, all passing me by and fading fast in the distance. If I were going to photograph these guys I would have to swim a lot faster while being careful not to scrape my body on the rocks.
After the dive, I was free to explore the island. Here I could really observe how ocean, wind and fire created this place. I approached wildlife because they did not fear humans. The rocks, sand and pools of water were alive with life in a way I never experienced before.
Giant Tortoise Habitat: Campo Duro – Isla Isabela
At the foothills of an active volcano, lies Campo Duro. It is a popular stopping point for travelers who hike Sierra Negra, the second largest caldera in the world. The day I hiked it was completely misted over so I could not see the caldera, but I did meet a lone donkey on the way up.
Campo-Duro is an eco-lodge which was originally designed as a 3-year foster home for the tortoises. When the National Park discovered the tortoises grew much larger and faster at Campo Duro, an agreement was arranged to keep 43 tortoises ranging in age from 12 years to 120 years old there.
In the 18th and 19th centuries whalers, fur traders and pirates realized they could store live tortoises on the ships and they were quickly taken advantaged of for fresh meat. Three tortoise populations disappeared during this time. Today, they are still taken for meat by locals, even though they are endangered.
Work involved clearing the invasive plants and shrubs in the tortoise habitat and the organic garden. It was equal to clearing a football field, which took two full days, all with hand tools. It was hard work but worth it to see the tortoises exploring the results. They seemed genuinely interested in what was going on.
The flowers and plant life were amazing. Using a little macro lens on my smartphone, I captured their secrets inside its petals. The constant breeze prevented any ability to get sharp focus, but I didn’t care – the abstracts and colors drew me in, it was addictive.
When the sun set each day, I knew it wouldn’t long before the night sky sparkled. We made a game of trying to identify all the constellations and would only stop when we were too tired to keep our eyes open. We had the camp to ourselves and enjoyed fresh healthy meals, a fire pit and drinks at the outdoor bar.
I slept simply with a bare mattress and blanket. Outdoor showers were in a natural setting surrounded by flowering trees and plants. The mornings began with a little hammock time and fresh coffee. What more could I ask for? It was a slice of heaven and over way too soon.
To the Mainland- Quito, Ecuador
My adventure in the Galapagos had ended. My early flight to Baltra began my journey to the mainland. As much as I did not want to leave, I was excited and couldn’t wait for the day to begin.
The aircraft fuel barge did not arrive. Therefore, no fuel was available for the planes that service the islands. Instead, I was transported via water taxi to a speedboat; it was 3 ½ hours to the island. That was okay, the day was still young and I liked boats.
After about 40 minutes of struggling to get the boat engine started, it was obvious we weren’t going anywhere. We transferred to another water taxi to find another boat. The second boat was a go; we just had to wait for authorization to use the water route to Baltra. Hopefully, I would still make my flight to Quito.
It was a wet and bumpy, but the scenery could not be more beautiful. We passed a National Geographic ship making its way through the archipelago, waves splashing over my head and the sun blowing up the day with light.
As I made my way to Baltra, I was grateful for such a rich experience. It was an overwhelming thrill to use my filmmaking skills within a different application. I was contributing to the creation of visual data, which would be used to educate and inspire change.
Consider this, I could take a picture of a ten million year old species at my feet, attach it to a text message, and send it to a colleague in minutes. Or skin dive with a five oz. waterproof camera and immediately review images in detail with the project coordinator – on a boat in the middle of the planet!
Accessing smaller camera technology enhanced my interactive experience by exploiting its productivity and connectivity. It allowed me to accomplish and share meaningful work immediately. I could easily integrate my gear with whatever activity arose and was free to be spontaneous, creative and covert.
I rewound my mind back to the day I arrived, taking in this strange place that time forgot and wondering what visual treasures awaited.
Looking out the plane window I could see we started our descent. I did a quick check: cameras, media cards, lenses, filters, batteries, flash drive — all snug in my pocket, on the far side of the world.
I’d like to thank Fáelán again for taking us through her journey. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I need a cool glass of water and a lie down! Haha! It’s always amazing to see where our filmmakers are going and how they can bring back some great lessons they learned along the way. I hope to hear some more great stories from other members of the SIC.
Get started to access your FREE LESSON!