Galapagos Expedition Journal: Underwater Exploration with a Prize-Winning Photographer

 This is the sixth post in my account of a ten-day exploration of the Galapagos, on board the National Geographic Endeavour. You will find all the Galapagos Expedition Journal posts here.

In this post I interview Terry Goss, who was on our expedition as the 2011 winner of the Ocean in Focus Photo Contest, a competition that focuses on the human impacts on marine environments and species, positive and negative, in an attempt to advance ocean conservation through the power of imagery.

Terry’s winning photo was a portrait of a blue shark (Prionace glauca) with the remnants of a longline hook through his jaw, taken in the open ocean off the coast of Rhode Island.

His prize for winning the contest was a Lindblad-National Geographic Expedition cruise of the Galapagos for him and his partner, Olivia Chapman. Terry and Olivia also got married during the trip, with John Zurita, the captain of the National Geographic Endeavour, presiding over the ceremony and the rest of us on board witnessing the event on the top deck of the ship. You can see a picture of the happy couple getting married in my earlier post, On Board National Geographic Endeavour.


Terry Goss. Photo courtesy of Terry Goss.


Terry spent much of his time diving around the islands we visited. He also gave passengers a slide show and brief lecture about his work. I asked him some questions for my expedition journal:

Tell us about the photo contest you won and what inspired you to enter it.

The Ocean in Focus contest is spearheaded by Marine Photobank, a partner with, which is a charitable organization dedicated to the science of the oceans, and furthering research and educational projects having to do with ocean conservation. Marine Photobank is a massive repository of images for use in scientific and educational publications. I had entered some photos in previous years, and as a result have seen some of them in use in marine literature around the internet. I really like the idea that I have contributed something that is useful to a researcher or educator, especially since I think I really missed my calling in marine biology.

How did your winning photo come about? What message does it convey?

The winning photo was one of a great many I shot that day, while snorkeling in the open ocean with dozens of blue sharks with a couple of photographer friends. I was really only looking forward to my first interactions with some blues and makos (only one young mako showed, and quickly left), and maybe getting a couple of nice portraits. So many of the sharks showed signs of non-natural injury, many had hooks and lines still attached, and one poor fellow was actually hopelessly tied up with plastic straps, which had begun cutting into his flesh. Our intrepid“Expedition Leader”(for lack of a better characterization) was constantly leaving his camera on the boat in favor of wire cutters, and managed to cut several of the sharks free of their trailing debris. It was thrilling to play with so many beautiful sharks in the open sea, but very heartbreaking and tragic to see just how much damage humans do, even passively.


Photo courtesy of Terry Goss.



You’re obviously passionate about the environment, particularly the ocean. How would you like to make a contribution to marine conservation through your photography?

A great image inspires, the way no amount of words can. I remember being struck with an incredible fascination for sharks after seeing Jaws for the first time, and subsequently grabbing every book I could find that had cool shark pictures in it. Jacques Yves Cousteau famously wrote on his experiences with sharks, but none of that compares to seeing the perfection of the shark itself, cutting through the water like something out of pure imagination.

And that’s right where I could like to come in. The ocean is wondrous and beautiful, and its creatures are some of the most amazing on Earth – but few people ever get to see that and really feel it, so it must be brought to them. I take great pains to depict sharks as simply the beautiful, magnificent creatures they are, not the vicious, toothy demons we have been led to believe for millennia. There is a real paradigm shift happening right now, where the old world’s fear-based mythologies are being supplanted by real research and real people getting into the water with all the various“bloodthirsty man-eaters”and proving that we’re all just humble creatures and we’re all just trying to get by. I love seeing the looks of wonder and awe when I show someone one of my sharks – or any other marine creature – and seeing the spark that gets them seriously thinking about the oceans.


Photo courtesy of Terry Goss.


Photo courtesy of Terry Goss.


How did you find the health of the ocean around the Galapagos islands we visited?

I found the islands just as I had hoped – lush and healthy, with little evidence of human intrusion, just like a protected sanctuary should be. Even in the inhabited areas of the port towns, everything was clean and sparse, and not gloriously bloated like some tourist towns you might see around the world. Some of the shallow reefs were a bit barren looking and less densely populated than others, but I know from very similar oceanic conditions in central and northern California that this is largely seasonal. At the deeper water sites I encountered some powerful surge and currents, and as a result there was no shortage of sharks, fish, turtles, you name it – we saw pretty much every animal in the field guide!

What were some of the highlights of what you saw and photographed on this expedition?

While diving, it was definitely stumbling upon the mola mola cleaning stations – it was like a NASCAR pit stop, with these giant, alien fish hovering in a neat row, being cleaned by dozens of king angelfish, hogfish and raccoon butterflyfish. It was almost cartoonish to watch. Then of course the truly massive whalesharks at Darwin’s Arch – you always hear about how big they are, but nothing really prepares you for how big they really are! On land, it was very exciting to watch the waved albatrosses, bill-fighting, taking off and landing, and just walking right by you like nothing’s happening. And to finally see the famous giant tortoises, just hanging out in the grass. I felt I had to keep looking over my shoulder for David Attenborough….


Photo courtesy of Terry Goss.


Photo courtesy of Terry Goss.


What would you advise underwater explorers to look for in the Galapagos?

For the Galapagos, I would advise the same thing I would advise in any marine ecosystem: keep a sharp eye, everywhere you go. Even the most mundane rock or stretch of sand can harbor a fascinating critter – or several – that might have otherwise escaped people’s notice. Every dive is a treasure hunt, whether you’re scanning the deep blue for whalesharks or small, rocky crevices for seahorses. E.g., at Isla Isabella, after swimming with a dozen giant mola molas, I found a beautiful nudibranch in a crevice that was less than a quarter of the size of my thumbnail – that tiny world is simply amazing to behold.

You use some pretty sophisticated equipment to make your underwater photos. Can you tell us a little about it and how you go about shooting underwater?

My rig consists of: two Nikon D300 camera bodies (one as backup, in case of flooding), an Aquatica AD300 aluminum housing and 8” acrylic dome port, Tokina 10-17mm fisheye zoom lens, Nikkor 12-24mm zoom lens with +4 diopter, Ultralight cast aluminum arm segments & joint clamps, and two Sea & Sea YS90 strobes, connected with an Ikelite dual-sync cable (to trigger the strobes with the camera’s shutter). I also carry a Nikkor 18-200mm lens w/circular polarizer for ‘dry-land’ stuff. I’ve also recently taken to mounting a GoPro video camera on the housing, with a specially made Ultralight bracket and a custom GoPro housing from Backscatter (GoPro now makes their own, just like it).

The rig is really heavy, bulky, and always takes a couple of minutes to properly arrange once in the water, but it’s worth it for those rare times when you get that perfectly framed moment with a big, fast animal like a shark or sea lion.


Photo courtesy of Terry Goss.


Photo courtesy of Terry Goss.


For the amateur with a modest budget and not a lot of photography experience, what would you recommend as a camera for underwater photos at the Galapagos?

Unfortunately, even though great camera technology is at an unbelievably affordable level, “budget” and “underwater” are uncomfortable bedfellows. I believe the old saw “you get what you pay for” is painfully true in underwater work.

Start with a good quality camera , and then get a high quality waterproof housing for it. You need something that can get clean, sharp, detailed shots in low light – so check online field tests and reviews. My favorites in the compact point-and-shoot realm are the Canon G12 and S100; the Sony DSC-RX100 and Olympus Tough TG1 are also highly regarded. These cameras and their housings aren’t exactly “cheap”, per se, but the clearer, more vibrant images they can capture are worth the slight extra cost over their cheaper counterparts.

An important consideration for editing underwater work is the ability to shoot in RAW format (each manufacturer has their own patented RAW file-type), and this is becoming more widely available in compact point-and-shoot cameras. Many cameras also offer some sort of image-stabilization, with can be very helpful.


Photo courtesy of Terry Goss.


Where would you like to travel next to advance your underwater photography?

Top of my list for 2013 is Isla Socorro, in the Revillagigedos archipelago, just west of Mexico, and I have tentative plans to swim with the orcas of Norway in 2014. There are so many places yet to see, and prioritizing any of them presents quite a challenge. I dearly wish to revisit Isla del Coco (Cocos Island, Costa Rica), but since I’ve been there once already I feel maybe I should focus on new places.

For more information about Terry Goss and his photography, visit his websiteFlickr  page and blog.

Next time on my Galapagos Expedition Journal: In Search of Giant Iguanas on Dragon Hill


Photo courtesy of Terry Goss.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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Changing Planet

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn