Like witches, cameras fear water.
I know this because I have killed several (three?) very expensive cameras by taking them to the far ends of the Earth and then using them in a light drizzle. There were no survivors.
Aware of my own less-than-fatherly track record, I took special precautions with my new Nikon D600. I packed it with care for the flight to Ecuador and checked the NOAA radar for the Galápagos like an obsessive-compulsive. The blue screen showed zero clouds and I could almost taste the sunshine promised by the computer’s “All Clear.”
Alas, our flight to Baltra was turbulent, and though I remained parked by the airplane window, camera in hand, ready to snap the scintillating turquoise Fantasy Island shot, I waited and waited but the clouds never cleared. The mist hung low so that my first view of the great Galápagos archipelago resembled a stony still life shot with a poorly-used sepia filter. NOAA lies.
I should have listened to Darwin.
Recounting his fateful 1835 journey to the islands, Master Charles wrote, “Excepting during one short season very little rain falls, and even then it is irregular; but the clouds generally hang low.” (Voyage of the Beagle, Chapter 17)
The Galápagos remain as described so long ago. It is a dry and scraggly place but that one short season of rain is right now, and the clouds do generally hang low. It was raining when we got off the plane and it was rainy when we boarded the black rubber zodiacs that motored us out to the MV National Geographic Endeavour. There were cute seals holed up under the dock and though I longed to take a picture of them, I feared the heavy drops of rain that had soaked me through.
My first day in the Galápagos and the weather felt oppressive—as if the fuzzy grey sky was crushing down on. Our ship sat on glassy water that looked like a pool of paint and five minutes after moving in, my cabin was strung with a dripping line of wet clothes.
“This will be a wet landing,” our expedition leader announced through the intercom, preparing us for our first foray in the national park. A wet landing meant we’d arrive on the beach and have to step into the surf where there was a chance of getting wetter—versus a dry landing, where the Zodiac drops you comfortably on shore without any major splashing.
Back on the Zodiac I wrapped my camera in nylon and hid the lens from the onslaught of rain. As we cruised to the white line of Playa Bachas, we discussed Boston’s burial by snow—and yet the obscurity of clouds and mist felt anything but equatorial.
Admittedly, I was feeling a bit down. The British weather discouraged my hopes for snapping lots of happy glossy photos and that morning’s 4 a.m. wake-up call was beginning to haunt me.
I set a bare foot on Isla Santa Cruz, which is the official (Spanish) name for Indefatigable Island.
But I felt fatigued and am so fatigable. “This is such a drag,” I thought—your whole life you hear about a place and then the day you actually get there, you only see the world through the fog of jet lag and a dripping sky.
Yet even in the rain, the Galápagos bears a remarkable and calming beauty. The shoreline was laden with life: soot-colored lava gulls with mascara eyes and giant blue herons with their golden stare. Hundreds of red and blue Sally Lightfoot crabs skittered on the shiny black lava rocks and the black marine iguanas posed like statues. It was as if all the animals had come out to celebrate the rain—even the sea creatures. My eyes followed an adorable baby reef shark in the surf—barely a foot long — as he darted up and down the shore in just a few inches of water. Giant green sea turtles, the size of microwaves, flapped their flippers, and stuck their thumb-shaped heads up in the air before riding the waves onto the coral sand.
Quickly forgetting disasters past, I took out my camera and began shooting all the splendid wildlife. The rain was coming down harder than ever but my only precaution was a big yellow beach towel I wrapped around the camera body and lens. I clicked away at brown pelicans and pink flamingos, then studied the diamond drops of clear fresh rain strung upon every hairy spine of the overgrown prickly pear cactus.
A desire to share is the natural reaction of discovery and suddenly I wanted the world to know all about this place in the Pacific. Then I remembered that the world, in fact, had discovered the Galápagos long ago—I was not the islands’ first visitor. Perhaps though, I was one of the first to be carrying this exact camera.
It takes terrific photographs—even in the rain—but it is by no means waterproof. And so, I wrapped up my baby in another fresh towel, then covered it in a raincoat before giving into the falling water all around me. I slid off my soaked T-shirt, then walked right into the sea—joining the sea turtles and baby sharks, digging my feet into the white porridge of rippled sand and dipping beneath the surface.
The sea was warm and clear—lying in the water felt so much better than hiking in the rain—if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
My first swim was a baptism of sorts. Back at the airport, an Ecuadorian bureaucrat had stamped my passport, welcoming me to Galápagos—but it was only this swim that made it official. All the tiredness washed away and I begin to feel okay.
I floated in the clear grey soup of the Pacific for twenty minutes, loving the water. Yes, this place would shine a bit brighter with some sun, but for now, I would join all the animals in celebrating the rain.
Only after my swim did I remember how I’d left my camera on the beach and that I really ought not to abandon my new technology in this element (oops). Back on board the Endeavour, I unwrapped the new Nikon and checked for a pulse. There were drops of water on the lens and across the body but without worry, the camera sprang to life and showed no signs of unhappiness. “What rain?” it seemed to say, and I smiled back.
We had both survived the rain—my camera and I—and though neither of us is waterproof, we are both safely in the Galápagos, ready to explore this extraordinary part of the world one frame at a time.