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Deep sea creatures, colorful macro life, walrus and icebergs with underwater photographer and tour operator Sven Gust
By Sven Gust

Northern Exploring: Discovering the Remote Arctic

Sven Gust
Deep sea creatures, colorful macro life, walrus and icebergs with underwater photographer and tour operator Sven Gust

A Note from the Editor: I met Sven when I took a trip with him to Greenland for summer iceberg diving (no, the water is not really any warmer in the summer). He runs an Arctic diving tour company, Northern Explorers A/S. I have since joined him for a trip with orcas during the herring run in Northern Norway, and for two weeks iceberg diving in Greenland in April. On that last trip I got some time to sit down with him and learn a bit about what it’s like to run an Arctic diving company. -Bryan Chu, Associate Editor.

Nudibranch, photographed near my home in Norway. People at trade shows often think that Nordic waters are just cold and dark, with nothing to see. I disagree!
Nikon D300, Sea & Sea housing, 105mm macro lens, Seacam strobes. f/16, 1/200 sec, ISO 200.

 

Bryan: How long have you been diving and what got you into it? 

Sven: I started in 1998, and at that time it was mostly in Norway. From the beginning on I was mostly interested in diving in remote areas. So once I started diving, I got my own equipment, including tanks and a compressor and everything. I was always going to remote areas, like small towns in Norway where you have no infrastructure for diving. Somehow I ended up going further and further North, and ended up in areas like Greenland and Svalbard.

Bryan: What draws you to coldwater diving or Arctic diving instead of warm water?

Sven: Once you start something you want to see more and more, and see how far you can go. I have gone pretty far, but have never felt that I was close to my limits. I am still very interested in remote areas and exploring things, especially in Greenland, as we are the only divers in this whole area (Tasiilaq, East Greenland). It’s kind of crazy that this is the biggest island in the world and it is widely unexplored underwater. So I think I have something to do for the next few decades.

 

Monkfish eye: Monkfish/anglerfish are perfectly camouflaged, and they know it. Therefore, they don’t move when divers approach. As these are some of the most expensive delicacies in the sea, some divers in Norway use this fact to catch these fish. Other times they are lucky, when the diver just takes a picture and lets them live.
Olympus C-7070 WZ @ 22.9mm, Reefmaster strobe. f/10, 1/80 sec, ISO 80.

 

Bryan: Do you do any warm water diving?

Sven: Not for Northern Explorers; when it’s warm water diving it’s on holiday. I stopped writing logbooks years ago, but out of maybe a total of 3000-5000 dives, I have done only 200 warm water dives.

Bryan: When did you start Northern Explorers?

Sven: 8 years ago.

Bryan: What was the first trip?

Sven: We started in Norway. It was quite interesting because we didn’t jump into any established tour locations. It involved a lot of scouting and, in the first three years, it was also a bit frustrating because on the one hand we wanted to earn money, but on the other hand we had to build up our products and invest in equipment. It took quite awhile until we got the space and the freedom to be relaxed about scouting new areas. 

For Greenland, we sent over a container with compressors and everything before we even knew if we could make money here. So basically we put in $20,000 without knowing if we would get anything back. Now it is a bit easier because we have learned a lot. We have people who have been on tours with us before and trust in us. So, when we do scouting trips they join us for the chance to be the first to go somewhere new. 

Diver meets deep-sea creature: The Norwegian Trondheimfjord is very special, as you can see deep-sea fish and other deepwater animals at recreational scuba depths. This up to 1.5m long chimaera (ghost shark) is quite common to see, often in dozens. This picture I took on a night dive. Sometimes it seems that they are interested in electronic gear; as a member of the shark/ray family they have the sense organs to feel electric impulses. So they often come close to divers to check out what going on. Luckily they are harmless and friendly.

Nikon D300, Sea & Sea housing, DX Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G lens, Sea & Sea YS-250 strobes. f/ 7.1, 1/160 sec, ISO 250.

 

Bryan: How do you find running a tour company vs. diving yourself?

Sven: If you would have asked me 20 years ago I could never have imagined doing this. You see documentaries on TV and think, wow, those people have supernatural powers. It’s not for normal people to go into the Arctic and dive. But it just happened one step at a time, and suddenly I was there. Sitting here in Greenland now feels so normal, but years ago it was something else…Greenland, glaciers and icebergs, something I thought I would never see. 

At a certain point you have to decide what you want to do and how you want to focus. When you work as a tour operator and you spend some weeks in the Maldives, some weeks in other places, it’s different than doing more specialized things. We focus on the Arctic and it might be an advantage that we don’t have to care about other destinations.

Atlantic Salmon and sea trout in a river in Norway. They were shy, so I put my Nikon in a pool and put the camera in auto mode, taking a picture every 15 seconds. In the end they were as close as I could wish.
Nikon D300, Sea & Sea housing, DX Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G lens. f/2.8, 1/40 sec, ISO 400.

 

Bryan: You’ve worked with film crews, documentary makers and BBC as well…?

Sven: When you ask people, everybody seems to have worked with the BBC. But we are not one of their main corporate partners. I am not the filmmaker or the filmer. What we do is provide support for everybody who asks us. For the Arctic, it’s mainly the bigger companies who can afford projects here. We have an interesting project starting in Greenland next year, and we just finished supporting an interesting 3 year project in Norway. It was really, really interesting because we got the space to scout new dive sites and do things we cannot do on normal trips. We are not focused on just film teams, but when they do the research on who can get them to the right places with diving support in the Arctic, there are only a few companies out there who can help. So, it’s natural they sometimes come and ask us to help them.

 

Monkfish/anglerfish, Norway
Olympus C7070 @ 6mm, Reefmaster strobe. f/8, 1/80 sec, ISO 80

Bryan: What’s the funniest/most interesting experience you’ve had on a coldwater dive trip?

Sven: That’s a very difficult question. At the end of each year I always have my personal highlights. Like last year in Svalbard when we had a big group of beluga whales all around our boat the whole day, and they were really playing with us more or less. I had some very interesting wildlife experiences in Svalbard. Last year was very interesting because we had one of my best trips in Svalbard…beluga whales, blue whales, walrus and other animals. 

Here working in Greenland last year when we were building huts for a new camp in Sermilikfjord was one of my personal highlights, because it was different from what we normally do. I was building houses there but the scenery around was just amazing. You were working on the roof of the hut and suddenly there was a humpback whale just 150 m away. 

In November we had people in the water with orca whales and they were 1-2 m away from the orca whales that came up. One guy said there was this big male orca whale looking at him face-to-face, and he thought he was filming with his GoPro, but he had actually pushed the button twice so he only got about 2 seconds where you can see the orca whale very close, and then nothing. 

Iceberg aerial in East Greenland in August. Usually it is not very smart to dive in an ice bay like this. However, after observing the icebergs around for a couple of hours and seeing they were all very stable, we decided to do it. Even though this is not the time of year with the best visibility, the water looks crystal clear.
DJI FC300S drone. f/2.8, 1/2200 sec, ISO 100.

 

Bryan: What do you shoot underwater? 

Sven: I have a Nikon D300 in a Sea & Sea housing with Seacam strobes. I don’t think I will change anything; we have some very good photographers joining the trips now, and I can just relax and enjoy their photos.

Bryan: Do you have any favourite coldwater photo subjects, especially for underwater?

Sven: I like one of the photos I’ve taken in Svalbard of walrus. It was not underwater but I was very close to them with a wide angle lens. I used a flash as it was late in the evening, around 11 pm. 

There was a walrus colony nearby. For our safety and to not disturb the animals we landed the zodiac quite far away from where the animals were resting. But there were some guys in the water as well, and they obviously got curious when the saw us walking up the beach towards the colony. So they came close to check us out. However, male walrus is one of the animals I am really careful with - they often tend to be aggressive, or at least they are not in a good mood :-).

Walruses, Svalbard.
Canon 5D Mark III, EF17-40mm f/4L USM lens, flash. f/20, 1/200 s, ISO 400.

My favorite underwater shots are from Greenland in winter – clear visibility (usually 30-60 m) and icebergs. Every iceberg is like a sculpture in a way…because they are melting and breaking…when you dive on an iceberg you know no one else will ever see this iceberg. It’s a dive site that will not exist after you’ve seen it. It also makes the pictures unique, because no one else will ever take those pictures.

You never know in advance about the dive site; every season, the ice creates new shapes, structures, opportunities and challenges. Often you can really play with the light falling through the ice. Also you should be prepared to see amazing macro life, including small shrimp living on the ice, magic comb jellies and the sea angel, a swimming nudibranch.

Last winter in Greenland we dove on an iceberg in the Tasiilaq harbor. The iceberg was frozen in the sea ice and covered with snow, so we did not realize at first that it was blue ice, which has the most interesting structures. Since I did the surface support I did not have much time for diving myself. It’s always amazing diving under ice and next to an iceberg. This one was more than 30 meters deep, which you would never believe when you just see it above surface.

Blue Iceberg, Tasiilaq harbor.
Nikon D300, Sea & Sea housing, DX Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G lens. f/2.8, 1/500 sec, ISO 320.

Bryan: You run a number of different trips. Do you have a favourite, and why?

Sven: I like the trips in Norway because they are close to home. When a trip is remote, there are many many things that have to work out…for example let’s take a liveaboard in Svalbard. We have the compressors and diving equipment and everything there. If anything breaks, you cannot get any spare parts. It’s nice running trips in Norway where I can just drive home to get tools or spare parts. But for the adventure…we’re starting to explore more remote areas in Greenland which you can only reach by boats for a few weeks in the summer…that’s something I’m really looking forward to. And Svalbard, Spitsbergen is a very interesting trip because there is so much wildlife. Basically every day you see interesting things. Last year we had a week trip and it was amazing what you saw there. I would say Greenland and Svalbard trips were what I liked most.

Making of a split shot: the colours of the ice are different every time. The ice has different contents of air or dirt, is compressed blue, white or clear, and the light changes by the hour. Split shots can be challenging due to a thin layer of fresh water that is often on the surface around icebergs, which can be quite blurry.
Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L lens @ 310 mm. f/9.0, 1/800 sec, ISO 100.

 

Bryan: You’ve mentioned climate change a few times. What do you see happening as a result of this?

Sven: I’ve seen a lot of things I was not expecting to see so quickly. I mean you can see the glaciers, the ice retreating, but also different species migrating into Arctic waters. For example in East Greenland, we are now seeing cod, mackerel, pilot whales and sperm whales, mostly from Icelandic waters. It will be interesting to see in the next years how that will affect the whole ecosystem in the Arctic. Another thing we are facing is just that the weather conditions are getting less stable, less predictable; we get more challenges. This is a problem all over the world, also in warm water destinations, but in the Arctic we can see that warmer water is affecting the whole marine ecosystem.

So that is maybe one more reason to experience this kind of extreme diving in the arctic; to understand and to document what we might lose in the future.

 

Diver with a deep sea jelly (Periphylla periphylla) in the Trondheimfjord.
Nikon D300, Sea & Sea housing, DX Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G lens, Sea & Sea YS-250 strobes. f/3.5, 1/250 sec, ISO 400. 

Bryan: What should people do if they want to get into Arctic diving? 

Sven: I could share a whole lot more than this, but here are a few of the most important things to think about:

  • Do your research - look for trips offering small groups
  • It can be very challenging, so be ready for personal challenges
  • Be well-trained with your gear
  • Do not always expect luxury
  • Don’t expect a large number of dives, like the 3-4 dives per day of tropical destinations
  • Be open to challenges, bad weather, itinerary changes and pitching in to help with moving equipment, dive site setup, etc.
  • Bring a pair of 3-finger wet gloves
  • Bring your macro setup!

Bryan: Great, thank you so much!

Sven: No problem!

Additional Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sven Gust was born in Bremen/Germany in 1978. He started diving when he was 17 and was always interested in exploring Nordic/Arctic areas. He moved to Norway later and started his own business as a tour operator. He sees photography, underwater and topside, mostly as a way to show other people how beautiful and amazing remote and cold places can be.  However, he was also voted as underwater photographer of the year twice in Norway.

He lives with his girlfriend and son north of Trondheim and spends a good part of the year working in East Greenland, Svalbard and northern areas of Scandinavia.

Check out his company Northern Explorers A/S at www.northern-explorers.com or follow on Facebook

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The Ultimate Underwater Photo Experience
By Boaz Samorai

Diving Cebu, Philippines

Boaz Samorai
The Ultimate Underwater Photo Experience

The Philippines is a must on every diver’s bucket list, especially underwater photographers. There are many reasons for this, but above all is the outstanding diversity of marine life to dive with.  

This is why I selected Cebu, Philippines, as the destination to conduct one of my underwater photography workshops last February. I knew for a fact the area would provide my students with a diverse, rich, and interesting photography experience. 

The workshop included 14 members of varying experience in underwater photography. The diving itinerary included dive sites known to provide the best underwater photography opportunities – including Negros, Apo, Sumilon, Malapascua, and Gato. 

My Photo System of Choice

My photo system of choice was the Sony a6500 mirrorless camera accommodated inside a Fantasea FA6500 Housing and a variety of Fantasea FML ports. Strobe lighting was supplied by a dual Ikelite DS-160 strobe system. 

My macro setup included the Sony 90mm f/2.8 macro lens, a lens capable of producing great super macro shots even without a wet lens, as well as a dedicated focus gear, which proved to be very useful since manual focus was often essential in order to capture the perfect the image. I was also equipped with the Fantasea AOI UCL-09F +12.5 super macro wet lens for extra magnification when shooting tiny subjects.

My wide-angle lens was the Canon 8-15mm f/4 L fisheye lens.

In order to avoid focus hunting in low light conditions, especially in dark sand dive sites, I used the Fantasea Radiant 3000F Light. To scan the area in search for small subjects, I selected the powerful narrow beam, and then switched to a red light whenever attempting to focus on the subject. The Radiant’s 120 degree wide beam mode also served me well for capturing videos, both macro and wide.

I installed the Fantasea UMG-02 LCD Magnifier on my housing for an enlarged, clear view of the camera screen. This proved to be especially useful in macro dives, as I was capable of better identifying the details and focus points on the screen. Furthermore, I mostly aim to shoot subjects from “eye level” and since small species are often found on the sand in this area. The tilted UMG-02 LCD Magnifier is very helpful when shooting from a low level in an upwards angle. 

Negros Island

Upon landing in Cebu, we headed south to Negros Island and arrived at the Atlantis Dumaguete resort, which is situated at the beach of Dauin on the Southeast coast of Negros. This is the perfect area to start a diving holiday. Most of the dives around the resort are carried out in sheltered bays, providing easy and comfortable diving conditions. It’s also an excellent macro photography destination.

Dauin is dived at easy entry sites that offer a varied selection of small marine animals rather than large reefs. When diving from shore, you’re most likely to notice many signs on the road indicating where the nearest dive beach is. At every site where diving is allowed, there is a ranger who monitors diving activities, making sure that there is no fishing and that the environment is well protected.  A small fee is collected from divers visiting these dive sites. When diving here, you’ll encounter quite a few artificial reefs established by the local dive operations. My personal recommendation would be to focus on the great macro opportunities this area has to offer.

The sand at Negros is very dark and serves as an appealing background for underwater images.  It is important to take into consideration that most of the special marine life is found scattered along the sand patches rather than on top of the reef.

Among the photogenic marine species that can be found at Dauin are a huge variety of nudibranchs, ghost pipefish, anemone crabs, mantis shrimps, blue ring octopuses, and my favorite – flamboyant cuttlefish.

Finding the Right “Critter Spotter”

During each dive, we separated to groups of 2-4 divers, to avoid overcrowding and fin impacts. We aimed to remain in the same general area to benefit from exchanging information with each other whenever finding anything unique.

The key for a good dive at Dauin is finding a good “critter spotter” capable of finding the very best photo subjects the area has to offer. Some of the local dive guides are known for being such good spotters that they’re booked months ahead by divers who book their services in advance. Once you’ve got your hands on an experienced critter spotter it’s important to follow a few guidelines to get the most out of your time with them. First and foremost, make sure to master your diving skills. The less your guide must deal with your buoyancy, equalizing difficulties, and any other diving difficulties, the more they will be able to focus on searching and finding exactly what you came for!

Second, make sure to inform your dive guide ahead of the dive which subjects you’re most interested in finding and photographing. There’s nothing more annoying than having to leave a rare tiny shrimp you’ve almost perfectly captured just to find out that the guide was so eager to show you a sea turtle…more so if you were geared with a super macro lens! 

It can even be a good idea to familiarize your guide with your photo gear. This is especially true for the lens options you have, so that they have a better understanding of the size of subjects you’re looking for and the distance you’re capable of shooting them from.

Finally, once you’ve nailed a shot of a subject they’ve found for you, don't forget to share your sense of success with them and thank them for a job well done. Rightfully rewarding a guide for their efforts is a great way get them excited before the next dive. Some of my spotters even asked me for those images we’ve captured together and shared them with their colleagues and friends with great pride!

The Art of Diving with a Group

When diving in a group, the challenge is to capture the images you want without being overrun and overwhelmed by the other divers. Naturally, whenever a good subject is found, every photographer wants to shoot it. Because everyone shares the same objective, it’s important to plan for the best solution for the group. For example, while one photographer is shooting a subject, others can shoot it at the same time from a different distance and angle. Alternatively, while one photographer is occupied with the subject, others can take advantage of the opportunity to look for different interesting subjects nearby. This is probably a better way of utilizing your time rather than hanging around and exerting pressure on the photographer, reducing the chances that anyone ends up with satisfying images. If you’ve found an additional point of interest, it will also surely motivate the photographer to finish shooting quicker and move on to the next spot...

Camera Settings for Negros Island

Since there’s so much to shoot on each dive, one does not want to run out of battery power during the dive. This is especially true in Negros. It’s important to reduce battery consumption as replacing batteries on a small boat or on shore during the breaks between dives is far from ideal. 

First, shooting with a higher ISO will allow less strobe power for each shot and reduce the chance of having to replace batteries after each dive. It will, however lower the quality of the photo and add noise to the image. Another way to avoid battery drain is to consider canceling the auto review of images on the screen and browse through images only when needed. Turn off your camera when searching for the next subject and only turn it back on when it's your turn to capture images. While waiting for your turn to capture a special subject, try setting up your frame on a nearby object so you’re ready when you reach the main attraction. 

Photographing Nudis

When photographing a Nudibranch, make sure that the focus point is set either on its front two rhinophores or on the exposed gills on its back. If photographing the Nudibranch from its front, try positioning your lens within a straight 90-degree angle so the front of the Nudibranch is focused and the rest of its body gradually blurs out. Another option is shooting them from the side, thus having more details of their body in focus. Whatever you do, avoid shooting them from the top. Take into consideration that some of the nudibranch species here are extremely small, such as the sheep nudibranch. The first time I was shooting one, I had no clue what I was looking at and only figured it out when reviewing the image on the camera screen and zooming in. I was more prepared for the next shot, that’s for sure…

Apo Island

After diving in Dauin, it is a good idea to visit a small nearby island – Apo. The cruise to Apo Island takes less than an hour on the local Banca boat, a great experience in itself. Apo Island is more exposed to currents, making the diving here quite different from the diving in Dauin. The reef is pretty healthy and offers some good wide angle photo opportunities. On top of that, the strong currents make macro photography more difficult when trying to focus on small marine species. All the more reason to get equipped for a wide-angle dive!

Apo Island offers a very nice reef with a wall that drops from about 10 to 50 meters (33-165 ft). The wall is very much alive and packed with corals. On Apo, you will find quite a few Banded Sea Kraits (sea snakes) swimming up and down along the wall. The sea snakes must surface in order to breath so try following them on their way down to the reef, increasing the chances one will stick around for a while. If you stay out of its way, it will scan the reef right next to you in search for pray, providing you with plenty of great photo opportunities. Try capturing the lovely reef in the background of the snake, perhaps with a nice sun ball on top. Other interesting subjects include groups of Razor Fish and underwater bubbles that appear as a result of volcanic activity. Apo Island is also a very good place to meet sea turtles, rays, frogfish and a variety of small critters, such as crabs and nudibranchs.

Whale Sharks in Oslob

The next stop on our trip was the Whale Shark site at Oslob, Cebu Island. Oslob is a small fishing village that became very famous due to the Whale Shark program that has been conducted here for the last 10 years or so. According to the stories, up until 20 years ago, the local fisherman of Oslob used to fish Whale Sharks. Once Whale Shark fishing was outlawed, in order to avoid accidently catching Whale Sharks in their nets, the fishermen began attracting them away from the fishing grounds by throwing krill to the water. This led to a situation in which Whale Sharks often frequent the Oslob Bay area in order to feed on the krill. Naturally, as soon as the rumor spread out, many tourists began arriving each day to swim and scuba dive with the largest fish in the world. Today the program is being run by the government. They now supervise the activity, tag, and document the Whale Sharks that visit the spot, and monitor how this affects their habits and migration.

As soon as the boat arrived at the site, a few Whale Sharks started swimming up to the boat, circling us and then swimming back to the small feeding Banca boat. 

The Whale Shark program dictates a few regulations that need to be followed. Divers must be accompanied by a licensed instructor. It is forbidden to use any artificial lights, such as strobes or video lights. Divers must keep a distance of at least 1 meter (3 ft.) from the Whale Shark and feeding Banca boat. 

Unlike the dark volcanic sand of Negros, the bottom here is composed of bright white sand that can be easily stirred up. The maximum depth is 10 meters (33 feet) with very poor visibility close to the bottom, but clarity close to the surface. The Whale Sharks don’t mind the divers at all. Most of the time they are busy taking turns feeding on the krill thrown to the water from the boats. In my opinion, it's amazing to see such a beautiful, huge yet gentle critter swimming next to you. However, the whole experience feels unnatural and lacks the surprise of running into a Whale Shark while swimming or diving in open water. After about half an hour, I found most of the divers on my group circling a small reef on the bottom or heading back to the boat.

 

As for photo tips, I strongly suggest using the widest lens possible here and shooting in shallow water for better light and visibility. At some point, try to get a split shot of the Whale Shark and the island in the background. I used the burst mode and spent a while working on this frame, leaving me with quite a few images to delete later… 

It’s also a good idea to set the shutter speed above 1/250 to avoid motion blur as you’ll be shooting without a strobe. 

My personal point of view on the Oslob experience is that although we are interfering with nature and feeding Whale Sharks is a bad habit, it's still much better than what used to happen here. It was only 20 years ago when these gentle giants were slaughtered and sold. If we ask the locals to protect the marine life, we should probably support other ways for them to make a living. The sooner the locals figure out that they can benefit from the well being of marine animals, the sooner they will be motivated to protect them. I hope one day this will include an end to whale shark feeding!

 

Sumilon Island 

Sumilon Island is about 30 minutes away from Oslob. It's a great diving destination with a beautiful reef and a good place to meet some pelagic marine animals coming in from the deep. We had two dives on both the Eastern and Western sides of the island. The highlights were a huge number and variety of sea anemones and clown fish, as well as large schools of fish that came in from deep water, close to the reef. 

Here I used the Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens – especially for CFWA (Close Focus Wide Angle) shots of abundant corals formation and the colorful anemones. At one point, a Blacktip Reef Shark passed by, but it was too far for our wide-angle lenses.

As we were gearing up for the second dive, we noticed a huge dark blotch coming towards us in the water. We began guessing what it is – a whale shark? A school of mackerel? Upon entering the water, it turned out to be a very large school of jacks that circled us for a few minutes, allowing us to photograph them from every possible angle. 

 Malapascua 

After a nice visit to the waterfalls and the warm natural volcanic lakes of Cebu, we headed up north for a new adventure at the island of Malapascua. We had three objectives in mind: to dive with the magnificent Thresher sharks, to meet the most beautiful fish in the sea – the mandarin fish, and to find the 'holy grail' of the Philippines – the pigmy seahorse!

When traveling from Negros to Malapascua, dedicate a full day for the trip. This includes a drive up to Dumaguete pier, a ferry ride to Cebu, and crossing the island from south to north. This is followed by another ferry to the small island Malapascua. Trust me, it’s worth it! For my group of divers, this was, by far, the best part of the trip.

Thresher Sharks at Monad Shoal

After checking into the dive center, we setup our equipment and prepared ourselves for an early morning wake-up. At 04:45 am, a group of half-awake divers gathered for a short briefing, followed by an hour-long boat ride out to Monad Shoal to watch the sunrise from below the surface. The reason for such an early wake up (and there should be a good one when you’re on holiday!) was to make it on time to meet the rare thresher sharks that often visit Monad Shoal around sunrise.

Monad Shoal is an underwater mountain rising to about 26 meters (85 feet) at its summit. It’s best to dive here with Nitrox to allow for a longer bottom time and a higher chance of meeting the sharks. We were very lucky and were visited by two sharks coming up to a cleaning station, with a third one swimming at a distance not far behind! 

This is one hell of a photographic challenge. Strobes are not permitted when shooting the sharks. Considering the depth and lack of ambient light at this early time of the day, it is quite dark. Based on this, I chose to shoot only videos on this dive.

Gato Island

After successfully meeting our main goal for the day, we boarded for two dives at Gato island. It turned out to be one of the best dive sites we’ve visited so far!  During the dives we spotted frog fish, seahorses, white tip reef sharks, a very shy cat shark, loads of crabs, shrimps, nudibranchs and moray eels – all of which was spread over a beautiful and colorful reef complete with a cavern that allows a swim through from one side of the island to the other!

The Search for Pygmy Seahorses

The next goal was to find a Pigmy Seahorse. Following advice we got from the Evolution dive center, we headed out for a dive at Deep Slope, where we easily found a pigmy seahorse. The seahorse was too small for most of the photographers to get a decent picture of it, except those equipped with a good macro lens and great eyesight!

Gear

To capture a worthy image of the Pigmy Seahorse, you must first have great macro capabilities, meaning a quality macro lens. I used my Sony 90mm macro lens together with the Fantasea AOI UCL-09F +12.5 super macro wet lens for extra magnification. If using a focus light, it’s a good idea to use a red color beam to avoid scaring off the Seahorse.

Angles

There are several angles you can use to shoot the Seahorse. If shooting parallel to the sea fan, you can get a nice side view image. However, if you’re lucky enough to have the sea horse seated towards the edge of the sea fan, you can capture it from an upfront angle.

Finding a Focal Point

To find the seahorse on your screen so you can focus on it, try mentally marking some unique elements next to the seahorse that can be found when looking through the camera screen. If that doesn’t help, focus on the sea fan, shoot, and hope for the best! To increase your chances of having it focused in the frame, it’s best to position yourself as parallel as possible to the sea fan and to use a small aperture, keeping as many elements as possible in focus. 

Upon leaving the seahorse, we also encountered some frogfish, mantis shrimp, and a school of striped eel catfish.

The World’s Most Beautiful Fish

I decided to dedicate the last dive of the trip to the chance of witnessing mandarin fish mate. Every evening, during the very last moments of day light, mandarin fish tend to gather in search of a mating partner. We were determined to be there to see it …

We descended as the sun was setting at the best mandarin site of the island. When we spotted a mandarin fish near a few table corals, we circled around the coral head in anticipation for the show. We used only red light and the fish didn't seem to mind as the courting dance began. For almost an hour, a male mandarin fish and two females were attempting to impress each other in a series of fast movements. At some point, two of these fish began swimming together out of the corals and eventually mated in front of our eyes. It was an amazing sight and all of us divers were screaming in happiness when the much anticipated moment finally arrived! 

Conclusions

Diving in the Cebu area is a wonderful value-for-money experience for advanced photographers who wish to expand and upgrade their photo archives. Marine life and seascapes around this area are diverse, unique, and interesting. There are many opportunities to polish your photography skills in a controlled environment featuring both macro and wide-angle subjects. No doubt I’ll be back in these waters for another photography workshop soon!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Boaz Samorai started pursuing his ocean-related career at the young age of 15 in Eilat, Israel. 25 years later, he’s a PADI Course Director and Technical Diver; chief equipment test diver for Fantasea Line; dive tour leader for WildDive, Big Animals, and Dive and More; and a conductor of underwater photography courses and specialties. Leading dive expeditions frequently, Boaz had the opportunity to capture images in the waters of quite a few revered destinations around the world. The way he sees it, he's simply taking on the mission of showing the world the wonders that await below the surface, "so we can appreciate, respect, and protect this fragile environment". For more of his work, visit his website: https://www.aquasamorai.com/

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12 days diving on an iceberg under the sea ice of East Greenland

Frozen Perspectives: A story of Greenlandic Ice, Critters, and Ice Diving Lingo

12 days diving on an iceberg under the sea ice of East Greenland

Note: I have provided some key ice-diving definitions for non-ice-divers, in Italics.

Cold and dark were the first two words that came to my mind as I dropped beneath the Tasiilaq Harbor sea ice for my first under-the-ice dive on an iceberg. This quickly turned into the Ice Diver's Litany, on high-speed repeat.

Ice Diver's Litany - It's cold. It's dark. My drysuit with all these undergarments is so restrictive. My hands are cold. My face is cold. Why am I doing this? Why aren't I on a Liveaboard in Raja Ampat, where I could be wearing 5 lbs instead of 35 lbs? Is it just me or is it hard to breathe? Why am I doing this? 

I had done ice diving before, and iceberg diving, but never together. I was breathing hard and dealing with nerves, as it was my first ice dive in over a year. It didn't help that the water was about as cold as it gets; -2 C (~28 F). As I got my bearings sorted out, got my safety rope untangled and took a real look at the iceberg, I realized I had just entered a breathtakingly beautiful world. Or maybe it was just the cold, pressing in from all sides, that was taking my breath away. Probably a bit of both.

What was I Doing?

I was on a two-week April iceberg diving trip in Tasiilaq, East Greenland, run by Sven and Anja of Northern Explorers. This was very remote diving; I got there via an international flight to Reykjavik, a small plane to Kulusuk, and a helicopter to Tasiilaq. The dive site was a short ride by snowmobile from the edge of town out onto the sea ice.

Why dive icebergs in April, instead of the summer? Amazing visibility. I had been on a previous trip in the summer, which was a fantastic experience. However, due to all of the plankton in the water, visibility was not good enough to really take in or photograph the full scale of the icebergs. In April, the surface water is still covered in a layer of sea-ice from the winter, which cuts off most of the light. This, combined with the frigid water temperatures, limits most of the plankton and algae growth. 

The trip itinerary included a mix of dives in the harbor and in a neighboring fjord, but due to poor snow, ice and visibility conditions, the group decided it was not worth leaving the harbor. Instead, I spent the two weeks I was there diving on one iceberg trapped in the sea ice in Tasiilaq harbor, and it sure was amazing.

Trip itinerary: The “ideal plan” for the trip, made months in advance, before seeing the actual ice conditions and iceberg locations, and assuming lovely springtime weather in Greenland. Similar to what you get on a tropical liveaboard trip, except that it’s nearly impossible to stick to. 

Equipment Issues

So, back to my first dive. I was breathing a bit raggedly, was over-weighted and unbalanced, and after a jaunt back to the surface to adjust some of my equipment, about 10 minutes later my regulator started free-flowing and I finished the dive. 

Free-flow: when too much of a good thing turns out to be a bad thing.

I was using a 12L steel tank with two valves, allowing use of two separate 1st stage regulators. On one 1st stage I had my main 2nd stage and pressure transmitter, while on the other 1st stage I had my octo, my BCD inflator, drysuit inflator and backup pressure gauge. That way if one 1st stage went, I could breathe well off the other 1st stage until I could get back to the icehole.

Icehole: a hole cut into the ice to allow people whose survival instincts are seriously compromised to jump into frigid water wearing dive gear. The more prolonged the time spent under the ice, the crazier and more addicted they become, unless they stay under too long and run out of air. 

 

My second dive, I took out some weights and rearranged things for better trim. I tried going on my octo instead of my main reg, as a professional photographer in the group had suggested it based on his experience. The octo lasted for a bit, and I got to start exploring the iceberg. Then it started to free-flow just a little bit. 

Octo: the cheaper 2nd stage regulator that you use for a backup from your more expensive main 2nd stage. Since its cheapness makes it harder to breathe on, it actually works better for ice diving than your main since it is more resistant to free flows.

Then I heard a hissing that sounded like a real free-flow, and found myself going up towards the ice. I realized my low pressure inflator hose for my BCD was frozen open and was making the hissing noise, The hissing was joined by what sounded like a squealing oink. I checked to make sure there were no angry pigs in the vicinity and then figured out that my BCD was fully inflated and releasing excess air through the pressure relief valve, and that was making the noise. I tried dumping and disconnecting my BCD as I bounced against the ice above me, and after a bit of flailing about, the hissing stopped. 

Ice-bouncing: an undesirable condition where air is being continually added to your drysuit or BCD. Before you know it, you find yourself in a cloud of bubbles with your head bouncing against the ice.

I went back to the surface, got the hot water treatment for my octo, and the free-flow stopped.

Hot water treatment: fixing a free-flowing regulator by turning off the air and pouring hot water onto it, before resuming the dive. Sometimes you may find yourself half-hoping the treatment fails so that you can just end your dive and warm up, but half-disappointingly, it always seems to work. 

More Issues

OK. Back we go. I went back into the icehole and around the side of the iceberg, with my regulator beginning to free-flow again. It was not a bad free-flow, so I decided I would stay shallow and within sight of the icehole, and keep going. I even managed to take a few photos. Then the octo got worse, blowing lots of bubbles in my face, so I decided to switch regulators to go back to the surface. As soon as it was out of my mouth it really started free-flowing in earnest, so I booked it back to the hole on my main reg. I had lots of air to spare, but at the rate it was going there was no point in hanging around under the ice. 

By the time I hauled out on the ice, I was cold and exhausted, and that was that for day 1. 

Hauling out on the ice: When an ice diver with frozen hands in an advanced stage of pain or post-pain numbness feebly claws and flops their way onto the edge of the icehole, using any technique their numbed mind can think of to get all their gear and 30+ lbs of weight out of the water. Except in cases of extreme physical strength, this action is always accompanied by assorted gasping, rasping, moaning and grunting noises of varying stridency, and sometimes choice use of expletives.

Day 2, we dove a second dive site that was up against some interesting ice formations. I was hoping to be done with regulator issues, but I never made it more than about 30 seconds under the ice without a free flow. I turned both of my second stages down, switched back and forth between regulators and gave them both the hot water treatment, but to no avail. Then, two fellows on snowmobiles came over and told us that a dogsled race was coming across the ice right next to our dive site. So, we had to move back to the iceberg dive site. Diving on the iceberg, I went on my octo again, and managed the free-flow for as long as I could. I was actually able to get decently comfortable with my buoyancy and trim, and check out the iceberg in closer detail. Once the free-flow got bad enough, I ended the dive.

Problem Fixed!

Day 3, we had a storm and were snowed out, so we had a rest day. Sven suggested I take the hoses off my 1st stages and open all the plugs, to see if there was any water inside. Lo and behold, the 1st stage I was running my octo, BCD and dry suit inflator from had some drops of water in it. A-ha! Found the culprit! I must have gotten some water in there on the first day, probably when switching between tanks, due to valve snow

Valve snow: snow which accumulates in the tank valve, especially for DIN tanks, either from blowing snow, the tank being slung into a snowbank, or from snow kicked up while the tank is on a sled being towed out to the dive site by snowmobile.

Testing the Limits of my Undergarments

Day 4, I got to the iceberg dive site full of optimism. I was the first one to be dropped off, so I went about clearing the icehole of accumulated snow and ice from the last couple of days. I used a shovel to scrape snow away and could see the nice rectangular shape of the icehole. Then, I stepped forward to reach further into the middle of the icehole and had a sinking realization.

Sinking realization: when you step onto a patch of snow and ice that you think is solid, but that turns out to be a thin layer covering a recessed part of the icehole that you forgot about. Before you can even get in a good “uggggh” you find yourself half-submerged in -2 C seawater. You immediately flail your way out of the icehole as ungracefully as possible and lie gasping on the ice thinking “how could this have happened?” over and over again.

After coming to grips with my sinking realization, I realized I had a real gong show on my hands.

Gong show: A situation generally characterized as having gone off-the-rails. In this example, it involved standing on a tarp in the middle of the sea-ice, taking off your boots and all your undergarments, wringing them out as best you can, and then putting them back on so you can still do your diving for the day.

Now that my undergarments were wet, I needed to get them out of the wind, but my drysuit had not arrived on the snowmobile yet. I also could not go back to clearing out the icehole (though my sinking realization had cleared out a good portion of it) as one of my boots was full of water, and I did not want to get my wrung-out socks wet(ter). So I just stood on the tarp in my one dry boot and a semi-wet sock and waited for the snowmobile to return, feeling like a real Grade “A” Genius.

Grade “A” Genius: Someone who did something so inept and downright stupid that you can’t help but be somewhat impressed by what they managed to pull off.

Once everything arrived and I explained my situation, I got into my drysuit and prepared for diving. I was very careful when setting up my regs to remove all valve snow, and even toweled everything off before installing. I got in the water, running on my octo. 

The dive was magic! Well, magic with one foot slightly colder than the other. The octo was solid with no free-flowing, and I made a 33 minute dive without any issues. And I got some great photos, especially once I got my breathing under control and stopped getting big clouds of bubbles in my upwards-facing photos. This is what I came out here for!

While I waited for the second dive, I suffered a strong case of iceblock foot on my wet foot.

Iceblock foot: when your foot feels like a block of ice, but still has just enough feeling that you can very sluggishly wiggle your toes around and feel a bit of pain. Due to the oncoming numbness, walking around feels like what you’d imagine if would feel like to walk around with a block of ice for a foot.

I swapped to a dry sock for the second dive, and it was even better. More comfort, better buoyancy, better breathing, better photos! 45 minutes - more than long enough to thoroughly freeze my fingers. And even more exciting was finishing up for the day, getting back to the house and thawing out my iceblock foot in the shower.

Hunting for Bugs and Jellies

I spent the next couple of dive days focused on macro shooting. First up was going for little amphipods which live in the iceberg, and then cool comb jellies floating around. I had issues with mask fogging, autofocus hunting, my BCD slowly inflating itself, and a leaking wrist seal, but managed to sort everything out and get some fun shots! We also dealt with the worst day of the trip, a very wet mushy day, and then a day with some pretty heavy horizontal snow.

Mushy day: when the temperature is a couple of degrees above freezing, and the weather alternates between giant, wet snowflakes that melt on contact, and big rain drops that get driven at a 45 degree angle by the wind. Soon enough, everything becomes wet and waterlogged, and everyone can't stop smiling about how awesome it is.

Horizontal snow: a wonderful weather condition in which a howling wind blows small, sharp flakes of snow horizontally across the ice, so that you need to cover your eyes if you’re facing into the wind. If you are good at seeing the positives, you will enjoy this more than a mushy day, because although everything gets pelted and covered with snow, things don't get miserably wet in the same way.

There were also lots of really cool nudibranchs in the area, which other people saw while I was hunting around for macro subjects, and which I saw when I was using my wide-angle gear. Of course. So, unfortunately no photos, but you'll have to trust me that they were really cool.

Changing Conditions

The ice was melting and the visibility dropping as we got into the second week. Each day there seemed to be more particulates in the water, a thicker murky layer of freshwater sitting at the surface, and more jellyfish around the iceberg. But with new conditions come new opportunities as well, and the opening up of clear water between the iceberg and the sea ice created new amazing photo opportunities.

We had some new divers join the group, and they got to go through some of the same equipment issues as we had. Now, with lots of free-flow and equipment issue experience under my belt, I dealt with new occurrences without breaking a sweat (and yes, you are right, it is very hard to break a sweat in -1 C water). New free-flows were just a minor nuisance; once a reg started to hiss, I just switched regs for a bit, being sure to face the offending reg down and hold it there until it thawed. A second bout of ice-bouncing was taken with aplomb, though it was hard to get used to that oinking squeal my BCD emits.

One of the new divers was a professional photographer who I got to do some fun dive modeling for (so we now had 2 professionals in the group). He took some phenomenal photos, which gave me some new ideas. And I also had my first experience of tea hands.

Tea hands: a situation wherein your wet gloves become filled with tea and you warm your hands up in said tea. This happens because in your dazed post-dive state you thought the thermos of tea was the thermos of hot water, excitedly poured it into your wet gloves and then shoved your hands in to get them thawed.

With all of the jellyfish, I took a very large amount of photos, trying to get a cool shot of a jelly next to the iceberg. It was more difficult than you would expect, because the particulates made lighting difficult, and any movements in the water near the jellyfish caused them to become misshapen (and who wants a photo of a misshapen jellyfish?). After many hand-numbing attempts, I was finally able to line up a really nice one.

Fun with Kelp

I was talking with both of the professional photographers, and getting lots of great tips. One of them, Franco, took some great photos of the iceberg with kelp in front of it, so I spent a couple of dives trying to line that up. It was tough, as I was having difficulty lighting from the sides in a way that was even and also avoided too much backscatter. Compounding the issue was a creeping visibility problem.

Creeping visibility problem: when you have to lie down in the kelp to take a photo, and doing so stirs up sediment sitting on and under the kelp. What seems to be a barely noticeable current then pushes the sediment forward and, conveniently, into your photo.

I combatted the problem by using my best kelp crawling and kelp hopping techniques.

Kelp crawling: slowly edging yourself forward through the kelp, trying not to touch or disturb anything while staying ahead of the creeping visibility problem.

Kelp hopping: using proper buoyancy techniques with frog and helicopter kicks to lift off of one bed of kelp and move forward into one closer to the iceberg, with minimal sediment disturbance, to begin anew the kelp crawling process in a fresh zone.

Split Shot Experimentation

As we got towards the end of the trip and the surface water cleared up more and more, we decided to take a shot at a split shot. The freshwater layer at the surface made it quite difficult, as any time it got disturbed it made things quite blurry. But I was still able to get something decent.

Challenges

This was a very challenging trip in a number of ways. Here are some of the top challenges for underwater photographers.

  • Cold hands and loss of dexterity - 7mm 3-finger gloves cut down dexterity a lot compared to warm water gear. But they still worked fine with everything on my housing. The problem was when my hands started getting cold, then my dexterity really took a hit, significantly slowing down my ability to make adjustments
  • Remoteness - if something broke or was not working, or if I forgot to bring something, I could not buy my way out of my problem. Instead, improvisation was required (for example, rolled up toilet paper instead of desiccant)
  • Cold drains battery life - I had to open my housing and change my battery after every dive. That was hard when it was snowing. But it made me very thankful for my Nauticam vacuum leak protection system! Keeping my rig in my AO cooler bag at least kept it off the ice and a bit insulated, which I think also helped.
  • Mask fogging - mask fogging seemed worse than normal. A couple of times I defogged and rinsed my mask only to have my mask freeze over with ice. Once in the water the ice melted but I had some fogging issues.
  • Regulator free-flows - I had to get used to dealing with them and swapping regs on the go, even after turning my regs down all the way (so they were harder to breathe). I also dried out each tank valve with my microfiber towel before installing my regs, to be sure I kept water out of my first stages. 
  • BCD inflator getting stuck open - this happened to me twice. I found it safer and better to just use my drysuit for buoyancy control, and have my BCD only as a backup in case of a dry suit flood. This is why Sven tells us not to go too deep - you never know what could happen with gear in really cold conditions.
  • Weather was very unpredictable so I had to get used to adjusting to changing conditions and changing plans
  • We only had a couple of dives per day, and I didn't last longer than about 45 minutes for any one (though our crazy professional photographer Alex did 90 minute dives)
  • Don't expect luxury! The food was great, but that was due to Anja's excellent cooking, not what was available in the grocery store. Lots of frozen veggies, some local meats, and some simple pastas and other things.

Key Tips for Arctic Underwater Photography

I could write a lot about what I have learned through all of my ice diving adventures leading up to this, but that's not the focus of this article. So I will leave you with a couple of key tips.

The most important thing for underwater photography in arctic waters is keeping your hands warm for as long as possible. Here is what I have learned about that:

  • 3-finger 7mm neoprene wet gloves are warmer than dry gloves with liners, and they give you enough dexterity to easily use your housing. This holds true in my own experience, as well as with other experienced divers and with Sven (Alex was using 3-finger wet gloves on his 90 minute dives).
  • You need a really warm undergarment to keep your core temp up, which will help keep your hands warm. For me (and a few others on the trip) the 4th Element Halo was amazing. I use it on top of a layer of 200 g/m2 Merino wool and Xerotherm top and bottom
  • Fill your wet gloves with hot water in between dives and right before you get in the water. Magic
  • Don't get wet gloves which are too tight (or wear too many layers of socks). If your hands (or feet) are getting squeezed by your gear, your body will reduce blood flow to them, making them even colder. 

Another very important topic is weather and travel planning.

  • Especially for any trips in spring, fall and winter, you never know what the weather is going to be like
  • Arctic weather can change week to week, but it also changes year to year. Sven observed very different April weather a few years ago when running trips. Now conditions are less predictable and more likely to change from year to year.
  • Try to avoid making too tight of a travel schedule. Give yourself lots of time for airport transfers in case your flights are delayed, and it's a good idea to have a buffer of a day at the start and a day at the end. Try not to have something important you have to get back to right away, so that if you are delayed you won't miss it.
  • If you really want to get great photos and can afford the time and money, book yourself for two weeks instead of one. All it takes is one storm to knock out a few days of your week-long trip. Two weeks gives you a lot more time to get comfortable in the water, plan your shots and get some nice weather.
  • All of the above might not apply; you may be able to book a very tight travel schedule for one week, get amazing conditions and never have any problems. But you never know!

Conclusion

This was one of the best trips I have ever done. The numerous gear malfunctions and two episodes of ice-bouncing, although not the most fun at the time, are great experience to have under my belt if something really serious does occur underwater. Although I would not have thought I would enjoy doing 17 dives in a row at the same dive site, that is exactly what we did here, and it was awesome. I actually left wanting to do still more. Why? Because it meant that we could take the time to scout and plan out shots, organize things with a dive model, and really explore all kinds of fun angles and perspectives. We could take shots, look at them on the computer and then plan out how to improve the next day. It also allowed time to check out interesting macro life and to take advantage of changing water and light conditions. 

But the most important reason for spending two weeks in a place like Greenland was the highly unpredictable weather conditions. When diving in the arctic, you never know if you are going to have a week of almost perfect weather, a good run of decent days, or a bad stretch of snow and poor weather. I had a total of 9 diving days of mixed conditions and 2 snow days where we didn't leave the house we were staying at. Some people were delayed getting their helicopter ride out of Tasiilaq, but all of my flights and connections went flawlessly. So keep in mind that the only sure thing about weather during an arctic trip is that it will be unpredictable.

Finally, as I left Greenland I got one final reminder of the unspoiled beauty of this place, out the window of the helicopter.

Thanks for reading and I hope this gives you some ideas. If you have any comments or questions about cold water diving, gear, arctic trip planning or anything else then drop me a line at bryan@uwphotographyguide.com. Or even if you are thinking about doing something like this in the future - I would be happy to share my experiences with building up my coldwater skills, choosing the right gear and choosing the right trip.

Also check out Northern Explorers if you want to learn more about the Greenland trips offered, as well as other awesome arctic expeditions.

Composition, Post-Processing and the Stories Behind the Photos

I wrote a follow-up article about some of the thought that went into these photos, as well as many lessons I learned about technique, composition and post-processing. Check it out here: Frozen Perspectives: Behind the Scenes on Greenland Iceberg Photo Composition and Post-Processing.

Gear Links

Shoot me an email (bryan@uwphotographyguide.com) if you plan on trying out any of these items or have any questions about the gear I used. My OM-D E-M1 rig is what I learned underwater photography on and I would love to chat about my experience and what you might be looking for! 

Additional Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryan is an assistant editor for the Underwater Photography Guide. He loves any activity that takes him out into nature, and is especially fond of multi-day hiking trips, road trips to National Parks, and diving. Any kind of diving. He discovered the joy of underwater photography on a Bluewater trip to the Sea of Cortez, and after "trial and erroring" his way to some level of proficiency, has been hooked ever since. He has not done nearly as much diving as he would like, but has so far taken underwater photos in a diverse range of places, including BC, the Sea of Cortez, Greenland/Iceland, Northern Norway and the Galapagos. 

After working as a chemical engineer at a major oil & gas corporation for 9 years, Bryan finally had enough (and it didn't help that he was living in landlocked Edmonton, Canada with frigid winter temperatures and no real diving to speak of). He and his girlfriend decided to pack up their things and travel the world; they will start their journey mid-2018 and visit a number of great dive locations along the way. He is very excited to expand his underwater photography experience and skills while experiencing new cultures and exciting parts of the world. Though he is also a bit worried about the following equation that has so far defined his dive travels: Corporate job ($$) = Dive travel ($) + Underwater Photography ($). Taking away the left side of that equation seems like it might put things a bit out of balance. But as he reasons, what's the point in life if you can't take some big risks and have some fun along the way?

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Insights from the dynamic world of shark photography
By Debbie Wallace

One Shark Diver's Perspective: Caged vs Open Water Shark Diving

Debbie Wallace
Insights from the dynamic world of shark photography

As most people are aware, there are a myriad of current and on-going debates about shark diving in general. Does diving with sharks alter their behavior? Does baiting sharks alter their behavior? Should divers be hand-feeding sharks? As you might expect, there are always two sides to every debate and, certainly, everyone is entitled to an opinion. Depending on which side of the fence (or cage) you find yourself, this article is not intended to change anyone’s opinion on shark diving in general. Rather, the purpose of this article is to illustrate one shark diver’s perspective on some of the thought processes and differences in preparation and execution that an underwater photographer might encounter diving with sharks either inside or outside a shark cage.

I live in South Florida, which means I have the opportunity to dive with sharks any time I want to. This diving is typically done in open water, without cages. I have had encounters with many shark species in these waters, and most of my shark diving experience has been without a cage. However, I have also gone cage diving, as that’s the only good way to get up close and personal with great white sharks in a safe and controlled environment. Fortunately, there happens to be a world-class great white shark location quite close to the US; Guadalupe, Mexico.

Guadalupe Great White Shark Close-up

Inside the Cage

I have been on a few exclusively caged shark diving trips in Guadalupe, Mexico with the Nautilus fleet. When compared to open water shark diving, diving in a shark cage has its own unique set of thought processes and differences in preparation for the dives. First of all, diving in Guadalupe is based upon a hookah system, where divers breathe surface-supplied air. In the cages, divers wear a harness laden with lead, which is supplied by the boat and is crucial to keep them firmly planted on the cage floor. As such, divers are only required to bring their own mask, wetsuit, hood gloves and booties, so packing is much easier with regard to scuba gear.

Packing underwater camera gear, however, can present more of a challenge when preparing for a caged trip. How close will the sharks be? How clear will the water be? Should I use a fisheye or rectilinear lens? Do I bring my 4”, 6” or 8” dome port? How far apart are the bars of the cages? I found that divers tend to bring a lot of camera gear with them but wind up using one lens and dome port. My personal choice for the caged diving I did was a Panasonic 7-14/F 4.0 lens and a Zen 6” glass dome port – large enough to capture the action yet small enough to stay of other photographers' photos. 

Guadalupe Great White Shark

Being submerged in a cage brings its own challenges as well. Most cages hold around 3-4 divers.  While that does not sound like a lot of people, think about 3-4 divers with their respective camera rigs, and everyone trying to move around to jockey for the best photo opportunities. It can get very crowded in the cages and it is best to remember to practice good underwater photographer niceties. The cage bars can also hold some pitfalls, in that you are having to compose your shots either through the bars or, if possible, between the bars. And visibility can sometimes become less-than-stellar, rendering photos nearly impossible.

On the flip side, however, there are some wonderful positives about cage diving with sharks. It is generally much safer diving within the confines of a shark cage rather than in open water. It is a much more closely controlled environment with respect to dive times and depth, and there is usually a dive guide or DM present. With cage diving, there is typically a dive schedule on which you can count, so you can be assured of getting the bottom time you want. You can also choose which depth of cage you want to enter, either surface or 30’-40’, which allows you to plan for more consistent images with respect to depth/water column color.  

Guadalupe Great White Shark

 

Join us for an opportunity to experience cage diving with Great White sharks!

Great White Sharks Photo Workshop in Guadalupe 2018

September 11-16, 2018

Price:

Triple Occupancy $2,935

Stateroom $3,250

Superior Suite $3,775

Premium Suite $4,405

Single Occupancy $4,062


Open Water Shark Diving

As I mentioned before, those of us living in South Florida have the opportunity to dive with sharks at any time, primarily in open water and without cages. On a moment’s notice anyone can jump onto a dive boat that heads out to the international waters of the Atlantic, where they can interact with a number of different shark species, depending on the time of year. Common encounters include hammerheads, tigers, lemons, bulls, nurse, reef, duskies, sandbars, silkies, and sometimes we get lucky and an occasional great white, whale shark or oceanic white tip swims by.

A typical day on one of these charters goes something like this: after all your initial preparation for the dive day, you arrive at the boat and get your scuba gear set up and find a spot for your camera rig. Initially there’s lots of controlled chaos where gear is strewn about, but eventually everything finds its own place. Once the dive gear is set, there is usually a very detailed boat briefing by the captain/mate as to the boat, safety, events of the day, etc. Then there is usually a dive briefing as to the dive site and the type of sharks we might expect to see. There is usually a list of “do’s and don’ts” that is reviewed each time with shark diving – no bright colors, no white tanks, no exposed skin, hoods/gloves mandatory, etc. In South Florida, trips to the dive site can be lengthy so there is ample time to tweak your camera and/or scuba gear on the ride out. This also provides time to plan your dive as well as anticipating the images you might like to capture.  

My rig consists of an Olympus OM-D EM-1 MKII, Nauticam housing, Zen 6” glass dome port and dual Inon Z240s. When doing open water shark diving, I vacillate between my Panasonic 7-14mm and Panasonic 8mm fisheye. I sometimes look ahead at the NOAA forecast to see what weather conditions are going to be for that day, then decide if I want to chance using the 8mm. When using the 8mm lens, the sharks have to come in close to get decent images, but when they do come in close, the 8mm far outperforms the 7-14mm, in my opinion. Typically, though, I go with the 7-14mm to be safe. 

Lemon Shark

Factors for Success

There are quite a lot of factors to consider when going on an open water shark dive without a cage. First of all, things like weather, current, visibility, seasickness, buoyancy control, the number/experience level of the divers, the number/experience level of underwater photographers, the number/experience level of underwater videographers, and number and species of sharks can all play a role as to whether or not you have a successful day with images.   

For example, if you are on a dive with divers who do not have a lot of experience diving with sharks, it can be frustrating when you get set up for a gorgeous incoming tiger shark face portrait straight on, and a newer, less experienced diver shoves his/her GoPro in front of your dome port to catch the action (and of course the reverse is true as well.) Another not-so-fun scenario is this: the dive is on a wreck in the sand, and all divers are kneeling in the sand waiting for the sharks to arrive. However, there is a ripping current pushing all the divers everywhere thereby kicking up the sand making photos nearly impossible. Or the worst scenario of all: no sharks show up that day! Each of these factors plays a role in getting the images you want, and some of them are not entirely within your control.

Tiger Shark

…and more challenges...

However, while I think that diving with sharks in open water affords us more leeway and freedoms, it can also present more challenges.  As mentioned earlier, having that tiger shark follow you through the water column to the surface, you have to be cognizant of the need to change camera settings in an instant as you turn 360 degree circles in the water following the movements of the shark(s). Now, for that sunburst shot you have been planning all dive long, the ISO, f/stop and shutter speeds are completely different than that taken for a shot in the blue. Additionally, not only do you need to change the camera settings, but the strobe settings and position as well.   

Therefore, an open water shark diver has to be keen on the ever-changing environment of having one’s head on a proverbial swivel and being able to make the necessary changes in body position/buoyancy, camera settings, strobe settings/position and being mindful of the shark’s position. Another challenge with open water shark diving is that it is so exhilarating diving with sharks that sometimes it is difficult to remember to watch your bottom time and manage your no deco limits with all the nonstop action around you.  There is one thing for sure that every shark diver can agree - it certainly is a dynamic process diving with sharks in open water, and one needs to be skillful at a multitude of tasks.

Hammerhead Shark

The Verdict

To summarize, I am definitely a shark diving advocate, both in open water and in a cage. There are pitfalls and positives for both, as most divers will attest, and one is not better than the other – they are just different. There are different underwater photo opportunities to be gleaned from diving in open water with sharks than in cages, but this also brings more inherent risks. Diving with sharks either inside or outside of a cage takes differing degrees of preparation, both topside and at depth.  

Every diver knows that when we enter the underwater realm, we are in an environment in which we are a visitor. We take chances simply by breathing underwater and when diving with sharks, we compound that risk significantly. Sharks are one of the underwater apex predators and deserve our respect and admiration. They also deserve our help in presenting them in a much softer light in our underwater images and videos, which will help to dispel the evil media-driven myths about sharks. 

Upcoming Trips with Exciting Shark Photo Opportunities

Additional Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Debbie Wallace is an avid diver, underwater photographer and photojournalist.  She has been diving for decades and finally took up underwater photography in 2013.  Initially, macro photography was her main objective, but in 2016 she was introduced to shark diving and was hooked.  Debbie is a board certified Physician Assistant in Dermatology and displays her shark photos in her clinic as a way to promote shark conservation and education.  Check out her website at debbiewallacephotography.com

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Paradise is found in one the planet's most remote destinations - dolphins, wrecks, beaches, and more!
By Nirupam Nigam

Heaven is a Place on Earth: Diving Mauritius

Nirupam Nigam
Paradise is found in one the planet's most remote destinations - dolphins, wrecks, beaches, and more!

“Mauritius was made first and then heaven; and heaven was copied after Mauritius” – Mark Twain (1896).

striped eel catfish

As divers, we all dream of exploring that pristine tropical island as far from any other landmass as possible. We dream of white sand beaches, turquois water, mountainous jungles, or strange and wonderful creatures lurking in unexplored places. Well, that dream is a place on Earth, and that place is Mauritius. Located approximately 1000 km (600 miles) east of Madagascar, Mauritius is one of the most remote islands in the Indian Ocean. As the home of the now extinct Dodo, Mauritius is a remnant of the lost (and newly found) continent of Mauritia. Its remote location resulted in the evolution of a unique diversity of endemic flora and fauna that translates to some exceptional diving and hiking.  

Grand-Baie, Mauritius

Diving Overview

Although Mauritius is often overlooked by divers who visit other Indian Ocean locales, such as Seychelles or the Maldives, the diving can be quite good. Overall, Mauritius is a macro-lover’s paradise with some big animal sprinkled in. Frequent cyclones and some overfishing can make the reefs seem a little barren at a first glance when compared to other Indian Ocean destinations. However, the highlights of these reefs are the small stuff, and in every crevice or coral overhang there is something amazing waiting to be discovered. 

Octopus and Diver

As one might expect in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the diversity of the reefs is excellent. In one dive you can expect to see peacock flounder, endemic angelfish and butterfly fish, parrotfish, nudibranchs, many species of morays, mantis shrimp, striped eel catfish, lionfish, marlin, turtles, stingrays, octopus, scorpionfish, trevally, gray reef sharks, and 200 species of coral! The hard and soft corals in Mauritius are unique in their shapes and colors. Reefs seem to be speckled with pastel pinks, purples, blues, and greens resembling an Easter-time pallet of color. There are many dive sites to choose from, each offering their own set of unique fauna.

The Best Diving

If you are in Mauritius to dive, then choosing where on the island to go is fairly easy – the North! Diving in the north of the country gives you the best access to its outlying islands, shore-side reef dives, resorts, and the most tourist-friendly part of the country. There is also some good advanced drift diving on the east side of the island and ok diving in Flic en Flac in the west. The south, however, is more exposed to the elements of the Indian Ocean and has poor diving conditions. 

Grand-Baie, Mauritius

Coin de Mire and the Djabeda Wreck Dive

Coin de Mire

Coin de Mire is a small, peculiar looking island lying 8 km to the north of Mauritius with what many consider to be the best diving in Mauritius. Dives often feature wall and wreck diving with spectacular visibility (50m/200ft on a great day), as well as chances to see large pelagics such as marlin. Its unique geology makes for some interesting underwater canyons and crevices that can be quite fun to swim through.

Djabeda wreck

Perhaps the highlight of all dives at Coin de Mire is the Djabeda wreck dive. The wreck is a 144ft/44m long Japanese fishing vessel sitting perfectly upright at a depth of approximately 100ft/30m. Completely covered in beautiful pink soft coral, the wreck attracts perhaps the largest concentration of fish life on the north side of the island. Octopus, scorpionfish, stonefish, lionfish, and many reef fish are common here. Less common are barracuda, dolphins, and sting rays. 

Grand-Baie and Trou-aux-Biches

The highest concentration of dive operations on the islands are situated in the northwest towns of Grand-Baie and Trou-aux-Biches for good reason. Grand-Baie’s proximity to Mauritius’s outlying northern islands as well as amazing diving just outside the bay make it the perfect place to start most dive trips. The diving outside the bay and in neighboring Trou-aux-Biches is where all the best macro critter diving is. Reefs are relatively flat and shallow with short corals that have taken a bit of a beating from cyclones. However, these flat reefs provide just enough protection for vast arrays of small reef fish and small invertebrates to find a home. Just a couple dives here will be enough to come back with a diverse portfolio of macro photos.

Peacock mantis shrimp in Grand-Baie, Mauritius

The photographic highlights here are the multiple species of morays, very curious and frequent peacock mantis shrimp, and schools of small striped eel catfish. The striped eel catfish can be particularly fun to photograph as they tend to hide under coral heads and allow photographers to get very close to photograph them. Although visibility is not quite as good here as the outlying islands, it is still very good and can reach up to 30m/100ft+ on a good day. 

Swimming with Dolphins (Tamarin Bay)

spinner dolphins in Tamarin Bay

Although there are no trips to dive with dolphins, many tour operators offer morning snorkeling trips with wild spinner dolphins. These tours depart daily at approximately 8-9 am from Tamarin in the southwest of the island and follow the dolphin’s daily feeding path north along the coast to Flic en Flac. Boats will follow the dolphins and drop you in ahead of their path. The dolphins then zip by, and you have a few seconds to take as many photos as possible. The whole process can seem a little stressful to snorkelers as well as dolphins as it can become quite crowded by boats. Personally, I have mixed feeling about the practice, so go at your own discretion. That being said, every now and then a curious dolphin might take interest in you and the experience can become the highlight of your trip. 

The Shark Pit

There is one place on the island where sharks are seen regularly – the Shark Pit. The shark pit is located at Flat Island, one of the farthest of Mauritius’s northern outlying islands. Trips are infrequent as it can be expensive, long, and difficult to get to. Recommended only for advanced divers, strong currents and rough seas are common. Bull sharks, gray reef sharks, and silvertip reef sharks are common. Most trips leave from Grand-Baie in the North. 

Belle Mare

Belle Mare is the best diving on the east side of the island. It is often drift diving geared to more advanced divers. Pelagics and sharks are the highlights here. 

Dive Operators and Prices

There are plenty of dive operators to choose from. Most are very professional and well organized. You can rent any gear you need at any of these shops and most will give a discount for bringing your own. Most operators will be happy to accommodate for photographers. Some organize photography dives whereas others will try to make small groups for you. Diving is like in other tropical places – usually a group of two to seven divers will be led by one or two dive masters. Most shops are good at accommodating for English, French, and German speakers.

Diving is all done from a boat. The immediate shore around the island is generally sandy lagoon, so a boat is needed to motor out to reefs. For local dives, the price can range from $30 USD to $40 USD (1000-1500 Mauritian rupees) per dive. Dives to the outer islands can be quite a bit more.

striped eel catfish

When to Go

Mauritius is a year-round destination. The Mauritian winter (May to October) is the most ideal for topside activities. The weather is generally cooler, drier, and windier. The Mauritian summer (November to April) is a little rainier, more humid, and hot. Overall topside temperatures differ only slightly, reaching an average of 26 C (79 F) in the summer and 21 C (70 F) in the winter. 

There is no true rainy and dry season, as the seasons are very similar. There is, however, a cyclone season from January to March. As Mauritius is a small island, cyclones often miss the country. Thus, it is completely unpredictable whether a cyclone will actually hit – even a few days before. Otherwise summer weather is quite calm.  

Spinner dolphin exhaling

Diving Conditions

Ironically, summer (November - April) is the best time to dive in Mauritius. The visibility is usually great and the warm water brings a higher diversity of sea life. Winter wind can also make diving conditions less favorable. In order to avoid cyclone season, we recommend diving in Mauritius from October to December and March to April. That being said, the weather at a given time of year likely won’t affect your dive trip.

From November to April, water temperature can be as high as 30 C (86 F) and from March to October, water temperature can drop to as low as 21 C (70 F). Generally, a 3 mm wetsuit is recommended, and possibly a 5 mm for winter months.

leaf scorpionfish

Rain

Although summer is technically the rainy season (especially in January and February), rain is usually not an issue. When it does rain in Mauritius, it happens in short bursts and becomes sunny immediately after. Often it can be raining on one side of the island and completely dry in the other. Always be prepared for rain, but don’t expect it to ruin a vacation.

Grand-Baie, Mauritius

A word of advice: the driest, sunniest part of the island is Grand-Baie. For whatever reason, clouds always seem to avoid that northwest corner, and rain can be infrequent even during rainy season. 

Topside Activities

Beaches and Watersports

People come to Mauritius for the beaches. With arguably some of the best beaches in the world, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect place to swim and relax in the sun. The north, west, and east of the island are calm and ideal for swimming, but the south can have a little too much surf (though not any less beautiful). The prettiest beaches are in the southwest surrounding Le Morne Brabant and in the northwest by Grand-Baie. My personal favorites are Mon Choisy, Bain Boeuf, and La Cuvette. The most beautiful water on the island, and perhaps the whole Indian Ocean, is the water in Grand-Baie. There are many days where you can’t tell where the water ends and the sky begins. 

Gabriel Island, Mauritius

The public legally has access to the whole Mauritian coastline, and public beaches are very good. Resorts, however, are a good way to get some exclusivity. They also offer a variety of water sports like banana boats, sailing, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, fishing, kite surfing, and more.  

Hiking

Hiking is an often overlooked activity in Mauritius. Most people fly in, plop themselves on a beach bed, and fly out. Don’t! The hiking in Mauritius is some of the best in the Indo-Pacific. The island is blessed with many small peaks that make excellent day hikes. Most range around 700 to 800 meters (2200 to 2600 feet) high. The jungles of Mauritius are inundated rare and unusual plants and animals that cannot be seen elsewhere. For example, the Mauritius flying fox, a large species of fruit bat, is the only native mammal to the island and can often be seen flying in the forest canopies in large groups. If you are lucky enough, you might be able to spot a Mauritius ornate day gecko – a colorful but rare gecko also native to the island. 

Le Morne Brabant

The two most popular hikes are Le Pouce (the thumb) and Le Morne Brabant. Although both trails can be a little difficult to find and traverse, it is well worth the effort. The first person to climb Le Pouce was rumored to be Charles Darwin. Hikers are rewarded with an excellent view of the capital city of Port Louis as well as the surrounding sugar plantations. Le Morne Brabant is by far the best hike on the island. Located in the Southwest corner of the island, this peak is a UNESCO world heritage sites where escaped slaves used to hide from their captors. The second half of the hike is a steep scramble, not for the faint hearted, but the views at the top are the best on the island. You can even see a glimpse of the famed “underwater waterfall illusion.” 

Le Pouce

Exploring the Outer Islands

The north of Mauritius has a number of outer islands that are arguably more beautiful than the island itself. Frequent catamaran trips take tourists to visit these picture-perfect locales. All you can eat food and drink make for a perfect day at the beach on remote tropical islands. The most popular trips are to Flat Island and Gabriel Island. 

Gabriel Island

The South of Mauritius

A lot of Mauritius’s most amazing topside attraction are in the south. The Black River Gorges National Park is the largest national park on the island, home to the largest variety of endemic plants and animals. Adjacent to that is Chamarel. Here you can see an amazing natural phenomenon where the earth has striated into many colors as well as the Chamarel waterfall. Ganga Talao, Mauritius’s most important holy site to Hindus, is also nearby.

Logistics

Flights

Getting to Mauritius is easy from Europe or South Africa and a little harder from elsewhere. Flights are often expensive, though less expensive airlines, such as South African Airways, have been trying to establish new routes. Most direct flights are from South Africa, France, England, and Germany. The local airline, Air Mauritius, is very well operated and a pleasure to fly with. There is only one international airport on the island – located an hour drive from the capital of Port Louis. 

Port Louis

Transportation

Taxis are reasonably priced when booked beforehand, but a rental car might be a good idea for short stays. Driving is generally easy, though many people drive too fast. Driving is on the left. If you are in Mauritius for a while, I highly recommend using the bus system. The public buses are excellent, though old. You can get anywhere on the island for $1-$5 USD. People are very friendly and will be happy to tell you how to get where you need to go. 

Lodging

Most travelers to Mauritius stay at all-inclusive resorts, many of which offer diving. Although these resorts are top notch, they are very expensive. Renting through Airbnb or a local apartment can be much cheaper. If you are here to dive, then I would consider this option. The north and west of the island has most of the lodging options. The south and east can be slightly more exclusive. 

People and Language

The people of Mauritius are some of the friendliest I have ever met. People legitimately enjoy talking to and helping others. In just two months of staying there, I already felt like part of the community. Crime is not an issue (though scams can occur), and most people will go out of their way to help you. The island demography is reminiscent of colonial days with people of a mix of Indian, African, and European heritage. Many are Hindu, although Islam and Christianity are popular religions as well. Keep an eye out for frequent religious and cultural festivals that can be a joy to watch and participate in. 

Mauritians speak Mauritian Creole and French fluently. Many also speak English and derivatives of Indian languages such as Hindi and Bhojpuri. Tourists will get around fine knowing English, though French is understood better.

Conclusion

When I first arrived in Mauritius I was floored. In all my travels (including many exotic dive destinations), I have yet to see a more beautiful place. Colors somehow seem more saturated; the sea and the sky meet in one continuous band; the shapes of the mountains are straight from a Dr. Suess book.  But beyond the beauty, there is a stillness in the air and in the people. A stillness that can only be found in the outer reaches of the world.

Gand-Baie sunset

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nirupam Nigam is a dedicated underwater photographer and fisheries scientist. While growing up in Los Angeles he fell in love with the ocean and pursued underwater photography in the local Channel Islands. He received degrees in Aquatic and Fisheries Science and General Biology, as well as a minor in Arctic Studies, at the University of Washington. Now he works as a fisheries observer on boats in the Bering Sea and North Pacific. When he is not at sea, he is traveling with his fiancee and taking photos. 

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Three of the most unusual underwater marine life encounters that you need to dive and photograph when visiting Australia
By Brent Durand, photos by Various

3 u/w Encounters You Can't Miss in Australia

Brent Durand, photos by Various
Three of the most unusual underwater marine life encounters that you need to dive and photograph when visiting Australia

There are two different types of underwater photo and video trips: those where you go to a known destination to create great images of common subjects, and those where you spend hours researching unique subjects and behaviors in the hopes of creating some unusual images.

Australia happens to be home to some of these unique opportunities and we've decided to put some of the preliminary research together for you. Whether you shoot photos, video or simply enjoy being in the water with your dive buddy, these are some marine life encounters that you need to add to your adventure list (I'm not big on bucket lists because mine would overflow in 2 seconds!).

So pack your camera bags, grab your dive gear and prepare to be amazed by the ocean, once again.

 

1. Giant Cuttlefish Aggregation

Point Lowly, Whyalla, South Australia

 

Looking for some contest-worthy underwater images? This is it. Every winter, hundreds of thousands of Australian Giant Cuttlefish (Sepia apama) migrate from all over the southern half of the country to the shallow waters of the upper Spencer Gulf near Whyalla, South Australia to mate. Similar to other cephalopods like market squid (Doryteuthis opalescens), the giant cuttlefish generally meet in small groups to mate. This is when divers see the eggs on buoy ropes, rock structure or forming baskets on the sand. The aggregation in Whyalla is the exception, however, and provides much more insight into the character and lives of these animals.

When so many giant cuttlefish show up to one area it becomes much more competitive to find a mate. The males put on elaborate displays to impress females who are out looking for a mate, flashing radical colors and textures to complement their fluttering . Smaller, less desireable males put on more vibrant shows, even disguising themselves as the females, in order to sneak in and succeed in aquiring a mate. Like all cuttlefish, once the male mates he swims off to die. The female lays the eggs before doing the same.

These interactions and behaviors create incredible photo opps for visiting photographers and videographers.

Photos by Peter & Kathy Cave.

 

 

 

2. The Spider Crabs of Rye Pier

Rye Pier, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Have you ever seen an entire sea floor covered with a writhing blanket of spider crabs? If you hang out in Victoria, Australia during the early winter months, then you absolutely have to dive the rye pier once word gets in that the spider crabs have showed up. Similar to the cuttlefish aggregation above, the spider crabs migrate to this precise shallow water area to mate and molt (at least, that is the common belief).

Upon arrival, the crabs cover the bottom, sometimes in multiple layers for about a week. They mate, molt, and then disappear. The only evidence left behind is the debris field of molts. The crabs normally rely on their hard exoskeleton for protection and are left defenseless while they slowly wriggle out of their old shell, attracting opportunistic predators like rays.

Needless to say, this is the only place (to my knowledge) where you can witness an event like this. Smaller aggregations do occur (even here in Southern California) but nothing even close to the event at Rye Pier.

Read about the full experience in The Spider Crabs of Rye Pier, by photographer Matt Krumins (on Facebook, on Instagram).

 

 

 

 

3. Leafy Sea Dragon

Southern coast of Australia

 

Along the coast of southern Australia lives the Leafy (and Weedy) Sea Dragon. Simply put, this is just a very beautiful creature to photograph. Living in shallow sea grass beds, the Leafy Sea Dragon (Phycodurus eques) may be hard to spot at first, with wavy appendages that provide excellent camouflage.

The Leafy is the marine symbol of the state of South Australia and once of the most iconic marine animals in the world. Every underwater photographer should want to have a nice leafy shot in their portfolio!

Photos by Mike Bartick (on Facebook, on Instagram), manager and photo pro at Crystal Blue Resort in Anilao, Philippines.

 

 

 

Read all of our Marine Life Facts and Articles.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brent Durand is a weekend wanderer and story teller from California.

Brent is an avid diver and adventure photographer, and shoots underwater any time he can get hands on a camera system. He can be reached at brent@uwphotographyguide.com.

Follow Underwater Photography Guide on Facebook or Instagram.

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Go behind the scenes with French explorer Alban Michon while diving some of the coldest and most remote locations on earth
By Alban Michon

Inside Look: Cold Water Expeditions

Alban Michon
Go behind the scenes with French explorer Alban Michon while diving some of the coldest and most remote locations on earth

Many of us (fortunate) underwater photographers have traveled across the world to go scuba diving. We plan and book a trip, pack the gear, and then fly to a country where we are swiftly esorted into a resort or onto a liveaboard boat. The guides show us some great reefs and marine life, and before we know it, we're back on the plane heading home.

But what if you remove the soft resort and liveaboard beds? Take away the warm meals. And dive guides... what dive guides? This is becomes the world of dive expeditions.

French explorer Alban Michon is no stranger to dive expeditions. He has a resume that boasts several polar expeditions and is no stranger to diving beneath the sea ice and paddling up to a bleak (yet beautiful) camp site in a kayak.

Below we take a photo journey through some behind the scenes moments of Alban's expeditions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Motivated for your own dive adventure? We hope so!

Follow more photography from Andy Parant at Facebook.com/andyparantphotographer.

 

About Alban Michon

Alban Michon, French, 35, begins to dive at 11 years of age. In 1999, Alban becomes a professional diving instructor; in 2000 he opens his own ice diving school in Tignes (Savoie-France) and in 2005 he opens «Vasques du Quercy», an underground diving school near Rocamadour (Lot-France).

In 2010, he takes part in the polar expedition «Deepsea Under The Pole», and in 2012, he organises a second expedition, on the east coast of Groenland together with Vincent Berthet. The film «Le piège blanc» shows part of the adventure.

Alban has also worked with «Abyssworld», a specialised travel agency, and with filmmakers such as Luc Besson and Jacques Audiart as a under water technical advisor. He is a speaker for many conferences and talks about the awareness of the power we all have inside ourselves, no matter how hard the situation is. His major goal right now is to showcase the know-how of french companies by making an experimental under water project. 

Website: AlbanMichon.com   |   Instagram:  @AlbanMichon

 

SUPPORT THE UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE:

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Bluewater Travel is your full-service scuba travel agency. Let our expert advisers plan and book your next dive vacation. Run by divers, for divers.

 


Sharing photos and the life story of Rajan, the beloved swimming elephant of the Andaman Islands
By Sumer Verma & Nayantara Jain

Celebrating Rajan the Swimming Elephant

Sumer Verma & Nayantara Jain
Sharing photos and the life story of Rajan, the beloved swimming elephant of the Andaman Islands

Most stories of large animals in captivity are sad ones – they speak of miserable animals – magnificent lives sacrificed for entertainment and pretty pictures. Rajan – the beloved swimming elephant of the Andaman Islands – is the rare exception. His is a story where the dive community came together to give him back a freedom that had been snatched from him young, and he in turn became the perfect muse.

Elephants were first brought into the Andaman Islands when India was still under British rule. They were taken from Kerala and Karnataka and walked to the coast of Chennai. Here they were put on ships to the Andaman Islands where they were used to drag timber from the deep forests of the islands to the ships that would export them away. Rajan was one such elephant. His career in logging ended in 2002, when the Indian Government banned the practice. Shortly after that Rajan shot to fame, starring in a Hollywood film called The Fall.

 

 

It was this film, shot in the year 2004, that brought him to Havelock Island. Rajan’s owner was about to sell him off to a temple in Kerala, which would not only put him through a perilous journey but also condemn him to a life of confinement and drudgery, when a dive resort on Havelock Island stepped in. They raised money to buy him from his owners, and set him free – along with his lifelong mahout Nazroo – in the dense Havelock jungle where we was to spend the rest of his life.

Every evening Rajan used to walk down to the beach. He used to lie in the sand as Nazroo – helped by tourists and their kids – scrubbed him clean with coconut husks and seawater. He made for many an iconic picture as he walked the white sandy beach, glowing in the rays of the setting sun. But the most unique pictures of possibly any elephant in the whole world were those that underwater photographers took of Rajan as he played in the waves during his daily swim.

 

 

Divers and snorkelers flocked from all over the world came to photograph Rajan swimming in the clear Andaman sea. His big lungs gave him fantastic buoyancy. His long trunk made a perfect snorkel. He really seemed to enjoy the ocean almost as much as the tiny divers that weaved through his doggy-paddling legs.

As he grew older he swam less frequently. The dive resort was very particular about putting Rajan’s wishes first. Many a diver had to return dry and disappointed because the old man was tired. Luckily, it was bright, sunny and Rajan must have had a good night’s sleep before the morning Sumer Verma went to photograph him. It gave us some of the most stunning pictures which continue to immortalize the gentle giant after he passed away in his sleep in August 2016. He died in the wild, under a canopy of trees and stars. His last breath was the sea breeze from an ocean that had brought him luck.

 

- Text by Nayantara Jane. Photos by Sumer Verna.

 

A Video Tribute to Rajan

 

Rajan Swims

 

 

 

Read our photo essay, Wide-Angle in the Andaman Islands.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sumer Verna started diving in 1997 and completely fell in love with the sea and all its creatures. Since then he has pursued his passion for the oceans singlemindedly and has logged more than 6000 dives and is one of Indias most experienced and accomplished diving instructors and underwater photographers.Through his passion for diving and filming underwater Sumer has travelled far and wide from the Galapagos islands to the far corners of Indonesia and explored most diving sites around Indias Lakshadweep and Andaman islands.He currently manages Lacadives dive schools who were the pioneers of scuba diving in India setting up their first dive school in the Lakshadweep islands way back in 1995 and works on the board of Reefwatch Marine Conservation an NGO set up to bring awareness about Indias coral reefs.Sumers underwater photography work has expanded from wildlife to also encompass fashion shoots for vogue magazine , travel stories for condenast traveller and national geographic as well as film shoots for various production houses from Bollywood to the south.He is currently working on a number of projects simultaneously one of them being a wildlife book in collaboration with the administration of the Andaman islands.

www.lumiousdeep.com  |  Facebook  |  Instagram

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A tale of exploring Fiji after a devastating cyclone to find happy locals, great scuba diving and beautiful reefs
By Gareth Bellamy

Diving Fiji after Cyclone Winston

Gareth Bellamy
A tale of exploring Fiji after a devastating cyclone to find happy locals, great scuba diving and beautiful reefs

Last fall, my local diving season got canned by the start of a cold El Niño wet winter, begging for an escape to the tropics. Fiji is a short hop from my home in New Zealand and the numerous flights throughout the day make travel quick and easy.

Volivoli Beach Resort, on the Suncoast near Rakiraki township, is a firm favourite for New Zealand divers, not only for its close proximity to the Bligh Strait and world class reefs, but the wonderful hospitality, chilled vibe, and the ease with which they accommodate divers from beginners to techies.

Images from my last trip are full of blue skies, sunshine, palm trees, azure seas, multi-coloured soft corals, smiles and diving in a 3mm wetsuit, and I was eager to revisit the “soft coral capital of the world" on a group trip led by Global Dive Auckland. But my goodness, my last trip was in 2013 - had it really been 3 years?  I was well overdue for a trip, but how would things be different in Fiji post cyclone Winston?

 

 

Cyclone Winston

Fiji, particularly the Ra Province, got hammered by the second largest storm recorded in history: Cyclone Winston. Unlike the in movie starring Tom Hanks, ‘Castaway’, Winston was no friend – it was a cyclone with winds in excess of 375km/h, which arrived, left, and then swung back around to cause more damage.

Volivoli Beach Resort got hit. Staff and guests took refuge in the Deluxe and Ocean View Rooms, which luckily received only minor damage. Unfortunately, the Premium Ocean View Villas were wrecked, as was the main restaurant/bar. Luckily family and staff were uninjured, but others weren’t so; 44 people lost their lives in Fiji and more than 35,000 were made homeless.

Volivoli Beach Resort is semi-closed at this time for repair, and the Darling family is taking the opportunity to undertake improvements, officially re-opening its doors on November 1st.

 



View our exclusive 7-night Fiji travel special at Volivoli resort.


 

 

 

Visiting Fiji and Scuba Diving

During the transfer to the resort the cyclone damage was evident, but people were getting on with their lives despite shortages of building materials that are holding things back a little.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at the resort, or the condition of the reefs post cyclone and was prepared for the worst. Upon arrival at Volivoli Beach Resort I was pleasantly surprised; the gardens were still blooming with bougainvillea and the sweet smell of frangipanis, and I was greeted with that familiar vista from the headland with the sun heading for a glorious sunset!

Evidence of Winton’s visit was everywhere: damaged villas awaiting work, the restaurant roof being re-constructed and re-establishing trees showing new growth and recovery. Builders were hard at work and the resort staff apologetic; there was no need though, as the privilege of being there and our minimally reduced comfort paled in comparison to their hard work to recovery.

Dive planning is weather dependent and with some wind present our first few days we stuck to the wonderful local reefs, which didn't appear to have suffered from cyclone damage. We dived ‘Neptunes Rapsody’, a myriad of swim-throughs, clown fish/anemones, schooling fish, white tip and grey reef sharks, We also dived ‘Golden Dreams’, which was ablaze with hanging yellow soft corals, gorgonian fans, swim-through, and black coral to name a few. At the safety stop of every dive, a finale of climatic colour explosion by the millions of Lyretail Anthias, Blue/Purple Eye Anthias crowning the tops of the reefs.

The wind eased and we got out to the outer reefs for a 3 and a 2 dive day. The reefs were incredible, pristine, with no damage from the cyclone. The viz was 20-30m+, with schooling fish in abundance and beautiful soft corals, nudibranchs, and sharks every dive.

We dived sites such as “Instant Replay”, which is an aptly named drift dive that was over before it began! ‘Purple Haze’ featured walls of black coral and gorgonian fans. ‘Heartbreak Ridge’ was loaded with amazing swim-through and massive gorgonian fans. And my favourite, ‘Mellow Yellow’, which is a coral stack 30m in diameter, with walls down to 60m covered in every kind of soft coral and colour you can imagine - a photographer's dream for both wide-angle and macro – just amazing.

After a no dive day of chilling it was time to head home and back to the New Zealand winter... brrr. The question, is there life after Winston? The answer - you bet there is, in abundance with bells! And I look forward to returning in November when the Volivoli re-opens.

 

 

 

 

 



View our exclusive 7-night Fiji travel special at Volivoli resort.


 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gareth Bellamy:  My passion for diving spans 33 years, being underwater is home. I liken the experience to starring in the matrix – connected, as one, with everything in the ocean. I have been privileged to have dived at some of the world’s beautiful places. I am based in Raglan North Island NZ and love the Poor Knights Islands.

Facebook.com/dj.Gareth.B

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Ancient Underwater City or Natural Formation? Scuba Divers are baffled by this dive site in Japan
By Chino Mendoza

Mystery of the Yonaguni Formation

Chino Mendoza
Ancient Underwater City or Natural Formation? Scuba Divers are baffled by this dive site in Japan

A unique dive site off the coast of Yonaguni has been intriguing both archeologists and divers.  It is located on a remote island west of Naha (Okinawa's Capital), Japan.  It is known for schools of hammerhead sharks, but especially for the mysterious underwater formation that has long been a subject of debate. Is this massive linear rock formation a natural geological feature or an ancient city that is now underwater?

During the winter months, Yonaguni is very popular among scuba divers looking to see the large population of hammerhead sharks.  The discovery of the location was made by Mr. Kihachiro Aratake while scouting the area for new hammerhead shark schooling sites several decades ago.

Upon further inspection, he discovered something unusual; a formation that appeared to be a man-made terraced structure.  He believes that the structure was from an ancient civilization dating back to the last ice age, approximately 10,000 B.C. If accurate, this struction pre-dates the pyramids of Egypt.

Shortly after discovery, a professor from the University of the Ryukyus, Masaaki Mikura, began to survey the location of the structure.  Mikura also believed that the site is evidence of an advanced civilization, although many still argue that it is a natural formation.

 

Yonaguni Pyramid. source Collective-Evolution


 

Main Features of the Monument:

The main feature of the site is a rectangular formation which measures about 150 by 40 m (490 by 130 ft.) and about 27 m (90 ft.) tall; the top is about 5 m (16 ft.) below sea level.

  • Two closely spaced pillars which rise to within 2.4 m of the surface
  • A 5 m (16 ft.) wide ledge that encircles the base of the formation on three sides
  • A stone column about 7 m (23 ft.) tall
  • A straight wall 10 m (33 ft.) long
  • An isolated boulder resting on a low platform
  • A low star-shaped platform
  • A triangular depression with two large holes at its edge
  • An L-shaped rock

It hard to not to believe that this is man-made structure with all of these seemingly deliberate and meaningful features.  What do you think?

 

Divers explore the Yonaguni Monument. source Google Images

 

Formation called "The Turtle". source Americaninbosnia blog

 

The Dividing Wall. source Crystalinks

 

The Triangle Pool - a triangular depression with two drainage holes on the edges. source Crystalinks

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chino Mendoza , is an avid diver and underwater photographer and tries to go everytime he can.  He is based in Manila which is a few hours Anilao which is the “critter capital of the Philippines”  He likes to shoot macro and his favorite subjects are nudibranchs and frogfishes.

Get in touch with him via email at lorenzo@bluewaterphotostore.com

View Chino's work:  Facebook     |     Instagram

SUPPORT THE UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE:

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Visit Bluewater Photo & Video for all your underwater photography and video gear. Click, or call the team at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!

 


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