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Often overlooked as a dive destination, the Dominican Republic is more than an all-inclusive resort getaway
By Nirupam Nigam

Beyond the Resorts: Diving in the Dominican Republic

Nirupam Nigam
Often overlooked as a dive destination, the Dominican Republic is more than an all-inclusive resort getaway

Situated in the between the rugged Atlantic Ocean and the placid Caribbean Sea, the Dominican Republic is as diverse and history rich as it is famous for mainstream tourism. Normal tourist haunts such as Punta Cana, Puerto Plata, and Boca Chica can make it seem like one big party on the beach with huge cruise ships passing by, and all-inclusive resorts as far the eye can see. But as with all mass tourism, there’s a lot more to be found behind the glitz and glamour. Despite being a tropical Caribbean destination, the Dominican Republic is blessed with deserts, mountains, colonial cities, jungle, caves, and, of course, clear blue water. 

 

 

Silver Bank, Dominican Republic Humpback Trip

 

March 28 - April 4, 2020 - Starting from $3,795

 

 

Diving in the Dominican Republic

Although it’s the most touristed destination in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic is not well known as a dive destination. Certainly, there are better Caribbean dive destinations such as Bonaire, Curacao, Turks and Caicos, Belize, and Honduras. But it would be a huge mistake to rule out the Dominican Republic altogether – especially if you’re going to be there on holiday or attending our Silver Banks Humpback workshop.  I recommend this dive destination to any diver who has multiple passions beyond diving including budget friendly vacations, hiking, caves, history, and amazing beaches. 

It’s important to note that overall, the sea life will be slightly less abundant than more famous dive destinations in the Caribbean. Whether this is due to invasive lion fish, overfishing, or heavy tourism development, it’s hard to say. In the north it seemed to me to be overfishing and in the south, it seemed to be mass tourism.

Diving in the Dominican Republic can be as diverse as the culture and the terrain. The north (Atlantic) side of the island is blessed with dramatic seaside cliffs and steep underwater topography. The south (Caribbean) side of the island is spotted with quaint tropical reefs and a wide of assortment of reef critters. From a diving perspective, the country can be split into northern (Atlantic) and southern (Caribbean) halves as well. 

Diving on the Atlantic Side

Believe it or not, there is still pristine, remote tropical coastline left in the Dominican Republic - most of it borders the Atlantic. Many small towns in the north are hardly touched by tourism, and it can be a more involved and immersive part of the country to experience. Puerto Plata being the exception. If you do make it far from the Southern tourism hubs, be sure to visit the Samana Peninsula which is arguably the most pristine and beautiful part of the country – other than the almost inaccessible Bahia de las Aguilas.

Puerto Plata/Sosua Bay

If you find yourself in the northwest’s Puerto Plata, be sure to check out the excellent reef diving in Sosua Bay. Peuro Plata is also a great location to start trips to the interior or go windsurfing. 

Samaná /Las Galeras

The Samaná Peninsula forms the northeastern corner of the country. It’s remote and wild with secluded beaches, lush rainforests, and dramatic coastline. Although Samaná is the launch point for many trips to the famed Silver Banks to see humpback whales, its many rivers result in limited diving opportunity. The dive capital of Samaná is a small village tucked away edge of the peninsula called Las Galeras. Las Galeras is where the regions single road ends at the beach. Despite the surprisingly high number of French expats in this small town, mass tourism has not reached here in full; Las Galeras Divers are the only shop in the area (and an excellent option). Airbnb can be a great way to find lodging and interact with locals. 

The diving here is certainly unique. The cream of the crop is found off of Cabo Cabron – a rugged peninsula with sheer cliffs slicing straight into the ocean. The topography continues below the water and features beautiful walls and pinacles covered in coral and sponges. It is, however, rather barren with minimal fish life. This is partly due to the rugged Atlantic Ocean and partly due to overfishing. Hurricanes and storms can make for a difficult dive at times. Octopus are a treat for underwater photographers exploring the reefs and for fisherman providing for local cuisine. For the most part, I would have my wide angle lens here to capture the topography.

The real jewels of the region are the secluded and relatively pristine beaches. For some of them, it’s possible to be the only person there – a rare feat in the Dominican Republic. Trips to Playa Fronton, Playa Rincon, and Playa Madama are a must. Be sure to stick with one of the guides from the main beach in Las Galeras as there have been warnings of infrequent bandits. 

Silver Banks

The Silver Banks is renowned for its yearly humpback whale season. From late January to early April whales show up in large numbers in the Silver Banks - far north of the Dominican Republic in the Atlantic. A few boats leave from Samana and take snorkelers and photographers to snorkel with the whales. Click here for our article on Silver Banks.   

Punta Cana

Punta Cana is world famous for its resorts and beaches. For many, it’s what puts the Dominican Republic on the map. However, the town exists solely for the sake of tourism. Because it’s situated at the eastern tip of the country, it lies between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. This makes it less than ideal for diving with currents, rough water, and minimal marine life. Diving is still made available by most resorts as an “activity.” If you are a diver, especially an underwater photographer, be sure to make your way down to Bayahibe for the best diving in the country. Some shops will organize a pick-up service to take you to Bayahibe, but it’s a long drive. Bayahibe also has a good assortment of more laid back resorts as a good alternative to the craziness that is Punta Cana.

 

Diving on the Caribbean Side

Santo Domingo/Boca Chica

Santo Domingo is the political and cultural capital of the country. It’s where Columbus established his first colony in the new world and features an amazing amalgamation of indigenous (Taino), Spanish, and African tradition. The colonial zone is a UNESCO world heritage site and should certainly be visited it you are near Santo Domingo. The Ozama river empties into Santo Domingo, polluting the Caribbean in front of the city, and therefore, it isn’t recommended to dive there. There have been recent efforts to clean up this area.

However, 30 km east of Santo Domingo is Boca Chica – a popular beach/city attracting many Dominicans from Santo Domingo. Boca Chica offers fairly good diving with wrecks in the La Caleta Underwater National Park. Though there are resorts in the area, Boca Chica isn’t always kid friendly. 

Bayahibe: Best Diving in the Country

Bayahibe is a smaller resort town situated on the south east corner of the country, ten miles from the port of La Romana. It features tranquil Caribbean beaches and the best diving in the country. With a variety of dive operations to choose from, it’s the scuba capital of the Dominican Republic. The diving in Bayahibe is calm and idyllic, with patchy Caribbean reefs lining the coasts.

The marine life featured here is mostly small and macro with eels, shrimp, squid, small reef fish, blennies, and rays. However, there are some sites that are better for wide angle. Caribbean waters around Bayahibe are blessed with an amazing assortment of beautifully shaped, rainbow-colored sponges. Visibility is almost always excellent as the Caribbean Sea is calmer than the Atlantic. 

Isla Catalina

The wall and the aquarium at Catalina Island are widely considered to be the two best sites in the Dominican Republic. They are a little more expensive to get to as you must take a dive boat from Bayahibe for a day trip to the island. It is well worth it. The wall features a little current, massive colorful sponges, and schools of fish. The aquarium is similar to Bayahibe’s other reefs with more abundant and diverse life, as well as better visibility. 

Peñon

Peñon is situated just south of Bayahibe in a national park. This is probably the best site in the Dominican Republic for macro photography with the opportunity to see Caribbean reef squid, a large variety of reef fish, cleaner shrimp, seahorses, octopus, squat lobster, and the occasional nurse shark. 

 

Saona Island 

Saona Island is the most famous island destination in the Dominican Republic. It gets a lot of tourist traffic, but there is good diving and can be visited in conjunction with Peñon. 

 

St. George Wreck

Situated just off the town of Dominicus (Bayahibe), the St. George wreck is my favorite site in the Dominican Republic. The wreck lies in 144ft/44m of water with the top at 50ft/15m, so it is an advanced dive. In fact, many dive operations can be a little gung-ho about depth and penetration on this wreck. If you aren’t certified for wrecks/depth or don’t feel comfortable penetrating the wreck, please don’t (although it is a relatively open and easy penetration). The ship itself was a 240ft merchant ship that was suck in 1999 as an artificial reef. Lots of open deck space and a large hull make for a fun dive!

The highlight of this wreck is the sponges. It’s so encrusted that you can’t even see the original metal in many places. Larger, non-encrusting sponges form a variety of interesting shapes that dot the wreck. Furthermore, large barracudas, schools of reef fish, and large numbers of spiny lobsters frequent the wreck. Unfortunately, invasive lionfish are also prevalent, but the people of Bayahibe are making large efforts to eradicate them and must be commended. 

 

Cave Diving

There are many caves situated throughout the country. Bayahibe is especially well known by cave divers. Some are accessible, and others are definitely for more serious cave divers. If you are going cave diving, experience and proper certification is an absolute must; it is important to pick the right shop to go with. 

Topside Activities

The Dominican Republic is all about its topside activities from luxurious resorts to hiking to caving to its glorious beaches. These activities are why many people come to the Dominican Republic. If you’d like a party on the beach, go to Punta Cana. If you’d like a relaxed beach with full amenities – Dominicus/Bayahibe is the place for you. If you’d like seclusion and adventure go north to the Samana Peninsula. The best hiking in the country is found in the interior and Puerto Plata makes a good staging point. Puerto Plata is also well known for its kite surfing. The Samana Peninsula is also excellent for hiking. Caves are found throughout the country and are a lot of fun to explore. But bring proper light and don’t go anywhere you shouldn’t. It’s easy to get lost! 

The Best Time of Year to Dive

As with many other Caribbean destinations – the Dominican Republic can usually be dived year-round. However, it’s important to note that there’s always the possibility of a hurricane ripping through from June through October. On the Atlantic side, summer sea conditions are better as winter storms can bring down visibility. On the Caribbean side the winter actually has better sea conditions than the summer. Water temp averages from 76F/24C – 83F/28C with the Atlantic usually being a degree or two colder. June to November is rainy season, but rain is sporadic and not as heavy as other places in the tropics. This is the offseason and the best time to get travel deals.

 

 

Budget

Compared to other Caribbean destinations, diving and accommodation in the Dominican Republic is somewhat cheap. Generally, the cost is $40 USD per boat dive not including equipment. Equipment is often rented at $10/day. As far as I can tell, there aren’t many shore diving spots in the DR. However, many shops are willing to drop the price slightly if you purchase a dive package with multiple dives. Food is about $20 per day per person if you’re on a budget and more if you aren’t. Accommodation can be about $40 per day with Airbnb if you’re on a budget. A cheap all-inclusive resort starts for about $120 per day. Of course, luxury all-inclusive resorts are prevalent as well.

Getting There

International flights to the Dominican Republic are popular from the Eastern Seaboard, Europe, and Latin America. Major international airports exist in Punta Cana, Santo Domingo, La Romana, Puerto Plata, and Samana. The long-distance bus system is very good, cheap, and relatively efficient. Sometimes rides across the country can take a full day. Taxis are very expensive and often charge flat rates. Motoconchos or motorcycle taxies are inexpensive and great for riding around small towns, but they can be a little dangerous. Guaguas are smaller and cheaper short distance mini-buses. They are often crowded but can serve as the only way to get to some towns without hiring a taxi. It can be a little confusing to travel this way at first, but locals are often very kind about helping people find their way.

In Conclusion

If you are looking for more than a dive resort or liveaboard during your travels, the Dominican Republic is a great place to experience a mix of cultures, natural beauty, and tourist amenities and still get some diving in. In fact, the diving can be absolutely stunning with Caribbean reefs, wrecks, walls, and diverse sea life. Both macro and wide-angle photographers will not be disappointed. However, if you are looking for big pelagic animals and larger reef creatures such as turtles, the Dominican Republic might not be the dive destination for you – unless you go to Silver Banks for the humpback whales. But by Caribbean standards, it is a budget destination with cheap flights, accommodation, and diving. It’s a great spot for younger travelers and retirees to stretch their vacation slightly longer than they could in a place like the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos. So, if you want your first taste of diving and taking photos in the Caribbean, it is certainly not a bad place to start!  

 

 

 

Silver Bank Humpback Trip

March 28 - April 4, 2020 - Starting from $3,795

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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Diving Rapid Bay, South Australia, in search of the perfect leafy sea dragon shot.
By Bryan Chu

Dancing with Dragons in South Australia

Bryan Chu
Diving Rapid Bay, South Australia, in search of the perfect leafy sea dragon shot.

Editor’s note: for those looking for the 5th book of the Game of Throne series, A Dance with Dragons… this is not related to that. Although this piece also involves dragons, they are of a rather more diminutive stature.

The word “dance” usually brings to mind beauty and grace; the classical stylings of a waltz, the smooth and fluid 1-2-3…5-6-7… of the salsa, the sophisticated elegance of the Argentine tango. But “dance” can also refer to when a shy college kid with no moves has a few too many shots of liquid courage and tries to impress the ladies. I will let you decide which definition is more apt here.

The Rapid Bay Suite

Adelaide, South Australia - famous for two of Australia’s wonderful, strange and unique underwater critters: the leafy sea dragon, and the striped pyjama squid. We connected with Diving Adelaide, and were hooked up with the best of the local dive scene, rental gear, and some guided dives. We also did some self-guided dives, paying a number of visits to the local leafy sea dragons.

Although Rapid Bay sounds like it should be a very happening place, it is in fact rather dull above water. The highlight is probably the nice public bathroom at the campground. There are two jetties: the new jetty, for fishing, and the old jetty, for diving. To get to the old jetty, you walk to the end of the new jetty and head down a set of stairs to the water. From there you swim across to the old jetty, as that is where the bulk of the sealife is. 

During our first two dives at Rapid Bay, Brendon was our guide. It was a beautiful sunny day, with not a cloud in sight, and a scorching 32 C (90 F) temperature. As the water was about 19-20 C (66 – 68 F), we had to wear 7mm wetsuits. After gearing up in the parking lot, we commenced the first movement of the Rapid Bay Suite: The Sweat Slog

The Sweat Slog: walking 300 m in the scorching sun through the parking lot, along the new jetty, and down the stairs to the water. Your 7mm wetsuit does a great job of trapping heat against your body, resulting in a profusion of sweating. Your weights weigh you down. No matter how much you remind yourself that your camera rig is “so effortless and neutral” underwater, your arms slowly sag under the weight of carrying it all out of water. As you tire from the heat, your steps become smaller, and your grin becomes clenched. You lament ever having passed the age of 30, when everything started to go downhill.


Following the completion of the first movement, relief was found in the shade beneath the jetty. After putting on our fins, we entered the second movement of the Rapid Bay Suite: The Grateful Chilling.

The Grateful Chilling: overheated from the sweat slog, you slide into the water with immense relief, only slightly wincing as the cold 19 C water runs down your back. Temperate water has never felt so great.

Take Me To Your Dragon!

After a short swim over a sandy bottom, we reached the old jetty. Although condemned and falling apart above water, it is beautiful below water. This took us into the third movement of the suite, The Passage of Distractions.

The Passage of Distractions: swimming between pilings covered in life, you admire the abundant schools of fish and the striking patterns of sun rays filtering through the gaps in the jetty planks. Extending from either side of the jetty are swaying beds of seagrass. They promise untold riches of juvenile fish and other exciting subjects for those patient, lucky, or stubborn enough. You want to take photos…but you are here to see the dragons. So you try not to get too distracted, and keep up with the guide.

 

We followed Brendon to an area on the outside of the old jetty very appropriately called “the grid" - an area with steel girders laying on the bottom, forming a grid pattern. Almost as soon as we arrived, he spotted not one, not two, but three leafy sea dragons!

It was a bit of a surprise to see our first dragon. It was about 25-30 cm long, so quite a bit larger than what you might envision on seeing a photo. For lack of a better descriptor, it looked like a seahorse on a major steroid program, combined with a big clump of green seaweed. And although I had expected it to be hiding in the weeds and seagrass, like a seahorse, each one that we saw was just puttering around in the water, hovering slightly above the bottom, with head down and tail up. It was at once strange and beautiful.

I set up my camera, pulling my strobes in close to the port. I knew that I needed to be able to light a dragon right against my port if I got it that close, and took a couple of test shots of a girder to make sure I had my exposure set properly. Not a good setup for backscatter, but I would rather have some backscatter than a half-lit dragon. I then moved in towards a male with eggs (!) hanging out in the grid, beginning the fourth movement of the suite, The Dragon Dance

The Dragon Dance: approaching slowly and calmly, you try to get as close as possible to the dragon. Wanting to shoot upwards to get a nice background, you push your camera down against the bottom. The crafty dragon sees you coming, and slowly turns away from you, keeping its tail pointed at you and head buried in the weeds. You circle to the right; the dragon turns to the left to keep its head away. You circle to the left, and the dragon turns to the right. You go over the dragon, and as you come down in front of it, it is already turning away just a bit too quickly. Although it is cute, you cannot help getting mildly infuriated by the dragon’s continual thwarting of your photo plans. After squeezing off a few rushed shots, taken blind, you stop to give the dragon a break, so as not to stress it out (especially if it is a male carrying eggs). 

I then attemped to photograph the other dragons, but all too soon it was time to head back. Thus began the fifth movement of the suite, The Thermal Inversion.

The Thermal Inversion: for anyone who gets cold easily, you feel the chill as you leave the dragons and swim back along the old jetty. By the time you reach the fishing jetty to get out of the water, you are chilled and looking forward to the heat on the surface. And as you walk back to the parking lot, feeling old and slow, you start to warm back up in. 

Upon returning to the parking lot, the final movement of the suite began: The Dance of Flies. 

The Dance of Flies: you take off your gear at the vehicle, change tanks, have a snack, and drink some water - all the while waving one hand in front of your face to keep the friendly flies off. Rapid Bay has very friendly flies; they don’t bite, but they do want to be your friend, and they express this by walking all over your face. 

For our second dive, we repeated the Rapid Bay Suite. This time, I started off with a non egg-carrying dragon in the sea grass. Not having any barriers or obstacles, this dragon was very successful at keeping its head completely away from my camera. Frustrated, but not letting my frustration carry over into harassing my subject, I went back to the grid to try a different subject. As I approached one by the grid, it did its usual turning away move. But then as it came to a girder in front of it, instead of just staying around the bottom with its head in a corner, it went up and over the big piece of metal! This let me get my camera in to shoot upwards into the blue. Not perfect, but not bad.

After processing the photo, I wasn’t quite satisfied with the color of the background. I realized I had forgotten one of the most important steps – white balance! When shooting with strobes, if my subject is well-lit, then I usually don’t need to worry about modifying white balance from the “as shot” mode. But in some cases, a tweak to the white balance can make a big difference to the photo. This was one of those where, I felt that doing a custom white balance really made a big difference to the final product! 

 

The Backup Dancers

After reviewing my shots from the first couple of dives, I decided I needed to mix up the background. Backgrounds are like the background dancers in a music video. Although they are not the focus, they make the whole video work. It would look very strange to have Britney Spears or the Backstreet Boys dancing by themselves. Or, if not strange, then surely not as compelling. The backup dancers make the scene; the high school kids in Baby, One More Time, the assorted mix of zombies, vampires, mummies and high society (?) people dancing in the mansion in Everybody (Back Street’s Back).

I wanted to get a sunball shot and a black background shot. For the sunball shot, we decided to go later in the day. Since it was hard to get a shot of a sea dragon above the bottom, it would have been even harder to include the sun when it was right overhead in the middle of the afternoon. Thus we did our dive around 5 PM, when the sun was lower, so that I could get it into the shot. 

Once we found a friendly leafy, I set up to properly expose the sun, then got down to the dragon dance. As usual, I was shooting blind, but I was able to get a nice shot with the sea dragon facing somewhat towards the camera, and the sun overtop the jetty in the background!

The next dive we did, I focused on getting a shot with a black background. I cranked up my shutter speed and f-stop, got my strobes set by taking some seaweed practice shots, and then went back to the dragon dance. 

Spice Up Your Life Portraits!

Since we had spent so much time just shooting sea dragons, on one of our dive days we decided to do a dive that focused on exploring an area known as the cathedral, with large schools of fish and beautiful light. I found a couple of upwards compositions I was quite happy with. 

Black and white really helped make the light and textures in this photo pop. Leaving this in color, the colors on the pilings and the color of the water were nice, but ultimately distracted from the main draw; the light.

I took a lot of shots with large groups of fish, but really liked this once just for its simplicity, which again emphasized the light. I wish I could have gotten closer to the foreground fish, but they were a bit skittish.

These shots are both great reminders of why I always try to spend some of my time at a site with my strobes set up to shoot portrait mode (one strobe above the housing and one strobe below). That way I am forced to take some portrait shots – it is often surprising what forcing portrait shooting will do for composition!

Stop! Hammer Macro Time!

For my last two days of diving at Rapid Bay, I had dive guide extraordinaire Dan Kinasz. I decided for the first dive that I would put on my macro lens and try to get a head-on face shot of a sea dragon, with a black background.

As we got to the grid and I started looking for the sea dragon, Dan pointed out something very, very small. At first I was not sure what it was, but then I realized that it was in fact a tiny juvenile sea dragon. As Rapid Bay can be surgy at times, so I got one good shot before I lost track of it among the girders and weeds of the grid. And after the fact I learned from a friend of mine that this was actually a juvenile weedy sea dragon, the only one I saw. Very cool! 

I did not spend too long looking for it, as I was still very much focused on getting that head-on face shot. In retrospect, I really should have spent more time trying to re-find this little guy, as he was a much better and more unique subject. Ah well. On to the adult.

I spent a lot of time with my subject, while also being very careful not to stress it out by crowding it, being too aggressive, or taking too many photos. I was only taking one photo every few minutes, and I could only get a good side shot. 

I was very close to a decent snout-on face shot, but could not quite get it lined up. Plus my lighting was kind of wacky.

For the next dive, we went looking for a different adult, with the plan that we would also stop for juveniles. Soon enough Dan had pinpointed a juvenile, and I was able to get a couple of good shots before we decided that I had spent enough time pursuing it and we should let it go.

We then found another adult. I spent a lot of time trying to line up the face shot while taking breaks to back off, so as to minimize the stress. As with most sea dragons this one was a crafty one, and it evaded my efforts.

The Bonus Track: Juvenile on a Black Background

For my last two dives at Rapid Bay, I decided to focus on juveniles only. By this point I had tuned up my skills at shooting moving macro subjects, while learning some things about my auto-focus in the process. Although I had been using continuous autofocus to some level of success, it did not do the job with tracking the always-moving, seaweed-like juveniles. And once I switched over to single auto-focus, I found that holding the shutter halfway would sometimes result in me taking a photo by mistake (thus losing track of the subject and adding stress to it). 

Instead, I switched to a configuration splitting out the auto-focus from the shutter release, so that I could focus using the AEL button, then hold that focus as long as I wanted while taking photos independently with the shutter. This allowed me to follow the sea dragon over the weeds, keeping it in focus by pressing and holding the AEL button (adjusting when needed), and then take my shot when the best composition presented itself. (See Kelli's excellent settings articles for the E-M1 II, E-M1, E-M5 II, and E-M5 on how to set up this configuration). 

I put my settings to 1/160 sec and f/16, so if the opportunity arose I could get a good black background. I already had a good in-focus full-body juvenile shot, so the first thing I went for was a close-up profile shot.

After this, I spent a lot of time following juvenile sea dragons over the sea grass, shooting very few shots - waiting for one to get high enough up for me to shoot it with a black background. As with the adults, the juveniles were continually turning away from me and burying themselves in the grass. Not only did I need to photograph them when they were above the seagrass, but I also needed to get them facing me, or from the side. 

On the second dive of the day, my last at Rapid Bay, I found a sea dragon near a small girder in the sea grass. I tried following it towards the girder, and then swimming around to shoot from the side as it passed over the it. After a couple of tries I was able to get it mostly free of other material, and get the black background shot. It was not perfect, and I did have to remove one piece of seaweed to get the pure black around its face. I was not able to get the whole dragon in the shot either. But it was in focus, had a mostly black background, and had the face. Definitely a fitting end to our time diving with these beautiful, and mildly infuriating fish!

 

Video

We put together a video of our highlights: the plethora of fish beneath the jetty, some "dancing" adult sea dragons, and one juvenile moving over the sea grass. We used the new GoPro Hero 7 Black with its hypersmooth stabilization - yes, it is quite good! And it is always fun to watch those dragons dancing, even if most of the time they hide their face in the grass and turn their tail towards the camera!

Logistics & Timing

First things first: if you are going to dive with and take photos of leafy sea dragons, please follow this code of conduct!

The best sites around Adelaide to see leafy sea dragons are shore dive sites: Rapid Bay jetty and the Bluff at Victor Harbor. The Bluff has the most leafy sea dragons around (and sometimes weedy sea dragons too) but is very exposed. Rapid Bay has less dragons but is a much less exposed dive, with much better underwater scenery. During our time we set aside for diving with sea dragons in Adelaide, the weather forecasts meant that diving at Victor Harbor would be anywhere from uncomfortable and difficult to downright dangerous. So, we did all 10 of our dives at Rapid Bay.

Rapid Bay is a 90 minute drive from Adelaide. I would highly recommend connecting with Diving Adelaide, as they have fantastic dive guides and run full-service two-tank guided dive trips (leaving at 9 and returning around 4 or 5 - great if you don't want to try driving on the "wrong" side of the road). Dan, especially, is a specialist at finding juvenile sea dragons and all things small, tiny, and cool.

We were there in late December/early January, which was best for water temperatures, but was also very hot on land. With the walk at Rapid Bay, 2 dives a day was enough - sure, you could do 3 if you wanted, but it would be utterly exhausting, and personally I don't think it would be worth it unless you only had one day to go. In terms of sea dragons, the timing was great, as there was the male with eggs, as well as some juveniles around. 

The water temperature ranges from 14 C in the winter to 20 C in the summer. It is not warm. The dives are nice and shallow, only going to about 10 m, but even so, we needed a 7mm wetsuit and a hood or hooded vest to keep from getting cold. With a hooded vest though we could do up to 80 minute dives.

Up-to-Date 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 associate 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, the Galapagos and French Polynesia.

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 started their journey mid-2018 and will 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?

You can find more of his photos on Instagram at @bryandchu and check out his travel and relationship blog at www.bryanandlisa.ca

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Six fantastic days of diving with sharks in a world-renowned UNESCO biosphere reserve with a fisheye lens
By Bryan Chu

Fisheyed in Fakarava - Premiere Shark Diving

Bryan Chu
Six fantastic days of diving with sharks in a world-renowned UNESCO biosphere reserve with a fisheye lens

While in French Polynesia with my fiancée Lisa for a Moorea humpback trip, I knew that, no matter what else we did, we needed to do some diving in Fakarava. I had seen the photos and heard the stories of this UNESCO biosphere reserve - with massive walls of grey sharks, and its protected water teeming with fish. It was rumored to be almost untouched and undeveloped above-water, having so far avoided the massive Western-style development and resorts which have spread so rampantly throughout French Polynesia’s more popular islands. 

I ended up doing 6 days of diving on Fakarava – 12 dives over five days in the North Pass and three dives over one day in the South Pass. It was a spectacularly beautiful island above and below water, and we had some very memorable dives. 

Dive Sites

Fakarava is a large atoll, meaning it’s basically a very thin island wrapped around a large lagoon. There are two passes from the ocean into the lagoon; the North Pass (Passe Garuae) and the South Pass (Passe Tumakohua). The North Pass is massive, at 1600 m across, and is located by the main town of Rotoava and the airport. The South Pass is quite a bit smaller, at 200 m across, and is located at the opposite end of the lagoon, close to 40 miles/64 km away from the North. It is much more remote. 

In the North Pass, the dive centers run morning two-tank dives, and some run an afternoon dive as well. The morning dives followed this pattern: one dive on the outer reef, either to Ohutu (East side) or Maiuru (West side), followed by one dive drifting into the pass. The first dive was during the end of the outgoing current, when mantas could be spotted coming to the reef to be cleaned, while the second dive was either at slack tide or at the start of the incoming current. The incoming current is when the visibility in the pass is best, and also the best time to see huge amounts of gray reef sharks. 

North Pass (Passe Garuae)

When we were there, there was a full moon, and the currents were less predictable than normal (both for magnitude and timing). I did my first day with Dive Spirit, and we were in a small group of 5 plus the dive guide. The first dive we went out looking for slack tide, but the tide was still going out, so we dropped down to 90 feet on the outer reef and watched for mantas. It was nice and relaxed, and we saw three mantas, but none came up to visit us. 

The second dive we dropped down onto the slope to the East of the pass, and as we made our way towards the pass we were surrounded by grey sharks on all sides, though the visibility was not the best. We were also deep enough that I could not get below the sharks to shoot upwards, so I got some downwards shots.

 

Fisheye Shooting

I did manage to get a few upwards shots, but only of lone sharks. I got into some decent positions to get some good shark portraits, but the sharks always turned before I could get close enough for my fisheye lens to be really effective. I felt the fisheye curse very keenly.

Fisheye curse – when shooting with a fisheye lens, you see lots and lots of big subjects which come close enough to be lit nicely with strobes, but don’t come close enough to come anywhere close to “filling the frame.” You notice these “missed opportunities” very keenly, thinking “if only I was shooting a wide angle zoom…”

I love shooting a fisheye lens because it gives the sharpest images (minimizes the amount of water between subject and lens/strobes) and allows me to take spectacular shots if the opportunities arise. But dealing with the curse can create a lot of doubt, especially when diving with non-photographers who figure that, if a shark came within 5 feet of youand your big and fancy camera rig, surely you must have gotten a great shot, right?

Actually, here's what it looks like with a gray shark about 5 feet away - close enough to be lit up by strobes, but not close enough to look very impressive. This image is not cropped, though in post I would normally crop about half of the empty space out.

That’s where it’s important to counter the fisheye curse with your best shot of fisheye faith.

Fisheye faith – the faith that after missing a lot of “decent” shots because you are shooting a fisheye lens instead of a wide angle zoom, it will all pay off, because you will eventually get that opportunity for the phenomenal shots that only a fisheye lens can create.

Learn more about fisheye lenses vs wide angle lenses

As the current took hold, we drifted into the pass to the grotte de dormirs, a series of overhangs which provided shelter from the current, as well as the spectacle of many “sleeping” white tip sharks. By this point I was down to 2 minutes of no deco time, so I hurriedly took my shots of two sharks that stayed nice and still for me in their overhang. As you can see, I did not quite get the lighting right, but I did manage to start ascending before hitting deco time (safety first!). 

That afternoon I dove with my fiancée, and we were followed around by a very curious tuna that made enough passes for me to not totally blow it out with my strobes. Again, I keenly felt the fisheye curse as the tuna came to about 3-4 feet away, but definitely did not come close enough!

I reviewed my images in the evening, and realized that I had been suffering from a strong case of strobe positioning tunnel vision.

Strobe positioning tunnel vision: when you stick to a certain default strobe positioning, and figure that you just have to get your power settings and camera settings right. So you adjust your strobe power, shoot, then adjust more, then shoot, making changes and shooting faster and faster, but never getting the “right” shot.

Time pressure is the initial cause of this phenomenon, but I realized I had a deeper issue to work on. I did a lot of shooting with my strobes in exactly the same spot. A lot. I realized that I needed to purposefully start practicing shooting with my strobes in different positions, so I could develop some muscle memory and improve my skills at altering strobe positions on-the-fly.

A Second Chance

The second day I went with another dive shop, O2 Fakarava, who I would spend the rest of my time in the North Pass with. They were awesome. Our first dive we saw a lot of fish, as was normal for Fakarava. Fortunately for us, some of these fish lined up to create a “highway” of sorts, which is just the kind of thing I love to see as a fisheye shooter. 

For our second dive we drifted the pass but did not find much in the way of sharks (sometimes that’s the way things go) and then went for the grotte de dormirs again. Now my first thought was “not this one again, I want to do this Ali Baba that I’ve heard so much about.” But then I realized it was my chance for redemption, to improve upon my poorly lit white-tips from the previous day. 

We got to the caves, and I single-mindedly set to work adjusting my strobes and lining up the shot. I raised up my strobes, approached as close as I could without disturbing the sharks, and excitedly got everything dialed in. Unfortunately this shark was more skittish than the one I shot the previous day, so I could not get as close, but I definitely improved the lighting.  

This brings an important mindset that I always try to be thinking about, a Continuous Improvement Mindset.

Continuous Improvement Mindset: After every day of diving, check over your photos. For each good photo/keeper, think about what you really like about it and what you did right, and learn from that. Then think as honestly as you can about what you could do to improve the photo for next time. If you can, go a bit deeper than just the photo, into the strengths and weaknesses of your technique.

There’s always something that could be better, unless you really took the perfect photo of your subject (in that case, congrats, and submit it to your favourite underwater photography contest, pronto!). Maybe it was something that was out of your control, or maybe something within your control. Either way, you can learn from it, and make a mental note for how it can be improved on next time.

When I look at my two shark photos again, my plan for the next time I run into this kind of situation is to get the strobes up, get the lighting right, and then get closer/improve my head-on angle for the front shark. I will also look for opportunities with multiple sharks, and consider skipping ones with only one shark. Now I have made a mental note, so that next time I run into white tip sharks in a cave, I know what I already have, and will do my best to improve upon it with an even better photo, rather than just taking more of the same. 

Trouble in Paradise

The third day, our first dive, on Maiuru, was not particularly great. I noticed condensation in my dome port when we hit the water on our second dive, and hoped that it would go away once we got underwater. We descended in the blue, while a school of about 10 tuna shot by below us, then went on to the “Piste” (Ski Slope), the slope to the East of the pass, and landed right among a whole host of grey reef sharks. I checked my dome port, and it was still covered in condensation. I really wanted to take photos, but could not. Well, technically I could, but they all turned out like this:

So instead I took GoPro footage and just enjoyed the sharks, while simultaneously worrying about my camera. 

That afternoon, I found a very small amount of liquid water in my housing. I scoured the o-ring and found what looked like a small hair on one spot. Fortunately it did not damage anything other than some of my already broken housing circuitry (which is why I had not heard any leak alarms). Note: now any time I close anything with an o-ring, I put on my headlamp, so I can give it a thorough inspection that will catch even tiny hairs or debris.

Back to Ali Baba

For my fourth morning two-tank dive, Lisa joined me. Up until this point she had just done a couple of afternoon dives in Fakarava, because she is a new diver with only about 15 dives under her belt, and the North Pass drift dive can have very strong currents. O2 had told us that this day was the best this week for having a lighter current, based on the tide tables, so this is when we decided she would try the pass.

Our first dive we saw 4 or 5 mantas. At one point I was watching one manta down below me so intently that I missed one come up behind me!  

The second dive we dropped down on the Piste but didn’t see many sharks. So, we quickly headed for Ali Baba, and at that point we learned that, once more, the current was not following the timing or magnitude it was supposed to. It was ripping. Lisa was a real trooper and figured out how to kick hard when needed, and how to find rocks and pieces of dead coral to hold onto.

We got into Ali Baba and snaked our way among the rocks and corals, clinging to the bottom. All around us was a profusion of fish and sharks. The rocks everywhere we looked were just covered – phenomenal!

On the Sharks!

The next day, our last in the North Pass, our first dive had, once more, a bunch of mantas, a cool jellyfish, and lots of nice reef fish.

For our second dive, O2 split us up into really small groups; just me, one other diver and our guide. We dropped right on top of a reef that looked alive, it was crawling with so many sharks. 

We were also visited by a curious tuna.

As we ran low on bottom time and started making our way up towards Ali Baba, we were surrounded by sharks cascading past us along the rocks, and I finally got to shoot upwards.

Drifting up to Ali Baba, the current was unexpectedly much lower than the previous day. This allowed more freedom to go above the carpet of fish covering the rocks, and really show the full extent.

South Pass (Passe Tumakohua)

We relocated to Tetamanu Village to visit the South Pass. This involved a 30 minute drive from the airport, followed by a 1.5 hour boat ride across the lagoon. Tetamanu Village is a lovely setup of very simple bungalows in a spectacular natural setting. 

It is right along the South Pass. Seriously, it doesn’t get more convenient than this. We got geared up on the dock, hopped in the boat for a 3 minute boat ride up the pass, then dropped down to the reef. Then we just drifted along with the incoming current, stopping at 3 places along the way to get up close to the famous “wall of sharks.” Unfortunately, it’s not possible to get below the sharks to shoot upwards, as that will scare them off. So I just have to shoot them from the side, and be patient and quiet enough that they come close enough for me to get some upwards shots as well.

Then we drifted right back to the dock, did our safety stop under the pier, and then climbed up the ladder and dropped our gear off. It was really that easy. Oh yeah, and the pier had a huge school of fish underneath it, which, it just turns out, is the perfect opportunity for some wonderful fisheye redemption.

Fisheye redemption – when, after sticking with your fisheye faith, you are finally rewarded with the perfect fisheye photo opportunity.

After the first dive along the pass, I took about 20 shots of these fish. Then I checked over my photos and used my Continuous Improvement mindset to create this composition on the next dive, over about 20 more shots. Sometimes it takes that much to get the right framing, lighting and fish positioning! 

Night Diving

Only three people signed up for the night dive, which I had heard great things about. Marc, the excellent dive guide, was quite clear– it would be no longer than 35 minutes, and we had to stick right with him. Light up the sharks with your lights, but don’t shine them in their eyes if you could avoid it.

With that, we jumped in, and dropped down in the closing twilight. Soon we saw grey shapes moving about in the water around us. Gray reef sharks and white tips, everywhere. The night is when they hunt, and instead of being shy and docile as they were in the day, they were bold and confident. They pushed right past us, and even bumped into us as they swam around searching for fish hiding in the reef. The white tips, normally resting on the bottom during the day, turned into voracious snakes, worming their way into cracks and crevices to try to dig their prey out. 

It was phenomenal. I even had to get out of the way a couple of times. Finally, the fisheye paid off as I had sharks very close to my dome port - more fisheye redemption! Despite some issues getting focus locked in when using the red setting of my focus light (so not to scare them off or annoy them too much), I got a number of nice shark shots!

I will certainly never forget the experience of sharks everywhere, pushing past us like the intruders that we are, going about their business without paying us any heed. It was one of the best dives I have ever done, and I can’t wait to do another night reef shark dive like this one. 

What was Fakarava Like Topside?

In a word – beautiful. Though it was also sometimes difficult to find dinner, as there were few restaurants around Rotoava, and some had strange hours/days they were open. We ate most of our meals in beautiful settings right on the water, locations that you would pay a lot of money to eat at on the bigger islands…but on Fakarava you only pay $10-20 USD for a great dish of grilled fish, rice and salad. 

North vs. South

The North Pass gives you tons of fish, and lots of variety. We saw a bunch of mantas, Napoleon wrasse, tuna, a turtle, a jellyfish, and lots of other interesting fish, along with large amounts of grey sharks. The South Pass gave us guaranteed sharks, in larger numbers, with better visibility…but that was about it. Oh and the night dive. The night dive!

Many of the dive operators offer day trips down to the South Pass from the North. This sounds appealing, as it means you don’t have to change accommodations and move all your stuff. And I am sure it is, if it works out. We had a lot of trouble arranging a trip to the South Pass beforehand, as the trips are decided on fairly last minute, and will get canceled for bad weather. Though with that said, O2 offers scheduled trips to the pass, but we just decided that we would rather stay at the South to guarantee we did the dives, rather than risk having the trip canceled at the last minute. And the big advantage of that is…once again…you get to do the night dive, which is something that isn’t offered on day trips from the North.

So it’s best to think of the North Pass and South Pass as separate destinations. 

South Pass Logistics

Tetamanu Village provides transfers down to the village from the North of the island which depart in the afternoon, to line up with the daily plane arrival. On the day of departure, they will transfer you back to the airport in time for your flight. So if you stay 2 nights you get one day of diving in, and maybe can fit in an extra dive on your departure day (unless you are flying out). If you stay 3 nights you can get two full days of diving in, with two night dives!

Recommended Adventure Timetable:

Spend 4-5 nights in Rotoava, to get in 4-5 days of 2-tank diving on the North Pass. Then transfer down to Tetamanu Village for 3 nights. That would allow for 4 day dives and 2 nights dives at the South Pass, which would be more than enough to get some great shark encounters, explore around the pier a bit, snorkel if you wanted to, and also tune up your night shark photography skills. Even more importantly, it would give you enough time to relax in the beautiful surroundings and enjoy being so far from civilization.

I would certainly return to dive more with O2 Fakarava – there is a reason they are ranked #1 on TripAdvisor. Great rental gear, small groups, excellent dive guides, and owners who still drive the boat, get in the water with you, and make you feel welcome. 

If you wanted to just add a few days to another trip, like the Moorea Humpback trip, then I would recommend doing at least 3 nights in the North Pass and two in the South Pass, to get in 6 dives in the North and 3 in the South.

Bonus Video

Sometimes photos can't fully do justice to a really cool experience - such it is for diving Fakarava. So I have included the video Lisa and I created of the highlights of our Fakarava trip. It is taken from GoPro footage and is not professional by any means, but gives a good sense of the volume of sharks and fish you can find in the waters around Fakarava. Feel free to check it out!

 

Interested in Going to Fakarava?

One trip I’m keeping my eye on is the Fakarava Grouper Spawning trip. Basically it’s a huge aggregation of marble groupers for spawning, which draws an amount of sharks that dwarfs what I experienced on this trip. If you want to experience the very best of what Fakarava has to offer, then you really need to do this trip! 

2020 Fakarava Grouper Spawning Photo Workshop

July 2 - 12 - Starting at $6,250 per person

 

Of course the liveaboard option is more expensive than the budget land-based option we went with, but with that you get better facilities (including A/C), more dives per day, and access to more dive sites. Especially if your itinerary goes to Rangiroa or any of the surrounding atolls, some of which are quite untouched and full of life. And surely it helps get the timing and location just right for the grouper spawning.  

We went land-based because we weren’t sure how much diving per day Lisa could do with her ears, and we are on a tight budget as we both quit our jobs. The cool thing about land-based are they also let you enjoy the extremely laid-back vibe and beautiful scenery of the island and its people. If you want to go land-based, talk to Bluewater Dive Travel, as they can help arrange the best trip for you. At the very least, they can hook you up with the Tetamanu Village portion of your trip - check out the Bluewater Dive Travel Info on Tetamanu Village here, or drop them a line at info@bluewaterdivetravel.com!

Thanks for reading!

-Bryan

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryan is an associate 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, the Galapagos and French Polynesia.

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 started their journey mid-2018 and will 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?

You can find more of his photos on Instagram at @bryandchu and check out his travel and relationship blog at www.bryanandlisa.ca

SUPPORT THE UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE:

The Best Service & Prices on u/w Photo Gear

 

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

 


The Best Pricing, Service & Expert Advice to Book your Dive Trips

 

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.

 


Five amazing days snorkeling with humpback whales with the whole family - truly the trip of a lifetime!
By Bryan Chu

A Family Humpback Adventure in Moorea

Bryan Chu
Five amazing days snorkeling with humpback whales with the whole family - truly the trip of a lifetime!

“Get ready” our guide William said excitedly, in his characteristic French accent. “It’s a juvenile, playing on the surface.” We could see fins and a fluke splashing about not too far away. Adrenaline pumping, I prepped my mask, pulled on my fins, grabbed my camera. 

Ever since convincing my fiancée Lisa, my sister Jenny, her husband Alex, and my parents Mary and Derek that we should book the whole boat for one week for this Bluewater trip, I had been nervous that it would not live up to expectations. The first day of the trip had involved a long swim with no in-water encounter, and many hours fruitlessly searching for more whales among large-ish ocean swells. 

But this morning, our second day out on the boat, the wind speed was low, the water was calmer, and there was an animal the size of a truck splashing around in the water. Just for us.

Our First Encounter

“Slide into the water quietly – don’t make any splashes. Keep your fins under the surface. And remember to stay together and follow me. OK we go.” 

We slid into the water and followed William, and after a short-ish swim, he slowed down and we came up next to him. And all of a sudden, like magic, there it was, the prehistoric-looking nose materializing out of the brilliant blue water and coming straight for us! 

William had told us to stay still if we had a whale come up to us, so we did our best to just float there without any movement. I watched it come closer and closer, lining up the shot on my LCD screen. This is when I experienced my first case of true whale awe.

Whale awe: a palpable, visceral sense of awe which permeates your entire being with a childlike sense of wonder, and amazement that you are IN THE WATER WITH A WHALE! As the whale approaches you, you feel an insistent need rising in you to yell out loud, to scream in exaltation, and wonder at the sheer beauty and grace of one of Mother Nature’s finest creations.

It was soooo close that I could barely hold in my whale awe; I was only a few seconds away from screaming into my snorkel like a maniac. It kept on coming. My heart was pounding in my chest like the rollicking bass-line of the Iron Maiden classic, the Trooper. Closer still. My breath was quick and ragged, and my throat dry. Closer still…and at what seemed to be the last second, the whale turned and passed us, giving us a really good lookover. 

 

Then it circled around underneath us for another look before heading off. It was insane, in the best way possible. Off the hook. Ill. Groovy. Ridonkulous. Bonkers. Cray-cray. Whatever the cool kids say these days. Actually, I looked it up, and I think it’s this (courtesy of Online Slang Dictionary):

Crunk (adjective)

Extremely fun; exciting; wild.

So yes, it was crunk

On the surface, we had our first collective exaltation.

Collective exaltation: In a group 3 or more people, everyone pops their head above the water, pulls out their snorkel and does some form of screaming, whooping or yelling to indicate their amazement.

We returned to the boat full of excitement, and were back in the water 15 minutes later. This time we got to watch it playing on the surface, though it did not come as close.

Endless Breaching

After lunch we continued our search, and although there were no more good opportunities to get in the water, we were treated to an amazing show of breaching humpbacks. One after another after another. This was fortunate because it turns out to be quite difficult to get a good photo of a breach!

Maman et bebe

Early on the next day, we heard the magical words for the first time. “Maman et bebe” shouted William. Mom and baby - we would get very used to this phrase, very quickly. “Get ready!”

Get ready: hurriedly stuff away your hat, sun buff/face gaitor (very important) and topside camera, spit in your mask, get on your gear ASAP…and then wait at least 15 minutes before going in.

We waited to see if they were in their resting period. We would know that if we saw the baby surface in the same spot multiple times in a row.

Resting period: when humpbacks sit maybe 20-30 ft below the surface, resting, and come up to the surface for a breath every 20 minutes or so (6-7 mins for calves). When resting, they don’t move, or move very slowly, so even a poor swimmer like myself can keep up with them.

After a few minutes of staring intently at the same patch of ocean, the baby came up right where we wanted it to. Resting period!

We slid into the water, and after a moderate swim, we found ourselves looking down onto the mom and calf. It was only our group, with no other boats around.

Then, some movement – the baby was coming up for a breath! It was like watching an alien spacecraft, a small shuttle taking off from the mothership and rising towards us. It was magical the way it slowly pumped its tail fluke. It came right up, on the far end of the group from me, took a breath and swam up to them. Even though I was a bit disappointed that I was on the wrong end of the group, it was so cool…and it was right in front of my dad!

I fought the temptation to kick hard to get clear of the group – I knew that I needed to stay motionless and we had to stay together, so as not to cut the encounter prematurely short. So I waited, enjoying the experience with the best sensor ever created.

Best sensor ever created: human eyes and brain. Seriously, the dynamic range, resolution and low light performance is out of this world!

After visiting the front of the group, the baby circled all the way around us, so I got a nice look, and then it went right under us.

After dropping down, the mom and baby moved along, though not particularly fast. Unfortunately, very slow for a whale is the equivalent of very fast for a human. 

We got back on the boat so full of excitement that we could barely contain it. “We’ll find them again” promised William. 45 minutes later, I was back in the water with the baby right in front of me. It was surreal. Sublime. I could barely contain my whale awe.  

 

A Chaotic Encounter

Our next encounter for the day was with two adults. We got in the water and quickly found them resting below, just at the edge of sight. So we waited. And waited. Then, next thing you know, we looked up and there were people everywhere.

Fortunately, William was amazing, and got us to a point away from the mass of people. The whales came to the surface, seemingly unperturbed by the excitement. We stayed together as a tight group, while the people behind us, now behind the whales as well, created a general underwater ruckus.

General underwater ruckus: a large group of people, with some kicking on the surface, some freediving, some chasing the whales, and guides yelling at people to stay with their group, etc.  

A Marathon Swim

Just as we thought the day couldn’t get any better, we heard the call: “Maman et bebe! Get ready!

There were three other boats in the area; this meant we would have lots of swimming, through – you guessed it – more general underwater ruckus. As it was the end of the day and our group was tired, only Alex and I went with William. We got into the water and went for a long swim. Next thing you know, we were sitting on the surface just ahead of the mom and baby, who were down about 30’ below. They were swimming along at such a leisurely pace that you could barely tell they were moving. But kicking to keep up with them took all the strength and energy I had.

It was worth it as the baby launched up towards the surface to take a breath. William had us in the perfect position, and it came right up to us. Everyone else was far enough away that it was like a private encounter. The baby’s movements were energetic and playful as it lunged up to the surface for breath, and quickly flicked its fluke up and down to circle us. 

Not only was it beautiful, but it was just the reprieve my lungs needed. As soon as the baby went back down again, I let out a big groan. It was time to stop floating and start kicking in earnest. We plowed on for another 6 minutes or so, and then the baby came back up for another breath. At this point we had been going for about 25 minutes, and I was exhausted.

All too soon, it was over, and we were back to swimming. My lungs were on fire and my legs were screaming at me. I tasted my lunch again (fortunately it had been a nice lunch). I felt every day of my 33 years, especially those days during the past 2 months driving around Alaska which involved minimal levels of cardio exercise, many hours of sitting, and above-average levels of sugary or salty snacks. 6 minutes later, my breath even more ragged, the baby came up again. This time, the mother came with it. If they thought about or noticed me at all, they surely must have thought I was dying, and probably felt some sympathy for the sick-sounding swimming monkey. I was close enough to get a couple of decent photos, and then they went down again. 

Alex tried to help by taking my camera, but at this point I was more cooked than a well-boiled Nova Scotian lobster, and probably just as red-looking. That was it. What an amazing encounter.

Could it Get Better?

After day 3, we told ourselves it couldn’t possibly get any better. For day 4 we had very calm water and minimal wind, so we decided to circumnavigate the island. This is where we really had the advantage over the day boats – we could go far offshore or go far from harbour to go looking for an amazing, private encounter, while they had to play it safe.

We had a quiet start to the day, but about 2 hours in we found a mom and baby pair all for ourselves. They surfaced right in front of us, all 6 of us. Talk about a family experience!

With this pair the baby was pretty shy, and did not come to check us out. So instead of following them, we decided to get back in the boat and go looking for more.

Triple Threat

3 hours later it paid off in spades, as we found ourselves alone, with our whole group in the water, above THREE adult humpbacks. We watched and waited, and then, rising up like benthic behemoths, they surfaced no more than 10 feet from our group. Insane! Crunk!

We waited above them as they spent their next 20 minutes resting, though unfortunately one of them went off, leaving two. Then Henri pointed down, and we saw them coming up. Straight up. Right towards us.

I’m not scared of whales or being in the water with them – we just need to follow our side of what I like to think of as the unspoken pact.

Unspoken pact: give the whales their space and treat them respectfully – stay together in a group (no freediving), don’t make sudden movements, don’t rush towards them or chase them. Let them decide how close they want to come to you. You can position yourself where you think they will come up, but then leave it up to the whales. Then they will hold up their side of the pact – not smacking us puny humans out of the way with their massive tails or flippers, either from annoyance or from being scared or spooked.

But even thinking this as much as I could, I was still nervous. They were coming so close!

Look Mom – No Hands

By this point I had been so busy taking photos of whales when they were close that I hadn’t had a really great uninterrupted eye-to-eye moment. So although I lined up one photo, it was a bit absentmindedly. I spent most of the encounter getting in some excellent non-camera enjoyment, including looking the closest school-bus-sized adult in the eye!

Non-camera enjoyment: spending most or all of your time and attention using your best sensor ever to just watch the whales, feel the emotions they bring up in you, and log every detail of the experience in your memory. 

They surfaced 6 feet in front of me, and it was beyond words. So much better without worrying about taking photos. I felt a level of whale awe I did not realize was possible. This time I could not stop myself from yelling into my snorkel. I was probably trying to say WOOOWWWWWW but it sounded more like uuuurrrggrgrgghhghghg. As soon as the whales were past, every one of us raised our heads out of the water, spat out our snorkels and engaged in a frenzied collective exaltation. I even included some expletives, which I never use around my parents!  This ridiculous encounter had just bested all other amazing ones of the trip.

As we got back to the dock, none of us could stop talking about how great of a day we had had. It went beyond our wildest imaginations. Surely it couldn’t get any better, right?

Could it Get Better? Part 2

We told William that for our final day, we’d prefer to skip out on encounters with moms and babies with other boats around. There were only two things we wanted – to get in the water with a singing male, and to find pilot whales. First though, we encountered a big pod of spinner dolphins while leaving the harbor. William advised us that they are quite shy, so there was no point trying to get into the water with them, so we enjoyed from the surface.

We then headed off the West end of the island, putting in the hydrophone. We heard two males singing, which was really cool. Of course, the problem with a singing male is that he sings facing down in the water, and you can’t see him. We didn’t have any luck, so we decided it was time to look for pilot whales! We spent about 2 hours heading offshore and looking around, but didn’t see any signs.

We headed in for lunch and came across another mother and baby. “Get ready!” In we went, and we were shortly joined by one other group. However, they followed the rules and the unspoken pact, stuck close to their guide and left us lots of distance. And we were treated to an amazing spectacle – mom and baby at the surface, baby nursing. They were so calm, and quite near to us and the other group. Not close enough for a really great shot with my fisheye lens though (and no way I was going to try to sneak closer, in the process risking messing up the encounter for my family and the other group).  

After getting back on the boat, we told William we wanted to spend more time looking for pilot whales. So we headed out for another hour. As we were motoring out across the blue water of the open ocean, I saw something jump, far off in the distance.

I pointed the direction and we turned that way. A couple of minutes later, we saw something dark stick out of the water and then go back down. Some kind of whale tail. That was promising!

And suddenly, we saw some dark backs with hooked fins sticking out of the water. Pilot whales!!! This was so exciting that I could barely contain myself, as I suffered a strong case of pelagic exhilaration.

Pelagic exhilaration: you are so excited that you actually found <insert cool pelagic> and can get into the water with it/them that you don’t even know what to do. You start putting your topside camera into your dry bag, but then stash it somewhere to be able to take photos. Then you grab your mask to get it ready. But you decide that you want to take a photo so you grab your topside camera. And you’re so excited that you can’t get a stable shot because you’re just thinking about getting in the water. But you really want that topside shot. And your fiancée gets annoyed with you because you are bumbling around frantically trying to do everything, and yet accomplishing nothing other than getting in the way of the others.

We slid into the water and headed for some pilot whales. The water was full of particulates, so visibility was poor. But we found whales! They were friendly, in that they just hung out in the water and watched us, but they didn’t get too close nor let us approach too close either. But it was still nice, as it allowed me to continue to develop my skill at non-camera enjoyment.

Then an oceanic white tip found us, and came in for a look. I am not scared of sharks, but as this was my first encounter with one of these, I was a bit nervous. It was very curious, and bold. William had already briefed us though on what to do - stick together very closely, and keep an eye on it, and we would be OK. 

We got on and off the boat a couple of times, and then sighted a humpback! How cool would that be to see humpbacks and pilot whales in the water together?

I grabbed my camera and flicked the on/off switch on my housing to check the battery. That is when I suffered a powerful setback.

Powerful setback: When the power switch for your camera housing falls off.

Crap. After making sure my housing was still watertight and stashing the loose pieces, I scrambled into the water. We came across the humpback quickly, but there were no pilot whales close, and the visibility was still poor. 

After this, we got into the water one more time. This time we came across something unexpected – a few rough-toothed dolphins. They were too far off for a great picture.

Finally, exhausted, spent and having consumed many mouthfuls of saltwater in the excitement, we were finished. Somehow, Day 5 had managed to top day 4! So we headed back in to shore. En route to the harbour we came across a mom and baby with 3 boats of people in the water. We watched from the boat, knowing that whatever happened, it would not match what we’d already seen this week.

It was seriously the trip of a lifetime - unbelievable on so many levels. And very accessible, as my parents who are in their 60s got lots of great encounters (with some towing and help from the amazing guides). The guides/boat captains William and Henri were fantastic, and we could not have asked for more. Indeed, we could have gotten a lot less out of this trip and it would still have been the best family trip ever.

Along with taking photos, I took a lot of GoPro footage, as did my brother-in-law. My fiancee and I put together a highlights video of our favourite parts of the trip, which really shows what it's like being face-to-face with a humpback! 

 

Although this is listed as a photo trip, I think it’s much more useful to think of it as an experience trip. Experience something amazing like you’ve never seen before. And if you want, get some video and some photos to remember the trip by. But make sure that the experience is your top priority.

As I learned on this amazing trip, the only thing better than having a great experience is sharing that experience with one or more people who matter to you. If you can get a friend to go with you, or even better, a group of family and friends (6 to take the whole boat for yourselves) then you will build shared memories and experiences to truly last a lifetime. There's no real way to describe how fantastic it was being in the water with my whole family, and having two huge adult humpbacks surface right in front of us. I have no doubt we will be talking about this trip fondly in 10, 20 years, and beyond. 

So what are you waiting for? Sign up for one of Bluewater’s humpback trips!


Moorea Humpback Snorkel Trips

August/September 2019 - $2,995 per person

 

Silver Bank Humpback Trip

March 28 - April 4, 2020 - Starting from $3,795

 

Equipment & Settings Used

I shot an Olympus OM-D E-M1 with an Olympus 8mm fisheye lens and a Nauticam housing. The fisheye made sure I could be very close to the whales while still getting the whole whale in the frame. And as the visibility was decent but not amazing, the fisheye helped get the sharpest photos possible (ie least amount of water between camera and subject).

Shooting with a fisheye lens, especially on a crop-sensor camera, I was much more concerned about shutter speed than depth of field. f/5 on a micro-four-thirds camera gives a depth of field closer to what f/10 gives you on a full frame camera. If the shutter speed was a bit slow and the photo had motion blur, then it was no good. But if the aperture was a bit low, it wouldn’t have as much of an effect. So I shot in shutter priority at either 1/125 or 1/160 sec, and adjusted ISO if my aperture opened up too much.

Post-processing

I did not do anything particularly complicated. The main tip I would have for shooting subjects like this in really blue water is to modify the white balance by warming up the temperature. It’s easier to show than explain.

 

The other thing to keep in mind is that in some cases, black and white will give you a more dramatic photo than color. This is the most true when you really want to emphasize light, shape and texture, and color is a distraction from that. Black and white can also work very well with subjects which are a bit further away, and are being "lost in the blue." So after you adjust your photos with color, I would highly recommend taking a few minutes to try some of them out in black and white. You may be surprised with what you find!

Gear Links

Additional Reading

If you want to learn more about my experience on the trip, drop me an email at bryan@uwphotographyguide.com. I’d be more than happy to chat!

-Bryan

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryan is an associate 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, the Galapagos and French Polynesia.

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 started their journey mid-2018 and will 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?

You can find more of his photos on Instagram at @bryandchu and check out his travel and relationship blog at www.bryanandlisa.ca

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A unique combination of technical cave diving and beautiful underwater photography, way off the tourist track.
By Guillermo Viveros

Cave Photography in Mexico's Lesser-Known Cenotes

Guillermo Viveros
A unique combination of technical cave diving and beautiful underwater photography, way off the tourist track.

For me, photography is a way to show others what I’ve seen underwater; how beautiful underwater scenes are, as well as underwater creatures. After 12 years of shooting images underwater, I decided that cave photography was my next step to take. To become a cave diver, you must pass the certification course by mastering several skills - including perfect buoyancy, finding your way out of a cave in zero visibility, following a strict navigation code and being able to dive with 2, 3 or 4 tanks. So, it takes some time, a lot of effort, and many, many practice dives.

Cave Diving in Cenotes

Diving into full darkness is challenging, and it's necessary to have a good light and 2 or more backups; otherwise you will see nothing at all! As a cave diver, you get to see very amazing formations that very few people (even other divers) have the chance to see. However, carrying a 12kg (26.4 lb) camera/strobe setup and 1.7kg (3.75 lb) light is complicated when diving in cenotes. Going through restrictions, low visibility zones, and diving with 3 tanks with a large camera makes things more complicated than just cave diving. Also, not all cenotes have facilities to make things easy, such as stairs to get into the water, so taking care of your photo gear is a very serious task.

Cenotes have a long history back to the Mayans and before. For Mayans, cenotes were sacred places, representing a fresh water source, but also an entrance to the “underworld”. Some of them were used for sacrifices, as well as offerings to the Gods. It is important to always keep in mind that when diving in a cenote, you’re not only diving in a fresh water cave, but also in a very ancient cave system that millions of years ago was above water. Additionally, you’re entering into a Mayan sacred place where respect must be shown to the ancestors. And this respect must go beyond the Mayans, towards structures that were created millions of years ago and are very fragile and delicate.


In a cenote you must not touch, must not take away, and must not leave anything. Most importantly, a lot of respect must be shown to all the safety factors required for diving in an overhead environment where your level of training must not be exceeded; without the proper training and equipment, your own life may be at risk.

Getting in the Water

Some cenotes may not have nice facilities such as an access road, parking area, or tables or benches to assemble your gear. But when you go underwater, it worth it. Such is the case of D’Zonot Ila Cenote.

Here you need to use ropes and pulleys to take all your diving and photo gear down about 12m (40’) through a small opening to the water, and gear-up on the water. However, when you see what’s beneath the surface, it’s hard to believe.

Some other cenotes are even less inviting. They make you not want to go in the water at all, because all you can see from the surface is a small pond of murky water.

When entering the water, visibility is almost zero and you must rely on a line attached to a tree next to the pond. Even worse, you have to follow the line down for about 2 minutes before the visibility gets better. But once you do, the water clears up so much that you feel like you’re flying!

Some cenotes have a different type of entrance, basically a hole on the ground. They can go very deep, like El Zapote, which runs straight down as a cylinder until 90 feet of depth. At that point, you can see a very typical type of stalactite in the form of a bell, which is why this place is sometimes also called “Hell’s Bells.”

El Zapote cenote, also known as Hell’s Bells. Nikon D-810, Sea & Sea Housing, Nikon AF-S 16-35mm f/4G lens @ 16mm, 2x S&S YS-D1 strobes. 1/100 sec, f/11, ISO 100.

 

Life in Cenote Cave Zones

Underwater life in cenote cave zones can be quite different from areas where there’s light. In areas of light you can find small freshwater fish, but how about in the dark cave sections? Amazingly enough, even in the absolute darkness of a cave there’s life. It really makes you wonder how a fish or shrimp or other crustacean can live in such darkness.

In some cenotes there’s a fish that is both beautiful and ugly at the same time, called “the White Lady” (Typhliasina pearsei). These very shy fish live in the cave zones of many cenotes. Despite being blind, they are still shy of diving lights because the heat from the lights bothers them. They are not easy to photograph since bubble noise, water disturbance and lights all make them aware of the diver’s presence. Shooting this type of fish requires much patience, low air consumption, and of course a safety-conscious buddy to keep their eye on you and the line as it's easy to get caught up chasing the fish!


 White Lady (Typhliasina pearsei) – a blind cave fish. Nikon D-810, Sea & Sea Housing, AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105 f/2.8G, 2x S&S YS-D1 strobes, Sola Photo 800 focus light. 1/200 sec, f/25, ISO 160.

 

Macro photography in a cenote is more challenging than in the ocean. This is due to the complete darkness, and the fact that you must keep your main light covered in order not to disturb the sensitive creatures. I only use a small red focus light, but this makes it even more challenging just to find these elusive subjects.

What I Love About Cave Diving in Cenotes

Cave diving in cenotes provides a sensation of loneliness, tranquility, silence, and some doses of adrenaline. Additionally, it is the opportunity to observe how wonderful mother nature is, materialized in beautiful, ancient formations. Diving in a cenote will always give you something to remember.

Light reflections where stalactites enter the cenote’s water create magnificent images - at some points producing the illusion of floating or flying objects.
 

Light reflections of stalactites entering the water. Nikon D-810, Sea & Sea Housing, Nikon AF-S 16-35mm f/4G lens @16mm, 2x S&S YS-D1 strobes. 1/125 sec, f/7.1, ISO 125.


Another marvelous aspect of diving in cenotes is the haloclines. A halocline is the point of separation between salt water and fresh water. It creates the sensation of flying above the water line. Due to differences in density, light reflects differently in each type of water.

Diving above a halocline. Nikon D-810, Sea & Sea Housing, Nikon AF-S 16-35mm f/4G lens @17mm, 2x S&S YS-D1 strobes. 1/160 sec, f/7.1, ISO 100.


I enjoy every moment and every bit of scenery cenotes have to offer. The more complicated the access and entrance are, the more beautiful scenes you see. In Mexico we have the world’s largest underwater cave system, “Sac-Actun”, which gives me the opportunity to constantly explore this wonderful underwater world.

Impacts of Human Activity

Unfortunately, cenotes do not avoid the impacts of human activity, and water pollution has become an issue in some. The clarity of the water has disappeared near the cities, and garbage is sometimes present in the cavern areas. Large hotels and attraction parks have modified the original landscapes and hurt cenote health. Much of the original fauna has moved to safer and quieter areas. We must care for this fragile underwater system,  or many millions of years of geological formations and geological history will be gone for future generations!

Book your Cenotes Trip!

Bluewater Travel can help you plan and book the perfect cenotes dive trip, including excursions to Cozumel, Isla Mujeres and more. Visit Bluewater's Yucutan Scuba Diving page or email bookings@bluewaterdivetravel.com.

Photo Equipment Used

Additional Reading:·        

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guillermo was born and raised in Mexico City. As an electrical engineer, he’s always been interested in gadgets and photography. He has been diving for 35 years, and during this time he has fallen in love with the ocean and its inhabitants. Through his pictures, he wants to show to others the magnificence of the underwater world, to promote love of the ocean, and to reduce pollution and destruction of ocean habitats.

One of his most recent certifications, as a full cave diver, has led him to pursue cave photography, and he is now an enthusiastic photographer in this challenging environment.

Check out his photos on Facebook: G Viveros UW Photography and on his website: www.gviverosuwphotography.com

 

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Natalie Gibb chronicles her experiences exploring vast unknown cave systems in Mexico
By Natalie Gibb

Under the Jungle in México's Flooded Caves

Natalie Gibb
Natalie Gibb chronicles her experiences exploring vast unknown cave systems in Mexico

Above Image: @Fan Ping, https://www.pingfanimaging.com/

The ocean stretched smoothly along the north coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, México. Turquoise water, bright green jungle, cloudless sky – the place was beautiful, but I didn't care. I stood on our boat, transfixed by a freshwater spring that boiled and churned on the surface of the ocean about 20 meters from the shore. A grin spread across my face, and I may have giggled a bit. This opening in the seafloor was definitely worth a dive.

My friend Dr. Patricia Beddows, a hydrogeologist at Northwestern University, brought me to the site to determine whether the spring could be dived. She wanted to know what's happening underground for science, and I just like finding unexplored cave -- it's a symbiotic relationship that's led me to this spring among other interesting places in past years.

I hopped off the boat, unexpectedly sank up to my calves in soft muck, and flailed awkwardly; there was no way to walk through the shallow water. I dragged myself on my stomach through the hot mud, stuck my head over the cool outflow, and caught a glimpse of darkness below. Then the water blew my mask off. Intriguing.

A nest of matted branches, trash, and fishing line clogged the spring entrance. If I could clear these out, I would have a shot at diving the spring. Removing the debris took an hour of work, and a huge forked log remained wedged in the entrance, blocking my path. Although I could see darkness from the surface, I couldn't get into the spring. I resolved to come back with a saw.

Two months later, my exploration partner, Vincent Rouquette-Cathala, and I returned to the spring with a handsaw and a sense of purpose. Cutting the log required wrapping one arm around it to avoid being blown out, while attempting to keep the blade exactly perpendicular to the spring flow. Otherwise the flow kept slapping the saw against our masks. When we finally freed the log we observed . . . more branches and debris.

Using dive gear but no fins, I braced myself against the walls, and crawled down against the flow. I spent the next hour wedged upside down tossing debris up between my legs to Vince. With no obstructions, the water bubbled out of the hole even faster, and I felt sure we would find a diveable cave. I preemptively christened our new cave Hydra, and then, slipping back into my fins, I dropped headfirst into the darkness.

 

I AM ACTUALLY NOT CRAZY

I will admit that I have done many things in my life that ended with me thinking “how did I get myself into this situation?” but cave diving has never been one of them – not even the exploration of Hydra. Cave diving is a sport for passionate control freaks, not adrenaline junkies. It's a sport for curious adventurers with a keen interest in the world.

As a new scuba diver, I had zero interest in flooded caves. Understanding little of the sport, I believed cave diving's reputation as “the most dangerous sport on Earth.” When I moved to México in 2006 for a coral reef science internship, I was quite nervous about my first cavern dive. My anxiety was unnecessary. With my first breath in a cavern, the tightness in my chest relaxed and my worries melted away.

In the cool, clear water, natural stone columns rose 15 feet high and tiny silver fish darted about against a backdrop of brilliant sunlight. Dark passages ran off to my sides, and in the distance, I could see the pinpoint lights of two cave divers disappear as they swam out of the tourist-accessible cavern zone and into the cave. At that moment I desired nothing more in life than to be there, entering the cave with those divers.

My first cavern dive was an inspiration; I surfaced from that dive with a mission in life. I wanted to be a cave diver. More specifically, I wanted to be a cave explorer, and to discover and map new caves. I wanted to teach others to cave dive one day, and I wanted to own a cave diving center. 12 years later, that is what I have done, and I love cave diving even more than the day I started.

 

LEARNING TO CAVE DIVE SAFELY

My first alluring glimpse of the dark waters running below the Yucatán's jungles were enough to lead me to pursue cave diver training. Not every diver feels the same. Some divers seek cave training for the techniques and level of control the courses teach. Others learn to cave dive for scientific endeavors or other projects. My end goal was to explore new caves. Learning to cave dive is challenging, and the training will make anyone feel like a complete novice. As a new diver with only 100 or so dives, I had a lot of learning to do.

One of the first topics I learned about was accident analysis – the process of determining what factors caused fatalities in the past to avoid repeating those mistakes. Sheck Exley, one of my sport's pioneers, first applied accident analysis to cave diving and discovered that most accidents involved at least one of the following factors: diving beyond training/experience level, diving deep without proper gasses/decompression cylinders, failure to maintain a continuous guideline to the open water, failure to reserve 2/3 of total breathing gas for the exit, and failure to carry at least three dive lights/adequate redundancy of all vital life support equipment. To this day, these rules hold true.

If only learning to cave dive were as easy as simply applying these rules! Cave divers must master advanced propulsion techniques, such as the reverse kick, in order to maneuver delicately through the most fragile cave formations. They must become experts in buoyancy control and be stable in the water even in emergencies. Losing position by so little as an inch can have disastrous consequences in advanced caves. Most importantly, cave divers must have excellent mental control –  becoming methodical in all actions and thoughts, and never allowing even their breathing rates to increase with stress when faced with a difficult problem.

The skills and mental training take time and practice to acquire. Any good cave diver will tell you that they still have room for improvement. Our sport takes dedication, but the result is worth it: drifting effortlessly through dark waters and witnessing beauty that is incomprehensible to most.

 

BEGINNING TO EXPLORE FLOODED CAVES

It took years of full time cave diving before I felt ready to explore new underwater caves. When I was finally ready, I realized I had a problem: I needed a cave to explore. I moved to the town of Akumal with the naive, but correct, idea that if I relocated to a place without many reported caves, I would get to know the residents and certainly find new holes in the ground.

I did indeed meet landowners near my new home. My team's first exploration project was called Tatich, which translates to chief or boss in Maya. The entrance to Tatich is a small hole in the jungle floor that drops into a dry cave. We used a questionable aluminum ladder to descend, lowered tanks on ropes, hunched over, and slogged our tanks to the water's edge. Murky from the surface, the cave's shallow underwater rooms were filled with the most brilliant white limestone stalactites I had seen. Partially flooded passageways revealed sparkling air pockets above us. We followed an exploration guideline placed by a French team and another local explorer years ago and came to the end of their line in a passage that clearly continued. We grabbed our reels and started off into cave. It was on.

Over nearly ten years of underwater cave exploration, Vince and I have discovered a variety of caves – some beautifully decorated and stable, some crumbly and silty. During our explorations, we have needed to continuously improve our skills. Each time we get comfortable with our current level of skill, a project seems to appear that requires new techniques. I started carrying stage cylinders for exploration, purchased a diver propulsion vehicle for exploration, began using my drysuit again for exploration, and so on. The nature of the cave environment disallows complacency.

 

THERE IS SO MUCH YET TO DISCOVER

Vince and I, with various additional team members including Anders Knudsen, Marcelin Nebenhaus, and Rory O'Keefe, have discovered and surveyed over 60 kilometers of flooded cave passageways in Mexico. There are plenty of other excellent exploration teams with similar accomplishments. There is so much left to discover, that I am sure México's caves will not be fully explored in my lifetime. The caves continue to teach us and we continue to learn.

Along the coast, hidden in shallow ocean waters and mangrove swamps, we have discovered several cave systems filled with strange microbial growths – strands of microbes hanging like strings of snot from the ceiling and thick layers of microbial matting covering the floors. Such caves are fascinating because of the unusual life inside of them and the challenge of exploring in the low visibility conditions created by disturbing the microbes. The coastal nature of these caves causes high, and often reversing flow due to tides and a variety of factors that we are still investigating. Hydra, the cave from the introduction, bubbles out on the surface of the Yucatán's north coast, and several of our projects along México's eastern coast are siphons.

Inland, in the center of the Yucatán Peninsula, our team has started exploring sinkholes. These deep sites require the use of trimix and decompression gasses to catch even a glimpse of the floor. While we have only discovered a few short cave passages so far, the astounding size of these inland sinkholes, coupled with the joy of free-falling 65 meters straight down, keeps us road-tripping to the center of the peninsula. With dazzling light effects and scenic panoramas, the sinkholes have inspired me to pursue still photography as well as video. There's thousands of them that have not yet been dived. It's unending, and it's heaven for an explorer.

 

THE CAVES ARE WAITING

With cave diving in the news recently, the focus has been on the tremendous heroism and difficulty of the sport. Cave rescues, especially the most recent ones in Thailand, deserve every plaudit they receive, and are indeed extreme and dangerous tasks. Not all cave diving is so. Most experienced cave divers will tell you that adrenaline should not feature in regular practice of the sport. Instead, the sport is about knowing your abilities, and pushing yourself to constantly improve until the cave can be approached from a state of calm proficiency, allowing muscle memory take over so that you can become immersed in the environment. For me, the exploration of underwater caves is as much about the enchantment of the current chamber as the mystery beyond it. I live for the days that I find myself with a full reel in my hand, an unexplored cave in front of me, and an opportunity to glide into the unknown.

 

Photography Equipment Used

All photos, except for Ping’s (i.e., 1st image), were taken with a Sony A7S and Bigblue Dive Lights of varying powers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Natalie L Gibb is a cave explorer, TDI Cave Diver instructor, author, public speaker, and amateur photographer. She co-owns Under the Jungle dive center near Tulum, Mexico.

www.underthejungle.com

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Diving Japan’s Hidden Treasure with the Sony RX100 V
By Jin Woo Lee

Diving Japan's Ogasawara Islands

Jin Woo Lee
Diving Japan’s Hidden Treasure with the Sony RX100 V

Located 1000 km from mainland Japan, the Ogasawara Islands provide a unique experience to visitors patient enough to make the trip from Tokyo harbor. Although the country of Japan is part of Asia, the Ogasawara islands are geographically part of the Oceania region. In Ogasawara there are only two islands people are allowed live on; Chichijima and Hahajima. Chichijima is the main island I visited this time, which has a population of about 2000. Hahajima is 2 hours from Chichijima by a small ferry, and only has a population of 500.

I’ve traveled to Cuba, Mexico, Belize, Indonesia, and other locations, but Ogasawara was the most difficult to get to of anywhere I’ve been diving. To get to the Ogasawara islands, you need to book a ferry called “Ogasawara-Maru”, which takes about 26 hours to go from Takeshiba harbor, Tokyo to Chichijima, Tokyo (the Ogasawara islands are still technically a part of Tokyo). During the off-season, the ferry only goes to the island once a week. During the peak-season (summer), the ferry goes to the Ogasawara islands once every five days.

 

 

 

 

Ogasawara is known for nighttime land tours to see its endemic species, such as the Ogasawara pigeon and the glowing mushroom. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time (or was too lazy….) to do the land tour; instead, I spent most of my time there on a nice blue ocean also known as “Benin-Blue”. There are several diving centers that divers can connect with, but it’s not easy for divers from other countries. At the Ogasawara islands, most of the marine sports operators don’t speak fluent English. Fortunately, I can speak a little bit of Japanese, and my dive guide tried to give as much information as possible in English while I was diving with him. I dove with a dive center called “Papa’s Diving Studio.” They have a nice diving boat with a dry area. I was surprised that even though I was the only diver going out, they took me on the nice boat with a great dive-guide-to-diver ratio of 1:1!

 

 

 

Conditions

Diving conditions at Ogasawara were not what I expected. I was there for 12 days from the middle of May to the end of May, and it was hot on land. However, it was so cold underwater that some divers from Taiwan thought they needed drysuits! Even though it was a nice tropical region, the water temperature was between 22 to 25 degrees Celsius (71 to 77 F). We were usually at depths of 15m to 25m (50 to 80 feet), but we went deeper when I was looking for some big fish like sand tiger sharks and pelagic rays. Diving could be either easy or difficult, depending on what you want. Most of the diving around coral reefs was relatively easy. However, looking for some big fish made diving quite difficult. Some of the diving locations in Ogasawara had crazy current in which I was not able to move forward at all with my ScubaPro Jet Fins.

 

 

Tuna

In this high-current environment, it was easy to see schooling dogtooth tunas; however, I don’t recommend bringing a fancy camera rig for photography! I cannot forget diving around Minamijim, as I saw tunas and eagle rays there, but I couldn’t hold my camera with my one weak arm against the current. But don’t worry, I was able to see tunas in much better conditions on a special trip Yomejima. One of the diving points there is called “Maguro Ana” which means “Tuna Hole” in English. Under the arch, there were many dog tooth tunas swimming around and chilling, and I got some chances to shoot photos of them.

 

 

Whales and Dolphins

The Ogasawara islands are also known for whales and dolphins. I was there during the season that Humpback whales and Sperm whales are expected to show up close to shore. So, I went on a Sperm whale trip for two days, but instead of Sperm whales I got to see Humpbacks!

Dolphins, on the other hand, are common around the Ogasawara Islands throughout the year. There are two species around the islands: Spinner and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins. I was lucky enough to see them almost every day I went diving, and the owner of the Papa’s Diving Studio, Mr. Hoshino, allowed me to jump into the water and take photos of them. This was one of my favorite things I did while I was on the island. The dolphins were friendly enough to hang out with divers for couple of minutes!

 

 

Endemic Fishes 

Around Ogasawara, there are also a few endemic species of fishes, including varieties of clownfish and butterflyfish. I didn’t get to see any of the clownfishes, but I got to see Wrought Iron Butterflyfish for the first time in my life, which look like they are covered by iron armor. They were really neat!

 

 

My Thoughts

Was it worth spending a lot of money and time to go the Ogasawara islands? Yes, and I will go back there again. Along with enjoying the diving, I also enjoyed the culture and people there. Even though I was a foreigner who could speak a minimal amount of Japanese, people were so helpful and friendly. What is more is that I was invited to a BBQ party at a bar called “Yankee Town,” whose owner is an ex-military soldier! I had good time learning about the history of Ogasawara, with good drinks there with other divers.

If you are willing to go these exotic islands, I highly recommend doing some dolphin swimming and whale watching. Swimming with dolphins is almost guaranteed and there is a good chance of seeing whales, during the whale season. Also, kayaking and snorkeling around is fun. When walking around the island with my wetsuit and camera, I found good place called “Sakaiura Beach,” which had a ship wreck. I snorkeled and took some nice over-under shots there. What more can I ask from the Ogasawara Islands?

Additional Reading

Jin Woo Lee shoots with a compact camera, the Sony RX100 V. Check out our detailed RX100 V review, which has more of his great photos as well! 

Gear Links

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jin has been highly interested in underwater creatures since he was in Kindergarten. At the age of 11, he started scuba diving by himself with a GoPro. When he began to lose interest in diving, he found that underwater photography could be a great motivation. For Jin's 20th birthday, he got his own compact camera from Sony and began to shoot underwater photos around Florida and the world to share his impressions of nature. He is currently waiting to complete his mandatory two-year military service in South Korea, but he will be back to field after that in 2021. You can check out his photos on Instagram

 

 

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Diving Southeast Asia’s Budding Dive Destination with the Sony RX100 V
By Jin Woo Lee

Diving Timor-Leste (East Timor)

Jin Woo Lee
Diving Southeast Asia’s Budding Dive Destination with the Sony RX100 V

I recently did my Divemaster course in Bali. Once I finished that, I wanted to do some more diving, but was unsure where to go. I spent a few days doing online research, but found that my selection for destinations within my budget and timing requirements was quite limited. Most destinations in Indonesia were either too crowded or too expensive, or had accessibility issues. For example, even if I decided not to worry about price and go to Raja Ampat, flying there from Bali would have taken over 20 hours! But then I came across an article about Timor-Leste, a new country that became independent from Indonesia in 2002.


 

About Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste is not an easy destination to travel to, but its exotic locale makes it more than worth the hassle. Located to the South of the Banda Sea, Timor-Leste has nice wall diving, with good chances of seeing pelagic species. It also boast some beautiful coral reefs, which look as though they were painted with pastels on a canvas. Most international flights to Timor-Leste depart from Bali, Singapore or Darwin. I used Citilink Airline, out of Bali, Indonesia, which was very affordable. The flight took about 2 hours, and I was quite happy with Citilink’s luggage policy and on-time schedule.

I flew in to Dili, which is the capital and largest city in Timor-Leste. It’s a good thing I was there for diving, as there were not a lot of land/topside sites to see (though my laziness when faced with the hot sun didn’t make me too keen to explore, either). If I had to name one thing worth seeing, it was Christo Rei, which was built in 1996 by the Indonesian government to reduce resistance among the Timor people. But overall, I would not recommend traveling to Timor-Leste for topside/land activities.

If you decide to travel to Timor-Leste, there are some important things you have to watch out for. Public security is only available in Dili until sunset. For women, sexual harassment is rampant, such that a taxi may not even be a safe place. Robbery is not common, but it does happen, sometimes with serious consequences.

 

 

How is the Diving There?

The people on the East side of Timor Island finally obtained independence in 2002, after being colonized for almost 500 years by Portugal and Indonesia. Ironically, Timor-Leste’s political situation through the years protected its healthy reef systems from tourists. So, underwater photographers will love diving here, both for macro and for wide angle. And small diving groups are a bonus!

I dove with Timor Lorosae for four days, and the conditions were decent. Most dives were easy and warm; the only problem was low visibility due to windy conditions. The dive center offers a variety of diving locations: shore diving, local boat diving and an Atauro Island trip. To be honest, I didn’t expect much from shore diving, but very quickly realized that I was completely wrong. Timor-Leste had done a good job of hiding its beautiful reefs from the world! I also really enjoyed diving Hera Banks, where endless Montipora reefs and large sponges and sea fans were thriving. And Atauro Island amazed me with its crystal-clear visibility and colorful cauliflower coral.

 

 

Shore Diving

I went shore diving during poor weather conditions; strong winds over the past few days had resulted in lots of choppy waves and decreased visibility along the shore. However, the shore reef was beautiful! Unfortunately, as I was shooting macro, I do not have any pictures showing the reef, so you will just have to take my word for it. Fortunately, I was able to get a lot of nice macro photos.

 

 

 

Although I have always classified myself as a wide-angle lover, night diving on the shore reef really got me into macro. I tried out fluorescent diving and I loved the shots I took.

 

 

 

Atauro Island

 

Diving at Atauro Island was awesome, other than a bruised backside I suffered on the boat ride. The waves were very unwelcoming for our two hour ride out to the island, and we did a lot of bouncing up and down. But the sky was clear, and the sun made the diving beautiful. We also encountered pilot whales and larger whales on the surface. How was the visibility? It was amazingly clear! Such that I could see the end of the wall, about 60 to 80 meters down! However, it also meant that Napoleon wrasses could spot me coming and get out of the way of my camera well before I could take a photo. The dive guide also said that, during the right season, pelagic species including tuna and hammerhead sharks could be seen around Atauro Island.

 

 

 

Local Boat Diving

 

Local boat diving took me to Hera Banks, which was East of Dili. The divemaster explained that the currents there were unpredictable, but fortunately for us, the water was calm and visibility was still amazing. Hera Banks was full of healthy hard coral reef and sponges. It was like walking through a garden of coral.

 

 

For next stop, we moved to a jetty close to shore. The jetty was protected from any fishing, helping to keep it as a beautiful sea fan paradise. And bunches of blacklip butterflyfish didn’t mind my camera at all, so I could fill my frames with them.

 

 

 

My Thoughts

I didn’t stay long enough to fully explore what Timor-Leste had to offer underwater. I dove a total of 7 times in East Timor and could only get a little taste. However, I found diving in Timor-Leste was much more relaxing than any other places I’ve been. A flexible schedule made me really comfortable with quiet days. And For those who want nice sunset with a bottle of Bintang or Heineken in quite bar after diving, welcome to Timor-Leste.

 

 

 

Equipment Used

Jin Woo Lee is highly experienced shooting with the Sony RX100 V - one of the leading compact cameras on the market. He has taken amazing photos with it around the world. For wide angle images he shoots the RX100 V in a Nauticam housing, 2x INON D-2000 strobes, INON fisheye lens with dome, and a Sola 800 focus light. For macro he switches out the fisheye lens for a Subsee +5 wet lens. For fluoro diving he uses a 67mm Tiffen yellow filter and 2 Glowdive blue filters fon his strobes.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jin has been highly interested in underwater creatures since he was in Kindergarten. At the age of 11, he started scuba diving by himself with a GoPro. When he began to lose interest in diving, he found that underwater photography could be a great motivation. For Jin's 20th birthday, he got his own compact camera from Sony and began to shoot underwater photos around Florida and the world to share his impressions of nature. He is currently waiting to complete his mandatory two-year military service in South Korea, but he will be back to field after that in 2021. You can check out his photos on Instagram

 

 

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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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