Dive Adventure

Incredible dive adventure articles, dive stories and marine life encounters from oceans around the world.
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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was I Doing?

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

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

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

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

Equipment Issues

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Issues

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

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

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

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

Problem Fixed!

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

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

Testing the Limits of my Undergarments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunting for Bugs and Jellies

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

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

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

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

Changing Conditions

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

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

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

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

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

Fun with Kelp

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

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

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

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

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

Split Shot Experimentation

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

Challenges

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

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

Key Tips for Arctic Underwater Photography

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

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

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

Another very important topic is weather and travel planning.

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Composition, Post-Processing and the Stories Behind the Photos

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

Gear Links

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

Additional Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

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

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Insights from the dynamic world of shark photography
By Debbie Wallace

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

Debbie Wallace
Insights from the dynamic world of shark photography

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

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

Guadalupe Great White Shark Close-up

Inside the Cage

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

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

Guadalupe Great White Shark

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

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

Guadalupe Great White Shark

 

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

Great White Sharks Photo Workshop in Guadalupe 2018

September 11-16, 2018

Price:

Triple Occupancy $2,935

Stateroom $3,250

Superior Suite $3,775

Premium Suite $4,405

Single Occupancy $4,062


Open Water Shark Diving

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

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

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

Lemon Shark

Factors for Success

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

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

Tiger Shark

…and more challenges...

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

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

Hammerhead Shark

The Verdict

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

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

Upcoming Trips with Exciting Shark Photo Opportunities

Additional Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

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

Heaven is a Place on Earth: Diving Mauritius

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

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

striped eel catfish

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

Grand-Baie, Mauritius

Diving Overview

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

Octopus and Diver

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

The Best Diving

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

Grand-Baie, Mauritius

Coin de Mire and the Djabeda Wreck Dive

Coin de Mire

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

Djabeda wreck

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

Grand-Baie and Trou-aux-Biches

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

Peacock mantis shrimp in Grand-Baie, Mauritius

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

Swimming with Dolphins (Tamarin Bay)

spinner dolphins in Tamarin Bay

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

The Shark Pit

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

Belle Mare

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

Dive Operators and Prices

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

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

striped eel catfish

When to Go

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

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

Spinner dolphin exhaling

Diving Conditions

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

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

leaf scorpionfish

Rain

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

Grand-Baie, Mauritius

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

Topside Activities

Beaches and Watersports

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

Gabriel Island, Mauritius

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

Hiking

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

Le Morne Brabant

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

Le Pouce

Exploring the Outer Islands

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

Gabriel Island

The South of Mauritius

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

Logistics

Flights

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

Port Louis

Transportation

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

Lodging

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

People and Language

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

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

Conclusion

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

Gand-Baie sunset

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

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