Dive Adventure: Valparaiso, Chile

Kevin Lee
Underwater photographer Kevin Lee finds adventure while stopping over on the southern Pacific coast of South America.

Dive Adventure: Valparaiso, Chile

Underwater photographer Kevin Lee finds adventure while stopping over on the southern Pacific coast of South America

By Kevin Lee


Chile, the world's longest north-to-south nation, is a narrow country bounded on the east by the magnificent Andes mountain range, whose peaks thrust skyward well over 6500 meters. Dozens of active volcanoes smolder and erupt as tremendous tectonic forces trigger constant earthquakes. Nestled aloft in the mountains is Ojos del Salado, known as the highest lake on earth, at an altitude of 6390m. The Andes quickly descend westward, down to the Pacific Ocean, where the vast Chilean coastline extends 6435 kilometers long, across 38 degrees of latitude and beckons the adventurous diver.


About Valparaiso


Shoreline of Valparaiso, Chile.


The quickest route to diving in Chile is to fly into the capital city of Santiago and take a bus or taxi to the bustling port city of Valparaiso, a ninety minute drive away. Prior to the opening of Panama Canal in 1914, Valparaiso was the most important seaport along the west coast of South America because nearly all the world’s east to west shipping traffic was forced to sail around the southern tip of South American continent. Doing so required an arduous journey through the narrow Strait of Magellan or around Cape Horn, an often hazardous shipping route due to high swells, strong currents, fierce winds, icebergs and even rogue waves that reach 30m. After such a long, daunting voyage, a stopover at Valparaiso was usually required. Though Valparaiso may now be past its days of glory, the vibrant city is still culturally and politically important as the home of Chile’s National Congress. Tourism plays a significant role in the local economy, as many flock to enjoy Valparaiso and Vina del Mar, its neighbor city to the north.


The Diving

After diving the frosty climes of South Georgia Island, I purposely scheduled a three-day layover in Valparaiso to experience the warmer waters of Chile. Through an internet search I had the good fortune of connecting with a dive operator called ValpoSub (www.valposub.cl). The owner, Ramon Caballero, an engineer by profession, loves scuba diving with a deep passion.  He was very friendly and helpful in scheduling two nice days of diving.

We geared up, walked down a ramp beside Meulle Baron Pier, and strode into the water.


Muelle Baron Pier, ramp to floating dock, where we board a dive boat.


Our maximum depth was 12m. Due to the relatively shallow waters, surge was a constant annoyance and visibility was barely 2m, hardly ideal conditions for underwater photography. Still, there is plenty to see on the pilings, which are festooned with all sorts of marine life, and amongst them, where huge tractor truck tires, half buried in the sand, provide ideal hideouts for various fish, unique crabs, anemones and other unusual life.

At our second site, I dived solo as Ramon was busy managing a group of student divers, executing their final "deep dive" requirement to obtain their scuba open water certifications. The students’ faces beamed with enthusiasm and excitement, although vaguely shadowed by a touch of anxiety, which reminded me of my first time diving years ago in the same ocean, thousands of kilometers north, in Southern California.


The Wreck of the Caupolican

Our dive was on the wreck of the Caupolican, an old tug boat that now rests at 21 meters at the bottom of the Valparaiso Bay. My dive buddy, Leo, explained that the tug had been helping a larger ship, to which it was lashed, navigate the harbor. After the tug’s assistance, the larger ship mistakenly believed the smaller boat had untied, cleared and moved away. Alas, the larger ship made a sharp turn and collided with the tug, which capsized and sank, becoming a watery grave for some of the unfortunate crew. In order to take advantage of the wreck undisturbed, I did a giant stride off the dive boat, well ahead of the students who were still gearing up.

Ascending to the wreck, a feeling of tranquility greeted me and the peaceful silence was only interrupted by the occasional sound of my breathing and exhaled bubbles. The wreck is covered with a thick carpet of bryozoa and algae. The wreck provides a safe haven for numerous fish and many invertebrates, including several species of my favorite subject, nudibranchs. The water temperature was 11 ºC (51.8 ºF) and the visibility was generally 10-15 meters, until the students came down! A large seal buzzed me and the students were very excited by the encounter. In the distance a large fish, perhaps 1 meter long, approached slowly, turned and swam away.


Thecacera darwini species nudibranch at the Caupolican wreck.
Hydroids, Tubularia species, Caupolican wreck.
Dueling crabs, Caupolican wreck.
Hypsoblennius sordidusCaupolican wreck

During my safety stop, large jellies with long tentacles gently pulsated by, accompanied by a drifting parade of strange pelagic invertebrates.


Ctenophore, Pleuribrachia species, above the Caupolican wreck.


Fish find protection in jelly tentacles, Caupolican wreck.


Upon surfacing and re-boarding the dive boat, the atmosphere was cheerful and enthusiastic. Apparently all the students had passed their deep dive requirement and were now freshly minted, certified divers. We all toasted the happy event by drinking champagne from our scuba masks.


About the Author

Kevin Lee is a valued contributor of the Underwater Photography Guide. He resides in Fullerton, California and is an enthusiastic traveler, diver and nudiphile. Kevin's images have been featured in magazines, newspapers, academic literature and numerous dive related publications. For more of his excellent photography and dive travel stories visit his website at http://www.diverkevin.com/


Further Reading


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Trip Report: Tioman Island

Victor Tang
Underwater photographer Victor Tang revisits his beloved Tioman Island, diving and exploring its remote and extraordinary outer islands.

Trip Report: Tioman Island

Underwater photographer Victor Tang revisits his beloved Tioman Island, setting of the film "South Pacific," diving and exploring its remote and extraordinary outer islands

by Victor Tang


Skipping over tires long vulcanized and onto the jetty at Tioman Island is a nostalgic event for me, with flashbacks surfacing and floating happily at the forefront of my memories. It was here, in these waters, where I first took to the fathoms, stirring up sand from my first fin pivot exercise and shuddering at the thought of inhaling the fumes from my saliva within my mask. Here was where it all began. Yes, I have come home.


Tioman Island's Glory and Struggles

Tioman Island’s natural beauty was brought to the world's attention half a century ago, it's white sand beaches depicted as Bali Hai in the 1958 film South Pacific. After that, glowing endorsement from Jacques Cousteau and accolades from Time Magazine describing it as one of the most beautiful islands on the planet have served to affirm its reputation. Then it was only a matter of time till travelers flocked to the island to bathe in the sun and revel in its lush underwater environment.

Unfortunately, conservation and sustainable development were foreign concepts to the authorities as Tioman Island began to grow in popularity, and the degradation of its natural beauty was inevitable. Even though Tioman and its surrounding islands were gazetted as a Marine Park in 1996, controversial development projects are still being approved. Contrary to what one might think, it is actually easier to reach Tioman Island from Singapore than it is from Kuala Lumpur, making Tioman the scuba certification factory for new divers from Singapore. Being the only easy place for divers and snorkelers to get to from Singapore, you can imagine the immense pressure put on the reefs every weekend.

Dive sites close to the western shore of Tioman, such as the famed Renggis and Soyak Islands, are easily accessible with little to no currents most of the time. Less experienced and newly minted divers swamp to these places, so these sites are badly over-dived. Economic interests ensure that efforts to close off these sites for regeneration are promptly repealed. 

However, if we turn our attention to the offshore islands northwest of Tioman, a different story emerges. The submerged reefs around these islands are exposed to the prevailing ocean currents, so these dive sites are only suitable for experienced divers. Some of the sites are so difficult to access that they have attained somewhat of a legendary status among visitors, making it a rarity to encounter people who have actually dived these sites before. For those who try, if you time the dives wrongly you'll wish you had brought along a bigger surface marker buoy. I came up to Tioman with a group of experienced divers and a dive center with the experience and willingness to take us there, so this was a very unique opportunity to visit these sites.


Chebeh Island

At the most northern tip of the Tioman Island Marine Park lies Chebeh Island, an outcrop of boulder formations that hints at the area’s volcanic past. The boulder formations extend down through the depths, and upon descending the diver will notice the lushness of the coral cover among the rocks. Swathes of soft coral gardens drape across the landscape, with some of the biggest feather starts I have even seen dotting the reef. Gaps between the boulders seem clogged with gorgonian sea fans in a multitude of colors, forming an impenetrable wall that compels you to stop and admire its beauty.


Beautiful reef scape among the volcanic rock. F7.1 and 1/60s at ISO 80.


Sea fans competing for space. f8 and 1/60s at ISO 80.


Fish life on Chebeh Island was decent. I was greeted by a blanket of Gold-Band Fusiliers upon descending, with schools of Big-Eye Snappers hiding among the rocks. Macro opportunities are restricted to nudibranchs, with “common” species such as Phyllidiella Lizae, Pteraeolidia Ianthina and Jorunna Funebris spotted. 


Big-eye Snappers. F7.1 and 1/60s at ISO 80.


This Jorunna funebris was big enough for my fisheye lens. F8 and 1/220s at ISO 80.



Fan Canyon

This dive site on the eastern side of Tulai Island is so named because of the huge gorgonian sea fans that can be found here, especially in a narrow ravine that is chocked full of them. Next to the ravine is a wide plateau that could be more aptly named as a whip coral forest, the majority of the whip corals I estimate to be at least 4cm across and 2 meters high, making for a dramatic reef scape. Nudibranchs love to hide amongst the rocky bottom, the divers spotting Chromodoris quadricolor, Nembrotha kubaryana, Chromodoris leopardus and Phyllidiopsis krempfi. In fact, Phyllidiopsis krempf is so ubiquitous in Tioman Island waters that it has been given the nickname “expendable nudi.”


Huge sea fans dot the site. F8 and 1/80 at ISO 80.


Diver admiring glass fish. F7.1 and 1/60s at ISO 80.


Cuttlefish are known to roam amongst the whip corals here and they did not disappoint when a pair of pretty sizable ones made an appearance.


A cephalopodic greeting. F8 and 1/100s at ISO 80.


Nice of the cuttlefish to stay still. F8 and 1/50s at ISO 80.



Magician Rock

This is the holy grail of dive sites around Tioman Island because it is so rarely ventured into. An underwater pinnacle in the middle of the ocean, currents here can be unpredictable and strong, so knowing the exact window to visit this is absolutely crucial to having an enjoyable dive. Negative experiences are the norm here, and an experienced boat captain is needed to place the divers up current when the tides are moving.


Can you spot the nudi? F8 and 1/250s at ISO 80.


A place rarely admired. F8 and 1/100s at ISO 80.


If you do manage to get to the site you will be rewarded with a pristine reef rich in marine life. As we descended through a blanket of Gold Band Fusilliers, huge mounts of hard coral up to 6 meters high beckoned for us to take a closer look. Mounts like this dot the reef scape, making for an impressive panorama. Numerous schools of hundreds of Big-Eye Snappers can be seen flitting between the coral mounts with Robust Fusiliers and the odd Trevally teasing you as they zoom by. Needlefish and Halfbeaks patrol at the top of the reef, waiting for a feeding opportunity. We saw a school of about twenty enormous Batfish loom into view and soon it became apparent that the site is a bustling cleaning station. Considering Magician Rock’s location, one can’t help but wonder what other pelagic species come here for a pit stop from time to time. 


Batfish awaiting for turn to be cleaned. F8 and 1/50s at ISO 80.


Many opportunities to shoot schooling fishes. F7.1 and 1/60s at ISO 80.



KM Sipadan Wreck

Just a week before our arrival the Royal Malaysian Navy warship KM Sipadan was sunk to create an artificial reef, complementing two Thai fish boats at the dive site Sawadee Wrecks. Sitting thirty-one meters long and resting upright thirty meters deep, exploring a wreck this new was a surreal experience. You can still create your own whirlpool by cranking the flush lever at the captain’s toilet! 


Spanking new wreck! F8 and 1/60s at ISO160.


Not many marine creatures have explored these walkways. F8 and 1/60s at ISO160.





Tiger Reef

Tiger Reef is another of Tioman Island’s submerged reefs that is rarely dived due to strong currents. Located in the channel between Sepoi and Labas Islands, this was the dive that I chose to try out the new Canon S100 camera. Tiger Reef reputedly has some of the most pristine reefs in Tioman Island Marine Park, and it did not disappoint. A whole array of soft corals compete for berthing space on the volcanic rocks, accentuated by the most well-preserved gorgonians I have found anywhere around Tioman Island. 


Photo opportunities aplently. f8 and 1/100s at ISO 200.


Barrel Sponge. F8 and 1/60s at ISO 200.


Fish life is truly prolific here, with the usual suspects like schools of Fusiliers and Rainbow Runners seemingly always around the corner. The Rainbow Runners were in a mood to feed, thus we were able to observe some hunting action. A two-meter Giant Barracuda decided to grace us with an appearance but always kept an aloof distance, frustrating our best efforts for a decent shot. The nudibranchs were out in force today, with sightings of Pteraeolidia ianthina, Hypselodoris apolegma, Phyllidia varicosa and Nembrotha chanberlaini among the dense coral cover.


One irritating Giant Barracuda. F8 and 1/80s at ISO 200.


Most sea fans are still beautifully intact. F8 and 1/60s at ISO 200.


There was never a dull moment during this dive with plentiful photo opportunities. Tiger Reef was certainly the most exciting dive on this trip.


Labas Island

A series of rocky outcrop makes up Labas Island, and below the waves are a whole myriad of swim-throughs that can offer some surprises if you look closely. Coral cover is decent here, with the best being found in the nooks and crannies. Schools of Big-Eye Snappers seek refuge among the crevices and again nudibranchs take center stage when scouting for macro opportunities. Coming out of a swim-through we ran right smack into a school of about fifty Yellowtail Barracuda, so we spent the rest of the dive photographing them. 


Unique coral formations, F8 and 1/160s at ISO 160.


Catching the Barracuda train. F8 and 1/250 at ISO 80.


Into the abyss. F8 and 1/125s at ISO 160.


Many divers express disappointment with Tioman Island, but how many have really seen it in its full glory? The outer islands are a must. These dive sites are best dived from March to August, and it is helpful if you can tag along with a big enough group of experienced divers so that dive centers will be more comfortable bringing you to these sites. All is not lost for Tioman Island, just point the captain where to go.


About The Author

Victor Tang runs a small dive travel company, Wodepigu Water Pixel, that in addition to the usual places like Manado and Bali endeavours to bring divers to some of the more exotic and harder to reach dive locations in Southeast Asia.


Further Reading


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Diving in the South Georgia Islands

Kevin Lee
The underwater photography adventure that took us to the ends of the Earth and waters that have never before been dived in by humans.

Diving in the South Georgia Islands

The underwater photography adventure that took us to the ends of the Earth and waters that have never before been dived in by humans

by Kevin Lee



If chapped lips, cold sores, sunburn, wind-chaffed face, and sensitive hickie from neck seal abrasion are the result, why would anyone want to dive in the frigid Antarctic waters of South Georgia Island? Because of the high adventure!

Just the tip of the iceberg! Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island.
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are British Overseas Territory. These islands are a small, remote, inhospitable archipelago and lie far south in the Atlantic Ocean. South Georgia, the largest island, is approximately 167km long and 37km wide. It is still claimed by Argentina and friction over it contributed to the Falklands War in 1982. The British Antarctic Survey runs a biological station on the island and conducts scientific research. Otherwise, it is uninhabited. Grytviken, the major base, is staffed by personnel, who rotate positions every two or so years. South Georgia, at latitude 54 South, lies within the Antarctic Convergence Zone, so it is considered to be a part of Antarctica, ecologically. We were fortunate to enjoy a few warm, clear, sunny days and the average ambient temperature was 3-8 degrees. Many days were rather grey and misty.


Five Days of Travel

To reach South Georgia a rather long, convoluted journey is required. My itinerary involved four flights; Los Angeles, USA to Lima, Peru; then a transit to Santiago, Chile, where I lodged overnight. The next morning I flew onward to Puenta Arenas, Chile, and transferred to another flight bound for Mt. Pleasant, East Falkand Island. If relations between Argentina and the UK were more cordial, probably an easier route would be available via Argentina to the Falklands. From Mt. Pleasant, a small British military base airport, we took a bus ride over dusty gravel roads and enjoyed picturesque countryside scenery, where sheep grazed on the plentiful grassland. After two hours, we finally reached Port Stanley, where we embarked on our mother ship, the Plancius, which is operated by Oceanwide Expeditions. A three-day voyage over rough seas, greatly reduced the number of attendees for meals! The "patch" behind my ear worked great to abate motion sickness; but not so for whoever was heaving in the next door cabin, poor soul. Finally, after five days of travel, South Georgia came into magnificent view.
The breaktaking landscape of South Georgia Island.


Sites Never Before Dived By Humans

Out of approximately 100 passengers, only four of us, including our dive master, engaged in exploratory diving, at some sites that have never been dived by humans. We completed nine dives, one of them at night, during seven days.
Me with my dive buddy Jeff Bozanic.
Water visibility ranged from 1.5 to 10 meters. The average water temperature was 2C. My longest dive was 68 minutes; the shortest 38 minutes, as we had to hustle to finish that night dive and re-board the ship before it pulled anchor and headed for the next day's destination. Although the water temperature was "warmer" than the dives I experienced in the Arctic (-1.5C) and the Antarctic (-2C), somehow my hands felt much colder on this South Georgia trip. Perhaps I'm aging?! I use the Dive Concept's snap-on/off dry glove system (with DUI Signature drysuit), which has performed flawlessly for the past three years. Under the gloves, my drysuit sleeves end with the traditional latex wrist seals so in case the external dry glove springs a leak there is a "back-up" barrier to prevent water from entering the drysuit.


Frigid Waters

Several times I forgot to place the equalizing tube (actually misplaced them) under each wrist seal so there was no exchange of air from my drysuit to my hands. Although my hands remained dry, the water pressure probably contributed to my hands getting squeezed and thus extremely cold, to painful degrees. In fact on one dive, after 40 minutes, I signaled to my trusted buddy Jeff Bozanic that I had to surface due to cold digits where the water was 2 degrees according to my Galileo Luna. We exchanged the "OK" sign and waved goodbye to each other. I ascended to 5 meters to execute my safety stop and my hands thawed out. Looking at my computer, the temperature had risen and registered 3 degrees. My, what a difference one degree makes! I ended up spending another 20 minutes in the water, busying myself with the pelagic scenery. On subsequent dives I used bicycle inner tube rings (which I use to organize and bundle otherwise unwieldy wires) under my wrist seals and that was enough to equalize pressure and keep my hands warmer (they were never really warm underwater!). As usual in polar diving we had two primary tank valves connected to two primary regulators in case of uncontrollable free flows. I experienced some minor free flows and was glad to switch to my other regulator. We intentionally kept our maximum dive depth to less than 25 meters since we were so far away from any medical support, in case of a dive-related emergency. Thus, we made sure to avoid deco diving.
Fortunately there were no heart-pounding incidents to report, though two dives produced some adrenalin. At Cooper's Bay there were many curious fur seals swimming around and some of them aggressively investigated us. No doubt they had never seen such strange mammals like us in their waters. One seal decided to sample the top of my hood and gave a pretty good tug. Presumably my 12mm thick hood didn't taste anything like dinner, so the seal let go. Such antics and constant distractions by these pesky fur seals made it very difficult to photograph anything, especially a beautiful diaphanous pelagic polychaete (yes, segmented worm) swimming the water column.
A curious fur seal seen on our land excusion - I wonder if this is the same guy?

Challenging Cave Exploration

On another dive, we decided to explore a cave, tucked in back of a small narrow inlet of water. We back rolled in front of the cave and dropped down. Visibility was very low, at 1 meter, and the surge was tremendous, swinging us wildly to and fro like dish rags, with me clutching my large camera rig and white knuckles all the while! We inched toward the entrance, by going forward with the surge and gripping rocks during the back surge to stay in place. Visibility dropped even more and I could hear the rumbling of rocks being hurled over the floor. Peering down, I was amazed to see the rock bed polished smooth by the incessant surge of rolling boulders that scoured the floor. Black and white veins, presumably quartz, gleamed through the murky water. Jeff was in front and occasionally his blue fins came into murky view as we entered the cave. It began to darken but we agreed, before the dive, to keep the the light of the entrance in sight at all times. At one point, instead of his blue fins, Jeff's face came into view and to my relief he signaled for us to turn around. Later he told me that the surge was so powerful it pulled the reg out of his mouth. He reached for his backup octo, usually fixed in front of him on a neck ring, but to his surprise the force of the current had whipped that behind his neck too, out of reach.  Did he panic? No. Being the experienced diver he is, Jeff knew that the same surge that dislodged his regulators would also bring them back. Sure enough, his regs came flying back with the reverse surge, whereupon he could inhale again! Interestingly enough, these two challenging dives probably produced some of my best photographs.


Excursions with Penguins and Shackleton's Resting Place

Almost as enjoyable as the diving were the land excursions we did to commune with King Penguins, which numbered at some colonies in the hundreds of thousands. Wow, the tremendous cacophony, the visual spectacle and the powerful aroma all assaulted our senses.

Massive King Penguin colony.  Salisbury Plain, Bay of Isles, South Georgia Island.

We saw plenty of other unusual birds and wildlife, including mating reindeer, hunting orcas, scavenging skuas, fighting fur seals, and enormous elephant seals, slumbering on the beaches.
Elehant seals relaxing in the sun.
At our first stop in South Georgia, King Haakon Bay, we dropped off a small group of mountaineers/skiers, whose intention was to retrace Shackleton's epic traverse over the harsh, glaciated island to safety the safety of Stromness Bay on the other side. They split up into two teams. The first made it over the high Trident pass but the second team was beset with inclement weather and fierce gales that flattened their tents. They could not continue and were compelled to dig snow caves, in which they endured a long night of vicious, freezing winds. They had to abort their trek and we picked them up on the other side of the island at Possession Bay a few days later.  We joined members of the first team who made it to Fortuna Bay, and with them hiked the same path that Shackleton tread on his final leg of survival from Fortuna Bay to the now defunct whaling station, Stromness. It was all the more meaningful to pay homage to Shackleton and visit his final resting place in the Grytviken cemetery, where he is surrounded by magnificent scenery and enjoys a gurgling rivulet, nearby, which furnishes him an abundant supply of fresh water. May he rest in peace.
Ernest Henry Shackelton's final resting place. Born Feb. 15, 1874; Entered Life Eternal Jan.5, 1922. May he rest in peace.  Grytviken Cemetery, South Georgia Island.  Photo by Jeff Bozanic.

Underwater Critter Photos


Isopod gripping edge of kelp.  Albatross Island, South Georgia Island.


Nudibranch, Flabellina falklandica.  East Shore, Godthul. South Georgia Island.


Nudibranch, Cuthona elioti.  Near Gold Head, Gold Harbour. South Georgia Island


Worm: Pelagic Polychaete. Tomopteridae, genus Tomopterus.  Cooper's Bay, South Georgia Island.  ID thanks to Leslie Harris.


About the Author

Kevin Lee is a valued contributor of the Underwater Photography Guide. He resides in Fullerton, California and is an enthusiastic traveller, diver and nudiphile. Kevin's images have been featured in magazines, newspapers, academic literature and numerous dive related publications. For more of his excellent photography and dive travel stories visit his website at http://www.diverkevin.com/


Further Reading


Support the Underwater Photography Guide

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo and Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


Diving with the West Papua Whale Sharks

Simon Pridmore
A diver describes his unique opportunity to dive with and get to know the majestic whale sharks of Cendrawasih Bay.

Diving with the West Papua Whale Sharks

A diver describes his unique opportunity to dive with and get to know the majestic whale sharks of Cendrawasih Bay

by Simon Pridmore



Don’t give me all that “gentle giant” stuff! There is nothing gentle about a 6-meter whale shark when you have managed stupidly to position yourself in such a way as to prevent it wrapping its enormous lips around a baitfish slurpee.




“Don’t give me all that 'gentle giant' stuff!”


We had been in the water for most of the morning and, having initially been very cautious about getting near the whale sharks for fear that we might scare them off, the fact that they had been circling around us unconcernedly for a few hours persuaded me that they wouldn’t mind if I took a few close-ups. They didn’t mind at all; what they did mind was me getting in the way of their mid-morning snack, and I would have bruises to accompany my stories for the next couple of weeks.
“The experience in a nutshell: one whale shark attacking the slurpee, the other coming straight for me.”
I knew how the whale sharks felt. We were living on a boat where you never want to miss a meal. Despite the fact that there were several whale sharks in the water with us, we had all broken away earlier to grab quick second breakfasts of porridge, buttermilk pancakes and scrambled eggs and bacon, trusting the local fishermen’s assertion that the big fish would be around all day. 
Fishermen? Bait fish slurpees? Whale sharks staying around all day? Perhaps I should explain...

From The Beginning

We chartered the classy, boutique Damai liveaboard out of Sorong on the north-western tip of Indonesian Papua, and, having spent a few days with the teeming schools of fish and fabulously decorated reefs of Raja Ampat, we traveled southeast, deep into Cendrawasih Bay, following tales of whale sharks.
We heard that, close to the town of Nabire, fishermen on offshore platforms had developed a mutually beneficial relationship with a group of local resident whale sharks. It sounded unlikely, but the longer you dive the more obvious it becomes that we know shamefully little about the ocean and the animals that inhabit it. 
So we came, we saw and, luckily for us, we got our fin socks knocked off!

Finding the Whale Sharks

We dropped anchor in the early evening a few hundred meters away from several brightly illuminated platforms and the dinner conversation over the rack of lamb and crème brûlée frothed with excitement over what the morning might bring. The pessimists cautioned against high expectations, the optimists worried they might not be able to sleep, although the huge, comfortable Damai beds make insomnia unlikely. 
The next morning we were up just after dawn, but not early enough to get the jump on our dive valets who had our gear already loaded in the skiffs. Coffee, tea, juice, and Danish pastries were laid out in the dining room to take the edge off our appetites and give us the energy for our first dive.
The whale sharks were also early risers and, as we approached the closest of the platforms, we saw two enormous grey speckled shapes appear beneath us. Never have a group of divers geared up and disappeared beneath the waves so quickly.
“Grey speckled shapes”
We found that the platforms have nets strung beneath them. Powerful spotlights attract baitfish to the platforms and into the nets during the night. The whale sharks have learned that the bottom of the nets contains a layer of fishy mush that they can suck out through the mesh. The fishermen believe that the whale sharks bring them good fortune and deliberately keep them around. They sometimes surface close to the platforms and the fishermen will occasionally scoop out handfuls of small fish from the top of the nets and shovel them straight down the whale sharks’ capacious throats. 
“The fishermen will occasionally scoop out handfuls of small fish from the top of the nets and shovel them straight down the whale sharks’ capacious throats.”
Peculiarly, they seem particularly enchanted when someone on the platform scoops up a bucket of seawater and starts pouring it out slowly back into the ocean. They rise to the surface and perform a kind of tail stand with their mouths open just below the point where the stream of water disturbs the surface.
The sharks never stray too far from the platforms, so we never had to chase them around. In fact, they often came within arms length. We snapped away like crazy during the first few minutes, terrified that they would disappear, but their stamina was greater than ours and they were still there when we finally called an end to the day’s diving and retired to soak up the last rays of the sun on deck and discuss an extraordinary day over a glass or two of pre-prandial wine.
The consensus was that we were truly privileged. The luxury of our surroundings on the Damai belied just how far we had come and just how close we were to the outer edge of the diving map. It had all seemed so easy. Very few outsiders had ever explored the water this far south in Cendrawasih Bay, yet here we were, cocooned in air-conditioned luxury, eating five-star cuisine and being taken care of by a group of expert sailors, divers and hospitality staff. Not long ago, such a journey would have been impossible, or at least fraught with serious discomfort.
The following day we repeated the experience and the show was once again astonishing. Four sharks circled the platform for hours, giving us unlimited photo opportunities and unforgettable memories. They were not the only big fish attracted by the free baitfish on offer. At one point a marlin appeared fleetingly beneath. 
“Unlimited photo opportunities and unforgettable memories”
No doubt, some day the astonishing behavior of the Nabire whale sharks will be subject to scientific examination. Meanwhile, all we mere scuba divers can do is watch, take photographs and marvel. These whale sharks seem to be shattering long-held assumptions. They are not pelagic travelers; apparently they are always there. They are certainly not solitary and they exhibit a previously unimagined level of intelligence.
For those wanting to experience this extraordinary interaction, the Damai is running a number of Cendrawasih Bay charters out of Sorong, Biak and Nabire during 2012, which will include a couple of days by the fishing platforms. See www.dive-damai.com for details.


Further Reading


Support the Underwater Photography Guide

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo and Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


Diving Under the Ice

Jo-Ann Wilkins
Underwater photographer Jo-Ann Wilkins takes you on an adventure under the ice in her native Canada and shares her techniques and tips.

Diving Under the Ice

Underwater photography techniques and tips for this challenging environment

By Jo-Ann Wilkins


Diving under the ice offers truly unique photographic opportunities. Even common dive sites or dive sites with little to no interest become fascinating once covered by ice. Bubbles exhaled by divers create unique and constantly changing patterns. The ice itself offers unique formations, textures, or cracks that are interesting to photograph. However, one of the most fascinating features of ice diving are the beautiful beams of light that penetrate through the hole by which divers enter to dive under the ice. On a sunny day, those beams of light are simply spectacular. All of the following pictures were taken at Morrisson Quarry in Wakefield, Quebec, Canada.



Notice the hole in the ice on the top left-side of the image and the beam of light penetrating through the water. Nikon D300,Tokina 10-17mm, F9, 1/60sec.



Silhouette of a diver in shallow water under the ice. Nikon D300, Tokina 10-17mm, F8, 1/100sec.



Underwater photography under the ice

Doing photography under the ice can be challenging at times. There are basically two ways of diving under the ice: traditional ice diving techniques, which involve being tied with a rope to your buddy and to a ‘tender’ at the surface, or by using cave diving techniques and equipment (redundant gear and reel line). 

When diving using traditional methods, the diver is generally tied to another diver and both are tied to the surface with a rope or safety line. A ‘tender’ usually holds the line and gives tugs every couple of minutes to which the divers have to respond to with another tug to say that they are ok. Obviously, holding a rope, being connected to your dive buddy in relatively close proximity and having someone give tugs on the rope every couple of minutes is distracting and somewhat difficult to manage when doing underwater photography. It is easier if both buddies are on different lines and to warn your ‘tender’ not to tug on the line too often nor too hard. Secondly, you need to be extremely careful not to tangle your camera and strobe arms in the safety line. The safety line floats, unlike reel lines, and you are likely to get tangled up if not careful. And lastly, as an underwater photographer, you can get distracted very easily by an interesting subject and lack to monitor the tension on the safety line, causing a slack in the rope. The excess line will float up under the ice and any communication effort between you and your ‘tender’ will become obsolete. A concentrated photographer doesn’t notice the slack and when he does notice, it becomes a pain to try to rectify the situation.


Hole in the ice with safety lines of three divers. Nikon D300, Tokina 10-17mm, F10, 1/200sec.


Equipment considerations for ice diving

Any underwater photography equipment you use will need to be assembled in a dry, non-humid, and temperate environment. Make sure that you use fully charged batteries for your camera and strobes as the frigid water will drain them more rapidly than in warmer waters. The way batteries are built and how they generate electrical energy means that at low temperatures, they all lose power. If you plan to use the internal flash of the camera in the housing, it is best to carefully place silica packs inside the housing. The heat generated by the internal flash inside the housing and the icy conditions outside of the housing are likely to generate condensation, especially in polycarbonate housings. The silica packs will absorb some of the moisture and will prevent condensation that would fog up your lens and damage the fragile electronic components of your camera. Avoid leaving your camera exposed to the sun before or in between dives as it could also create condensation once you get in the cold water. After a dive, make sure to remove your camera from the housing as soon as possible and to let it warm up slowly to avoid condensation. For instance, you could place it on a windowsill or an unheated porch for a couple of hours so it can rise slowly to room temperature. 


A diver posing under the hole in the ice. Nikon D300, Tokina 10-17mm, F10, 1/200sec.

Tips for photography under the ice

  • Always shoot looking up to maximize the amount of available ambient light.

  • Try to choose a sunny day. You will get a beautiful beam of light that will penetrate through the hole in the ice and you will get more ambient light throughout. Avoid overcast days when possible and try to choose a day where there is not too much snow on the ice, which will reduce luminosity.

  • Pay attention to the exhaled bubbles that accumulate under the ice just above you and your buddy. They can make very interesting patterns and formations and can act as a mirror if you find the right shooting angle.

  • Look for unusual formations in the ice such as interesting cracks or objects that have frozen in the ice (for example, leaves or branches, old soda bottles, frozen fish).

  • Find a creative way to shoot the hole in the ice from which you are diving.

  • Ask your dive buddy to pose for you near the hole in the ice. Make sure you communicate how you want him to model before you start the dive.

  • Photograph divers standing upside down under the ice.

  • Have people use a shovel to ‘draw’ large designs or patterns in the snow.  Once under the ice and at a certain depth (maybe 50-60 feet), you will clearly see these patterns in the snow and they can make humorous ice diving pictures.

  • Try split shots where you see partly under the ice and over the ice.

  • Turn off your strobes and try silhouette shots. 



Non-divers had fun shoveling designs and patterns in the snow above the ice. At the top left, you see the safety line that connects me to the surface. Nikon D300, Tokina 10-17mm, F7,1, 1/80sec.


A note on macro photography under the ice

By nature, ice diving is best suited for wide-angle photography. However, on a recent dive, I noticed an interesting tiny ‘bug’ that lives under the ice and that was ‘walking’ on the air pockets under the ice. I even saw one of these bugs swimming while holding on to an air bubble. Unfortunately, I was set up for wide-angle photography and could not do any macro shots but will definitely be back soon to shoot these interesting creatures under the ice. In other words, get close to the ice; you might see small creatures living right under it that would make great macro subjects.


A diver under the ice and ‘tenders’ holding on to safety lines above water. Nikon
D300, Tokina 10-17mm, F13, 1/250sec.


We had spectacular visibility under the ice on that dive (over 100 feet) in a quarry, which is one of the advantages of ice diving. Nikon D300, Tokina 10-17mm, F7,1, 1/80sec.



From this angle, we can see the tenders at the surface and the safety line that connects me to them. Nikon D300, Tokina 10-17mm, F7,1, /1250sec.



About the author

2011 Ocean Art winner Jo-Ann Wilkins is an underwater photographer in the provinces of Quebec and Ontario, Canada. She is an experienced dive instructor and dive charter operator who also specializes in cold water diving where she can photograph underwater marine life and wrecks of any kind. Her work also includes underwater pool sessions with pregnant women, babies, children, pets, and fashion models. Please visit her website at www.jaw-photo.com.


Further reading


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SCUBA Diving Mozambique

Ridlon Kiphart
An adventure diving the wild frontier of Tofo Beach in Africa.

SCUBA Diving Mozambique

An underwater photo adventure diving the wild frontier of Tofo Beach

By Ridlon Kiphart


Mozambique lies on the southeast coast of Africa between South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania. It is quite "off the beaten map," but is slowly becoming discovered by divers, especially ones from Europe.

Ridlon Kiphart has dived more places in the world than anyone that I know, so I hope you find his unique insight into Mozambique as valueble as I do! - Scott Gietler, Publisher, UWPG


SCUBA Diving Mozambique is Great For:

  • Adventurous divers seeking something off the beaten track.
  • Big megafauna - humpback whales, whales sharks, and mantas.
  • Healthy fish populations.
  • Arguably the best white sand beaches in the world.


SCUBA Diving Mozambique is Not Great For:
  • Divers looking to be coddled.
  • Divers not wanting physical dives.
  • Hard coral reefs.
  • Highly developed infrastructure or nightlife.



My wife and I heard about the diving in Mozambique for quite some time, but the opportunity to check it out never presented itself until we were invited to visit friends in Maputo. While there we did some research on the area and came across the magnificent Tofo Beach. As luck would have it, two of our dive master friends had recently worked there and raved about it, calling it their favorite dive spot in the world. Though not well-known in the US market, Tofo Beach is a very charming, laid back beach town, and an eight hour drive north of the nation’s capital. It turned out to have some very interesting surprises! 

In order to get a full assessment of the area, we set up different types of accommodations and arranged to dive with three different dive operators. Most divers fly into the nearby town of Imhambane, just a short drive from Tofo, but we opted to drive to get a better look at coastal East Africa.


The author, Ridlon, enjoying the streets of Mozambique.



Mozambique is quite a different animal from its neighbors of South Africa and Tanzania. Since realizing its independence from Portugal in 1975 it plunged into civil war from 1977-1992, leaving the country in vast disarray. While driving up the coast it was easy to see that it remains a very under-developed country. We passed village after village of reed huts with dirt floors, no electricity, and no running water.

Thousands of children walked the roads back and forth to school and the small cities we passed through were flooded with people in the markets selling anything they could to make ends meet. We observed women and children walking with oversized plastic containers balanced on their heads on their way home from the local well. Along the way, roadside stands sold an array of goods but seemed to specialize in just two things, cashews, and hot sauce.

The cashews are picked and roasted by hand and packaged in plastic bags which are then tied to the trees. It’s easy to spot these “plastic bag” trees from hundreds of yards away. With a price of 200 Meticals ($8) for a huge bag, they were impossible to resist! The hot sauce, called Peri Peri, varies from household to household but all are made with the bird’s eye pepper, tomatoes, garlic and who knows what else... all we know is that it’s HOT, HOT, HOT. It can be found at hundreds of stands along the way bottled in whatever empty bottles a family might have. Don’t worry, any contamination is sure to be killed by the spice!


Taking the Mozambique highway

The highways, however, were in good repair all the way to Imhambane (courtesy of Chinese investment in exchange for commercial fishing rights). Though we couldn’t see the coastline for much of the drive, gorgeous white sand beaches and dunes hug the shoreline for hundreds of miles.  Mozambique may be the most beach-rich country in the world. From Inhambane it takes about 30 minutes to reach Tofo, and we arrived just after dark with no reservations. We decided to check out the “backpackers” lodge and checked in to the only remaining room at Bamboozi Beach Lodge. The parent company, Barra Resorts, owns a few different levels of accommodation in the area and Bamboozi is at the bottom. We were given a bamboo “chalet,” which was quite spacious with two single beds.

Many travelers in Africa like “self catering” style accommodations, which means they have kitchen facilities and many sleep four, six or eight people so a group or family will rent larger units. While we were expecting “backpacker” level, we didn’t expect dirty. Our water came out brown and never drained from the shower. The mosquito netting over the bed had holes and we were both completely eaten alive that night. We went to the restaurant where we were served decently good food on very dirty tablecloths. I tried not to think of what the kitchen looked like!

While food in Mozambique is a bit expensive (due to corruption and the fact that it is all imported), hotel accommodations are reasonable. Our dinner of one appetizer, one chicken main plus three beers ran us about $40. They were “out” of wine. The hotel ran $60 for the night. We left our small flashlight in the room when we checked out and when we returned the next morning to get it, it was gone and was never turned up, which was interesting because the room had been cleaned but no one else had checked into it.



In the morning we were excited to get to the diving. The Tofo Beach area is primarily known for big and abundant megafauna including humpback whales, manta rays and whale sharks... what a combination! We set out for Tofo Scuba, which was just a few minute drive up the beach. We were greeted by Joan, the manager. Joan had been fully briefed on our impending arrival and went about getting us set to dive. Since the domestic airlines LAM had “misplaced” all of our luggage en route from Kilimanjaro to Maputo, we arrived without any of our dive gear. The staff at Tofo Scuba went over the top to help outfit us and some of the dive masters even lent us their personal gear.  



The shop has a great area for “kitting up” and a small pool for teaching. The front side of the building sits on an incredibly gorgeous stretch of beach - chaise lounges, picnic tables and a small restaurant serving a hearty pre-dive breakfast and lunch complete the picture. The only part of this laid back dive shop that didn’t meet our expectations was the locker room which was a bit dank and dark. However, the never-ending hot water showers were luxurious! 

At Tofo Scuba the majority of the dive masters were expats from South Africa. They were all young, fun and upbeat. They gave thorough dive briefings and knew the dive sites well. Considering that none of them were probably over age 25, they had a good level of experience. Matt and Nick were our main DMs for the three days we dived with Tofo Scuba.


Extreme boat launching

The process of diving at Tofo Beach is quite unique and not for the pampered diver! There are no jetties to tie up the dive boats and often there is a large swell pounding the beach. So the completely rusted out Land Cruiser (what else would you expect!) hauls the eight meter RIB on the trailer to the long flat beach. They then throw it in reverse and floor it towards the water. Just when you think the Land Cruiser is going to turn submarine, they jam it into forward gear and the boat comes flying off the trailer! The divers all run over to the boat and together we push and pull and turn it around to face the waves.


Getting ready to launch


Once the boat is floating they yell “ladies up!” and all the girls clammer into the boat. When the boat is in shoulder-deep water the men jump in and we pound our way through the surf. One day the surf was so big, a wave smashed out the plexiglass windshield!

Off to the dive site we go. All of the deep sites of 60-100ft are about a 30-45 minute boat ride away, the shallow sites only 5-15. On the way, the boats always keep a look out for whale sharks. At first we skeptical, thinking what are the chances of that, but soon enough the cry came, “whale shark!" The boat stopped and we all grabbed for masks, fins and cameras and jumped overboard. It turns out that the Tofo Beach area is one of the best spots for whale sharks in the world. In fact, 20% of ALL identified whale sharks have been seen in this small stretch of coastline. There is a manta and whale shark research station set up here with a small staff working hard to protect these incredible animals.


Whale shark starting to feed


Best time (or not) to dive Mozambique

Sometimes it can be difficult to find out the truth about when is the “best” time to dive an area. Most dive operator websites say that “year round” is best (of course, they want your business!). We were told that October was a great time of the year, though it was at the end of the humpback season. It turns out that we saw a couple humpbacks but missed most of them by about two weeks. It was said it was a banner year for the whales who breach incredibly close to shore, and many divers have had the chance to see them underwater.

We knew that mantas and whale sharks would be our main attraction, but what we weren’t prepared for were the total “unusual” conditions we found. The water, which is normally about 26c (78.8F) this time of year varied from 20c (68F) to a bone-chilling 16 (60.8F). Since I am normally cold in a 7mm in 85 degree water, you can imagine my shock in a rented 5mm in 60! Not only that, but because of the upwelling associated with the unusual wind direction the normally clear water was very green and fairly dark with  a range of 20’ to 30’ visibility. I didn’t even to rig my video the whole week.

Over the next five days neither the temperature nor the visibility improved. However, it was GREAT time for whale sharks. We had plentiful opportunities to freeze our butts off chasing whale sharks and watching them turn vertical and suck in the plankton soup. The mantas were also present and probably in more force than we could see. We simply had to imagine that behind the two or three we saw on each dive there were more following. Given the number we saw splashing and leaping on the surface, this was undoubtedly true.


Lots of potential

What we saw at Tofo was great POTENTIAL. If the water was clear and warmer, which probably occurred the day after we left (smile), it would be fantastic. Tofo has some beautiful, Fiji-like soft corals (dendronepthya) which took us by surprise, and very abundant fish populations including large groupers on almost every reef. Interestingly, the red-toothed triggerfish is the staple of the reef. Tofo is not known for lush reefs, which can be found further north in the Bazaruto. There you will find nice lush reefs but a lack of megafauna - it would be a nice combo trip.



Beautiful soft corals



We had arranged two days of diving with Tofo Scuba, then our next stop was to dive with Peri Peri Divers, a relative newcomer to the scene. All I had read about it had been great, but when we arrived, even after the owner told us to come on down and dive, we were told “They are not currently doing business.”  That would have been good information to have been given by the dive shop!  After that we returned to Tofo Scuba, who were more than happy to have us diving with them again. Before we left we caught up with one of the employees of Peri Peri, who informed us that the other dive shops were trying to run them out of business and that other dive shops paid off someone in the government to shut them down. An interesting story, but the claim seemed far-fetched to us.

After our three days with Tofo Scuba, we went around the corner to dive with Diversity Scuba. They were also warm and welcoming and lent us whatever gear we needed, with some of the DMs loaning us their private gear, even computers. Diversity Scuba is not on the beach like Tofo but just a block away. They have a new, clean facility and teaching pool. They have a cool upstairs deck where the dive briefings are held in cozy chairs. They also have a small bar but no restaurant, which was okay because of one of the beach’s best restaurants, Waterworks, being right next door. We found that Diversity and Tofo both were safe and well-run dive operators and I would gladly dive with either of them again.

Diversity owns and operates a hotel on the beach which is undergoing a huge renovation. Sergi, the owner, promised us photos of the new place in the next four months! I will note that I did feel as if one of the Dive Masters was lacking in experience and appeared lost on the dive on a few occasions. He broke his dive computer and was diving on the deep reefs without one, swimming over to his other DM to check for time and depth. However, one thing you can never bank on is for Dive Masters to be there if you ever visit again. Like every other diver on the planet, they too want to dive the world. 

If you have a chance, you can also take an Ocean Safari. At Diversity Scuba, they offer the opportunity to go out with a biologist to look for whales, dolphins and whale sharks. Any chance encounter, they stop the boat and you can get in with them. The biologist does an informative talk at the shop before you go, then you help out by identifying each whale shark’s sex and size and if you can take identification photos. It’s definitely worth spending an afternoon doing.



After our stay at Bamboozi Lodge, we departed to Casa Barry. Casa Barry is advertised as the most upscale lodge on Tofo Beach. Yes, it is more upscale than the backpacker’s lodges, but we were still in a bamboo room with cement floor and a basic bed. There are a few larger A-frame units right on the beach which were definitely nicer than our back of the house casita. The hotel has a nice beachside restaurant which is probably the most expensive in the area with a very nice bar. One of the great things about Casa Barry is that they have given free space to house the manta and whale shark research station. Three nights a week there are talks - on Mondays, Dr. Andrea Marshall (star of the BBC documentary, Andrea - Queen of the Mantas), who started it all here at Tofo, speaks. Unfortunately, on our Monday she missed her flight as she was returning from another part of Africa, so we never had a chance to hear her. On Wednesday, Dr. Simon Pierce speaks about his research on whale sharks. He is funny, interesting, poignant and a must-see. On Friday there is a general talk on the ecology of the area by one of the PHD students. It’s a nice touch and a great way to learn more about Tofo.

After three nights at Casa Barry we moved on. We were still searching for THE truly upscale hotel in the area. We spent an entire rainy afternoon searching out areas nearby. We went and looked at Barra Resort’s other lodges, Flamingo Bay and Barra Resort. Flamingo Bay is nice with overwater casitas and air conditioning, something we did not often find in Tofo. However, upon our inspection the pool was a horrible green and the tide was out exposing the mud flats. Our preference was something more on the beach. Barra Lodge is a family resort, and if you are not into the family thing, I would steer clear. Otherwise, it is on a nice stretch of beach.


Going upscale in Mozambique

Finally we came across the Barra Beach Club. We pulled in and as we walked inside our eyes lit up. In front of us was a gorgeous dining room with white linen, high-end wine stems and a true European flair! We excitedly asked for a tour. The eight rooms and one “honeymoon cottage” gave it a distinctly boutique feel. The beds were soft with high quality linens. The pool area was beautiful and well-kept. At the beach was an upscale beach bar with another beautiful swimming pool. We arranged to stay the night. When you book here, room, dinner and breakfast are included at a very reasonable price of about $250.  However, if you have dinner a la carte as we did, it was over $100 just for the meal.  

The manager, Evan, has big plans for the hotel. Currently they work in tandem with Tofo Scuba, though it is about a 30 minute drive to the dive shop. He plans more boutique rooms in separate buildings and a huge dive facility.  It will be interesting to see if they will execute these grand plans. Meanwhile, we feel that this will be a place that an upscale market will appreciate.

Our final night was at a wonderful B&B called Baia Sonumbula, run by a wonderful Italian woman named Laura. The B&B is small with just five rooms, sitting right on the beach next to Casa Barry. The two rooms inside the main building have a large bed with plenty of storage and large bathrooms. They do not have any views and are in the back of the house. However, the three remaining rooms are fantastic. They have sliding doors that completely open up the rooms with sea views. They are decorated with low platform beds, Asian-style with raised basins in the large bathroom and open showers. They have AC, which we used to keep out the mosquitos. It was heaven to open the doors in the morning to watch and listen to the waves roll in and the breeze float into the room. Above the rooms is a sun deck and a covered area with a dining table where made-to-order breakfast is served each morning. It’s truly a place where you know you will make friends and a place that you will want to come back to.


Taking in the beach

Tofo Beach grows on you. My first impression was that it was a little dumpy with sand streets and some rundown backpacker hotels. But within a day, I was starting to feel at home. At every turn we would meet someone we had already met. We sampled most of the restaurants and kept meeting more and more people. By the fifth day I think we knew everyone! One night, Waterworks put on a steak night. For only about $10/pp we had fabulous steaks on the grill, spicy potatoes and salad. Our Dive Master from Tofo Scuba, Nick, was the main entertainment and showed incredible talent on the guitar. Everyone showed up, from the Dive Masters to the owners of the shops to guests we had met from the hotels, other divers and even the two gals who run the only up-end deli in town. There were probably 75 people there that night and we must have know 80% of them.


Going back to dive Mozambique again

We will certainly return to Tofo Beach to have that hometown feeling in a little funky beach town in the middle of struggling Mozambique. We’ll return to all the restaurants and dive with both Tofo Scuba and Diversity. However, we will call in advance and make sure there aren’t any unusual conditions because we want to see more than the just the potential for great diving. We want to see reefs packed with fish, mantas, whale sharks and the humpbacks in all their glory.  

There is no denying the grand scale of Mozambique's amazing beaches - something only the South Africans seem to really know about. But now, you do too.


Colorful Anthias


Large grouper trolling the reef


Further reading


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Dive Adventure: Dumaguete

Stanley Bysshe
Underwater photographer Stanley Bysshe shares his underwater photos and experience at the Atlantis Dumaguete Resort

Dive Adventure: Atlantis Dumaguete Resort

Underwater photography from nudibranchs to whale sharks

Text and Photos by Stanley Bysshe



When we planned our dive photography trip to Dumaguete in the Philippines, whale sharks were not on the wish list. They did, however, turn out to be an added bonus to an amazing dive destination.

The Atlantis Dumaguete Resort is on the Philippine Island of Negros (one of some 7000 Philippine islands) about a twenty-minute drive from the Dumaguete Airport.
The latter being an hour flight from Manila.  Atlantis Dumaguete is part of three Atlantis resorts: Atlantis Puerto Galera established in 1993, Atlantis Dumaguete in 2003, and Atlantis Azores, a liveaboard with four distinct itineraries, which was put into service about two years ago. Between Dumaguete and Puerto Galera, Dumaguete is said to be the more laid back resort with a slightly greater emphasis on muck diving.


Early Morning Start to Cebu


Diving Dumaguete

A check out dive on the house reef lets you get your gear and cameras organized. It also lets the staff know how you like your dive rig set up and that is how you will find it on the boats for every subsequent dive. You are responsible for double checking/ recording Nitrox mixes.

Dive sites are along the shore and boat rides vary from five to 30 minutes. Currents fluctuate but generally are not an issue.

One guide per six divers allows for small groups at any dive site and photographers are generally given ample time to work a subject. The critters the guides found were sometimes so small that I wasn’t sure what I was looking at!  Expect to spend a lot of time in the “muck."  This can be real silty mud, fine volcanic sand, or heavy gravel. All serve as different habitat and will determine what animals you can see. In the heavier gravel we found four different snake eels.


Sea Moth. 60mm Macro, F18, 1/180th


The finer gravel was the preferred site for finding the Mimic, Blue Ring and Wonderpus Octopus. Finally, in the more silty/grassy bottom we found waspfish, sea moths, frogfish, shrimp gobies, dragonets and pipefish. Various shrimp were in all locations as were nudibranchs. I stopped counting different nudibranchs after about twenty. There are also sites with very healthy patch reefs. By far my favorite area was Dauin Norte. One day I dove it four times, exploring the muck outside the patch reef, the deeper reef and ended up at sunset on the shallow reef. It had everything you could want to photograph. I used a 60mm Macro with 1.4x teleconverter, a 105mm Macro with a +10 SubSee Diopter and finished with a 10-24mm wide-angle zoom. I would go back just for that site. The myriad of tropical Pacific reef fish add to the photographic subject list, and the Mandarin night dive is a must.


Pteraeolidia ianthina. 60mm Macro with 1.4x TC, F20, 1/250th


Depending on how long you stay, there is at least one all day, three tank dive boat trip on one of the larger “Outrigger” dive boats. Depending on weather and seas, this can be to Apo or Siguijor islands. Cebu and Sumilan constitute a longer, more unusual trip, which we did twice, because of whale shark sightings (and calm seas preceding the tropical storm).
These are generally wide-angle photo ops, with coral walls, turtles, cuttlefish, sea crates, schools of jacks, and yes, rarely whale sharks. A barbecue lunch is served on the boat followed by a little music, a nap, and the third dive.


Flamboyant Cuttlefish 60mm Macro with 1.4x TC, F20, 1/250th


Underwater photography

All of my photos were taken with a Nikon D2x.  My underwater gear included the items listed below.

On the all day trips I would certainly take a dry bag for spare batteries, etc. It is reasonably dry on the larger boats to change out lenses but I stuck with one lens for each trip.
Dumaguete is an amazing place to try all things macro so whether you are shooting with a compact or DSLR, I would plan accordingly.

Alex Tyrrell is the in-house photo pro. He has worked throughout the Indo-Pacific and is great with questions about DSLR or Compact gear. If you are new at underwater photography he has a course that includes full face masks so that you can converse underwater. He also has a night florescent dive that will give you a whole new look at underwater photography. If you are interested, I would strongly recommend contacting Alex beforehand to discuss filters and lenses.


More underwater photography


Ocellaris Clownfish.  60mm Macro, F10, 1/125th


Apo Island Wall Scene. 10-24mm Dx @ 10mm, F8, 1/100th


Ornate Ghost Pipefish. 105mm Macro, F14, 1/250th


Feeding Whale Shark. 10-24mm Dx @ 10mm, F6.3, 1/250th


Dauin Norte at sunset. 10-24mm Dx @ 10mm, F7.1, 1/100th


Juvenile Warty frogfish. 105mm Macro, F22, 1/250th


Ocellaris Clown. 105mm Macro, F20, 1/250th




Atlantis is an all inclusive dive resort. There is not a great deal for the non-diver. The narrow volcanic sand beach is lovely but snorkeling opportunities are minimal. Land trips are available to Dumaguete, the local market and inland waterfalls. If you have a non-diver in your group, bring books.


Beach side rooms.

As with everything, the staff is more than happy to help you in anyway they can. Atlantis Dumaguete should be on your short list of photographic destinations. The resort and staff are there to let you concentrate on and enjoy your photography. That makes the hours of travel worthwhile.


Apo Island.


Getting there

We used Reef and Rainforest for planning our itinerary in conjunction with the staff at Atlantis for the accommodations. Basically you have to get to Manila. For most of our group that meant a 14 hour flight from Washington D.C. to Seoul Korea, a 5 hour flight to Manila with a night layover, and the final one-hour leg to Dumaguete the next day.


Moon Rise on the Beach.


I cannot stress enough the advantage of letting the Atlantis group plan all your travel while in the Philippines. Manila airport is chaotic on its best days and Philippine Air or Cebu Pacific can be difficult carriers to deal with. Atlantis met us in Manila and ushered us through check in with boarding passes all pre-arranged. If you are traveling with full dive and camera gear, arrange with Atlantis to pay for the extra weight fees up front. This saves a huge amount of check in time.


Pimp My Ride Jeepneys.


Layover times may look long but flights in and out of Dumaguete need a lot of buffer. There is no radar at the airport so flights are easily delayed/canceled due to weather. Thanks to the staff at Atlantis we left a half day early just ahead of a tropical storm that would have changed all our flights back to D.C.! Again, let Atlantis handle your in-country travel, as it will save a lot of headaches. The best part after all the traveling is being met at Dumaguete Airport by a “Pimp-My-Ride” Jeepney.


The resort

Once you arrive in Dumaguete, the only thing you will lift is the shutter release on your camera and your knife and fork. I have never experienced nor can I imagine better service at any dive destination. While the resort was not busy I spent some time talking with Gordon Strahan, one of the owners, and Richard Emslie, the manager.

They assured me there is no drop in service even when the resort is maxed out with 70 or so guests. Expect to be greeted by name from day one and considered one of the family throughout your stay.

All meals are included, with multiple choices at each sitting meeting all needs. You will not be disappointed.

The dive area is well organized with assigned cubbies and lots of rinse tanks. A large rubberized rinse tank is set up for photo equipment.


Dive Briefing.


Attached to the lobby and gift shop is an up-to-date air-conditioned camera room. Each station has compressed air for drying housings and plenty of space (and outlets) to accommodate chargers and laptops. Downloading images and changing lenses between dives couldn’t be easier.


Office, gift shop, and camera room area.


Helpful links

http://bit.ly/xiNwH9 - More of Stan's photos from his adventure


Further reading


Support the Underwater Photography Guide

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo and Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


Trip Report: Komodo

Bettina Balnis
2010 Ocean Art winner, Bettina Balnis, shares her recent adventure to Komodo aboard SMY Ondina.

Dive Adventure: Komodo

A report from the land of dragons and volcanoes

by Bettina Balnis


It was not my "first lesson in life," but my winning picture of skeleton shrimp in the 2010 Ocean Art Competition offered an amazing opportunity to me to experience new and fantastic diving lessons.  This was to be my first time going to Komodo. Wow! I heard a lot of stories before about Komodo; cold water, strong currents, sharks, mantas, and so on.

SMY Ondina

I was very excited when I departed this past September from Frankfurt to Denpassar.   From Denpassar I took a domestic flight to Bima.  Once there, I was picked me up at the airport and I went on board SMY Ondina to start the safari named, “Dragons and Volcanoes."

Main points of the route were Bima, Sangeang, Gili Lawalout, Nusa Kode - South Rinca, Komodo Strait, Palu, East Maumere – Flores.

Underwater photography aboard SMY Ondina

For my underwater photography adventure, I used the equipment listed below.

  • Nikon D80 in a Sealux underwater housing with an inon 45° viewfinder
  • Strobes 2x Inon Z 240, 1x Nikon SB800 in a Subal housing
  • Pilotlamp Supgear
  • Strobe arms and accessories from Mikedive Germany
  • Lenses:


Tokina 10-17mm FE lens, 1/100th, F11, ISO 100 at 17mm.


There is a prepping and equipment area at the back of the boat which is very big and comfortable. Each diver has an assigned place with number and a basket. In the dry zone there is a storage area for electronic equipment and three charging slots for charging batteries, etc.  At the very back of the boat there is extra place for rinsing cameras and storage room for camera equipment. There is also a large desk to assemble and disassemble the cameras. Extra towels and extra baskets for the cameras are always there.

The crew of SMY Ondina is well experienced and educated, they always know what to do and how to help. I was very happy when they repaired some of my broken accessory parts of my underwater housing.

Also, the dingy drivers do a very good job. They were always are at the right place at the right time, and they know how to handle the equipment of each diver. I had no worries to hand over my camera to them.


Diving aboard SMY Ondina

Ella and Abraham were the dive guides onboard. They are very friendly and have extensive knowledge of the diving and they know the dive spots very well.  The "dragons and volcanoes" tour offers different kinds of dive sites, from the expected strong-current dives to those without any kind of current, and even muck dives.


Bethlehem (Bima)

The first dives at Bethlehem were more or less relaxing check-out dives. A perfect start to the safari, surprisingly large amount of muck subjects. Unfortunately I did not take the camera with me! There was not enough time to assemble the housing before diving.  We didn't waste anytime to do this dive, as we hopped in the water just two hours after we arrived onboard.


Tokina 10-17mm FE lens, 1/100th, F10, ISO 100 at 10mm.

Shot Gun (Gili Lawalaut)

Of course the highlights of a Komodo dive trip are the sites with strong current, though I have to admit that I do not like current that much. But, I never felt unsafe on this trip or had to fight against the current.  Shot Gun at Gili Lawalaut is maybe the most exciting place.  According to the name, the current picks you up all of the sudden and - boing - you are really shot through the water.  A new feeling and new lesson for me – very amazing because sharks and mantas floating next to me, moving very quiet and elegant.  At this moment I loved the current.  The dive spots around Gili Lawalaut are special. Also playing dolphins under water suddenly appeared. What a pleasure to watch them!


Manta ray at Karang Makasser. Tokina 10-17mm FE lens, 1/100th, F8, ISO 200 at 14mm.


Karang Makasser (Komodo Strait)

A quite shallow dive of 13m (43ft) but also with strong current is Karang Makassar.  Mantas are circling around and swimming in a formation. Fantastic.


South Rinca

The dives sites around South Rinca are different. There the water was only 22°C (72°F). I was happy with my 7mm suit, so I managed to do four dives that day. I was the only one! Also the water is more green at this area.  Nice landscapes and reefs with a lot of corals, feather stars, anemones, and nudibranchs.  A swarm of barracudas was waiting at the corner of one reef.  Turtles were coming very close to the divers.


Sea turtle at South Rinca. Sigma 18-55mm lens, 1/100th, F14, ISO 250 at 18mm.



On our way to Maumere we watched a film by Danny van Belle. The film was about critter life at Lembeh.  One topic was the special Lembeh pigmy seadragon which has been spotted only at Lembeh Strait.  Arriving at East Maumere, we did the first dive at Gosung Puluhari. This is an interesting macro dive site. At the end of the dive, Abraham was calling me. He had found a pigmy seadragon in a small coral cave. Wow! We just saw the film and then to find the same seadragon at Komodo?!  We all were very excited. It looked really similar like the critter in the film. At home I looked at a book by Debelius. I think the critter we had spotted was not a seadragon but a needle pipe seahorse. Ricard is doing some further studies about this at the moment. I am curious to hear the results. This day was again a lesson for me – Komodo is not only a shark and manta area – but also a critter area.  Everybody was very happy that day.


Needle pipe seahorse at Maumere. Nikon 60mm macro lens, 1/100th, F20, ISO 100.


Upside-down jellyfish near the beach at Maumere.  Nikon 60mm macro lens, 1/100th, F18, ISO 100.


Maumere was the end of our tour. It is a typically muck diving area.  One spot also has a wreck at 17m (55ft). Close to the beach, many upside-down jellyfish can be found. I have never seen them before – very funny. Also the gobies are very huge at this area and not too shy.  Sea cucumbers with five or more emperor shrimp are crawling on the ground. At the seagrass area, I found seven different kinds of ghost pipe fishes.  A perfect end of the tour.


Emperor shrimp on a sea cucumber. Nikon 60mm macro lens, 1/100th, F18, ISO 100.


Land-based tours

Most of the days we did three day dives and one night dive.  Besides all of the great diving, SMY Ondina offers several land-based tours.  It was very interesting to walk on the different beaches and climb mountains to have a nice view of the surrounding landscape. Ella and Abraham, and also Ricard, the manager who was onboard for a week, told me a lot of background information about this special environment and also about the people who live there. This was a nice opportunity to explore the other wonderful aspects of Komodo.

Komodo National Park visitor's center.


A pair of Komodo dragons on the beach.



Over-looking the gorgeous landscape.


About SMY Ondina

SMY Ondina is a nice wooden schooner, and has a romantic flair.  Ricard showed me the photo album about the building of SMY Ondina. A lot of work went into building her, but the results are wonderful. The cabins have mostly three beds, one double bed and one single bed upstairs. The bathroom is comfortable and spacious enough.  Indra and the kitchen crew always cook excellent food, served at buffet. Special requirements like vegetarian meals are accommodated as well. In my opinion, the desserts are the highlight of each dinner.  For the evening entertainment, there is a wide selection of videos and DVDs onboard.



The last evening we had a sundowner cocktail at beach of Maumere watching the SMY Ondina with full sails. What a nice boat, what a great moment. It was time to say goodbye and to make the last photos.  The right moment to reflect the last eleven days and to make the decision to come back to Komodo.

I want to thank the owners Ricard and Enrique who sponsored Underwater Photography Guide's 2010 Ocean Art Photo Competition, which gave me the opportunity to experience my first "Komodo Lesson in Life.”


About the author

More about Bettina Balnis and her underwater photos can be found at her website. http://tauchkoenigin.jimdo.com/


Further reading

Dive Adventure: SCUBA Diving Tofo Beach, Mozambique

Trip Report: Tioman Island

Choosing the best macro lens for your underwater photography

Choosing your next destination

Questions or Comments?  Post in our forums


Support the Underwater Photography Guide

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


Dive Adventure: Dive Damai

Mark Strickland
Underwater photographer Mark Strickland takes you eastbound in Indonesia; an adventure aboard Dive Damai.

Eastbound in Indonesia - Vignettes of an Enchanted Voyage

Part 1 of an adventure aboard Dive Damai

By Mark Strickland



Digging my toes into the wet sand, I’m mesmerized by a procession of perfect, tubular waves rolling ashore. The late afternoon sun has painted everything in warm, golden hues, including an ancient cliff-top temple. A light breeze keeps the coconut trees swaying gently, while delivering hints of Gamelan music, children’s laughter, and cooking smells from a nearby village. We’re on the Indonesian island of Bali, and it’s hard to imagine being anywhere more exotic. Despite such idyllic surroundings, however, our group is actually excited to be leaving. It’s not that we haven’t enjoyed our time on the Island of the Gods. On the contrary, everyone loved it, and many speak of returning. Nonetheless, the next morning as Damai’s dock lines are released, enthusiastic cheers erupt from my fellow divers. The beginning of any voyage is cause for excitement, but this departure is particularly enthralling…we’re heading for a dream itinerary on an exceptional vessel, set to explore some of the richest reefs on the planet.


The vessel

The 130 ft. motor sailing yacht Damai is a masterful blend of old and new. Beautifully crafted in traditional Pinisi style yet equipped with the latest conveniences and safety features, she is spacious, stable, and superbly matched for her mission.


Staterooms are absolutely huge, appointed with full-size beds, desk and tv/dvd, plus individually controlled air-conditioning and en-suite bathrooms and showers.


The salon is similarly spacious, with a comfortable lounge area, well-stocked library, and large windows to appreciate the passing scenery. The dive deck is also roomy and well laid-out, with a cleverly designed sun-shade that’s easily deployed or closed depending on conditions. Created with photographers in mind, Damai also features a large dedicated camera room with individual work areas, charging stations, and plenty of storage. You even get your own individual rinse tank!


The voyage

Once everyone is settled and refreshed with a cool beverage, cruise director Mike Veitch pulls out a chart to help us get our bearings. Our voyage will include many remote areas, but the first full day is spent off Bali’s east coast in the shadow of its tallest peak, Mt. Agung. This region offers a wide range of underwater attractions, but perhaps most unusual is the seasonal appearance of the world’s largest bony fish, the Mola mola or ocean sunfish. Normally pelagic nomads, these odd-looking fish typically show up around July, when they frequent cleaning stations to rid themselves of parasites. Unusually warm water keeps the gentle giants at bay during our visit, but there are many other highlights, including hawksbill turtles, blue-spotted rays, and plenty of friendly reef fish.


Hawksbill turtle.


One of the many species of garden eel.


Later, we move to a shallow site known as Amed, where a dark sand bottom is home to a host of interesting creatures including peacock mantis shrimp, sand divers, frogfish, and several species of garden eels.

Bali boasts dozens of enticing dive sites, and a good case could be made for going no further. Our goal, however, is to explore far and wide, traveling steadily eastward through the vast Indonesian archipelago known as Nusa Tenggarra, eventually arriving in the remote reaches of the Banda Sea. Our first stop after Bali is Pulau Lawang, a small island near Lombok, where a narrow, mangrove-lined channel supports healthy sloping reefs on each side, populated by a lively community of reef fish. Next, we steam to Sumbawa, where Bima harbor easily lives up to its reputation for great muck-diving. Visibility is limited, but the variety of critters is superb, including thorny seahorses, ghost pipefish, Bobbit worms, fire urchins with zebra crabs and Coleman shrimp, and a wealth of nudibranchs and slugs.


Ghost pipefish.


Colorful nudibranch at Sumbawa.


Commensal crab.


From Bima, our next stop is the island of Sangeang, whose distinctive conical profile leaves little doubt about its volcanic origins. The last eruption was in 1996, but sites like “Bubbles” are a constant reminder of this area’s dynamic nature. Here, a steady flow of gas bubbles rise from the dark substrate, percolating around black coral bushes and barrel sponges before rising through schools of fusiliers and midnight snapper. In between the corals, clusters of psychedelic pink, bulb-tipped anemones are fearlessly defended by resident Clark’s anemonefish.



The easy-to-identify squarespot anthias.


Nearby, other sites like Black Magic offer a diverse assortment of fish and critters, including juvenile emperor angelfish, squarespot anthias, rabbit-ear nudibranchs and sawblade shrimp that are nearly indistinguishable from their wire coral hosts. 

Bordered by the Sulawesi and Flores Seas on the north side and the Indian Ocean to the south, Komodo National Park can almost be considered two different destinations. While close to one another geographically, these areas are often worlds apart in terms of conditions. On the north side, the water is generally warm and sparkling blue, as you might expect in such tropical latitudes. In the south, however, upwelling currents deliver chilly, nutrient-rich waters from great depths, creating perfect conditions for plankton growth. Visibility often isn’t great, but most divers agree that the trade-off is well worthwhile, as this living planktonic “soup” supports an incredibly diverse and healthy marine life community. Despite considerable differences in temperature and visibility, underwater terrain is actually quite similar between north and south Komodo, typically consisting of drop-offs, pinnacles, fringing reefs and shallow coral gardens.



Shallow coral gardens offer protection to a diversity of reef life.


Our Komodo experience begins on the north side, at a small island called Tatawa Besar. A vigorous current is flowing, so the dinghy driver positions us where it splits around the island, allowing for an easy descent in minimal current. Reaching a sloping bottom at roughly 100 ft., I’m still adjusting my strobes as a sizable Napoleon wrasse looks me over, then continues on its way. Finally ready, I ease towards a school of ribbon sweetlips, where I’m surrounded by a contingent of twin-spot snappers, followed by dozens of red-tooth triggerfish, all cruising effortlessly in mid-water. Moving uphill, the seascape is dominated by large, reddish soft corals, replaced by vivid orange ones in shallower depths.


Vivid orange corals at Tatawa Besar.


The immediate scenery is spectacular, but the urge to explore is too much to resist. Venturing beyond the narrow zone where the current splits, I soon find myself being whisked over the reef at several knots. Soft corals flap like flags on a windy day, and damselfish struggle to hold their position in the water column. There’s no point in trying to stop, so I simply relax and enjoy the ride. Ascending to safety stop depth, I am treated to an ever-changing panorama while flying over a vast field of healthy hard coral. Like a kid who’s just finished a favorite carnival ride, I immediately want to do it all again, but we have another appointment to keep.

This time, it’s an isolated underwater pinnacle called H.T.F. (Hard To Find) Reef, near Gili Lawa Laut. Surrounded by open water, this site is also subject to impressive tidal flows. By now we’ve begun to figure out the strategy though, and immediately fin towards the relative calm where the current bifurcates. Right away, we’re greeted by several fat white-tip reef sharks, followed by a massive school of blue-spined unicornfish. Next come squadrons of big-eye trevally, then a succession of barracuda, oceanic triggerfish, bannerfish, and finally 30 or more sailfin snapper—an unusual sight to say the least. All the while, a hawksbill turtle forages unconcerned a few feet away, using front flippers to hold a sponge while tearing out big chunks with its raptor-like beak. 


Another north-side favorite is Castle Rock, also a submerged pinnacle surrounded by open water. As with other current-prone sites, timing is everything here, and there is no substitute for local knowledge. This is among the most compelling reasons to go with an experienced operator like Damai, who work hard to schedule dives for times when currents are minimal. Getting it wrong can require lots of extra effort, and may even be cause for aborting a dive. When conditions are right, however, this site can be incredible. At such times, it’s not even necessary to swim, as you simply park on the bottom and watch a constant stream of marine life parade past, including big fish like king mackerel and giant trevally. There’s also an excellent range of reef fish and invertebrates, but this site is mostly known for the schooling fish and big animals. In recent years, there’s even been a pod of bottlenose dolphins showing up with some frequency here, providing a rare opportunity for divers to observe these amazing animals hunting and playing in their natural habitat. 


Juvenile Emperor Angelfish.


On Komodo’s south side, prevailing conditions ensure a steady supply of plankton, supporting an extremely healthy and dense marine life population. Competition for territory is so fierce among the filter feeders that it’s often difficult to find even a square inch of unoccupied space. Of course such “prime real estate” makes for fantastic scenery; these reefs are absolutely pulsating with color and life. And, with a nearly endless variety of invertebrate and fish species, there is something new around every corner.


One of the many colorful inverts to be seen on Komodo’s south side.


Among the “must see” dives in this region are a handful of reefs within the protected confines of Horseshoe Bay, on the south side of Rinca Island. Perhaps the best known of these is Cannibal Rock, a small pinnacle rising from deep water to within 6 ft. of the surface. Here, frequent upwellings support dense populations of anemones, crinoids, sponges, fire urchins, and black corals. By far the most colorful residents, however, are bright red, yellow and purple creatures known as sea apples, which are actually a type of sea cucumber. Fish life is also prolific, including emperor snapper, six-band and semi-circle angelfish, as well as legions of anthias and damselfish that hover just above the reef.  Great Yellow Wall is another thriving south-side reef, where an abundance of yellow soft corals combine with orange tubastraea to form a living wall of color. At the base of the drop-off, in addition to reef fish of nearly every description, we encounter a four-foot bamboo shark—by far the largest I’ve seen. On the opposite end of the size spectrum, Komodo is among the few places in the world to see the tiny arthropods known as “Ladybugs”.  No bigger than the head of a pin, these endearing creatures peer out at the world with glowing orange eyes, seemingly as suited for the pages of a Dr. Seuss book as for a tropical reef.


Tiny arthropods known as “Ladybugs.”


Although Komodo is designated as a marine park, not all of its attractions are in the sea. If you have an opportunity to go ashore, watch for geckos, wild pigs, deer, and various other animals, all well adapted to living in this harsh environment. The main attraction, however, is an eight-foot, 150 + pound, pre-historic looking reptile—the fabled Komodo dragon. Actually a monitor lizard, the dragons are endemic to the Komodo region; this is the only place in the world where they exist in the wild. Moving with the relaxed confidence of an apex predator, these modern-day dinosaurs are often seen sauntering through the bush, periodically pausing to “smell” the air with long, forked tongues. In spite of their deliberate demeanor, the giant lizards are surprisingly agile, and are capable of sprinting short distances to pull down prey. Being opportunistic predators, their diet includes pigs, deer, other dragons, and anything else they manage to catch. Needless to say, it is wise to observe them from a respectful distance!


Keep your distance!


Back in the underwater realm, many southern sites are at Rinca, but other islands also offer excellent diving, including opportunities for big animals. As its name implies, Manta Alley is among the most reliable places to encounter the graceful giants, along with mobulas, Napoleon wrasse, giant trevallies, and other big fish. Another favorite is Pulau Padar’s W Reef, a series of three pinnacles that rise to within five meters of the surface. Often bathed in vigorous currents, this site provides ideal conditions for filter-feeding invertebrates, as well as schooling fish like fusiliers. It is also home to unusual species like leaf scorpionfish, pygmy sea horses, and a particularly brilliant nudibranch, Nembrotha purpureolineata, which can often be seen feeding on tunicates.


Manta rays frequent the aptly named Manta Alley.


Diving after dark in Komodo can also be very rewarding, revealing a mind-blowing array of bizarre creatures. One night on a mucky slope called Pantai Padar, we find evil-looking spiny devilfish, Spanish dancers, clawed reef lobster, pleurobranchs with hitchhiking shrimp, ornate and robust ghost pipefish, and a bobtail squid shimmering with iridescent colors—all in the first 30 minutes! Other sites feature forests of pastel sea pens, stargazers, cat sharks, frogfish, torpedo rays, and a multitude of other strange and rarely seen critters.



This region offers so much variety that it really could be considered several destinations in one. Whether you’re into weird critters, big animals or simply enjoy healthy reefs, you’ll find it all here. Komodo is not a great choice for beginners, however—if you’re new to diving or unsure about buoyancy skills, it’s best to get a little more experience first. On the other hand, for capable divers who appreciate thriving reefs, unusual marine life and widely varied habitats, I can think of nowhere more rewarding than Komodo.

Stay tuned for the second leg of our voyage in the Banda Sea, including Alor, Banda Niera and Ambon… to be continued!

Special thanks to Dive Damai for their assistance with this article.

 The underwater world is the primary focus of most Komodo trips, but Damai’s crew makes the entire experience a pleasure, with an emphasis on comfort, flexibility and personalized service. In keeping with this philosophy, groups are limited to 10 guests attended by12 crew, even though the boat could easily accommodate 16 or more. This approach continues underwater, where 4 to 1 is the maximum ratio of guests to guides. “Valet” style diving and 3 roomy tenders mean no long waits on the surface. Nitrox (32 or 36%) is complimentary, as is nearly any dive equipment you may need, including wet suits, dive lights and computers. To insure that guests can truly relax, port and park fees are also included in the trip price, as are all meals, beverages, and even massage treatments! For more information, check out MSY Damai and follow appropriate links for layout and photos. 


About diving the Komodo region


Komodo has a well-deserved reputation for strong currents, but there are many sites where the flow is minimal and diving is easy. Some reefs are also suitable for drift dives, allowing you to sail along with the current rather than fighting it. Even at places that are notorious for strong currents, problems can usually be avoided by diving at slack tide—an excellent reason to go with a reputable, experienced dive operator with plenty of local knowledge.


Best time to visit

For best access to all sites in the park, late March through early May, and again from mid September to early November.  From mid May to early September, southeast winds make some southern sites inaccessible, but this is the best time for the northern sites. The converse is also true; from mid November through January most northern sites are exposed, but conditions in the south are optimal. 


Water temperature

This varies widely depending on location, so best to come prepared for both tropical and temperate conditions. Water temps. are usually moderate, but can range from 66f / 19C to 86f / 30C on the same trip.



Bahasa Indonesia is the country’s official language, and learning a few words and phrases will certainly make your visit more enjoyable. However, English is widely spoken, especially on live-aboards and at resort areas.



Indonesian Rupiah. Be sure to use licensed money-changers. Credit cards are widely accepted in tourist areas, but merchants typically add 3 or 4% to cover their extra cost.


Getting there

Gateway airports include Jakarta or Bali, typically via Singapore, Hong Kong, or other Southeast Asian hubs. While daytrips are available from Labuhanbajo on western Flores, the only practical way to dive Komodo is by live-aboard. Most trips depart from Bali, but other departure points include the port of Bima on Sumbawa, and Maumere, Flores. Itineraries typically range from a week to 12 days. Schedules for flights within Indonesia often change with little notice, so it’s best to make arrangements through a well-established dive travel agent. Alternatively, many Indonesian dive operators offer excellent in-house travel services.


Further Reading


Support the Underwater Photography Guide

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


Dive Adventure: Blue Heron Bridge

Stanley Bysshe
Sometimes referred to as "Lembeh East," the Blue Heron Bridge in Florida is full of colorful critters, & plenty of great underwater photo ops.

Dive Adventure: Blue Heron Bridge

Macro muck diving in southeast Florida

By Stanley Bysshe



Somehow I never got the memo on Blue Heron Bridge at Riviera Beach in South Florida. While I am not an expert on Florida diving, I have made several photographic trips to the State. On a recent visit, a tropical low blew out our ocean diving. However, Lynn at Splashdown Diving, took one look at our cameras and said, “You boys need to go to Blue Heron Bridge.” So, with her help, we did some dive site research, and off we went.


Shortfin Pipefish. F16, 1/125th, ISO 100.


Diving the Blue Heron Bridge

The old bridge is part of Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach (exit 75, I 95, north of West Palm Beach). It has been mostly torn down, but one end was left as a fishing pier. However, the sandy bottom around the new and old bridge as well as the old pilings make for muck diving macro heaven.

Diving the site on the Intercoastal Waterway takes some exact planning. The biggest issue is timing the tide. The best diving with the least current and the best visibility is on the slack high tide. If you arrive early, parking can be found close to the beach entry, reducing the need for long distance schlepping of gear. (There are at least two dive shops, one on either side of the new bridge, perfect for getting air or if you forget something vital.) We were there on a stormy weekend and it was clear that Blue Heron Bridge is a poorly kept secret among Florida divers. The place was pretty crowded.


Fringed Filefish. F10, 1/125th, ISO 100.


The timing

Start the dive in the sand about ½ hour before the slack tide and work your way to the pilings. Maximum depth is about 20 feet so you have a good 100 minutes or more to photograph. It is hard to get into the boat channel but keep it in mind. Also surface marker buoys are mandatory and the police were ticketing divers on the spot.


Critters galore

The sandy area may reveal pipefish, filefish, batfish, rays, and octopus. The pilings are home to many juveniles, including queen, blue, french, and gray angels, tiny eels and puffers. Also on the bottom there is an assortment of gobies and blennies. Arrow crabs, banded coral shrimp and very small spiny lobsters are pretty common.

Like most muck diving sites, the surroundings are quite dull. With a lot of divers the area can silt up quickly. Be patient, as there usually is enough current to clear out the visibility if you stay in one place.


Juvenile Spotted Moray. F18, 1/125th, ISO 100.


Underwater photography at the Blue Heron Bridge

A focus light is very helpful, along with attention to strobe placement (to avoid backscatter). With my DSLR camera, I used a 60mm macro lens along with a 1.4 teleconverter. I like to keep my Inon Z240 strobes (2) positioned behind the front plane of the housing port. Usually they are pointed outward in the 10 and 2 o’clock positions.  The 10-2 positions are helpful when shooting near a reflective bottom, like sand.  I also like to place the strobes like “street lamps” above the port but again pulled back so that they don’t overhang the front of the glass. Finally I often turn one flash off and position just one strobe. With such a long dive you can work the subject and try multiple techniques. The object, obviously, is to get very close. To this end I will take an exposure shot and adjust strobe output, f-stop, and shutter speed accordingly. Then stalk the critter. I try to avoid checking the histogram/ LCD as much as possible to minimize motion so that each successive shot can be a little closer.

This is not a spot just for the DSLR shooters. My buddy was using a Canon G11 with dual strobes and got some very nice images.  Like many good macro sites, the more you dive the bridge the more you see. I could have easily spent a week just working around Blue Heron Bridge.

All images were taken with a Nikon D2Xs, Aquatica housing, two Inon Z 240 strobes, Nikon 60mm D (the old version) lens with a Tokina 1.4 Teleconverter.


More underwater photos from the Blue Heron Bridge

Seabass sp. F10, 1/250th, ISO 100.


Small spiny lobster. F7.1, 1/250th, ISO 100.


Shortfin Pipefish. F22, 1/125th, ISO 100.


Shortfin Pipefish. F16, 1/125th, ISO 100.


Orange-spotted Goby. F14, 1/125th, ISO 100.


Anemone. F14, 1/125th, ISO 100.


Banded Jawfish. F18, 1/125th, ISO 100.


Useful links


Further reading



Support the Underwater Photography Guide

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!



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