Sea of Cortez: Photo Workshop Trip Report

Todd Winner
A report on Underwater Photography Guide's recent photo Whale Shark / Sea Lion trip to the Sea of Cortez, Mexico

Sea of Cortez: Photo Workshop Trip Report

A report on Underwater Photography Guide's recent photo trip to the Sea of Cortez, Mexico

By Todd Winner



This year's Sea of Cortez workshop was full of photographers seeking out Whale Sharks, Sperm Whales, Sea lions, and whatever other surprises the Sea of Cortez brough. The trip began in Phoenix, Arizona. We met up with the "Head Out to Rocky Point" crew at the airport, where they picked us up in two passenger vans and two enclosed trailers to hold all our gear. Imagine just how much gear close to 20 scuba divers bring with them, add all their camera gear on top of that, and you'll have a good idea of why they needed two trailers.  It didn't take long for our adventure to begin.

Early Trip Detour

Soon after crossing the boarder into Mexico, a bridge remodel forced us to take a detour through a small river. What is it they say about not crossing running water? (see picture)   It was good we had experienced drivers because I wouldn't have driven my truck through that river. We continued on to Puerto Penasco, where we boarded the Rocio Del Mar.


Rocio Del Mar dive boat - preparation

The Rocio Del Mar is a comfy 110ft ship built for diving, but it soon became apparent that they never planned for this many cameras at one time. We had over 20 underwater cameras on board with a mix of DSLR mirrorless and compacts.  We even had 3 housed Canon 5D Mark III's!  To create more space, we converted a large area of unused dive stations into a second camera table. The crew found us a large rubber mat to keep anything from sliding off and it worked out great. Now we were all set for diving *and* underwater photography.


There are 10 cabins located on the mid and upper decks.  The cabins are comfortable and all have private baths.  However, some of the bunks were a little short for the taller guests.  If you are tall make sure you get checked into a longer bunk.  There was always plenty to eat with 3 meals and snacks in-between.  The meals were a combination of Mexican and American cuisine.  I especially enjoyed the fresh salsa!  Most meals were served in the dining area down on the lower deck, but the last night we enjoyed a fiesta on the upper sun deck.  

The Search for marine life begins


After everything was stowed away, it was time to go looking for big animals.  Everyone was very interested is seeing sperm whales, so we first headed south down to a location known for them and hit a few dive sites along the way. Our first dive was a check-out dive and I wasn't expecting much. When we first hopped in, visibility was only around 30ft, but when I got down to the sand I saw jaw fish and pike blennies everywhere.  Suddenly, my so-so dive was becoming spectacular!  I've never seen so many pike blennies out of their holes and sparing for dominance.  

Sea Lion Madness

For our second and third dive, we hit a couple of sea lion rookeries.  Like most rookeries, we had some playful juveniles and females, but the most interesting part of the sea lions on this trip for me was the large male bulls.  Every rookery we dove at had bull sea lions patrolling their areas.  They swim back and forth, barking constantly underwater.  Often their areas were so close together that they overlapped a bit.  Bull Sea Lions are very territorial and will fight to protect their space.  Some of us even got to witness three bulls battling it out underwater. Talk about exciting!   I've seen bulls clashing on land, but had no idea this occurred underwater.  Even though the bulls were doing their best to scare us away by charging and barking in our faces, that did not stop us from getting amazing shots.

sea of cortez sea lion underwater photo trip
Sea lions playing in the shallow water

Sea of Cortez Sea Lion underwater photography
Sea Lion, with the rocks on the surface visible


Sperm Sharks, Dolphins and Boobies


We spent a good portion of the next two days looking for sperm whales. We spotted pilot whales, dolphins and even a few sperm whales from the surface. We made a number of jumps in the water with them, but none were very interested in playing with us. We had a few fly bys. and most of us got a chance to see both the dolphins and pilot whales underwater but no incredible photo opportunities. Unfortunately, this some times happens in wildlife photography, but this did not stop us from letting a good photo opportunity pass us by. Many guests did see the Pilot whales underwater, but they would quickly exit the scene.

At one point from the boat we saw thousands of dolphins - more than anyone has ever seen before. They were everywhere - the boat slowed down and for 20 minutes we were surrounded in every direction by dolphins.

Some of started shooting the brown footed boobies that were landing in the water near us.  They would stick their heads underwater as we approached them and this soon became a game to see how close you could get to one.  This turned out to be a lot of fun and we came away with some great images.

With the sperm and pilot whales not cooperating, we headed off to go dive a few more sites.   We had several more playful sea lion dives.  We dove a couple of macro sites that had giant jaw fish at them.  These guys are huge!  They are about a foot long and as thick as a baseball.  

Attack of the Giant Jawfish

"They told us we would look on the sandy bottom for the giant jawfish. I've seen smaller jawfish before, I'm looking for holes. and then suddenly, I see a cluster of people looking at something. This jawfish came out, it must have been a foot and a half long, I was like "Holy Cr*p!". I did not expect this HUGE jawfish to come out. I practically pushed my way in to see this highly unusual creature. It was definitely one of the highlights of the trip." - Judy

sea of cortez sperm whale
Snorkelers approaching a Sperm Whale. Unfortunately the Sperm whale soon descended.

sea of cortez dolphin underwater
Dolphin swimming by


Underwater Photo Workshop

Typically we give a photo talk each night on our workshop trips, but on this trip we did several lengthy night dives that ate into our workshop time.  We still had a lot of opportunities to do one on one sessions and small group discussions during travel time between sites. Some of the topics we covered were strobe lighting, slow shutter techniques and organizing and editing images in Lightroom.  

Whale Sharks, whale sharks, whale sharks!

On our last day and a half, we went to the Bay of Los Angeles. which is known for whale sharks.  When we arrived there, we were not disappointed.  At one point we counted nine sharks in the water at once!  They ranged in size from a 12 foot juvenile up to the 30 foot adults.  These gentle creatures spend most of their time slowly swimming at the surface collecting plankton in their ginormous mouths.  It still requires a bit of effort to kick along side of them, but we had so many opportunities and got some beautiful images.  Everyone agreed this was the highlight of the trip. Unlike most Rocio del mar trips that only spend a couple hours with the whale sharks, we spend two days with them.

Sharks - The most fun I've ever had!

"Snorkeling with the Whale sharks is the most fun that I've ever had in the water. There were a *lot* of them, and I like the way the boat did it, you could jump in the water whenever you wanted to from the inflatable.In the beginnning, we would all jump in at once, but after a while we each grabbed out own shark. My husband Roger swam with his own shark for over an hour! And this was just the first morning! When we went back in the afternoon, we counted 8 or 9 whale sharks. Twice I didn't see any fins, and then I stuck my face in the water and I saw one. One time a shark swam right underneath me which was amazing" - Judy

Sea of Cortez whale shark
Whale Shark Silhouette, Olympus OM-D, Nauticam housing, 8mm fisheye lens


Final Thoughts


The Sea of Cortez continues to be one of my favorite locations for big marine animals, and this year proved to be a great macro location as well. The workshops are an excellent place to dive with like-minded people and learn a few things along the way. Please join Bluewater Photo on one of our other exciting photo workshops for your own awesome images.

Jawfish: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro, 1/160, F9.0, ISO 100

Pike Blenny Face Off: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 100mm F2.8L Macro, 1/160, F9, ISO 100

Whale Shark with Remoras: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 8-15mm F4L Fisheye @ 15mm, 1/500, F8, ISO 640

Equipment: Nikon D300 in Sea & Sea Housing with Dual S&S YS250 strobes, Tokika 10-17 lens.  Settings:  Zoomed in to 17mm, F10, 1/250 sec.

About the shot: I was attempting to do an over/under shot of this sea lion pup resting on a rock above water.  After going under to readjust camera settings a few times, I noticed the pup was curious and sticking his head under water to see what I was doing.  So I seized the opportunity and took a series of photos of her peeking at me.

Trip Highlight: The Rocio del Mar trip was a great opportunity to dive and photograph,  both wide-angel and macro, with a great group of like-minded photographers.  My highlight was photographing the whale sharks in the afternoon with magic light.  The conditions in Bahia de Las Angeles were like glass and the surrounding desert mountain scenery was stunning. - Ron

Equipment: Canon 5D Mark III in Ikelite housing, Sigma 15mm fisheye, precision 4" dome.  Settings:  ISO 800, Aperture priority F/8, Centre weighted average metering, 1/1000 sec, ambient light, camera RAW, Auto white balance with some correction in Aperture

About the shot:  The sperm whales didn't want to play, but this brown boobie was curious and kept looking underwater to see what I was doing.  Out of the water my go-to birding lens is a 600mm f/4, but I was able to get close enough here to use a 15mm fisheye to capture full frame images.

Trip Highlight: Aside from the incredible encounters with wildlife on this trip, I would say the highlight for me was the camaraderie between a group of strangers who were so willing to share and learn from each other about underwater photography.  Friends were made! - Jeff Sheppard


Bull Sea Lion taken at the Sea of Cortez

Equipment: Canon 7D with Hugyfot housing, Tokina 10-17mm Fisheye, dual INON Z240 strobes.  Settings: F8, 1/250, 17mm, ISO 250

About the shot: This bull sea lion was hanging around me and I tried to take as many shots as I could, which wasn't so easy.  he was biger tan me and I was quite scared when he approached me.  It's a lucky shot and I have no idea how I took it to be honest.

Trip Highlight: I've never seen sea lions before, so this trip was special and exciting for me just being able to see lots of them.  It was quite challenging to take photos of them because they were swimming around so fast.  It was an unforgettable trip, getting to know many kind people who are awesome and talented photographers. - Lea


Equipment:  Olympus OMD E-M5, 8mm Fisheye lens, Nauticam housing Settings:  F10, 1/320, ISO 400

About the shot: We swam together for over an hour, covering the whole bay. No one else around. We'd swim pretty fast where plankton was thin, then stop and vacuum where it was thick. From time to time I'd pick my head up and look around to see where I was. There were times I practically swam into the boat, there were times I couldn't see the boat. Beat of all, it let me stay on the well-lit side. With the flat water, it was really peaceful. It's one of the best times I've ever had in the ocean, and that photo captures it. 

Trip Highlight: On this trip, the highlight for me was swimming with that whale shark. It liked me, or tolerated me, and I could keep up with it.  - Roger

Sea Horse

Equipment: Canon S100 Settings: ISO 125, F8, 1/800

About the shot: I found a seahorse and took several pictures, correcting strobes until I got one that was good enough.  I don't like to take too many shots of a seahorse as lights are bad for their eyes - they can't blink.

Trip Highlight: The highlight of the trip was swimming with whale sharks in warm, calm water for as long as we wanted. - Dan

Whale Shark

Spanish Shawl

Equipment: Nikon D300 in Sea & Sea housing with Sea and Sea YS250 strobe with fiber optic snoot attached, Nikor 105mm lens, subsea +5 diopter, L&M Sola 800 focus light.  Settings: F32, 1/250

About the shot: Although this is a common subject in California and Sea of Cortez, I was trying out a new lighting technique with super macro on this small nudibranch.  I was using a subsee +5 diopter and a new fiber optic snoot attached to the strobe.  Fortunately, this Spanish Shawl wasn't moving too fast so I was able to adjust the snoot to light the subject and took several shots. - Ron


Arrow Crab

Equipment:  Nikon D-200, Micro Nikkor 105mm 1:2.8G ED  Settings: ISO: 200, f9 @ 1/200,  2 Iklite strobes set on manual @ 1/2 power

About the Shot:  I discovered on this dive that the lens was set on manual focus not auto, thus I had to move in and out (bodily) to find the focus point.  Fortunately, the focus point was at a distance which was ideal for the small critter subjects, such as this arrowcrab.

Trip Highlight:  What I loved about this trip was that the Sperm Whales, Dolpins, and Whale Skarks were there. The whales and dolpins didn't stay up for us to photograph, but that's life. Maybe next encounter on the May 1st Socorro Island trip! - George


Join us on the July 2013 Sea of Cortez trip!


About the Author

Todd Winner is the technique editor for Underwater Photography Guide and an instructor and trip leader for Bluewater Photo Store in Santa Monica, CA. You can see more of his work at


Further Reading


Where to Buy

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!



Diving Papua New Guinea, Part II: Macro

Ron Watkins
Part II of Ron Watkin's incredible journey with macro, topside and cuttlefish photos

Diving West New Britain, Papua New Guinea on the MV Febrina

An underwater photographer's unique and spectacular experience diving in the PNG

Part II: Macro, topside and cuttlefish

By Ron Watkins


Continued from Part I: Sharks and wide-angle opportunities like never before

World-Class Muck Diving

Despite the plentiful wide-angle opportunities, I switched to macro on several dives and found no shortage of subjects. The reefs and pinnacles play host to soft coral crabs, transparent shrimp, scorpionfish, leaffish, anemonefish, blennies, crinoids shrimp, saron shrimp and a wide variety of nudibranchsDigger also found several boxer crabs that carry small anemones in their claws and use them to fend off predators. I think they look more like cheerleader crabs with pom-poms. There is also world-class muck diving at Garove Island in the black sand of Dicky’s Place, which rivals that of Lembeh and other areas throughout Indonesia. I could have stayed another day or two, as there were so many unique species in the muck. Keen-eyed Digger also found Halimeda pipefish, robust pipefish, a tiny Green Oxynoe sea slug, porcelain crabs on anemones, an anemone hermit crab, different varieties of lionfish, false clown anemonefish, and sea cucumbers with numerous small shrimp and crabs on them. One unique discovery was the robust pipefish with a baby squid attached to its tail. Here are a few of the macro images taken, but you can see more of my super macro images in the article Learning Super Macro Photography in PNG.


Robust pipefish with a baby squid attached to its tail


A rare saron shrimp hunting at night


A boxer crab extends his anemones in defense


A soft coral crab blends in perfectly with his host


A family of false clown anemonefish settles in for the night along with a few shrimp


A pink anemonefish peaks out into the darkness from the safety of his host


An Anemone hermit crab on the blank sand of Dicky’s Place


The Beautiful People of Balangore

Upon arrival to Garove Island we picked up an interesting old plantation owner named Dicky, who was hitching a ride back to Kimbe Bay. Dicky is Anglo, but was born in Rabaul, married a local girl and still lives with his extended family in the village. It had been six months or so since he had been out of the village so he was very happy to be on the boat and talking with all of us. His stories about PNG, the people, WWII wrecks and his friend Paul Allen were very entertaining.  

In between the afternoon and night dives, Dicky gave us a private tour of Balangore, where his wife was raised. At the center of the village is huge grassy field, which provides a central meeting place as well as an area for the children to play. At one end of the field is Balangore Primary School. We walked through the residential area and met with many of the local residents. The children are adorable and love to have their picture taken and then see what they look like in the camera. The women weave palm leaves for their roofs, scrape coconut meat from the shell, prepare copra (their main cash crop) and cook. The men fish, wood carve and cut the palm leaves from the trees. The children help out around the village, swim and play soccer in the field. The tour ended at the opposite end of the field at a community church on the hill. At the end of the tour, we were escorted back to our skiff by an entourage of children who waved goodbye as we returned to the Febrina.


Shy at first


Young boys in Balangore


A young boy from Balangore in his dugout canoe


The Balangore church on the hill


Krackafat and the Cooperative Cuttlefish

The weather continued to improve and the sunrise was beautiful through the partly cloudy sky. We were able to dive four more times in the Witu Islands, with spectacular dives on Barney’s Reef and Krackafat. Alan Raabe discovered most of the dive sites, installed moorings and named them. Many were named after family members or friends, but I had to ask about what Krackafat meant. The Aussies let out a big laugh and informed me that there is a saying about "cracking a fatty," which means getting an erection. Alan says that this dive site is so good that when you surface, you will understand the true meaning of the site’s name. The site was appropriately named, and the origin of name gives you some insight into Alan's colorful humor.

Krackafat is covered with huge barrel sponges, clusters of soft coral, gardens of red sea whips and with moderate currents come huge schools of large fish. The icing on the cake was a very cooperative foot-long cuttlefish that I spent most of the dive practicing my close-focus wide-angle photography technique on. Digger and I followed it all over the reef as it passed in front of colorful soft corals and sponges changing color and shape for camouflage and in an attempt to communicate with us. It allowed us to get extremely close and at times reached out to touch the dome port of the camera in an inquisitive way. They are truly remarkable animals and I feel very fortunate for our time spent together.


Cuttlefish posing on the reef with a large school of fish


Same cuttlefish turning changing colors


A large soft coral provides a good hiding place for the cuttlefish


A large stand of red sea whips


Father’s Reef and The Arch

The Febrina traveled 100 miles the next night to Father’s Reef and we woke up on Norman’s Wall. Shortly into the dive I was concentrating on getting the eyes and claws of a transparent shrimp in the same focal plane when I felt something nudge my arm several times. Thinking that Digger had found another amazing subject, I looked up to find a large hawksbill turtle in my face, curious about what I was looking at. He continued to stick his beak into my business, so I decided that maybe he wanted his picture taken. I flipped back the diopter, adjusted the aperture, shutter speed, and strobes and took a few macro turtle shots. Then we found several other small shrimp, crabs, a leaffish and several nudibranchs to photograph.


The hawksbill turtle who wanted his picture taken


Tiny red spider crab with coral polyps growing on him


A leaffish with a tiny green nudibranch on his dorsal fin


One of the many nudibranchs seen in PNG


The next dive was back to wide-angle at The Arch, which is a large underwater arch reef formation and swim through at 90 feet. There is a convenient reference line close to the mooring that leads you down to the arch. I got down there first to set up some shots, but quickly the other divers appeared and filled up the arch so I pulled back and allowed them to pass through. Then Digger went on the other side of a smaller piece of the arch that had some beautiful sea fans and posed with his light. 


Digger poses above The Arch


A red sea fan adorns the side of The Arch


Why Papua New Guinea Diving Is So Special

Despite the bad weather causing us to skip a few dives, I was still able to log 31 dives in the 7.5 days of diving. In addition to the previously highlighted dives in this article, the diving at all of the sites is consistently good and each offers a wide variety of wide-angle and macro photography opportunities. Shaggy’s Reef, Leslie’s Knob, Elaine's Reef, Jane’s Gully, Killibob's Knob and Kirsty Jane's are all signature dive sites of this North Coast New Britain itinerary. Each site uniquely delivers on healthy reefs, stunning pinnacles, prolific marine life and biodiversity that will impress even the most seasoned diver and underwater photographer.

The cooperative cuttlefish on Krackafat, like most of the marine life in these remote areas, are not used to interactions with divers and are easily approached if you move slowly. On nearly every dive in PNG there are curious turtles that appear to enjoy their reflection in the dome port, or fearless sharks that come in very close and brake off only at the last minute. One puppy-dog-like white tip bumped me several times and even head butted an unsuspecting diver. Schools of barracuda and trevally numbering in the hundreds will allow you to approach them and enter their inner sanctum as if they are protecting you.  Even the typically shy anemonefish seem curious enough to leave the protection of their host and pose for pictures. One reason for this behavior is that there are currently only two full time dive boats in PNG, so some of the sites only get visitors a few times a year. Alan said that most of the boats that were in PNG have either gone bankrupt or relocated to more popular markets like Raja Ampat, Indonesia. We never saw another dive boat on the entire trip, except for Paul Allen’s private yacht the Octopus. Much of the trip we were diving in the protected waters of a Nature Conservancy sponsored marine park. The strict level of enforcement, which is rare in remote parts of the world like PNG, is well publicized and serves as a warning. Alan shared a story of a foreign commercial fishing vessel that was seized by the government, the crew imprisoned and the company levied a heavy fine. The ship was held in quarantine for over a year and eventually returned, but only after it had been completely stripped of everything of value onboard. This type of enforcement will hopefully keep the area pristine for many years to come.

After returning, I was asked by a fellow diver and underwater photographer if I thought the diving in Papua New Guinea is really worth all of the time and expense to get there. I responded without hesitation that it absolutely is worth it and I would again dive on the Febrina. My only regret is that I did not stay longer to explore other areas of the country and experience more of their colorful culture. I definitely plan to return in the near future, so stay tuned for the next chapter of my Papua New Guinea travel adventure.


The sun sets behind an erupting volcano


About the Author

Ron Watkins is an international award winning photographer and writer. He has been passionate about underwater photography since 1996 and his photography has appeared in magazines, websites, juried art displays, national aquariums, libraries and private collections. Additional images from this trip and many others may be viewed at


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 Papua New Guinea on the MV Febrina

Ron Watkins
An underwater photographer's unique and spectacular experience diving in the PNG.

Diving West New Britain, Papua New Guinea on the MV Febrina

An underwater photographer's unique and spectacular experience diving in the PNG

Part 1: Sharks and wide-angle opportunities like never before

By Ron Watkins


After fifty hours of traveling from Phoenix, Arizona, the MV Febrina at the Walindi Resort dock is a welcome sight. Even for the most seasoned of travelers, this is a long and trying trip, but the bountiful waters of West New Britain, Papua New Guinea are host to some of the most pristine reefs, prolific marine life and diverse muck diving in the world. Although I journeyed here for the spectacular diving, it was the crew of the MV Febrina, the local people and my fellow divers that made this adventure truly special. 


The MV Febrina anchored off Garove Island.


Welcome to Papua New Guinea

Upon arrival in Port Moresby, you will need to purchase a visa for 100 Kina (~ $50US), but you must pay with local currency. Unfortunately the Singapore airport did not have Kina, so I went to the Port Moresby airport exchange booth where I was greeted by a young lady who was listening to a very familiar American song. I paused for a moment and then asked “LMFAO?” She gave me a big smile, exposing her red stained betel nut teeth and replied, “I’m sexy and I know it.” We both laughed and I realized that although PNG is one of the least toured countries in the world, there is plenty of Western influence in the capitol city.

Papua New Guinea consists of over 600 islands located just south of the equator and right above Australia. The country has very little tourism infrastructure and with over 800 languages spoken it can be an intimidating place for solo travelers. I worked with Jenny Collister to plan my trip, and she is incredibly knowledgeable of the area. Unfortunately, due to limited vacation days I was unable to venture into the highlands to experience a sing sing (cultural festival) or visit the Sepik River villages. Traveling within PNG is expensive compared to neighboring Indonesia due to the limited infrastructure, the required Air Niugini flights and the high cost of doing business in the country. If you have the time, the budget and a sense of adventure, you should try to extend your trip beyond diving to experience the culture and beauty of this country.

After a bumpy yet scenic drive from Hoskins Airport, the air-conditioned shuttle van dropped us off at the end of the dock. I boarded the Febrina and within 30 minutes we set sail. That night I settled into my single cabin with private bath, unpacked my dive gear and set up my camera equipment on an ample sized table and shelves. There is also a dedicated dry charging station conveniently located on the deck. At dinner I formally met my shipmates for the next nine days, who included two young British doctors practicing in Australia, two Aussie educators, an award winning 3D videographer and his wife from Holland, and five Russians. Josie, the cruise leader and dive master, conducted a thorough safety and dive briefing then introduced us to the smiling PNG crew.  


Sharks on Nearly Every Dive

When I woke up on the first morning it was windy, cloudy and rainy. The first dive was on Vanessa’s Reef, with lots of large healthy sea fans, sponges and schooling fish. The second and third dives were on Inglis Shoals, the third dive being a shark dive. A small bucket of chum was placed at about 60 feet and immediately five wide body silvertip sharks and one small pesky white tip approached. The sharks swam in close and fast. The little white tip kept bouncing off of my dome port, biting my strobes and bumping me in a non-aggressive way like a little puppy looking for a treat. During the trip we did a couple of other shark dives and they never disappointed with the quantity and quality of sharks.  Even on most of the dives with no chum it was good to observe that sharks were present and patrolling the reefs, indicating a healthy ecosystem.


A silvertip shark comes in for a closer look.


A whitetip shark plays chicken with the camera.


A whitetip shark turns on a dime inches from the camera.


A large silvertip shark parts a school of fish.


The Weather Worsens and the Captain makes a tough decision

We spent the night moored at South Emma and awoke to another rainy morning dive. The ship then motored a short distance to Joelle’s Reef and conditions had worsened with stronger current and surge, making a descent down the anchor line a necessity. The Febrina has a nice descent line from the stern of the boat up to the bow and attached to the mooring line. There is also a tank hanging at 15’ at the stern if needed on safety stops.

I almost skipped the dive, but decided I would feel better if I got back in the water instead of remaining on the rocking boat. Joelle’s Reef was another amazing pinnacle encircled by large schools of spadefish, barracudas and red pinjalo snappers. There were numerous sharks including a hammerhead, hawksbill turtles, clown triggerfish and several closed anemones in a ball. When it was time to surface, the current had increased and the seas were much more choppy. One by one, we each carefully timed the ladder in the 6-8’ swells.

Captain Alan Raabe gathered everyone in the saloon to show us the latest weather map, which showed three cyclones in the region and tightly aligned isobars converging on our location (the "perfect storm"). He informed us that we would be skipping the last two dives and motoring six hours ahead to get out of the storm’s vortex. He then added, “It may not be much better conditions where we are headed, but it sure the bloody hell can't be any worse.” Fortunately, Alan's gamble paid off and we moored for a calm evening and enjoyed another delicious dinner. All of the meals onboard were excellent and there was always plenty to eat. I went to bed that night reflecting on the good diving we had thus far and with high hopes for the remainder of the trip, despite the weather mishaps.


A diver swims with a large school of red pinjalo snapper.


A large school of barracuda converge in the currents.


Clark's Anemonefish stay close to the safety of their host.


Gabriel observes a pink anemonefish family.


Diving in the Famous Witu Islands

After the weather conditions broke, we spent the next few days diving the signature location of the itinerary: the Witu Islands. The area features deep pinnacles with steep sloping drop-offs and muck diving in the volcanic black sand. The water conditions improved at Dicky’s Knob with the sun making a brief appearance from behind thick storm clouds. The pinnacle started in 25’ of water and dropped off to about 90’. This site, like many in the area, is carpeted with a coral called corallomorph that is very painful if touched and can actually penetrate dive skins and thin wetsuits. Fortunately the reefs are also covered with beautiful large soft corals gardens, sea whips, sea fans with colorful crinoids, anemones and a plethora of small schooling fish in every color of the rainbow.


A diver descends to a lush garden of soft coral.


Schooling anthias stay close to the reef.


The warm waters of PNG are home to healthy sponges and corals.


Pyramid butterflyfish ride the currents over a plume of soft coral.


Several colorful crinoids attach to the coral on the reef.


Next week we will be publishing Part II of this article, continuing Ron's incredible adventure in the PNG...


About the Author

Ron Watkins is an international award winning photographer and writer. He has been passionate about underwater photography since 1996 and his photography has appeared in magazines, websites, juried art displays, national aquariums, libraries and private collections. Additional images from this trip and many others may be viewed at


Continue on to PNG Macro Mania, Part II of Ron's 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!


The Hunt For The Pink Frogfish

Mike Bartick
An extraordinary underwater adventure in Anilao with a lot of unique surprises along the way.

The Hunt For The Pink Frogfish

An extraordinary underwater adventure in Anilao with a lot of unique surprises along the way

By Mike Bartick

It's amazing to me how such a small place like Anilao, Philippines can host such a huge variety of critters. Each new visit brings something special, but something really spectacular happened to make this season unique for myself and many others.

Occasionally a dive guide will come up to me and say “Mike, I heard a rumor.” I love when conversations start like this since I never know which way they will go. On this particular occasion it was followed with a question, "Have you ever seen a pink frogfish?" I began to run through the catalog in my mind of all the different frogfish I had seen and photographed. After a few minutes I realized that as a matter of fact, I had not seen a pink frogfish. “But not just pink,” he says, “pink with a 'funny lure.'” This got me interested. I'm the kind of guy who has been known to book plane tickets on such rumors, and this was something we wouldn't even need to go far to investigate. So, we began loading the tanks. 
We had two reference points to help locate this rumored frogfish, one above water and the other below. The first point was a tree on a shoreline that was crowded with trees, and the second was a stick in the sand somewhere underwater. That all sounded perfectly reasonable to me, so once the tanks were loaded we took off.
To the outside world this scenario may sound like a wild goose chase or a needle in a haystack kind of story, but for this underwater photographer it seemed like a no-brainer to investigate. In less than half an hour we arrived in the general area and began scanning the shore. Spotting our first reference point, clue number one, our confidence swelled, we geared up and jumped in.
What we discovered were two diverse dive sites in one. There was rubbish on half of the site which provided shelter for loads of critters, then clean sand on the other half, like a line drawn from the shallow end to the deep, clean sand against silt. It was an amazing thing in itself.
In the first few minutes we were greeted by three flamboyant cuttlefish. Two were large and were accompanied by a very small friend, all actively buzzing around in a mating ritual that was really spectacular to watch.
The larger female flushed grey, signaling to the males that it was time for some romance. She extended her tentacles to either side, inviting them in for one-on-one time. The two males jostled for positioning until the female gave up and begin moving away. A few minutes later the same scene repeated itself as the never-ending mating game continued. Then the smaller male backed away to regroup and with all of its energy it charged back in. The larger male positioned himself between the little guy and the female, taking up a defensive posture, but somehow the tenacious little fish got past the larger male for several brief encounters. I always love seeing the underdog win.
Female cuttlefish in foreground flushes grey, signaling to males that she wants to mate.

Small male makes contact with female in a brief encounter.


Larger male stands his ground between the female and the smaller male.


Smaller male regroups and tries another strategy.
Tearing ourselves away from that compelling action we continued on our quest to find the fabled pink frogfish, discovering even more along the way. 
At the deep end of the site I spied a patch of social feather duster worms. Feather duster worms live in tubes that they create out of calcium-based minerals and are very similar to our own bones. When they come out to feed their heads resemble old-fashioned feather dusters, but they instantly snap back into their tubes when alarmed. Hiding within the colony was a beautiful short pouch pipehorse. Seeing these two delicate creatures living together was really unexpected and I was lucky to be able to capture it.

Colony of social feather-duster worms and hairy short-pouch pipehorse.

Pipehorse feeds from the delicate feathers of the duster worm.
The pipehorse wasn’t just living there but also feeding on something on the feathers. It snatched tiny morsels from the duster worms without disturbing it in the least, but when I so much as exhaled too hard the feather duster would retract. Until recently we had never seen pipehorses in Anilao, but now I know of three different sites that have them.
In rapid succession we began to find a whole slew of unusual critters, such as five sets of Ambon scorpionfish and a black finned snake eel with shrimp, followed by a plump and very pregnant seahorse. My shutter finger was working in overdrive. Then my guide tapped my shoulder, pointing at something in the distance. The stick! Clue number two. It turns out that the guide who marked the area used a pair of men’s briefs as a flag so he could find it again, which became a running joke amongst the guides for over a week.
After much searching, we found our target... the elusive pink frogfish. But alas, the froggy looked like it was close to death! It was pink-ish all right and it did have a funny looking lure. This odd-shaped lure is exclusive to the Antennarious striatus, or hairy frogfish. This pale pink froggy had the markings of a hairy but with very little hair. Later, while reviewing the photos I realized our pink hairy frogfish had a significant piece of its tail section missing. Our find had certainly endured some kind of attack or injury.
Hairy frogfish spend their lives on the sand, rarely venturing into reef structure. Occasionally they will be found on smaller coral heads near the sand or in soft coral and they especially like hunting the fish living on spiny urchins. The esche, or lure, needs to be a bit oversized to mimic small fish and is very effective when it comes to attracting prey. The hairy frogfish wriggles its lure with the skill of fly fisherman, enticing nearby cardinal fish to have a closer look.
Once the cardinal fish is close enough the hungry frogfish strikes and the cardinal fish vanishes. Nothing is wasted as the frogfish’s mouth and stomach opens directly, inhaling the prey whole with nature's fastest strike speed. 
Frogfish regaining her strength, fishing for dinner and beginning a mating cycle.
Yawning, very active and photogenic.
I watched as our froggy regained its health and funny things began to happen. First it suddenly became plump, signaling to me that it must be a female. Then her colors seemed to be darkening. I know that frogfish change colors but had never actually seen one do it, and I was lucky enough to chronicle the color change and witness an incredible natural wonder. 
When I found her again, a small and very handsome male had shown up to court her. Female frogfish emit an irresistible pheromone that attracts the males when it's time to mate. Females are otherwise dangerously anti-social and have been known to attack and try to eat their suitors! I kept checking back with her, and in the succeeding days her color became a brilliant orange and her markings darkened. As illustrated from the first photo to the last, the color change was amazingly quick.
Healthy and colorful, shown here with her handsome male suitor.
Mating cockatoo waspfish, Ablanbys taenionotus, marked one of my final dives of the season at a site known as 'coconut point.' I saw these three waspfish swim a few feet off of the bottom cast, spawning and then settling again. I tried to get a photo but they went shy on me. These guys are typically a less gratifying subject to photograph, but it turned out to be an interesting sight.
Mating cockatoo waspfish, castspawning and mate blocking; the female is the darker of the three.

Scorpionopsis sp.

I swam toward the shallows where my dive began. Once again my guide was looking at me with his tell-all eyes, letting me know there was something else I had to see. At first sight it seemed to be a common coconut octopus, but looking closer I realized the octopus was doing something very unusual. Most octopi lay eggs and guard them with their lives, attaching the eggs to a rock or in a small crevice and dying when they hatch. However, this octopus seemed to be brooding her eggs, clutching them tightly together and holding them within the tissue that connects the tentacles. Turned inside out, it was hard to recognize what I was looking at. Every so often she would twist tightly around the eggs and a few of them would escape. I tried to photograph it but it was impossible to know when it would happen.
When I saw her move I shot a few frames quickly, hoping that something would show up. I watched as the nearly transparent larvae floated off to begin a new life cycle as drifting plankton.
Protecting her young till death, this oscillate blue ring octopus is brooding her eggs.
A nearly transparent fry escapes the safety of its mothers grasp.
Running short on air, I breathed from my guide’s secondary air source, squeezing off a few last frames before ascending.
I sat silently for most of the ride back to the resort, thinking about the incredible experiences we had at the site. I had previously imagined not returning for several months, but as soon as the boat returned my guide and I looked at each other and without a second thought began to load fresh tanks for our night dives. It’s refreshing to know that I’m not the only one with an insatiable obsession for critters.
Special thanks to the Crystal Blue Resort and the incredible guides who I worked with. Without their expertise, observing nature like this would be a lot more difficult..
All photos taken with Nikon D300, 110a strobes and 250 pros.
Mike Bartick


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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 ( 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


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


Further Reading


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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 for details.


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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


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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!


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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