Malpelo: A Must-Visit for Big Fish Photographers

Mikhail Kisin
Dive a Unique Eastern Pacific Island with Hammerheads, Mantas & Pelagics

Malpelo: A Must-Visit for Big Fish Photographers

Dive a Unique Eastern Pacific Island with Hammerheads, Mantas & Pelagics

Text & Photos by Mikhail Kisin




Many divers go a long way to the Galapagos to see whale and Galapagos sharks. Many visit Cocos to swim with hammerheads, or Socorro to play with giant mantas and enjoy the immense variety of Pacific fish. The small Colombian island of Malpelo has it all and still remains practically unknown among North American divers.


The Region

The Tropical Eastern Pacific is unsurpassed for interactions with big marine life. The west coast of both North & South America is washed by two grand oceanic currents: the California Current from the North and the mirroring Humboldt Current from the South, which makes the west coast a classic upwelling zone. Near the Equator, the collision of two gigantic streams is further mixed with another upwelling produced by the stable, low-pressure system of the Tropical Convergence Zone – the place where the ever-in-zenith sun heats the air, and easterly trade winds of the Northern and Southern hemispheres converge into high-towering clouds and thunderstorms. Strong ocean upwelling feeds a huge pyramid of marine life, and there is no better place on Earth to see the top of that mighty pyramid than the remote volcanic islands of the Tropical Eastern Pacific.


Malpelo shark


The Island

Malpelo island is unique to other islands in the Eastern Pacific. First of all, it is only eight square kilometers. Barren and nearly vertical cliffs of the island expose the summit of the three-hundred-kilometer-long volcanic ridge rising from the ocean floor at a depth of nearly 3 kilometers. With such a small island size and the entire ocean abyss encircling, the concentration of pelagic life in Malpelo waters is enormous. The spacious Galapagos and Socorro (Rivillagigedo) archipelagos pale in comparison. Even Cocos, solitary but still a larger island, does not have the geological advantage of Malpelo. At Cocos, divers have to visit deep-water pinnacles located well away from the main island to admire schooling hammerheads. At Malpelo, sharks are abundant near the island itself and as a result, hammerheads are often encountered in very shallow waters. The advantage for a photographer is obvious – more chances to run into your model and more bottom time to take advantage of the opportunity.


Malpelo island


Another advantage for Malpelo divers is provided by the Colombian government, not nature. Access to Malpelo is very limited. As of writing this article, only five liveaboards are permitted to go to the island and only one boat with a max of 16 divers is allowed per day. The presence of small Colombian marine outpost and the very short wide open shoreline of the island help keep away the poachers.


The Diving

Unbelievable. Period. The best way to describe Malpelo is not through individual stories about individual dive sites, because Malpelo is one big dive site.  You can encounter many animals pretty much anywhere around the island. We're talking about a genuinely wild place and truly wild animals. No sitings are guaranteed, but the chances of unique encounters are very, very good.


bluefin tuna

I wouldn’t recommend Malpelo for novices. The diving isn't too challenging, but if your first trip is Malpelo, you will have serious problems finding your next destination.  Most other places will look dull and boring. That is how I felt after Cocos and how I found Malpelo.


yellowfin tuna

You don’t need to be a really advanced diver to dive Malpelo, but nitrox is a must. Eastern Pacific diving without nitrox is just not a good use of hard-earned money. You also need to stay very conservative in Malpelo because the “nearest” decompression chamber does not exist - plain and simple.


whale shark

In open ocean diving your safety sausage should be big - about six feet. A smaller one might be obscured by the waves, and once deployed your next stop might be Australia. For Malpelo I prefer long stiff fins like the Cressi Gara - clumsy in the panga but indispensible in currents. Whale sharks do not pose for photos so you'll need to exert a lot of effort swimming next to them. Since there is not much coral around, damaging the reef with long fins is not a huge concern, but divers should still be aware of sealife around them.



When diving shallows near the wall, divers shouldn't brace themselves against the rocks. In high swells it is safer (and more fun) to move with the water. The same rule applies when taking photos in the grotto - do not grab the rocks. There are plenty of nasty eels in Malpelo. Free swimming morays are a trademark at Malpelo, and lots of fun to watch.



There are many different fish species in Malpelo, but don’t be entirely absorbed by the reef. You can admire Pacific fish in other places on much cheaper dive trips. Look into the blue. The most interesting stuff swims in from the open water. Beware though - if you look for too long to the right, you are surely missing something on the left.


shark malpelo

Look for thermocline. Large sharks huddle there. If the shark is below you, never swim towards it as it will dodge deeper. Wait. Sharks circle around and will probably come back towards you. Whale sharks are an exception.


hammerhead shark malpelo

Hammerheads fear strobe flash. If one comes toward you, remember that you have a single photo opportunity. Wait patiently for the best photo opportunity. If you don’t have an external strobe the best option is video. If you have a compact camera, get a wide-angle conversion lens.


hammerhead sharks malpelo

The cleaning station is the place to be when a school of hammerheads is nearby. Approaching the school will get you deeper and you will lose time and light. The school is best watched from the side, and at the cleaning station large singles will often swim within hand distance. Patience is key in order to get close to the sharks.


whaleshark in malpelo

Fish are your key to finding cleaning stations. Besides the regular barber-fish, there are two other cleaners in Malpelo, Clarion angel fish and juvenile rainbow wrasse. Get to know them. Black jacks often accompany whale sharks and seem to be hitting the shark sidewise, which is another form of cleaning.


manta in malpelo

Big mantas here are not as abundant as in Socorro but they do show up. Watch for rocky outcrops in the current, since these create an upward water flow. Mantas are heavy and love those upward currents.


malpelo pelagic fish

A common misconception is that bubbles scare away pelagic fish, but actually it's the direction of your movement that causes fish to flee. If there is large pelagic nearby, ascend slowly, moving away from the fish and it will come closer. This trick works as long as you avoid the eye contact.

If the current is manageable, ask the DM to end the dive by ascending in open water. There might be interesting encounters with pelagics away from the island. If you end the dive near the wall, pay attention to the foamy surge and you might be surprised with what you see.


Photo Tips

I have only one comment on photography in Malpelo: forget about macro. Be prepared for big stuff, non-stop action and fast-changing conditions. All pictures in this article have been taken with a compact camera, fixed 1/125s exposure and God's help. Even with simple settings I was able to capture only a meager fraction of what I saw. That said, the beauty of the animal encounters at Malpelo stays with you regardless of photo documentation.

If at this point you are still reading this article, you should indeed consider visiting Malpelo. And if you have not safely stopped yourself, well, you are facing two major questions – how to get there and when to go.


The Boat

Due to limited access to the island, your options are few. First of all, no operators targeting North America go to Malpelo, and I believe this is the main reason for the lack of promotional information in the US. Secondly, out of five liveaboards operating at Malpelo, three come from Colombia. Unless you want to make your trip a true adventure, you would be better off staying with either of two German-owned Panamanian vessels: Yemaya or Inula. Both operators advertise primarily in Europe. Even in Russia, believe it or not, we have a web domain Check it out. At least out of curiosity... unless you read Russian.

Out of two vessels, Yemaya is the boat of my choice. I'm sure Inula (a catamaran) is no less respectable and is a reliable operator, but MV Yemaya is just much larger and more comfortable, with a great upper deck to hang out on after the dives. Yemaya will pick you up directly from Panama City, while you would need another local flight to David when diving with Inula.

The Yemaya is run by Coiba Dive Expeditions.  Coiba Island, by the way, is yet another perk and will be your first dive stop on the way to Malpelo. Truly, I’ve never had so much fun as I did diving Coiba, but that island needs its own article!

Yet another valuable bonus with Coiba Dive Expeditions (which isn't promoted on their website) is that they pair up with an equally excellent tour operator who will gladly fill your arrival and departure days with Panama Canal or Old City tours. Both places are a real treasure-chest for photographers.




The Weather

In short:  The winter is a sunny and windy dry season while summer is calm and rainy.  Summer is generally considered the high season but there is no guarantee in the Eastern Pacific. Thermocline and visibility can change fast and dramatically. Even in high season you are better off with your luck than with the weather forecast.

In detail:  This might be a little tricky. Remember the Tropical Convergence Zone from the intro? The hot humid air rising from the ocean near Columbia will move to the north, drying and cooling down, and will finally descend on Southern California bringing us blue skies. Thank you, Panama. The same air mass will then head back to Panama in the form of Trade Winds, thus closing the circle. To understand the Panamanian seasons, imagine that during the winter time the Tropical Convergence Zone with its ever-in-zenith sun would naturally move south (remember, we are still in the Northern hemisphere) leaving the Panama and Colombia region exposed to dry Northern Trade winds. Drop in the collision of two main ocean currents and two types of upwelling and the result is relatively unpredicatable dive conditions.

In conclusion, to answer the “when should I go” question I would say go as soon as you can afford it. Unlike Galapagos and Cocos, Malpelo is still well off the beaten path. How long will it stay that way? Will you see it before it changes?




A Last Word of Advice

Beware: Malpelo is addictive. On my last trip to Socorro I met a guy who patted me on my CoibaDiveExpedition t-shirt and nodded:

 – "Malpelo?"

 – I replied, "Yes, ever been?"

 – "Fifteen times."

He was Colombian.


About the Author

Mikhail Kisin is Russian physicist struggling to match his tightfisted vacation time to generous travel opportunities of the New World. He writes for two Russian dive magazines. If your liveaboard is booked by Russians, blame him.




Further Reading


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Diving Cabo San Lucas & Cabo Pulmo

Brent Durand
Cabo Dive Guide for Underwater Photographers

Diving Cabo San Lucas & Cabo Pulmo

A Dive Guide to Cabo San Lucas & Cabo Pulmo

By Brent Durand & the Underwater Photography Guide


banded guitarfish



Cabo is a dive playground right in Southern California’s backyard. A quick flight from LAX, Cabo offers something for everyone whether traveling with family or friends. The town is infamous for an intense party scene, however many don’t realize that Cabo also offers affordable and relaxing family vacations hanging by the resort pools and the beach. Visitors can choose between Cabo San Lucas or nearby (and quieter) San José del Cabo, as well as a retreat to Cabo Pulmo where interruption would only come from the occasional pelican diving into the aqua water after a fish.

The local airport is San Jose Del Cabo (SJC) in Los Cabos (the municipality for Cabo San Lucas and San José Del Cabo). The drive is about an hour from the airport to Cabo San Lucas, and just over an hour in the other direction to Cabo Pulmo. Hotel shuttles and rental cars are readily available, putting divers in their room (or in the water) just hours after boarding the plane. This is a great setup for underwater photographers who want a long weekend of diving and shooting, or for divers looking to blend family fun time with a few memorable dives.


cabo san lucas

Early morning view of Cabo San Lucas and several of the dive spots located near Land's End, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez.


Cabo Dive Seasons

The changing seasons bring about different water conditions and marine life, whether in Cabo San Lucas or Cabo Pulmo. This is great for underwater photographers because each season will have you looking for different photo subjects. Like many dive locations, conditions can change quickly depending on the weather. I dove Cabo in April with 50ft visibility, but two days later it was considerably less.

Chart courtesy of Manta Scuba


Cabo is sunny except for a few odd days, so bring your sunscreen. The best dive season is October – November, when the water warms up to tropical temperatures and visibility can rival classic dive destinations. Many divers flock to Cabo for a chance to see hammerhead sharks in the Corridor or at El Bajo (near La Paz), whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez and much more.  December – March brings excellent diving.  There are often humpback and grey whales, making the transition from the Sea of Cortez into the Pacific Ocean, along with sea lions and schools of mobula rays to dive with. The colder water of winter and spring also brings banded guitarfish & bullseye rays, octopuses many other critters up from the deeper waters to recreational dive depths. Throughout the year, divers and photographers can expect to see fish – large schools, tiny fish in coral heads and large fish like groupers.  Sharks (ie white tip reef sharks) and turtles also come by to model for u/w photographers, while nudibranchs and blennies keep the macro photographers' eyes on the reef.


moorish idols

Moorish idols graze across the reef - a common sight in Cabo San Lucas and in Cabo Pulmo.



Blennies are abundant in Cabo, keeping a close watch on visiting macro photographers.


Cabo San Lucas Dive Sites

Diving near the famous Land’s End is easily accessible from Cabo San Lucas. The local dive sites are a 10-minute panga ride from the marina.  Divers get to see Lover’s Beach up close, and operators like Manta Scuba even use surface intervals to take guests around Land’s End, by the sea arch and to the sea lion colony. The area is a Marine Park with abundant fish life. The tough choice is whether to shoot macro or wide-angle – so we recommend talking to your dive guide about what you might see on a given dive. Info on local dive sites is below:

North Wall:  The North Wall offer a steep sandy slope interspersed with rock fingers descending beyond rec dive limits. Divers can look around the rocky areas of the slope for zebra and jewel eels, stingrays, puffer and box fish, cornetfish and trumpetfish and macro life like seahorses & blennies).  Communities of cortez garden eels often stick their heads out of the sand until divers come close.  It's also common to see big schools of fish, sharks and large rays out in the open water.

Pelican Rock:  A rich dive site with a resident school of snapper just outside the pinnacle. A classic feature here is the infamous Sand Falls, a unique sand waterfall caused from the steep slope and rock formations down around 50 feet. As divers ascend, they can spend a safety stop searching the right and backside of Pelican Rock for abundant nudibranchs, seahorses, moray eels, seahorses, octos and blennies or sit back and watch schools of Moorish Idols grazing across the reef.

Neptune’s Finger:  Neptune’s finger looks just like its name – a large, finger-like rock jutting out into the sky from deep in the ocean. Banded guitarfish and rays come up from the depths during the spring while the water is cooler, and divers will always see big schools of fish, sea fans and other life to keep the shutter moving during the gradual ascent along the wall back to the surface.

Land’s End:  Diving between the two large pinnacles at Land’s End, this site merges the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean. Resident Sea Lions, diving cormorants, massive schools of baitfish and pelagic fish are all common here. A must-dive for underwater photographers, especially since there's less dive pressure on the site.

The Corridor:  A 20-minute boat ride brings you to the corridor, where you never know what you’ll see. The site presents a unique opportunity for drift dives and high likelihood for encounters with pelagic fish, sharks and more. Divers might even find themselves next to a whale!

Gordo Banks:  In a word, hammerhead sharks. These fish are the star of the show, attracted to the abundant fish life on the underwater bank. In addition to these massive schools, divers often see schools of jacks and snapper, big rays and pelagic fish like tuna and rays. The boat ride is about 1 hour each way, but well worth it if these photo subjects are known to be around.


snapper school

Dense schools of fish are common, like these yellow snapper.


Photo left: A diver moves in for a closer look at the Sand Falls.

Photo right:  A Seahorse hides under a pile of rocks, making for tough but rewarding macro shooting.  They often sit right out in the open.


glossodoris sedna

Nudibranchs like the Glossodoris sedna are common in the Sea of Cortez.



It's always worth it to spend some time looking inside the coral heads at Cabo.  You never know who might be looking out at you.


Cabo Pulmo Dive Sites

Cabo Pulmo is one of only 3 coral reefs on the west coast of North America. It became a marine preserve in 1995, and the result is a thriving reef which projects from Cabo Pulmo into the Sea of Cortez in massive fingers. Over 6000 species can be found here, sure keep wide-angle and macro photographers very busy for many dives. An hour drive from the airport or 2 hours from Cabo San Lucas, this is a must-dive location for visiting underwater photographers. The local dive sites sit in the bay, and Cabo Pulmo Dive Center uses their many years of experience to drop divers right onto the best parts of the reefs. Because of the open water, advanced divers can do drift dives along the reef, making for a very comfortable tours with easy fin kicks. Since many of the dive sites are in open water, the DMs deploy an SMB during saftey stops so that the panga will be right there upon surfacing. Diving with gloves is not allowed in the marine park, which helps keep the reef in pristine shape.


cabo pulmo

Map courtesy of Cabo Pulmo Dive Center


El Bajo:  This is a rich reef with many types of coral in about 55 feet. Giant grouper, angelfish, rays, moray eels and fish of all sizes can be seen here, either darting in and out of coral heads or swimming by in massive schools. Whale sharks also pass by during the fall, and humpbacks and mobula rays during the winter.

El Cantil:  A fantastic drift dive that offers bountiful macro life for photographers. Another drift dive, divers drift along a wall exploring the nooks and crannies for ocean life of all sizes.  The reef is very large and would take several dives to see the entire structure.

Frailes Rock Sea Lion Colony:  This resident sea lion colony can only be accessed by boat or kayak, for diving or snorkeling. This makes it a great snorkeling spot for family members who may not be scuba diving, or for advanced divers looking to spend some time with new barking friends. Keeping an eye out towards the open Sea often rewards divers with pelagic fish sightings.  One note is that snorkelers are required to wear flotation vests while swimming in the marine park.  Don't book a snorkel tour if you're planning to freedive.

Other Dive Sites:  Cabo Pulmo has many more dive sites shown on the map above, so we’ll leave it up to you to book your trip and check them out for yourself!


cabo pulmo

Cabo Pulmo is a peaceful oasis in the middle of the Baja desert. Aqua waters greet day-trip divers and underwater photographers (from CSL) and become home for those wanting a multi-day diving retreat.


bullseye stingraybanded guitarfish

Photos:  Rays are among the 6000 species found at the Cabo Pulmo coral reef, which is the only living coral reef in the Sea of Cortez.


sharpnose puffer

A spotted sharpnose puffer peers out at divers admiring the pristine reef at Cabo Pulmo.



Many fish live in and around the coral heads, offering plenty of subjects for macro photographers.


moray eel

Moray eels are common among the rock structure of the reef.


Lodging & Non-Dive Activities

Lodging:  There are many lodging options in Cabo San Lucas to suit any budget and trip agenda, whether diving as much as possible or making a couple dives in-between family activities.  Some dive operators even offer dive and stay packages.  San José del Cabo has several hotels, but divers would have to drive into Cabo San Lucas (or Cabo Pulmo) to dive.  A quick search on a site like Tripadvisor will bring up many options. 

Cabo Pulmo has several options available through Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort and various other homes for rent (great for families or larger groups).

Dining:  As with lodging, there are many options in Cabo San Lucas.  There are many nice restaurants along the marina with everything from seafood to steaks to burgers.  Many even feature live music.  Those seeking more adventure can explore deeper into town for great mexican food, often eating alongside locals, American expats and other visitors.  Asking the folks at the dive shop for recommendations is also a great way to find awesome restaurants off the beaten path.

Activities:  Contrary to many scuba diving locations, Cabo San Lucas offers much in the way of non-diving activites.  Besides the ocean-view restaurants and bars, there's parasailing, kayaking, swimming & snorkeling, fishing, golfing, sailing and more.



Renting a car is worthwhile during your stay.  It give divers the freedom to explore the area, driving easily from Cabo San Lucas to Cabo Pulmo, and to check out quiet snorkeling beaches like Chileno Bay, where this photo was shot.


moreno beach

The ocean-front bars at Moreno beach in Cabo San Lucas make for excellent people-watching once the dive day is over.


Scuba Diving Reviews

Manta Scuba:  Manta has a great reputation in Cabo San Lucas and lives up to the rep.  They are a PADI 5-Star dive resort and recently won a PADI award for continuing education certs. With a friendly staff, several dive boats and expert dive knowledge, they offer great dives for new or experienced divers. Let the Manta team know you’re a photographer with specific interests as you’re booking your dives and they’ll make sure you step onto the dock smiling.

Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort & Dive Center:  Cabo Pulmo Dive Center has the perfect setup for diving the area and is also a PADI 5-Star resort. After watching them launch the pangas "Cabo Pulmo style" and being dropped right onto the best spots of the reef you'll see why.  In addition to the dive shop, pool and showers, they offer bungalows for those wishing to stay in Cabo Pulmo. Cabo Pulmo Dive Center offers a daily shuttle to pick up divers in Cabo San Lucas and San José Del Cabo for a day in the water. An ocean-view restaurant, Coral Reef, sits on top of the shop – a perfect way to fuel up after a morning of diving.





Special Thanks to



Ready to book your dive trip to Cabo?

The team at Bluewater Travel can make the best recommendations and find the best pricing to make your trip a vacation to remember.


About the Author

Brent Durand is an avid California beach diver, underwater photographer and editor with the Underwater Photography Guide. You can follow UWPG on Facebook, and also read Brent's article on Top 10 tips for fun beach diving or his adventure shooting a Melibe Nudibranch congregation.



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!



Photographing the Wrecks of the St. Lawrence River (pg 2)

Photographing the Wrecks of the St. Lawrence River & Eastern Lake Ontario

By Jo-Ann Wilkins


Page 2


Many wrecks, mostly wooden boats or schooners, date back to the 1800s.  One of the most popular is the wreck of the Lillie Parsons in Brockville.  Turned upside-down on the side of a cliff with her belly still filled with coal and her enormous masts pointing downward, she is a pretty wreck to visit.  Other wooden wrecks worth diving are the schooner A. E. Vickery, the wooden barque Robert Gaskin and the schooner-barge Kingshorn. There are also steel ships such as the very popular wreck of the Keystorm, which sank in 1912, and the Henry C. Daryaw, lying upside-down on the riverbed.  Other steel ships worth diving are the Oconto (although this is a technical wreck), the drill barge America, the highly damaged barge John B. King and the Muscallonge (a very damaged wreck but worth diving mostly for the impressive amount of fish on her).  Noteworthy wrecks in the Eastern Lake Ontario area are the Wolf Islander II, the beautiful Comet with its sidewheels still relatively intact, the dredge barge Munson and the three mast schooner George A. Marsh.


st lawrence river scuba diving

The schooner A. E. Vickery. This wreck has strong surface current but once on the wreck, divers are shielded from the current. St-Lawrence River. F 9, 1/50, ISO 800. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


st lawrence river scuba diving

Experienced divers can explore the hold of the  A.E. Vickery. St-Lawrence River. F 4.5, 1/60, ISO 800. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


st lawrence river scuba diving

The schooner-barge Kingshorn with its unique ship’s wheel. F 6.3, 1/100, ISO 400. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


There are also more recent wrecks that lie in these waters.  The most popular is without any question the Roy A. Jodrey, which sank just off the coast guard station on the south shoreline of Wellesley Island in 1974.  This large freighter (640’ x 72’ x 40’) now lies in 140 to 242 feet of water and is open to only technical divers.  Another recent wreck is the Eastcliffe Hall, a 343-feet bulk freight motor vessel that sank in the Morrisburg area in 1970.


st lawrence river scuba diving

The upside down steel freighter Henry C. Daryaw. There are plenty of photographic opportunities on this wreck. St-Lawrence River. F 7.1, 1/100, ISO 400, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


st lawrence river scuba diving

The damaged bow section of the work barge Robert Gaskin.  This ship was relatively intact until a few years ago.  High diver traffic on this shallow wreck has damaged the fragile 1863 hull.  St-Lawrence River. F 5.6, 1/30, ISO 500, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


st lawrence river scuba diving

Exploring one of the many submerged locks of the old canal. Most locks are accessible from shore and are popular local diving destinations. St-Lawrence River. F 9, 1/80, ISO 640, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


Closer to the Massena area (Cornwall Ontario), divers can explore many structures that were submerged by the construction of our modern seaway in the 1950s.  Whole villages were lost when dams and locks were erected in the area and caused massive flooding.  Most homes, churches and other constructions were either displaced or demolished prior to the flood but many structures still remain.  For instance, we can still dive on the former lock system of the old canal.  Locks 21, 23 and 28 are easily accessible and are very popular dive sites.  Another noteworthy site is the ancient Mille Roches Power House.  Her roof and walls were removed in preparation for the St-Lawrence Seaway flooding, but her water turbines, wheel chamber and exciter reservoirs are still intact.  Submerged structures such as swing bridges, paved roads, water pipes and building foundations are common in this area rich in history.


Underwater Photography in the River

Most of the wrecks in the St-Lawrence river have one thing in common: current.  The river is relatively narrow and current is present on every dive site, although it can range from unimportant in some areas and quite strong in others.  Generally, divers can expect a current anywhere from 0.5 knots to 3 or 4 knots.  But don’t let that scare you away!  The current is mostly felt at the surface and on ascents and descents.  On the bottom, it is often negligible and is easily managed.  It is important to attach your camera gear securely on you with one and preferably two clips so you can let go of the gear if the current gets too strong on descents and ascents.  I personally always carry my neoprene dome port cover underwater just in case I need to protect my dome if both hands are needed for descent or ascents. Photographers want to try to shield themselves as much as they can from the current and staying close to the bottom helps.  There is very little to no current in the Eastern Lake Ontario area.


st lawrence river scuba divingst lawrence river scuba diving













Photo left: Boiler inside the old abandoned steel ferry Wee Hawk. This wreck sits in very shallow water and is interesting to photograph.  Visibility can be stirred up pretty rapidly inside the wreck.  Divers have reported seeing beavers inside the wreck! F 8, 1/250, ISO 400, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.

Photo right:  One of the most popular wrecks amongst local divers, the Conestoga.  It lies in shallow water close to shore.  It offers many photographic opportunities, with its enormous upright engine sticking out of the water.  F 11, 1/50, ISO 400, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


The sediments on the riverbed are easily disturbed and a careless diver can whip up a ‘silt storm’ pretty rapidly, so photographers must be very careful in these conditions.  That said, the advantage of the strong current is that it moves the silt and restores visibility fairly quickly.  However, if a silt-out occurs inside a wreck where there is little current, the silt can remain in suspension for hours.  When we get to a dive site, I’m always the first one in the water, ready to go as soon as the boat anchors.  This allows me to photograph the main attractions of the wreck before fellow divers, even if they are really careful, mess up the visibility.  General visibility varies a lot in the river.  Late summer, fall and winter offer the best visibility, while early spring offers poor visibility and is not really good for photography.

Mastering strobe positioning to light your subject is of utmost importance.  Since there is a lot of sediment in suspension, you really need to spread your strobe arms as far out as possible and to point them outwards a little.  You definitely want as little light as possible to hit the particles between your lens and your subject.  If you have extra strobe arm extensions, this is the place to use them.  From many years of doing photography in the river, I find that using your strobes at half power rather than at full power gives better results (less backscatter and less of a bluish-white spotlight effect on the sides of your image, especially on deeper darker dives).  You need to get as close as possible to your subject to get good results.  Of course, this is general underwater knowledge but I would say that in the river, it is even more relevant.

Using a diver in your pictures helps to provide perspective on the size of the wrecks.  However, be sure that you coach your model before the dive.  Ask him to remain away from the easily disturbed bottom.

Shooting upwards to capture surface light is a must.  Ambient light vanishes rapidly as you descend and pointing your camera upwards will bring natural light into your picture.  The water has a glowing green color to it and it is interesting to incorporate it into your image.  You will find that you will have to work at higher ISOs and slower shutter speeds to capture the ambient light in these conditions.

Photographers will find that wide-angle photography is usually the best choice because of all the beautiful large wrecks.  Points of interest on most of the wrecks in the river are the props, the anchors, wheel, windlass, bow and stern.  On the wrecks of eastern Lake Ontario, you can still find beautifully preserved wooden deadeyes, tools and artifacts.  Some wrecks even have intact canned goods on deck.  Besides the wrecks, there are plenty of other interesting things to photograph, such as a large variety of fish, lily pads, tree roots, etc.  Sure, the fish are not as colorful and plentiful as you would find in tropical destinations, but they still make interesting subjects.  Furthermore, photographers shouldn’t leave their macro ports at home!  There are plenty of zebra mussels, freshwater sponges and other smaller organisms to photograph too.

Even though most underwater photographers will naturally travel to tropical destinations, Eastern Lake Ontario and the St-Lawrence River, with their rich maritime history, warm water in the summer and an abundance of photographic subjects, are definitely destinations worth discovering.

Divers who would like to learn more on the wrecks of the St-Lawrence River and the Great Lakes should read The Great Lakes Diving Guide Enlarged Second Edition by Cris Kohl (2008).  This well documented reference guide is a must read for anyone interested in discovering the area.


st lawrence river scuba diving

Mooring line on one of the many wrecks. F 9, 1/250, ISO 200, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


st lawrence river scuba diving

Shallow dive from shore. St-Lawrence River. Rockport area. F 10, 1/250, ISO 400, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


st lawrence river scuba diving

Lily pads are common in the St-Lawrence River. F 11, 1/250, ISO 400, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


Back to Page 1



About the Author


Jo-Ann Wilkins is a Canadian underwater photographer based in Montreal.   Passionate about cold water diving, she photographs the historical shipwrecks of the Canadian Great Lakes and the St-Lawrence River and documents the diverse marine life found in these waters.  Jo-Ann also specializes in underwater portraits.  Jo-Ann’s work has been featured in Canadian and American publications and has been recognized in international photography competitions.  Jo-Ann is also a contributing photographer for the photo agency In Transit Images and her work is featured in the innovative and unique underwater exposition Aquart.  She is an underwater scuba diving and photography instructor and runs a commercial dive charter operation on the St-Lawrence River with her husband.


Further Reading


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Photographing the Wrecks of the St. Lawrence River

Jo-Ann Wilkins
A Photo Essay on Diving & Shooting Amazing Freshwater Wrecks in Cold Canadian Waters

Photographing the Wrecks of the St. Lawrence River & Eastern Lake Ontario

A Photo Essay on Diving & Shooting Freshwater Wrecks

By Jo-Ann Wilkins


St Lawrence River Scuba Diving



The St-Lawrence River and Eastern Lake Ontario, both lying between the United States and Canada, are popular dive destinations.  Their riverbeds are littered with hundreds of beautifully preserved historical and recent shipwrecks – a combination of their strategic location within the continent for the shipment of merchandise and bulk freight along with their many navigational hazards.  The area is known to many as being the World’s Best Fresh Water Wreck Diving destination.


st lawrence river scuba diving

Diver photographing the sidewheels of the Comet. Eastern Lake Ontario. F 7.1, 1/60, ISO 500. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


st lawrence river scuba diving

Divers on a relatively intact portion of the deck of the Comet. Eastern Lake Ontario. F 7.1, 1/50s, ISO 500. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


st lawrence river scuba diving

Divers can explore the machinery, an old crane and the ship’s original1890s tools laid out on deck. Wreck of the Munson. Eastern Lake Ontario. F 7.1, 1/30, ISO 640. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


About the Wrecks

The wrecks are incredibly well preserved.  The fresh water in which they rest lacks the saltwater organisms that would normally destroy their structure, while the cold temperature (with its low oxygen levels) preserves them.  Deeper wrecks are better preserved as a result of less exposure to light.

The wrecks of the St-Lawrence River, more precisely between Watertown and Massena on the American side and Kingston and Cornwall on the Canadian side, are preserved in cold water for most of the year.  However, during the summer months, the water temperature rises to the mid seventies with no thermocline and is thus very comfortable. This is one of the reasons this dive destination so popular for divers on both sides of the river.


st lawrence river scuba diving

A diver exploring the 12-foot high rudder and 4-blade propeller on the Glendora. Eastern Lake Ontario. F 7.1, 1/40, ISo 640. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


st lawrence river scuba diving

The former dive vessel Effie Mae. She was scuttled next to the Aloha after she was retired. Eastern Lake Ontario. F 8, 1/60, ISO 500. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


st lawrence river scuba diving

Inside the machine room of the very popular ferry Wolf Islander II. F 6.3, 1/15, ISO 500. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


The border between the Canadian and American side is in the middle of the river in most places, and as a result, some wrecks lay on the Canadian side and others on the American side.  Crossing the border to go dive on a wreck is no simple task.  Many of the dive trips depart from Rockport, Canada.  American divers cross the border into Canada by car, board a Canadian vessel and must then go through customs again on an American island (Heart Island in the Alexandria Bay area) to be able to go dive on an American wreck. After the dive, they must pass through Canadian customs and then head back home by car and go through customs yet again. 

Does this sound complicated?  Well, it sure is… and it’s also a funny sight to see.  When the customs open on the island in the morning, you have dive vessels lined up eagerly waiting to go through to be able to be the first ones on dive sites.  There are some American vessels that can take American divers on American wrecks without this border crossing commotion but if they want to go dive the Canadian wrecks, they must also go through customs.


st lawrence river scuba diving

Exploring one of the masts on the Keystorm. F 6.3, 1/30, ISO 800, Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


st lawrence river scuba diving

The wheelhouse on the Keystorm.  This ship rests in US waters. F 9, 1/125, ISO 800. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


st lawrence river scuba diving

The stern of the Keystorm resting on a clay bottom. F 5.6, 1/30, ISO 400. Nikon D300 Tokina 10-17mm.


Continue to Page 2 for more Photos, Wreck Info and Photography Tips!




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Sogod Bay: Dive Paradise off the Beaten Track (pg 3)

Sogod Bay: Dive Paradise off the Beaten Track

Page 3


Sunok Point & Limasawa Island

Adrian's Cove and Zack's Cove, the two main dive sites on Limasawa Island, along with Sunok Point on Panaon Island at the opposite side of the bay, are the areas with the highest possibility of spotting whale sharks mid-dive.  The question for photographers is whether to set up wide-angle to await possible whale sharks arrival or concentrate on macro subjects and beat yourself up when whale sharks do make an appearance.  I recommend wide-angle because these sites are perfect places for reefscapes, with huge soft and hard coral formations dotting the walls and reefs teeming with marine life.  Even if whale sharks prove elusive, the underwater photographer will be more than busy framing perfect reefscape photos.


sogod baysogod bay

Photo Left:  Crowded Coral Head. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/500s. Dyron 8mm Fisheye.
Photo Right:  Gigantic Soft Coral. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/1600s. Dyron 8mm Fisheye.


Padre Burgos Pier

A 10 minute drive from most dive resorts brings you to the small town of Padre Burgos, and right in the center of its shoreline sits the pier - a 150 meter protrusion out into the ocean.  This is still a functioning pier with significant boat traffic during the day and fishing at night.  The reason this pier deserves a section of its own is that after dusk the Padre Burgos Pier is arguably one of the best night dive sites around the Philippines... if not Southeast Asia.  Fishing lines and divers do not mix well, so an agreement has been ironed out for divers to exclusively use the pier on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  Anglers use the pier on the other days.  The waters around the pier have a maximum depth of around 5 meters, so one can hang around for a very long time – essential because the amount a marine life seen here is absolutely staggering.

Padre Burgos Pier is a muck diving site and there is rubbish strewn around, which provides more hiding places for macro subjects.  The entry for the pier is via a staircase down to the water on the left, which is quite rocky and slippery so great care must be taken.

Divers can safely descend once 1/3 of the way to the end of the pier.  Upon descending, marine creatures immediately start to show themselves, from small octopi to strange flatworms to rare nudibranchs, with so much to discover and photograph that one feels impeded in exploring the rest of the dive site.  As you slowly reach the end of the pier, large banded cleaner shrimp can be spotted on the bottom of the outermost pylons, and seahorses further up among the sea fans.  About ten meters out from the outermost pylons is what I would term “Stargazer Town,” where up to three stargazers have been spotted on one dive.  Other areas of the pier are full of pleasant surprises, and soon you are investigating anything that looks organic and out of place with hopes that it might be a new personal discovery.

There are certain things to take note of when diving this man-made wonderland.  Remember that the locals do fish from the pier and fishing lines are all but invisible to the naked eye during night dives.  Another important note is that the site is swarming with sizable lionfish who have grown accustomed to using dive lights to hunt their prey, so it’s likely that divers will be bumped a few times during the dive - a chilling experience for some.  The lionfish are attracted to the area illuminated by your dive light and any collisions are purely accidental.  That said, this is still one of my favorite night dive sites.


sogod bay

Pygmy Pretender. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s.


sogod bay

Snake Eel. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/320s. Dyron +7 Diopter.


Conservation Efforts In Sogod Bay

The degeneration of marine habitats around the world has been an issue for enviromentalists for decades. With a vast archipelago like the Philippines, the enforcement of marine laws (with the exception of internationally administered places like Tubbataha) has predominantly relied on local enlightenment and and self-restraint.  Places like Sogod Bay are far away from central government oversight and the choice between preserving the bay’s marine richness or putting food on the table comes up often.  The Anilao reefs benefit from increased protection because of the many vested interests who earn their livings from visiting scuba divers.  Unfortunately, Sogod Bay doesn’t have this same benefit with just 4 active dive resorts.

The Marine Protected Area concept was introduced in 2002 when Coral Cay Conservation, a UK based conversation specialist, set up shop in front of Napantao Wall with the goal of creating an MPA to balance sustainable local fishing with protection of the reefs and fish.  Destructive practices like coral harvesting and cyanide fishing are prohibited, but in return the village collects a fee from every diver that wishes to dive there.  The success at Napantao persuaded other areas to set up MPAs of their own, and with the help of dive resorts in the area there are 11 MPAs in Sogod Bay.  The most recent MPA is at Limasawa Island.


A Thorny Issue

Sogod Bay is not only faced with man-made threats to its underwater world, but also has to deal with a more stealthy menace from the sea itself: the crown-of-thorns starfish.  Overfishing in the area has caused an explosion in the crown-of-thorns starfish population, who have less preditors to keep their coral-devouring numbers at bay.  Killing them in the water only compounds the problem as their surival instinct allows them to spawn before death, meaning they have to be brought to the surface and killed on land. Efforts at controlling the crown of thorns starfish population are ongoing and vigourous, with more than ten thousand of them being “harvested” in 2012 alone.  There is a new method of injecting the starfish that kills them before they can spawn, and this is starting to be used throughout the bay.  The government is in support of the new erradication method and locals hope to receive more support in removing the crown-of-thorns starfish.


sogod bay

Eradicating The Thorny Menace


Sogod Bay - A Place I'd Rather Be

Sogod Bay divers have mixed feelings on whether the long journey is with the extra effort (compared to Anilao or Cebu).  The beauty of Sogod Bay is that it offers the diver something very special - total serenity and pristine marine environments.  Being off the main tourist track means minimal dive pressure, and chances are high that you will not see another dive boat during your time there.  Of course, the only entertainment available is your ability to amuse yourself, but as a serious underwater photographer there are few places I'd rather be.





About the Author

Victor Tang is the founder of Wodepigu Water Pixel, an adventure dive company and photography consultancy with a nose for off the beaten track dive destinations.  When not stranded on shore with other pursuits as a musician and TV producer, Victor is on the prowl around Southeast Asia searching for new pristine waters to explore. His sister will always tease him for taking an oath never to take a camera underwater again after his first try in Malapascua, but lately he carries a camera anywhere he goes.


Further Reading


Where to Buy

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Sogod Bay: Dive Paradise off the Beaten Track (pg2)

Sogod Bay: Dive Paradise off the Beaten Track

Page 2


Pygmy Seahorse. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Dyron +7 and Subsee +10 Diopters.


Tankaan MPA

Further south from Santa Sofia lies Takaan, another Marine Protected Area close to the mouth of Sogod Bay, and whale shark sightings are a definite possibility here. It features another gentle slope going down to 27 meters, but unlike Santa Sofia, the slope is populated mainly with soft corals punctuated with barrel sponges and huge gorgonian fans. Takaan is a good place to spot frogfishes and other critters like orang-utan crabs, and if diving in the late afternoon there is a good chance of seeing solar-powered nudibranchs.  Turtles like to loiter here too because of the abundance of soft coral, with pelgaics like barracudas and trevally darting in and out of the blue.


sogod baysogod bay

Photo Left:  Frogfish . Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s.
Photo Right:  Halgerda Batangas. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/320s.Subsee +10 Diopter.

sogod bay

Orang-Utan Crab. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Subsee +10 Diopter.


Little Lembeh

Located around thirty minutes north of Padre Burgos by boat, the site is landmarked by an array of stilt huts rising out of the water.  As its name suggests, the site contains excellent muck diving (Lembeh is well know for its muck diving).  Many types of pipefish make their home here, with scores of seahorses roaming above the black sand. Pegasus fish hide amongst the stilts while nudibranchs are also abundant here.


Long-nose Pipefish. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Subsee +10 Diopter.

sogod bay

Mantis Shrimp. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/320s. Dyron +7 Diopter.


Sogod Bay Scuba Resort House Reef

Directly in front of Sogod Bay Scuba Resort, the house reef (or more commonly called Max Climax) is accessed from a dive boat parked on the shore.  The beach is coral rather than sand, and a pretty risky entry/exit with full scuba gear and camera.  This is a wall dive that starts at about 8 meters down to 45 meters, and features a wonderful array of hard and soft coral.  Currents can get strong here, and it brings about pelagic fish as well as schools of sweetlips and snappers. The wall is also chock full of macro subjects with crabs and shrimps taking center-stage, and pygmy seahorses if you are willing to go deep enough.  A night dive here is also highly recommended, as there is a huge variety of critters on parade across the reef.  Decorator crabs are seen often.  There is actually so much to see and shoot here that it is wise to check your SPG and dive computer frequently, as you could easily become distracted by all the photo subjects.


sogod bay

Neighbours. Taken with 1 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Dyron +7 and Subsee +10 Diopters.


sogod bay

Sea Pen Crab. Taken with 1 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Dyron +7 and Subsee +10 Diopters.


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Decorator Crab. Taken with 1 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s.


sogod bay

Bubble Coral Shrimp. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Dyron +7 and Subsee +10 Diopters.


sogod bay

Mating Nudibranchs. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/200s.






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Sogod Bay: Dive Paradise off the Beaten Track

Victor Tang
An Underwater Photo Adventure in Southern Leyte, Philippines,with some surprisingly good photo ops

Sogod Bay: Dive Paradise off the Beaten Track

An Underwater Photo Adventure in Southern Leyte, Philippines

By Victor Tang


Sogod Bay



Sogod Bay, Philippines is a relatively unknown dive destination, and many of us would even have trouble locating it on the map.  Those who do venture to Sogod Bay soon learn that the diving is incredible.

History buffs and those with long memories would nod knowingly if you mention that Sogod Bay is in the south of Leyte Island (home of Palo Beach) and the place where General Douglas MacArthur strode up the beach in the reconquest of the Philippines from the Japanese in World War II.  For an island with such historical significance and tourism potential, Leyte still remains something of an afterthought for travelers to the Philippines.


Sogod Bay


Getting There: A Journey In Itself

A plausible reason for Sogod Bay's anonymity is that Padre Burgos, the main diving town and home of the dive resorts, is surprisingly hard to reach.  There are at least 4 “direct” routes to Padre Burgos, each a travel combination of plane, boat and wheels.  Ferries in the Philippines generally are much less reliable and prone to delays than flights, so flying presents the most reliable way to get there.  There are currently three daily flights from Manila to the main airport on Leyte, Tacloban, with another two daily flights from Cebu.

From the airport it is a three hour(!) car ride to Padre Burgos and I highly recommend undertaking this journey during the day, as it allows you to see the natural beauty of Leyte Island.  The last hour or so is a nice coastal drive, allowing you to take a sneak peak at the waters that you will explore in due time.  Another big joy noticed during the ride is that traffic is virtually non-existent, unlike during transfers to more accessible diving destinations near Manila or Cebu City.  You soon notice a refreshing sobriety to the urban planning here as you get into the mindset for your dive vacation.


sogod bay

Sunlit Fishbowl. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f7.1 and 1/160s.
Dyron 8mm Fisheye.


Whale Sharks

Scuba divers and photographers will find that Sogod Bay is a great destination for massive, plankton-feeding Whale Sharks, who swim in the waters near the bay’s entrance between November and April.  As in Donsol, east of Manila, snorkeling trips are organized allow opportunities to swim with the whale sharks as they glide along their migratory route.  Whale shark viewing trips do not come cheap, however, and sightings are not guaranteed.  Also, those who have snorkeled with whale sharks know that trying to swim alongside them requires some real swimming fitness.  Because the reefs around Sogod Bay also have a high likelihood of spotting a whale shark during a “regular” dive, I found that the best diving option was to book 3-tank boat dives instead of the snorkeling trips looking for whale sharks.  Sogod Bay arguably has some of the most pristine reefs and superb macro sites in the Philippines – a photographer’s paradise.


sogod bay

Napantao: Star of the show. Taken with 3 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/1600s. Dyron 8mm Fisheye.


7 Amazing Dive Sites in Sogod Bay

There are 22 official dive sites in Sogod Bay, so there’s more diving than you could hope to explore on one trip.  Average dive trips in Sogod Bay are 10 days, and the following is a selection of dive sites you should not miss.


Napantao Wall

Located across the bay from Padre Burgos, Napantao Wall is a wall large enough to be split into northern and southern sections, requiring 2 dives to fully traverse. Napantao is the first designated Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the area, and once you descend it is easy to see why.  Dense schools of reef fish congregate around the wall down to the fifty-meter bottom, with armadas of purple and yellow anthias flitting in and out of huge gorgonian fans, and green branch corals jutting from the wall with pride.  This is one place where watching the skittish anthias vanish into their coral hiding places is truly a sight to behold.


sogod bay

Anthia wonderland. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f7.1 and 1/60s.
Dyron 8mm Fisheye.


Once through the thick layer of reef fish, divers are presented with a rich hunting ground for macro subjects.  Napantao is fertile ground for spotting frogfishes and all types of nudibranchs, from the rare to the mundane. Pelagic fish and whale sharks do visit the wall so you do have to divide your attention between the wall and the open water – not a bad problem to have!  Napantao presents a true dilemma for the underwater photographer as there are many wide angle and macro subjects, and multiple visits to the wall should be arranged if possible.  It can be confidently asserted that Napantao is a representative microcosm of the marine landscape that is fast disappearing from Philippine waters.


sogod bay

Fish Everywhere!. Taken with 3 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/000s.
Dyron 8mm Fisheye.


Santa Sofia MPA

Situated just south of Padre Burgos, Santa Sofia is a gentle slope full of hard coral that descends down to a 25 meter sandy bottom. Again, this is a great place for macro with a large variety of nudibranchs, pygmy seahorses and ambush predators like the scorpion and crocodile fishes.  Hawksbill turtles are known to patrol these waters and take a “breather” among the hard coral, so keep your eyes peeled for them.  It is definitely possible to have a close-up encounter and photo session with these gentle creatures.


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Left Photo:  Doriprismatica Atromarginata . Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/250s. Dyron +7 dopter.
Right Photo:  Taringer Halgerda . Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/500s. Dyron +7 diopter.

sogod bay

Skeleton Shrimps. Taken with 2 Sea & Sea YS110a at ISO 80. Manual mode at f8 and 1/500s. Dyron +7 and Subsee +10 Diopters.






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The Best Kept Shark Diving Secret: Cuba

Goran Butajla
Incredible Shark Diving in Cuba's Jardines de la Reina - find out why divers are flocking there

The Best Kept Shark Diving Secret: Cuba

Incredible Shark Diving & More in Cuba's Jardines de la Reina

Article & Photos by Goran Butajla


Jardines de la Reina Sharks



The Carribean is one of the most popular scuba diving areas for American travelers, with easy access to attractive locations in the Cayman Islands, Belize, the Mexican coast and Honduras, among many others.  There is a large concentration of famous dive sites with a variety of diving styles and marine life, including encounters with large marine creatures, world-known wrecks, and cave and cavern diving.  Naturally, there are many interesting dives for underwater photographers.

But there is one area which is still virgin, and that is Cuba. There are two main reasons for this.  First, it is sort of a “black area” for American divers for political reasons, and second, it is still not easy to reach for European or Asian divers.  As a European diver, I had been exploring the possibility of diving in Cuba for a few years, and after checking some YouTube clips from Jardines de la Reina, I decided to see it for myself.  The diving in the videos was too tempting to pass up.


Jardines de la Reina Shark

A Caribbean reef shark passes by in the rich waters of Jardines de la Reina.

Jardines de la Reina Shark

Jardines offers many close encounters for those willing to seek out the diving.


About Jardines de la Reina

Jardines de la Reina is a remote and uninhabited part of southern Cuba, some 50 miles offshore (do not confuse it with “Jardines del Rey”, which is further north).  This area is heavily protected by the Cuban goverment, so only scuba diving and some “light” big game fishing are allowed here (thanks to Castro, who was a diver himself and wanted to preserve the area). Cuba is slowly starting to open the gates to tourism, and now we are blessed with the opportunity to dive in this fantastic area.

There is one single, goverment controlled but “joint venture," Cuban-Italian operator conducting scuba activities, Avalon Diving. The area is reachable only by liveaboard, but Avalon Diving made an interesting “floating hotel."  It's essentially a big boat converted into a convenient mid-category dive facility anchored in the middle of Jardines, and can accomodate up to 20-25 people living there at a time.  Each day divers are transferred to the dive locations with light, speedy boats that we are used to seeing in the rest of Caribbean. The other option is to book a “classic” liveaboard – a 7 day cruise around Jardines.  I found the floating hotel to be most effective.


Jardines Silky Shark

Some of the silky sharks are more than 3 meters long!


A 7 day diving package consists of 5 diving days with three dives a day, since you loose the first and last day on transfers to/from Jardines.  It's the only con for this trip. Also, you have to arrive in Havana (where the transfer is organised) one day before the booked trip, and stay in Havana one day afterwards.  This presents a great opportunity to explore the city for a few days after your dive trip.


The Diving - Sharks!

The diving itself is something trully different.  The water is very clear, and during every dive you are treated to close encounters with dozens of sharks... for the entire dive.  I've had the oportunity to dive throughout the world and have seen many sharks before, but never in this fashion.  They even started to get a little boring!  If I was the operator there, I might even dare to say, “Sharks guaranteed or money back!”  This is definitelly the place to go if you are a shark lover.  Divers will most frequently encounter groups of silky and carribean reef sharks cruising around in close proximity, giving you many amazing photo options.  Most of the sharks, if not every shark, are bigger then 2 metres, few bigger than 3m.  The dive guides, who are very competent, know exactly where and when to take you, but it also seems that sharks congregate around the mooring buoys as soon as they hear the boat engines, expecting few pieces of fish after the dive (which they receive).  The sharks are not agressive, but courious about the divers so there was never any sense of danger or threatening behavior.  Of course, wide angle photography and close-focus wide-angle are common techiques here, so i never even bothered to try macro shooting.


Jardines Reef Shark

The caribbean reef sharks are often found patrolling near the bottom of the reef.


Jardines de la Reina Lionfish

At some of the dive sites in Jardines de la Reina you'll find dozens of Lionfish.


Crocodiles, Groupers & more from Jardines de la Reina on page 2.



Where to Buy

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The Best Kept Shark Diving Secret: Cuba (pg 2)

The Best Kept Shark Diving Secret: Cuba





Jardines de la Reina Crocodile

This croc didn't seem to mind sharing its waters with scuba divers


Groupers, Crocodiles & Other Marine Life

Besides sharks, at some locations you will encounter giant, goliath and nassau groupers. Many of them grow very large, and several that we encountered were 100 -150 lbs.  They are also curious about the divers and some will even “kiss” your dome port. One of them even tried to chew my friend's compact camera hanging from his wrist.  Eventually you'll start looking for something besides by sharks and groupers, and head to the “classic” carribean reef scenery, which consists of many gorgonian fans, sponges and seagrass.  There we found green morays, tarpoons, lobsters, schools of jacks, some barracudas and few speces of rays.  There are also lionfish who don't belong in this eco-system, but they're still not overly abundant.


jardines de la reina grouper

At the dive site Cabezo Della Cava we found many large groupers.

Some of the groupers get really large, especially the ones we saw at the dive site Caballones.


jardines de la reina gorgonian fan

Large gorgonians are a trademark at Jardines de la Reina.


jardines de la reina tarpoon

A tarpoon we saw at the dive site Los Mogojes.


One of the most exciting encounters on the trip was the crocodiles.  A few are known to live in the lagoons, so during the break between dives we asked the guides to try to find them. The lagoons are a snorkel tour in water with much lower visibility, but during midday the crocs float on surface and are very calm, so you can approach them if you dare.  I dont really know what to say about the saftey of that encounter besides entering the water at your own risk.  Three photographers in our group entered the water and the guides stayed very close, holding wooden sticks (similar to baseball bats) ready to react.  That said, we stayed with one croc for more than half hour and he didnt even blink, then finally decided to swim away.


jardines croc

Our crocodile photo session lasted a long time, however it's over as soon as the croc decides to swim away.


jardines de la reina croc

The author, Goran Butajla, gets close to a croc deep in the lagoon.


jardines sea turtle

Sea turtles are a bit rare in Jardines de la Reina, but can be found at the dive site Caballones.



Overall, Jardines de la Reina a is really pristine, large and untouched system of coral reefs, and represents Carribean “as it was before.”  If the strict regulations remain in place it is unlikely to become overcrowded, and is with no doubt one of last underwater paradises on Earth.  The only visitors here are a very small number of divers throughout the year, with a government-mandated limit of 500-1000 divers.  But that doesnt mean you will have problems booking your trip, since they haven't reached that number of annual visitors since opening the area to scuba diving.  Cuba is also more open to tourism than before, and these days it is even common for Americans to travel travel there.  The Americans we saw came from Cancun and had gotten their visa hassel-free in Mexico, but rumor has it that American citizens can expect direct flights to Cuba soon.


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About the Author

Goran Butajla is a well-known croatian diver and photographer. He has traveled world-wide for the past 25 years, constantly in search of beautifull diving locations. Goran runs his own diving business in Zagreb, Croatia as the SSI and PSS Instructor Trainer. Also, he is general editor of Scubalife, the most relevant and most luxurious scuba-related printed magazine in the south-east Europe.  You can contact Goran 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!



An 8-Arm Camera Thief

Brent Durand
Giant Pacific Octopus Steals Diver's dSLR rig - an UWPG exclusive!

An 8 Arm Camera Thief

A Giant Pacific Octopus Steals Scuba Diver's Camera

By Brent Durand, underwater photos by Drew Collins, video by Randy Williams


Diver checks out a giant pacific octopus. This is most likely not the octopus that took Drew's camera.



Drew Collin’s underwater photo dive in the Pacific Northwest started like any other in Des Moines, Washington this past January.  Drysuit, camera and jokes with his dive buddy, Randy Williams.  Both Drew and Randy are very experienced divers and are both volunteers at marine science centers in the Seattle area.  Read more about diving the Pacific Northwest.  Little did they know that it would turn into an exciting dive day, complete with video and photo documentation.


Drew's first shot, showing one of the Giant Pacific Octopus arms reaching out of its den.  Photo: Drew Collins


Drew Meets the Octopus

During the early part of the dive, Drew found an octopus inside its den - a perfect photo subject.  Drew shot two images, reviewed them and adjusted strobe position for another shot.  Then the octopus slowly moved two arms out of its den.  Great - more of the octo’s body filling the frame!  What can be better than spending an entire dive photographing a giant pacific octopus?


The Octopus Strikes!

As Drew looked down to review the third image the octopus struck, grabbing his mask with one arm and camera handle with another.  More arms starting coming out. Drew’s instinct led him to grab his mask with one hand and position it back over his face while clearing it… his other hand firmly on the camera handle feeling the ~40lbs. octopus tug on the rig.

Little does Drew know, but the Octopus is preparing to strike with lightning speed.  Photo: Drew Collins


The Battle Continues

Then came more arms, quickly outnumbering Drew’s two hands and a dynamic tug of war began.  For each arm that Drew yanked off his rig, two more gained a firmer grip.  His breathing sped up with the effort.  The octopus kept a strong hold on the camera rig and was pulling at Drew’s dry gloves until the seams came undone, flushing his wrists with the 42 degree water.  He knew his air was going quickly and tried putting one arm against the rock for leverage, pulling with the other arm.  No use.  More water flooded into his drysuit and Drew yanked and tugged from every angle.

Drew took a moment, started to control his breathing, and checked his air. He still had air - that was good. 

At this point Drew decided that safety was more important than his camera rig and conceded the battle, sometimes the necessary move when fighting a war.  He unattached the housing from his lanyard (it was connected to his BCD). After a long (and cold) surface swim back to shore, remembering his location on the surface near a buoy, Drew estimates that he took on about a gallon of frigid Pacific Northwest seawater, soaked head to toe.


Back to Shore to Prepare for Dive #2

Once on shore, Randy pulled out his cell phone to record a video as proof that the battle had actually occurred.  Most of us (including Drew) would be pretty upset to have our camera rig stolen, but you'll see in the video below that the guys were able to make light of the situation and plan a second dive to retrieve the camera. Drew would have been upset if he lost the new camera rig underwater, but he was even more afraid to come home to his wife sans a very expensive setup.


Video taken while the Octopus was chewing on Drew's Rig

Drew talks through the first part of his adventure.  Video: Randy Williams


Retrieving the Camera

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending.  Drew and Randy made a second dive, descending near the buoy where Drew surfaced.  As they swam a search pattern and the minutes ticked by, Drew started to worry that the Octopus (and camera) had moved to a hiding spot on the reef.  But as they hit the 20 minute mark the octopus and camera rig came into view.  The octopus had been unable to pull the camera rig inside her den and was now trying to chew through the acrylic dome port.  The dome shade was long gone. 

While Drew and Randy plan a dive to retrieve the camera, the octopus takes a few self portraits.  Photo:  Octopus & Drew Collins


With two bodies and four arms, the team spent a few labored minutes wrestling the camera rig away from the octopus and now have an epic story of battle with an octopus to tell!

This is what an acryllic dome port looks like after an octopus tries to eat it.  Photo: Drew Collins


Drew Collins is a professional underwater and land photographer and environmentalist living and diving primarily in the cold beautiful Emerald green waters of Puget Sound near Seattle, Washington.  See more of his photography at Puget Sound Photography Underwater.


Have a crazy dive story of your own?  Let us know! Email


About the Author

Brent Durand is an avid California beach diver, underwater photographer and editor with the Underwater Photography Guide. You can follow UWPG on Facebook, and also read Brent's article on Top 10 tips for fun beach diving.



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!


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