dives

James Eagan Layne

The “James” (or just JEL) is an iconic UK wreck dive, and one I have done many times. Last Sunday I passed my 40th  time on this site, a Liberty ship sunk in 1945 by a U-boat. After it was torpedoed, the ship was beached in Whitsand bay, just to the West of Plymouth, in order to recover its cargo. Fortunately for us divers, the ship sank, with no loss of life, before it went aground. It lies upright in only 20m and its superstructure rises to only a few metres from the surface, so it is popular with all levels of diver. We didn’t even have to put our shotline in, as it dived very regularly by the many dive boats out of Plymouth.

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The JEL was carrying a cargo of US Army engineering equipment when it was sunk and over the years, these neat stacks of equipment have been cemented into interesting piles of artefacts, which after over 60 years in the sea are not easy to identify.

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The deck, bulkheads and much of the side plating have rotted away now, and the wreck has changed a lot in the 30 years I have been diving it. Whereas it once felt quite enclosed, it is now generally rather open. Successive winter storms (this site is pretty exposed to the prevailing South Westerlies) are taking their toll, though there is much of interest to see.

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She was powered by an oil-fired triple expansion engine, which now stands proud of the sea bed so it is easy to look all around it.

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The many crevices between the items in the cargo have provided ideal homes for generations of Tompot Blennies which are found all over the wreck. This pair were having a territorial dispute when I came upon them and ignored me until they had decided who was top tompot!

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The bow of a ship is one of the strongest parts and so survives the sea for the longest. This is also the shallowest point, and where the shotline was attached; you can see that there is quite a bit of algae in this shallower water.

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dives

HMS Elk

Every classic cub boat weekend should involve diving a couple of wrecks. I had a most enjoyable tour of the Elk last weekend- late summer sun and a lack of particulates in the water provided us with good visibility. This ship was a pre-war steam trawler which was drafted into service as a mine sweeper during WWII, and sank in the mouth of Plymouth Sound in about 30m of water. It is a relatively compact wreck and sits upright on the sea bed, so can be seen from stem to stern and back in a single dive.

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The wreck was shotted straight on the bow and we were greeted by a large shoal of Bib.

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So many fish…ERB_4407

…happy to share the wreck with us

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Swimming towards the stern, the decks have mostly fallen through, the wreck is still very “ship-like”. The boiler is found amidshipsERB_4410ERB_4426

Stern of the wreck – time to turn back.

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Triple expansion steam engine.

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Back to the boiler again.

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Surrounded by Bib for the whole dive.

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Return to the bow for our ascent back up the shot line.

dives

It must be spring

Spring has sprung – despite distinctly murky conditions on the James Eagan Lane this weekend, there were Oaten Pipe Hydroids (Tubularia indivisa) aplenty to see. The numbers of these marvellous creatures explode in early spring, that is until the nudibranch eggs hatch and they all get munched!ERB_0443

Nikon D500, Nikon AF-S 60mm with +5 diopter

dives

Looking for skeletons

One of the pleasures of underwater photography is learning about sea life which many divers don’t even know exist. The Skeleton Shrimp (Caprella linearis) is one such species. They are not exactly tiny (up to 2cm long) and are actually really quite common. It’s just that they are very difficult to see. They spend their lives clinging to other sea life, grabbing food particles from the water. They are usually seen on hydroids, because they are easy to spot there, though they inhabit many other hosts which get them into the current, such as Dead Men’s Fingers, but are much harder to spot on those.

So it was, I spent a very enjoyable dive in Loch Creran recently hunting for these critters. They have often been photographed before and I wanted to make a different kind of image to what I had seen previously. By using a high-power diopter, I concentrated on just the head of the creature, shooting across the hydroid fronds. Shooting an abundant species allowed me to hunt down a suitable rock with a conveniently placed hydroid, so I could shoot without disturbing the fine silt ubiquitous at this site. I like this shot because it shows the shrimp through the fronds of the hydroid, like an elusive jungle animal seen through the undergrowth. The shallow depth of field of the diopter ensures subject separation by throwing the hydroid out of focus.

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On the other hand, this second capture unintentionally caught the shrimp with its claw arms wide. It made me smile because whereas the first image seemed to say “you can’t see me”, the second seemed to say “Ta-da! Here I am!!”

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Nikon D500 + micro Nikkor 105mm + Nauticam SMC.

dives, equipment

Through the looking glass…

During a recent trip to lovely Loch Linnhe, I spotted a tiny juvenile squat lobster hiding in a decaying piece of wood. I have to confess to an addiction to these charismatic creatures; I love their bright orange colour, the Popeye aggression with which the wave their claws and the intricate detail of their jointed bodies. I had promised myself that I would not shoot any on this trip, but I decided to change that to “I won’t shoot any adults” (I *nearly* managed that).

In fact this gave me a change to try out two diopter lenses for getting closer to tiny critters. On the first of two dives at the same site from a beach in Kentallen, I tried out a fairly standard +5 wet diopter and the following day, I tried out a Nauticam SMC, a much heavier and powerful lens (lent to me by a friend).

I found the SMC easier to get focussed (for both lenses, I used autofocus to get the focus to the correct position and then “rocked” to get the subject in focus). The shallower depth of field of the SMC gives a more pleasing effect, but I was more interested in how sharp the images might be – it was hard to get the images properly focused, but I am pleased wit the results from both. The SMC gives higher magnification and adds drama to the image, but its much harder to get it in focus. In particular, it is important to get ones “ducks in a row” – in other words, the points in the frame which need to be sharp must be in the same plane. This makes framing the image hard at times – I like the composition below, but I was struggling to get both of the squattie’s eyes sharp.

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Both images have been cropped from portrait format but have the full width of the frame.

Top: D500, Nikon 105mm + Nauticam SMC, ISO200 f/32, 1/100s.
Bottom: D500, Nikon 105mm + AOC+5 diopter, ISO320 f/20, 1/125s

dives, techniques

Remote strobes

ERB_4588.jpgIt’s been a while since I played with remote strobes, so this weekend (having been been blown out by poor Bank Holiday weather) decided to try this technique in a local quarry. In a bid to get the creative juices working at a less familiar site, my buddy and I picked the National Dive Centre in Chepstow, a location I have dived less often than other fresh water sites in the Midlands.

The idea with remote strobes is to light a subject without using the strobes attached to the camera. This has the advantage of using a light source close to the subject but further away from the camera and so giving good lighting but with a minimum of backscatter.

The NDAC, like many quarries has a lot of scrap metal and I chose a Wessex helicopter as my subject. The aircraft was reasonably intact and has a large (dark) internal space. There’s a lot of setup time needed for remote strobe work and I was privileged to have a buddy prepared to set aside his camera and carry the extra strobes for me. It was just as well really, as of the two strobes I was hoping to place, one of them refused to work at all (despite having worked when I tested it before the dive). The vis was quite good (about 8-10m) and so I tried working from further back than usual, to catch the whole aircraft. I tucked the strobe (a Sea & Sea YS-110) inside the doorway, set on half power and pointing inward toward my buddy, who swam slowly out of the doorway.

The exposure was set as if for available light only, with the ISO high enough to provide a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the bubble motion (1/100s); since I was at least a few feet from the nearest part of the wreck, an aperture of f/8 was enough to ensure the whole frame was in focus. I used a single strobe on a low power setting solely to trigger the remote strobe.

I had my buddy shine a torch towards the strobe so that the flash light is “connected” to the subject. It takes a lot of practice to get all the aspects of this technique right and in hindsight, the strobe is not far enough behind the doorway, some flare is still visible. The diver is perhaps rather small in the frame and so the effect of the remote strobe is rather subtle; on the whole I think it needs a smaller subject, so that I can have the whole wreck but with the diver larger in the frame. Just another reason to go back and try again…

dives

The Blue Lake

2017-03-18 09.52.48A dive in the clear blue waters of a secluded quarry, whilst the early Spring weather is doing its best to stir up the vis all along the coast? Yes please- win win, surely! Well, that was till I saw the hill I had to walk up to reach it!! The hidden quarry is located about half a mile along a very steep path leading up from the road.

The Blue Lake is a quarry near the Welsh coastal village of Fairbourne, on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park. It is a rather odd experience to march in scuba gear up a very steep hill and, reaching the top to see the coast spread right across the view, turn away towards the craggy rocks. The quarry is surrounded by cliffs on all sides, so can only be reached through a low tunnel, once used to remove the quarry workings. The Blue Lake fills almost the whole space as you emerge from the tunnel and is indeed very blue. This colour is due to the copper in the water which inhibits the growth of algae.

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My buddy Trevor and I were hoping for some undisturbed, crystal clear water to practice some wide-angle photography techniques. The lake, though small was indeed very clear, though as with many of these places, the clarity is very easily disturbed with a single unwise fin-kick.

The sheer cliff wall led down to a gently sloping bottom covered in broken slate and the rusting odds and ends left over from quarrying. Depressingly there is also quite a lot of the evidence of summer barbecues- broken bottles, rusting cans and even one or two pots and pans.

We practiced some selfie shots- me by using the time honoured holding-the-camera-at-arms-length and Trev by using a Tripod. The main challenge was not stirring up the silt. Was the strenuous pre-dive walk (carrying the scuba gear) worth it? Well, it was certainly quite a different diving experience and I am glad to have done it, but I am not sure if I am going to be back. We gave the passing hill walkers a smile though!

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