trips

Fireworks and flame shells

Underwater photographers tend to take a different view of dive sites on a trip to non-shooting divers. We will often be keen to keep returning to the same site repeatedly on a trip rather than trying to see a different site on each dive. So it was on a recent trip to West Scotland, I dived in only two sites. In each of two sea lochs, I dived in a single area. However these were very much contrasting locations, one a very clean high energy site needing slack water and the other a slightly murky low energy spot. Each is home to unusual but “locally common” species, well worth braving the 6-degree water temperature for.

Loch Duich is home to the impressive fireworks anemone and the maerl bed of the narrows at the head of Loch Carron is home to hidden flame shells, as well as a mass of macro subjects. Here are a selection of images to give a flavour of the sites.

First of all, Loch Duich:

And here’s North Strome on Loch Carron:

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trips

Loch Leven Sea Pens

Loch Leven is one of the smaller sea lochs. It is only just more than six miles long and very narrow – especially at one point about two miles from its head at Kinlochleven. However, it does offer some species not often seen elsewhere. Diving from its shores also offers reliable diving in any weather at any time of year. Today, the water was warmer than the air. We were searching out sea pens- long filter-feeding creatures found in quieter sites. Entering the water by the graveyard about half way along, my buddy and I passed over seemingly endless mud. At about 12m, the sea pens began to appear; this site offers all three of the native species. Pressing on, we found a large cluster of the tall sea pen (Funiculinaquadrangularis). These beautiful creatures are more than a metre tall but very thin. Seen in close up, they are lined with feeding polyps. I was very pleased to capture a splendid tall individual with several others in the background.

Our second site was further up towards the head if the Loch, beyond the narrows. Using a convenient slipway, we found a steep bank of broken stone leading to a muddy bottom at about 20m. The very fine silt makes photography very challenging, so the success rate was limited, but the eerie undulating mud, pockmarked with burrows made for an interesting dive. It did, however, yield a nice shot of a phosphorescent sea pen (Pennatula phosphorea).

dives, trips

1000th dive

I logged my 1000th dive whilst on this trip to the Red Sea. I know that this is not an especially remarkable total, but it is still a large number of dives for a recreational diver. It felt as if that dive should have been accompanied by fanfares and mermaids (or maybe one of the local Dugong).

However, it turned out to be quite a low key leisurely shore dive from the dive centre at Marsa Shagra. I think it sums up what I love so much about scuba diving- it was in the company of a like-minded buddy; in this instance we had been strangers 24 hours before, but we felt like firm friends after a couple of shared dives.

During the dive, I didn’t notice any species I had not seen before, but it was a pleasure as usual to waft weightless through the water. It has to be said that it was most welcome to escape the English winter and drift over a Red Sea reef in the late afternoon sun, observing the fish going about their normal business and shooting images as I went.

I saw a Stonefish hauling itself across the sand, a Lionfish hunting for prey and flocks of Goatfish prospecting in the sand. The Anthias were pulsing in and out of the coral heads, whilst Groupers drifted across the reef, hoping to pick off an unwary small fish. Humbug dascyllus played hide and seek among the branching corals, whilst iridescent Pale damselfish rose high above the reef feeding on tiny particles in the water.

Here’s to the next 1000 dives…

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trips

Red Sea Safari

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I usually spend February half term in Scotland on a shore-diving, camper-van trip. This year I have no camper van, but I am having a camping shore-diving trip, albeit in a rather different location. In September 2015 I won the grand prize of the British and Irish underwater photography championships, run by BSoUP and generously sponsored by Oonasdivers.

So here I am in Egypt, sat in a tent feet from the shore of the Red Sea. Although Marsa Shagra is South of Marsa Alam (which has an international airport), my flight was from Gatwick to the more northerly Hurghada. The airport is large and modern-looking but was pretty quiet. I did not see any other arrivals from UK; most of the other flights seemed to be from Germany and Russia.

I had gone all through UK security without opening any of my bags, but I had to open both camera boxes for Egyptian security. He asked me various questions about my gear, but did not seem interested in the answers. His parting shot was “don’t get bitten by a shark” and then was amazed when I said I’d be very glad to see one, he insisting that it was bound to eat me.

Following that, I was the sole passenger on a very entertaining four-hour minibus drive south to Marsa Shagra. The roads are very straight, but vehicles appear to completely ignore the road markings. The rules seem complex at first- use main beam when overtaking, but switch off lights if you’re giving way; alternatively flash furiously for either of these situations. Hazard warning lights indicate imminent lane change in any direction, sometimes taking a turning or else coming to a stop. The vehicle horn is used to say “here I am”, “get out of my way”, “hurry up” or just to play a tune.

Speed limits are entirely notional, so physical means are used to control speed- there are vicious speed bumps when passing a hotel or through a settlement; the police check points have chicanes and tyre puncturing devices on hand.

At one point, we drove through a town where a slow speed (speed bumps instead of road markings) game of chicken ensued, with cars darting from one side of the road to the other, three abreast in a narrow street, seemingly without reason. Priority is mostly based on size- don’t mess with a lorry, but a van clearly beats a car. The cars maintained distances of several inches apart and there was liberal use of the horn, but no physical contact was made and it all seemed good natured.

Lots of trucks have very colourful decorations, many celebrating their teutonic origins, though usually badly spelled. Many vehicles have flashing LED lights of many colours and some have lights under the vehicle too. In the other hand, I saw a number of vehicles with no tail lights. I saw an open truck full of camels at a petrol station and a pair of locals sitting in the road by an open locker in their HGV trailer, seemingly cooking a meal. No one seemed in the least bit perturbed by any of this.

So, after this eventful journey, I reached the tent where I write this, 18 hours after leaving home. Sleep now, and then some diving….

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Location:Marsa Shagra

 

trips

Farne Seals

It was my pleasure to dive with seals in the Farne Islands in June this year, during a Bristol Underwater Photography group trip. Its quite an experience to enter the seals’ territory- I got the feeling that they were watching us, rather than the other way round. Certainly, any encounters were on their terms. Dog-like in their behaviour, these powerful predators displayed a very endearing gentleness, sensitivity and curiosity.

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The video footage was shot using a go pro hero 2, which was mounted onto my stills camera. This go pro had no view screen, so my framing is a bit hit and miss. We were very much in the shallows, so the colour balance is a bit variable- some clips were shot with a colour filter and others not. See what you think…

https://vimeo.com/135683576

trips

What weekends are made for…

Finally I have been able to take advantage of the summer light and good visibility. I have been rewarded with an excellent dive on HMS Elk. This is a trawler that was pressed into service during WWII, but sank not far from the entrance of Plymouth sound. When I dived it last Saturday, the visibility was excellent; though I have dived this wreck a number of times, I don’t remember there being this much light. The wreck is relatively small, but resting on the seabed at around 35m, this makes it a good size to get a good look around without clocking up too much deco.The bow of HMS Elk

I’m very grateful to my buddy Darren Ashford for patiently modelling for me for about half of our bottom time. 

A shoal of bib on the boilers of HMS Elk

An impressive shoal of bib hanging over the boilers. I did not have enough bottom time left to do this scene justice. There’s always a reason to go back….

Hang time

The inevitable end to such a dive- waiting out the deco time on the line. In this case, well worth it.

dives, trips

Devon weekend

Oaten Pipe hydroids
Oaten Pipe hydroids
Sending up the shot
Sending up the shot
On the bottom
On the bottom
Waiting on the line
Waiting on the line

I greatly enjoyed a trip to Devon last weekend and, though the water was cold, the visibility was surprisingly good. I managed four dives- two reefs and a wreck (twice). The reef, East Rutts was a very pleasant place to spend an hour and this early in the season is covered in Oaten Pipe (Tubularia indivisa) hydroids. Those hydroids won’t be around for very much longer, as they are the food for nudibranchs (sea slugs). We saw many spiral swirls of eggs, but no slugs yet, but I would expect that by May the hydroids will be gone.

The wreck was called the Riversdale. It’s large and intact (except for the bow), with an impressive rudder and prop. It’s a while since I dived and took photos on wrecks at this depth (38m to the deck) and, photographically it was quite a challenge, due to the narcosis and the limited time. Even with good vis, lighting is difficult. We dived it twice, on consecutive days, as we could not get the shot line up after the first dive, so had to leave it in overnight and send it up on a lifting bag at the start of the second dive!

The vis was very good (about 8-10m), but I could see the beginnings of a “May bloom” of algae in the top few metres. Let’s hope that comes and goes quickly and does not spoil the view too much.