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.

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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

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, 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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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