6. May, 2019

Although it is now 36 years ago, in 1983,  when I started visiting the Sudanese Red Sea,  I still keep vivid memories of its splendid reefs and fish populations. Already 15 years prior to our visit a  British group called the Cambridge Coral  Starfish Research group had a field laboratory located on a platform of scaffolding built on a patch reef a few miles offshore from Port Sudan. Later the platform was also used by diver visitors from other countries.  Compared to their primitive accommodation camping on Sanganeb island offered a  more comfortable way to explore the Sudanese underwater environment, albeit from a more touristic angle of interest. After 1987, camping on the island was not permitted  anymore due to stricter military regulations

Traveling in that period was not easy: it often required a hectic chain of flights, like flying from London to Sofia, Cairo to Khartoum, and a 40 minutes local flight to Port Sudan. The tour operator was a small tourist agency in London, with a black-bearded Londoner named Jack Jackson serving as our dive master. The tourist agent in Port Sudan taking care of logistics, customs, etc.  was a friendly  Armenian Hamido, whose small office carried signed portraits of Hans Hass and Jacques Cousteau. It is said that poor Hamido once got lashed for selling beer to visitors.  A disused small marine transport vessel called Stormbringer carried us from Port Sudan to the northern Sanganeb lighthouse island (see insert: that was not our vessel!). Drinking disinfected water (no cold beer of course) and watching the lighthouse bundle circling against a starlit sky were some of the memorable moments of camping on the island. Two small compressors delivered our daily supply or air.  Our daily trips went to the South-West and  North points of Sanganeb,  or occasionally -with calm weather- to the more northern legendary Shab Rumi atol,  the location of the Cousteau's Conshelf II experiment in 1963. 

At  Sanganeb we must have been of the first groups that started baiting the grey reef sharks at the SW point, the most lively diving site. Here, a  sunny sandy plateau with coral heads at 20 meters descended rapidly to much deeper, cooler water.  Baiting was done by hiding a piece of smelly fish under a coral head or tying it to a rock. This occasionally caused much turmoil, with the sharks darting around, trying to get a share of the bait.  Occasionally groups of hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini) would be passing by in deeper water or sometimes moved in over the shallow plateau. Even more spectacular were the Shab Rumi (=Roman reef)  dives, where we met silvertip sharks at the superb south point.  Shab Rumi is also the place where one finds the gloomy remnants of Cousteau’sunderwater village with the mushroom-shaped garage of the underwater scooters at only 10 meters depth.   The Umbria (closer to Port Sudan) is one of the most famous sunken ships in the world. It is one of the jewels in the crown of Sudanese diving. At a maximum depth of 36m, the Umbria is shallow by most wreck divers' standards.  More to the North one finds the Toyota reef  (at Shab Su-adi) loaded with trucks, stranded in 1963.

Since its independence, Sudan has been ruled by a series of unstable parliamentary governments and military regimes. Under Gaafar Nimeiri, Sudan instituted Islamic law in 1983. This exacerbated the ever-living conflicts between the Islamic north, the seat of the government and the Animists and Christians in the south. The South became an independent state in 2011 but is since then torn apart by bloody conflicts between the two major tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer. In the Islamic North on April 2019, following stormy protests that faced fierce resistance from the Omar al-Bashir regime, the Sudanese military, under the command of Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, took control of the nation and established the  Transitional Military Council that deposed al Bashir and dissolved the constitution. With the women's protest against their suppression by the regime as an important element of the resurgence in the streets of Khartoum. It will be an enormous challenge to establish a stable coalition to control this immense country, split up by various religious and ethnic groups. Participation of the more liberal Islamic groups seems a vital condition to accomplish this.

Currently, the best way to visit Sudan dive-wise is by live-a-boards departing from Marsa-Alam (Port Ghalib) in South Egypt or even directly from Port Sudan (e.g. Bluewater dive-travel). It might take some time, however,  before the travel and tourist conditions in  Sudan will approach the level of comfort and safety one finds along the Egyptian Red Sea coast. There are some signs in that direction, like the  Red Sea resort,  an alcohol-free, simple but clean accommodation 20 kilometers from Port Sudan. It takes divers to the nearby reefs such as Sanganeb and Shab Rumi. Expanding Red Sea diving to the Sudan reefs, to unburden the often crowded dive locations of the North and South Egyptian Red Sea would be a great opportunity for UW photographers in the future.

25. Mar, 2019

Climate change denial is an attitude that unfortunately now also threatens to affect national governments. Climate change denial contradicts not only the reality of climate change but also -and more importantly- the scientific opinion that it is caused by the impact of humans.  This is because climate change denial is not based on science, but part of a political (not exclusively right-winged) movement defending an obsolete model of our economy, based on unlimited growth and profit. Its implication is no curtailing, taxation or limiting of the growth of industries, airports, and sales of fossil energy burning vehicles that pollute the air we breathe and our oceans. Even those that are willing to admit these dangers, might find that they are simply the price we have to pay for greater wealth. The price is CO2 emissions growing steadily, and breaking all records in the last year, with the US and China together accounting for 60% of total energy consumption in the world. 

13. Mar, 2019

Shooting with natural - ambient or available- underwater light can be a challenge, if not 'cool'. Strobes are the widely accepted tool to cope with conditions like color absorption and light diffused by multiple particles drifting in the water column.  But when not carefully balanced with natural light, they lead to unnatural lightings of your UW target. Strobe shooters may also lose their sensitivity to catch the unique atmosphere of the underwater landscape and light fall, as you see or experience it through your eyes and diving mask. For example, when drifting over a lovely Red Sea coral garden,  or the white and sunlit sandy Bahamian sea floor. With natural light, you depend on shutter speed, aperture, ISO and the light conditions underwater. You won’t have your strobes to add color to an object close to your lenses, creating a nice contrast with the blue natural background. Which means that your range of suitable targets and light conditions is very limited. 

As said, natural light  UW  photography is not easy, because of the conditions underwater work against the principles of photography.   Best conditions are plenty of sunlight and shallow depth (say not more than 30 feet). In short; keep the path that light travels (vertically as well as horizontally)  as short as possible. There are two reasons why underwater photography without strobes often leads to poor and disappointing results.  One being longer shutter speeds. Longer shutter speeds can be useful to bring in more light from the blue background while using the strobes to light up a  colorful closely focused (often nonmoving) target. But without strobes, longer shutter speeds will cause a blur of a moving target.  A second reason is that the underwater color cast drops sharply with greater depth or a greater distance to the object, causing a monochrome and dull  UW landscape. Light diffusion is another factor. Taken together these factors will produce pictures with poor contrast and bleak colors, especially when your target is further than 1 meter away.  

A way around to restore colors is to use a red filter (e.g. the ‘Magic’ filter). The filter also requires sunny days, and with the sunlight coming from behind your back. The effects of filters are most rewarding when shooting large  (often static) objects like wrecks,  at a distance when strobes would not be of any use. So stay as shallow and close to the object as possible. With a fish-eye lens, you can get pretty close to the wreck. The stern of the Ghiannis D wreck in the Red Sea, for example,  has become a classical ‘template’ for wide-angle shooters (see for another example the insert with the Abu Nuhas wreck in the Northern Red Sea).  When using the filter, you will need to adjust your white balance manually, preferably at the same depth where you intend to do the shooting. One believes that it gives better results than adjusting the image after shooting with Photoshop. Shooting very big sea mammals like whales, moving slowly at shallow depths, is another example of a condition where a fisheye lens is a must, and there is no direct need for strobes.

Some ambient light  pictures I took last month during my visit to the Bahamas may serve to illustrate my point. I used the Olympus  F1.8, 8mm fisheye lens without the strobes, mounted with a Zen extension ring on the EPL5 4/3  Pen camera in the EPL10 housing. I  normally use this rig to back up my bigger Nikon D7200 with strobes combo. Unfortunately, there is no way of attaching the magic filter to the rear of the  Olympus lens, like with the Lumix Panasonic 8mm lens*. I used automatic white balance adjustment, with slight corrections of the images in the RAW  Adobe Photoshop CS5 mode.

On that particular day on Tiger Beach, we did a shallow dive (12 feet)  with plenty of sun and good viz. I wanted to get a sharp picture with enough color and contrast of sharks (in particular of  their head) while they moved slowly at a distance of maximal 1 meter. I used normal apertures (f11-f13) and shutter speeds (1/100 to 1/125).  I felt rather happy with the result.

*You may also take a look at an earlier  review and  comparative tests of these two fish eye lenses and some of EPL5  fish-eye lens combinations I used.

 

 

26. Feb, 2019

This year February my wife permitted meCool  to do my usual Bahamian  ‘two-step’ trip again, that is visiting two shark sites, mostly Tiger Beach and Bimini (another nice trip is Bimini and Cat Island later in the year, combining GHs and Oceanic white tips). The boat ‘Tresher’’  from the Cannabals takes the divers from the Marina at Bootle Bay at Grand Bahamas to Tiger Beach,  which is an almost two hours lasting trip. Plenty of time to read that nice book.  The Tiger Beach excursions are always well organized,  with the shark encounters taking place in relaxed and controlled conditions,  created by Vincent and Debra Cannabal and their captain (see picture). Big Tiger Sharks here are not to be seen as ferocious but rather as  ‘sweet’ creatures. Almost ‘dog-like’ the way they line up for their share of the bait. With the tiger sharks blinking their nictitating mem-brane when they take the bait, creating the impression of shyly rolling their eyes. 

Flamingo air has a  regular  25 minutes shuttle plane running between Grand Bahamas and Bimini. At Bimini, Neal Watson is still the main operator for the shark safaris, although this year I also spotted a little boat run by  Stuart Cove, normally operating in Nassau. The Watson boat takes the divers in a 20 minutes ride to the baiting site, mostly in sheltered waters of South Island. Unfortunately, the local weather gods were not with us this time, given the strong winds and torrential rains sweeping over the Big Game resort on Saturday 16 February After such violent weather conditions, one can hardly expect to find the crystal clear blue water above pure white sand, on which Bimini has built its reputation. The GHs where there nevertheless on Friday and Sunday with a rather big girl called Gaia circling regularly around the bait box.

Interestingly, the shark populations at Tiger Beach as well as Bimini have recently become more diverse. At Tiger Beach, the UW scene is dominated normally by lemon sharks and Carribean sharks with the tiger sharks moving in after a while.  GHs now also tend to visit Tiger Beach more frequently with ‘Patches’  (or: (Scylla), a huge, dominant and beautifully pigmented female hammerhead often rushing in after a couple of minutes. The bull sharks also seemed less timid than in former years, although still keeping a greater distance from the bait box and divers.  

Likewise, at  Bimini where one traditionally sees GHs, pushing themselves through a ring of nurse sharks gathered around the bait box, the tiger sharks are now also more frequent visitors. Neal Watson now also offers non-divers an opportunity to watch the Bull sharks from within a small cage, attached to a wooden platform. Here a regular gang of around six big bull sharks is closing in around the cage in the afternoon, attracted by pieces of bait thrown in front of the cage.  With some pelicans trying to get a crumb, careful not to get caught by the sharks

Point of concern. This year a big group of Chinese divers visited the Big Game club  (BGC) at Bimini in February.  The size of the group and the fact that they had booked collectively was the probable reason why the  BGC had reserved practically all the ground rooms facing the garden for the Asian visitors. This also held for the diving boat chartered on several occasions by the Chinese divers.  Considering the reputation of China as the major shark finning industry one can’t help feeling a bit worried about the sudden interest of Chinese tourist agencies for Bimini, being the sanctuary of the GH. The positive side  (apart for the profit for the Bahamian Economy) is that it could be a sign of a changing attitude of the young Chinese generation towards the environment, now admiring the huge dorsal fin of the GH  from another perspective than that of sheer consumption. And showing back home their GoPro selfies with the Hammerheads as a background.The Bahamian government should be aware, however, to keep control of resorts like BCG and not selling out to the Chinese. Which could mean a.o that local Bahamians now working in the tourist sector will lose their jobs

1. Dec, 2018

Tiger Beach  is a remote spot at the edge of the little Bahamas banks, about one and a half hour boat ride from West End Grand Bahamas. It had already built its reputation as a shark sanctuary in the late 90ties. Jim Abernethy was then one of the very first operators who organized live-aboard trips with Shear Water departing from West Palm Beach in Florida. The site also gained its reputation from the variety of sharks: Tiger, Lemons, Caribbean reef sharks and occasional visits of the Great hammerhead (GHHs). Some of the tiger sharks have reached a star status, with names as Emma (no doubt the grandmother of a large offspring), Jamin, Hook, Lady, Princess, and Tequila. Tiger Beach is also considered as a safe haven for female tiger sharks to mature, gestate, and give birth to their pups.

Bimini is the best place for meeting the GHH (Sphyrna Mokkaran) 65 miles south of  West End. A shy and mostly solitary species, unlike its cousin the Scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini) Large and increasingly rare GHHs are really difficult to meet underwater. Every winter a healthy population of GHs gathers just off the coast of Southisland. Their annual aggregation was discovered by the staff of Dr. Samuel Gruber’s Bimini Shark Lab back in 2002. But the lab managed to keep the whole thing to themselves for over 10 years. When the word eventually got out, South Bimini became firmly established as a tourist eco site to meet  GHHs from a close distance. Bahamian Neal Watson started organizing baited GHH safaris around 2012, now using the Big Game Club as his home base. The underwater scene at Bimini is different from that of Tiger beach, with Nurse sharks often visiting the baiting sites at South Island as ‘entourage’ of the GHHs. Occasionally a Bull shark from North Island may join the baiting party while keeping its distance. Although Tiger sharks do not mix with GHHs at South Island, they have been spotted around Bimini. From one particular pregnant female marine investigator James Sulikowsky has even been able to visualize the pups with a sonogram

Most of the 20 hammies showing up at Bimini South Island have been tagged by the Shark lab for studying their migratory behavior. The large areas of mangroves and sea-grass  at Bimini are an ideal nursery for young sharks, in particular baby lemons sharks. Bimini is also uniquely placed to benefit from the life-flow of the adjacent Gulfstream providing the eggs and larvae to grow into crabs, lobsters, and conch. And providing a source of food for the large predators. GHHs annual return in the winter season, however, is believed to be triggered not for mating or giving birth for but feeding purposes, with stingrays and crabs serving as their favorite dish. During their migratory leave in spring, triggered by rising water temperatures, GHs have been tracked while visiting coastal waters in Florida as well as Virginia, probably also the sites where they meet the ‘boys’ to mate with. Some exchange of sharks between Bimini and TB may also take place. For example, a notorious female GHH resident of Bimini, intermittently called ‘Patches’, ‘Bite Back’ or ‘Scylla’, has now also become a regular visitor of Tiger beach (see insert).

Sources

 Sulikowski, James A. et al. Seasonal and life-stage variation in the reproductive ecology of a marine apex predator, the tiger shark, Galeocerdo cuvier, at a protected female-dominated site. Aquatic Biology. Vol. 24: 175-184. February 22, 2016. 

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2017.00003/full

http://www.albertkokuw.nl/422867045/4435555/posting/migration-and-residency-of-the-great-hammerhead

https://indopacificimages.com/great-hammerhead-sharks-of-bimini/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MEYuPVtDKA.