3. Aug, 2017

Even in the hot summer months the Mediterranean, or MED for its frequent visitors, is not always the placid blue sea famous from postcards. There  are days when a cold and dry northwesterly wind that starts in the high pressure area of the Central Plateau in the middle of France flows to the temporarily lower pressure area  of the north western Med.  Catching up in strength when it squeezes itself through the narrow corridor of the Rhone valley on its way to the South. In the summer this cold dry wind or Mistral,  as it is called, usually causes a period of cloudless skies and luminous sunshine, which gives the mistral its reputation for making the sky crystal clear. Nevertheless the Mistral is feared because it dries the vegetation and it can spread forest fires. During our recent annual vacation in July on the Giens Peninsula it caused violent forest fires in coastal areas around Bormes les Mimosa, le Lavandou and La Londe. With the Mistral blowing,  the high waves, strong winds and cold surface temperatures prevent scuba diving. Luckily in the month July it is short lived: it may stay for one or maximally three days.  In normal weather conditions best scuba diving in the North Western Med is around protruding points of the coastline or -even better- around  smaller island such as Porquerolles and Port Cros. Ever since  this area has obtained the status of a National Marine Park, various fish species that had become very rare have returned to their old habitats such as large groupers (Epinephelus marginatus). Even schools of barracudas (Sphyraena sphyraena) can be spotted here by divers and UW photographers (see also Mediterranean).

Over unders In the Med I  always like to try some over under shots with my PEN/Olympus 8mm combo with ambient light. I rent a Kajak and look for a  sheltered  and picturesque place along the coastline, taking just a small camera, snorkel and mask with me. Of course the pictures taken with a 4 inch dome will look quite different from those taken with a fish eye and a large dome. The idea is to catch those typical light reflections under the surface, with the rocks and trees of the coastline above the surface. You will often get two kind of surface reflections depending on the position of your camera or the movement of the waves. Sunlight patterns that reflect on the  the sandy bottom may bounce back underneath the water surface, or the landscape reflects on  the top of the surface (see insert above).

16. Jul, 2017

Is it possible to implement a LED trigger in DSLR/housing combo that is primarily designed for electrical  triggering,  with no facilities to trigger the strobes optically?  As often repeated in UW articles, LED triggers do not drain the battery and have less heat build-up than an internal flash.  The camera does not not have to wait for the pop up flash to recycle, meaning faster shooting, that  is as fast as your external strobes can handle or you buffer can take  (see also my earlier strobe review in the Technical section).

Ikelite SLR: advantages of adding fiber optics For many years I have been using the Ikelite SLR housings designed for the Nikon DX series (D90, D7000, D7100 and D7200, respectively). The Ikelite-style bulkhead and plugs are widely recognized as the most reliable waterproof strobe sync connections available with superior TTL functioning. Still, the hazards of electrical connections interacting with seawater can never be completely ruled out. According to Murphy’s law  ‘anything that can go wrong  (corrosion, broken cables or connector pins, leakage)  will (one day) go wrong’.  Most tricky are small hidden defects like a worn out O ring or a slightly corroded contact that for years will  not cause any problems, but one day will definitely show up and cause a malfunctioning of your entire system. Which leaves shooting with ambient light as the only alternative for the rest of your diving trip. With optical systems there  are no sync cables to flood or corrode or  connector pins that can break. With a LED trigger  in the Ikelite housing I would have the optical system as a back up, in case of malfunctioning of the electrical circuit.

How small can a LED trigger get?  Although optical triggers are becoming more and more compact,  they  still  need a specially designed housing with enough space above the hotshoe. Limited  space  above the hotshoe of my Ikelite SLR housing (less than 20 mm) not only prevents Nikons  internal flash to pop up,  but even to mount any of the available LED triggers. As a  faithful reader of Peter Rowlands  UWP magazine,  I bumped on an article describing a new gadget from a Hungarian based firm called  TRT electronics run by Balazs Kurucz.  Based on customer feedback and field-testing, they now  produced the i-TURTLE XS that is a thinner version of the i-TURTLE that allows for fitting into housings with limited space. This trigger is not wider than the 1 euro coin:  its size is only 35x25x13 mm. In fact it is the world’s smallest i-TTL adapter for NIKON systems. Another promising gadget could be the  Fantasea LED trigger, which is not only small but also  made to fit in various standard UW housings, and only needs 6.5 mm above the hotshoe. The Fantasea trigger is much cheaper than het TRT turtle trigger, but does not offer the TTL option in addition to manual triggering. The TRT trigger  allows both  Manual and TTL control and rear curtain sync by setting the DIP switches  on the back of the trigger. 

Fitting the optical system After ordering the TRT trigger it appeared  to be not only incredibly small (see upper left picture above) but also to fit nicely on  the  Nikon D7200 hotshoe in the narrow space on top of the housing. The trigger unit on the hotshoe is connected via a cable with  the LED adapter. The two LED lights are then attached with some double sided adhesive tape on an empty spot  on  the lower frontal  dry side of the  housing, facing directly the cable insertion port on the wet side  to plug in the  fiber optic cables (upper right and lower left pictures). An easy way to add fiber optic ports to almost any existing housing ito use a fiber optic mounting block  or universal mounting kit which can be purchased from UW dealers. 

Finding the right cable The following step was to find a way to fire the substrobes. To make the DS 161 strobes respond to LEDs  you have to plug in Ikelite’s 4401.1 optic adapter. Unfortunately, the strobes did not fire even when I used a multicore cable. Probably because the LED signal is attenuated when passing through Ikelites transparent housing. Inspired by a DIY photographer suffering from the same frustration, I ordered some multicore cable of 4 mm diameter which sells for about 5 Euro per meter. After attaching two pieces of cables (cut to 70 cm length) to the fiber optics ports, the strobes appeared to fire flawlessly! A small piece of electrical tape, or -even better- 4x7mm flexible pvc tube shifted over  the cable endings suffices to make a firm connection between the cable end and the port entries (see lower right picture above). In the unlikely event that one of the cables would break, I just have to cut myself a new cable from the remaining 2 meters. Interestingly, the mini LED trigger I had ordered from  Hedwig Dieraert some years ago,  but then would not work with standard optical cables in the Ike housing, did also very well with the 4mm cables.  Supporting the idea that larger diameter optical cables are needed than the ones that are now on the UW photo market.  At least when the goal is to reliably transmit LED signals  with various types of housings and UW strobes.

To conclude, it seems that the problem I mentioned in the first lines of this blog has now finally been solved. I now have the optical system to back up the electrical system in case of failure (and vice versa). If 'anything goes wrong' with firing the DS strobes it is unlikely that it will spoil my diving holiday. It also made be think about the future of electrical sync cables connecting housings with strobes in a watery environment. Is it not perhaps time for the manufacturers of UW photography housings to make a step forward, towards an altogether optical strobe control system ?  

2. Jul, 2017

The title of  this blog is inspired by  Robert  M. Pirsig’s  famous and partly autobiographical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Value. Persig describes in the book that he wrote in  1974  the 17-day journey he made on a motorcycle from Minnesota to Northern California along with his son Chris. He makes the journey  with a friendly  motorbike couple.  In contrast with his friends,  Pirsig (the narrator)  likes to do the repairs on his old motorbike himself,  an occupation  that brings  peace in his mind, a  ‘Zen’ like meditative  state.  In his mind the machine that appears to be "out there" and the person that appears to be "in here" are not two separate things, but bound together in harmony. ‘The motorcycle is a mental phenomenon’ is one of his quotations:  it is not a heap of metal but a man-made cleverly designed machine.

And a machine  also needs constant attention and monitoring. When they enter the mountains in Montana, Pirsig  notes that both spark plugs are black, confirming a rich mixture. He recognizes that the higher altitude  is causing the engine to run rich. The narrator rectifies this by installing new jets with the valves adjusted, and the engine runs well.

Zen is originally a Buddhist form of meditation in which the meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference. In the modern World it is typically one of the spiritualistic  practices people use to avoid stress and achieve  inner peace of mind.  Most spiritual  people are not technically minded. They often cannot see the beauty of a clever technical design. They might even consider  technology, and the "dehumanized world" it carries with it as ugly and repulsive.

Pirsig however  is capable of seeing the beauty of technology and feels good about mechanical work, where the goal is "to achieve an inner peace of mind". For some people motorcycle maintenance may be dull and tedious drudgery, for others  an enjoyable and pleasurable pastime.

This brings me to the world of underwater photographers which –in my view-  also has two sides, the spiritual and technical side.  One of the reasons why we like get into the sea  is to sink in that mysterious blue world  to photograph the beauty that unfolds underwater. Drifting along the coral reef stimulates our sense of beauty and hence brings harmony into our souls. The other side of UW photography  is more practical: it involves maintenance of the technical stuff, the camera and underwater housing. Not a motorcycle, but still clever technology. Here the sea and environment is not a friend but rather an enemy. The housing needs careful surveillance and care because salt, sun, dirt, neglect, inproper storage or repair  may damage its parts and make it function less smoothly, or -even more disastrous- leak. Which certainly will screw up your peace of mind. For example, forgetting to put in an O-ring  will most certainly lead to what Pirsig calls a gumption trap. Gumption is our ‘reservoir of good spirits’ which, when it is lost as a result of an error or other set-back may spoil your entire diving holiday. And you don't want that to happen. So good maintenance of your gear and running down the checklist before a dive are necessary and often pleasant routines to follow. By all means it should never be done in a hurry, but in  a focused and relaxed state of mind. The vacuum test at the end is  just to make sure that you don't have to worry too much about the greatest enemy of your housing, salt water.  All these rituals serve to bring together the spiritual and technical world and thus to create  ZEN: a state of harmony in our souls.Cool






17. Jun, 2017

The sinking of the heavy cruiser  USS Indianapolis, at the tail end of World War II, was the worst at-sea disaster in U.S. naval history, surpassed only by Pearl Harbour.  The ship went on a secret solo mission from San Francisco to Tinian, a small island in the Pacific. The objective was to deliver two key components for the atomic bomb that would ultimately fall on Hiroshima.  Its secret mission over, the cruiser departed Guam and steamed for Leyte, an island in the Philippines, for training. Shorthly after midnight on  28 July 1945 the Indianapolis was hit by two torpedo’s  from the Japanese submarine I-52, and sank in just 12 minutes.   

The sinking. Of the 1200 saylors 800 went into the water but only 316 survived the nearly five-day ordeal. The survivors were not spotted until August 2  1945.   The US Navy had received alarm signals, but assumed that  they came from  the Japanese to lure their enemy.  The ship had no escort and no sonar for detecting the submarines. Part of the tragedy is that the Navy did not know of the sinking for a few days, when finally an anti-sub patrol airplane spotted an oil spill and survivors bobbing in the water. Every year end July the now remaining 31 survivors  used to get together for a reunion in Indianapolis to commemorate the event, remember the dead, and celebrate the lives they were lucky not to loose.

The Indianapolis is, albeit indirectly, connected with a significant event in my personal life. The ship delivered two key components for the atomic bomb that would ultimately fall on Hiroshima and  destroy almost  the entire populations of two Japanse cities. The bomb  put an end to the war in South East Asia, and  lead to the liberation of thousands of Dutch civilians emprisoned in Japanese camps in the Dutch Indies since 1942. This also included me, a little boy of 6 years, and my  mother,  staying in the women camp Banjubiru in middle Java. I can still remember that night end August 1945. The Red Cross packages were finally distributed, and in the darkness I spotted the red glowing cigarette ends of the women happily chatting and  celebrating the end of the war. That was only  one month after the sinking of the ship that contributed to our liberation.

The sharks  Another reason why the sinking of the Indianapolis continues to fascinate people, is the sharks story. It was re-ignited and spread over the World  by the blockbuster Jaws, when shark hunter Quint recounts of bobbing in Pacific waters for days while sharks circled him and his fellow sailors, waiting to see who would be the next victim. Quint described the sharks 'black, lifeless eyes, the blood-curdling screams, the ocean turning red’. His account probably chilled more people than the demonized great white shark itself. His, or rather Spielbergs description  of the eye could have been inspired by Cousteau, who also spoke of the Oceanics eyes as 'hard and cruel looking'. The story seems to be globally  correct since it follows  the vivid witnesses from survivors of the Indianapolis, but  it likely also exaggerated the number of victims that were  actually killed by sharks.

The sharks that were held responsible for the ‘massacre’ were probably Oceanic white tip sharks. Oceanics scavenge  and search the great empty oceans where it may often taken a month for them to find a decent prey. Along the Hawaii coast they often accompany groups of pilot whales for a still unknown reason. They are also known to follow ships and will get into action when they hear or sense a shipwreck. For that reason they were also called 'sea dogs' by sailors. Unfortunately for survivors of shipwrecks, hungry whitetips looking for food will take a bite out of sailors and passengers who land in the water. The initial target of sharks were probably  not the living victims of the Indianapolis,  but the hundreds of dead bodies floating in the ocean around the groups of survivors that wisely huddled together. It is also unlikely that the sharks consumed  their victims,  but rather bit parts of the body and  legs leading to the death of those that still lived by  blood loss.

The number of men that were actually killed by the sharks has been difficult to estimate,  but it probably amounted only a small  fraction of the 800 men, of which the greater part succumbed to burns, dehydration, exhaustion, and drowning. Some say  that around 150, others that  50 men were killed by the sharks. Most of the crew were able to get life jackets, but many of the vests became waterlogged or would tend to slide down the body, increasing fatigue. Some sailors grabbed on to floating nets, or the extremely fortunate got into a life raft.

Man as bait or bait provider Sharks generally don’t eat human flesh but may bump and occasionally bite a human by accident, or to check out its smell or taste. Scuba divers and UW photographers can dive safely with the Oceanics during supervised baited shark trips in the Bahamas or supervised unbaited trips in the Red Sea. Despite their bold and dominant behavior, there have sofar been no reports of sharks attacking or biting  scuba divers  on these occasions. But as said, drifting helpless in the open ocean without diving gear could be a life treathening situation when the Oceanics are around you. In the Oceanics instinctive brain there must be a line that separates a helpless human castaway from a scubadiver during a baited dive: the first is  potential bait the second  bait provider.

It is also dubious that sharks are attracted by the smell of human blood.  Its rather the blood spread by  a struggling fish, like a harpooned whale in the open ocean, that will trigger a frenzy of sharks. The shark attacks of the Indianapolis are also reminiscent of those of December 2010 when several tourists were seriously bitten by sharks (probably  also Oceanics) along  the beaches  of Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt. Although it still remains a mystery what triggered this rare event, a plausible  theory that emerged  is that the the dumping of sheep carcasses in the Red Sea by a livestock transport during the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha had attracted the sharks to the shore.








 Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch. Shark. A photographer's story.Headline Book  Publishing 1987.

13. Jun, 2017

The dangers that threaten our natural environment is a recurrent theme in these blogs. Not so much because it is a pleasant subject to write about, but simply because it is something  that has to be repeated over and over again. Until society and its political and economical leaders realize that its destroyal could also imply the end of the human species. The natural environment concerns  miriads of species still living in the wild forests and  oceans. Which people  who care about nature and the under water world will not accept to be destroyed. But what can be done?

The Coral Triangle: an area  suffering most  from blast and cyanide fishing.

Expansion of responsible diving tourism and the establishment of Marine Protected Areas can help in creating an economical counterforce that concurrently will protect and conserve a wealth of marine life, including the splendid coral reefs. And it would also offer new employments for the local populations. But this can only succeed if local and national authorities accept to play a leading role in establishing and guarding these areas. 

Climate  change Many people feel troubled by the change of our climate, and its effects on the environment. The cause is believed to be massive fossile burning, leading to global warming of the earth. The Paris Agreement could be an important step to mitigate global warming. But its alarming manifestations, such as melting glaciers, permafrost and ocean ice are not something that can be restored in a couple of years or decades.  Global warming probably started already with the onset of the industrial revolution, some 200 years ago.  One reason why its effects are now so alarming, could be that global warming is not a linear (1,2,3,..,) but exponential (1,2,4,8,..) proces. Then there  are  the climate  ‘sceptics’. They may accept climate change but deny that the cause is environmental. They might even consider the environmentalists as   agitators from the left that are out to destroy capitalism. In an ironical way,  I hope that the sceptics are right, because when climate change is natural not environmental, there is nothing more we can do than lean back in our chair and accept the caprices  of mother nature.

Direct human interventions Climate change  however  should not be our only concern. The current damage of the natural environment is for the largest part caused by direct human interventions. The list seems to be without end. Oil platforms, massive oil spills, cutting down rain and mangrove forests, the ivory trade, finning of sharks, and last but not least massive pollution of the air as well as the oceans*. Tons of plastics drifting in the sea have now even reached  the most remote pristine areas in the world.  Even  the climate sceptics may  go along with this, although they will argue that industrial pollution is simply the price modern world has to pay for greater prosperity and a healthy economy.  Helping to protect parts of the environment that we cherish and want to preserve for future generations is something we can do on the short term. Its damage often results from blind search for profit. Or from bad management and illegal activities, such as the trade in wildlife were  criminal organizations cooperate with authorities and corrupt members of the policy forces.The same holds for destruction of the marine environment, of which some examples are given below.  

Destructive fisheries Destructive, often illegal  fishing  practices  are  currently  the most acute danger for  the marine environment. Many fishing boats still carry on with these practices, despite the fact that national legislations have identified and banned many of them. This list also seems to be without end. One  is  overfishing which means that  more fish are caught than the population can replace through natural reproduction. Its is driven by what is called Tragedy of the commons  each of many fishers is self-interested and benefits financially from a large common pool of fishes. The fishers assume that the resource pool is so large that each of their large-quantity harvest is seen to be of little harm to the resource pool. Hence they behave in ways that advance their own interest by fishing as much and fast as they could each time they fish. But catching too many fish harms the balance between marine species and will reduce  fish stocks to below acceptable levels for populations that depend mainly on fish for their proteins. Bycatch often occurs  when ship use driftnets or gillnets that catches non-target species like sharks, turtles or dolphins.  Another is bottom trawling, a nasty industrial method  used by  big  boats in the high seas. Enormous nets weighed down with heavy ballast are dragged along the sea floor, raking up or crushing everything in their way, from fish to ancient coral.  Then there is ghost fishing, which are  nets made of long lasting synthetic material that are accidentally or intentionally left in the sea. These nets continue to trap fish and even  large marine mammals, which die of exhaustion or suffocation and struggling to get to the surface to breathe. Most of these methods result from poor fishery management leading eventually to financial losses through depleted stocks. 

Blast fishing occurs primarily in Southeast Asia, the western Pacific, and eastern Africa. The Coral Triangle  (see insert)  is the area that suffers most from this aggressive fishing method. For example, a study conducted in 2002 reported that fishing with explosives had caused the degradation of about 70% of Philippine coral reefs and reduced annual fisheries production by about 177,500 metric tons in the 1990s. This biological wonderland – which spans Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste –  not only contain numerous splendid coral reefs, but also  thousands of  islands rich in mountain forests and woodlands.  Blast fishing is often used  by local fishermen in smaller boats that find the techniques to be easier and more productive than traditional methods. Home made bombs consisting of a mix of  kerosine and fertilizers  are most popular.  After the bomb explodes, the fish killed or stunned by the shock wave from the explosion are collected. Underwater shock waves produced by the explosion stun the fish and cause a desolate gray moonscape. Even coral gardens that were among Asia's most spectacular dive sites like Mabul and  Komodo National Parkhave have been  the victim of bomb blasting. 

Poison or cyanide fishing is another method often used in the South East Asia triangle. In many places the use of poison to catch fish is a traditional technique, but negative effects have multiplied since plant-based substances were replaced by chemical poisons. Sodium cyanide tablets are dissolved  in a bottle to form a toxic liquid  that is squirted on the fishes in the vicinity of a coral reef. The mixture stuns the fish without killing it, making it easy to catch in a net, or even by hand.It started in 1960 in the  Philippines to supply the international aquarium trade. But since the early 1980s, a much bigger business has emerged: supplying live reef fish like coral groupers for the restaurants of Hong Kong, Singapore, and, increasingly, mainland China. Cyanide kills  organisms in the ecosystem, including the corals forming the reef. It has devastated many reefs of the Philippines  and eastern Indonesia – where an estimated 65 tons of cyanide are poured into the sea each year.

Counter measures. Luckily some counter measures were also taken to protect the area.  In 2012, the director of the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources declared an “all-out war” against dynamite fishing and other illegal fishing practices. In 2014 the Reef Defenders began an aggressive program to create a network of Background Blast Monitoring (BBM) equipment throughout South-East Asia. BBM equipment has also been installed at Mabul Island in Sabah, Malaysia. Another initiative was the  decision made in 2014 by the government of the Raja Ampat islands in North Western New Guinea to ban the harvesting and trade of sharks and manta rays from its marine waters.