3. Feb, 2018

In a couple of weeks it’s time to get ready again for my annual trip to the Bahamas and to enjoy some warm sunshine to burn away the blues of this exceptionally grey and wet winter. The plan is to stuff my gear in two suitcases, weighing not more than 10 and 23 kilo’s, if  I follow  the  baggage limits  of  Delta airlines.  No diving bags or backpacks, but two Samsonite rollers,  a smaller carry-on  suitcase with  the fragile camera parts and lenses, and a larger check-in  suitcase  with the camera housings, maintenance kit, domes, 5mm wetsuit, regulars fins, mask, snorkel and personal items.

Left: map of the Bahamas with the major shark sites marked as  yellow dots (Tiger beach, north of Grand Bahama, Bimini at the left, and Cat island at the lower right at the edge of the deep water of the Atlantic Ocean)

This year’s trip will my 7th in a row of visits to the Bahamas. Two  years ago I started to document my addiction to these beautiful islands and their magical sharks in a number of blogs. That was on 24 April 2016, Oct 9 2016,  February 9 2017 and March 3 2017 respectively.  I’m afraid that much of this article might be rumination of older stuff, with little news for those that have read the earlier blogs.  Never mind, since I  find it always it pleasant to unload my preoccupation with an upcoming major diving event and try to insert some new material.

The trip  Easiest and most economical are flights from Amsterdam to Nassau with a  stop-over in Atlanta. Nassau is the ideal hub for local airlines like Bahamas AirSky Bahamas, and Western Air  to visit Bimini, Grand  Bahamas (West End) and Cat island. These islands are presently the top three for UW photographers in search of big sharks.  Winter is the best season to meet tiger, lemon and Caribbean sharks at Tiger Beach, north of West End, as well as the great hammerheads at Bimini.  Spring is  best  for the oceanic sharks  at Cat Island (see also the map above)  These locations can also be visited with a live-aboard, like I did six years ago with  Jim Abernethy’s Shear Water, crossing the Gulf Stream from Palm Beach to Tiger Beach (see also  Jeb Corliss recent impression of this site taken with a new 360 deg. camera). But  I now prefer the more comfortable resort-based operations,  using day trips to reach the nearby shark sites. 

Baiting and more The sharks from the Bahamas are always willing to pose for photographers. Sharks don’t do that spontaneously. Just like doggies, they appreciate little snacks, in particular bits of tuna, grouper or even mahi-mahi handed out by dive master from his metal box. We should not call this feeding but baiting, it’s not the quantity  than counts but the incentive quality. Unlike feeding,  baiting will not  interfere with  the normal feeding behavior of sharks and not lead to a shark frenzy.  Nor are there any signs that baited sharks may endanger diving  or non-diving visitors in the vicinity.

Wild animals tend to lose their natural fear for humans, once they have learned that they bring not danger but something tasty. For example food  is also effective to  attract very shy predators like  wolves. In the new documentary  film Jane Goodall describes how after her initial frustrating attempts to make contact with the chimpanzees in Gombe,  placing some bananas in their territory did the ‘trick’ and made  it much easier  to approach the chimps from  a  very close distance. Later she discovered that she had to restrict the supply  to prevent the chimps from scavenging and becoming too obtrusive.  There is also a negative side  of wild animals getting too familiar with or coming too close to humans. One is that  they may become an easier prey for hunters or poachers (just think of the tragic faith of  two socks the wolf that befriends officer John Dunbar in the film Dancing with the Wolves).

Another example of (un-intended) ‘baiting’ of predators are wild boars or even  grizzly bears scavenging through garbage boxes at the outskirts of  towns  or villages. Probably a sign of their shrinking territories by the ever-expanding human settlements. Then there is the constantly growing number of tourists visiting beaches adjacent to territories of the Great Whites in Australia, which may lead to potentially  dangerous interactions, when these apex predators mistake surfers for their natural prey.

Shark bites and tourism  In our crowded cities  many vulnerable pedestrians or  cyclists are hit daily by motor vehicles. Recent statistics  show that more than 1.25 million people die each year as a result of road  traffic crashes. But such accidents normally  receive much less public  attention than  an occasional shark bite, because they are regarded as an inevitable  part of modern society.  In contrast,  certain media are still obsessed by reporting  bites or even 'nearly bites' of sharks. Just type the word shark bite on Google to check out for yourself.  Sharks do not feed on humans, but may indeed accidently bite an  arm, leg or foot of someone swimming with no protection in deeper water, or when a diver gets too close to baited sharks. Two years ago a  Dutch producer of adventure documentaries was bitten in the shoulder when he moved into a bunch of baited Carribean sharks at Bimini, but later proudly showed his injuries to the media. Which of course contributed to his reputation as the brave shark man. Unfortunately, not only risk seakers but also the greater number of tourists arriving  in the Bahamas with cruise ships may increase the probablity that someone gets bitten by a shark.

Bahamas two-step That said,  let’s  now look at some more pleasant sides of  the  shark trips. A new option of some scuba operators is to combine two trips in succession to different islands with different sharks.  After three days of  shooting hundreds of pictures of tiger or lemons sharks, one  tends to get saturated.  It is then great  to move to another  location of the Bahamas visited by an entirely different species. There is only one restraint, the season. End February is ideal (also weather wise)  to combine Tiger Beach  with  Bimini.  End March is OK  to ‘do’ Bimini  (end of great hammerhead season)  with Cat Island (start of Oceanic season).

Last year we did a combined Bimini/Tiger beach trip in February with Sean Williams of Neal Watsons crew from Bimini. This year  the same type of operation is run  in reversed order (Tiger beach--Bimini) by Vincent and Debra Cannabal of  Epic diving. An airline called Flamingo Air now runs daily  flights with  a twin engined Beech99 aircraft between Bimini and Grand Bahamas. Overall, the local flights at the Bahamas are pretty safe, except that this Beech99 had a crash landing at South Bimini in August 2016 caused by  the right wheel collapsing during landing, luckily  with no injuries. So better carry your rosary with you on these  flights (-;

What lens and combo With so many different sharks at a close distance, conditions are optimal for nice shark portraits. But for each type of shark there is that very specific moment that will make your shot unique, and to match the ideal image you might already have in your head.  Although perhaps not the most spectacular species, I always find the Carribean shark a great target because of if its elegant torpedo shaped body (see the front page for example).What camera lenses  should one take along on a Bahamas trip?   For shark snapping that would  be a wide-angle or fish-eye lens.  I normally take the Ikelite D7200/Tokina 10-17 combo and the smaller Olympus EPL5/PT-EP10. On the Olympus set I use either the  8mm Lumix Panasonic or  the Olympus F1.8  8 mm lens with extension ring.  I further use the less bulky 5 inch and 4 inch  mini domes,  and the  same set of Ikelite sub strobes DS 161  on both combos. The  strobes are connected via electrical cords with  the Ike housing.  On the Oly housing I use fiber cords triggered by the internal flash after fitting Ikelite optic converters  # 4401.1 on the strobes. The reasons why I still have the old EPL5/PT-EP10 combination are that  it  is light and small, and  that  I cannot yet see the advantages of the more sophisticated models in the Olympus OM-D range. My little Oly is ‘multipurpose’ since I can also use it for macro shooting with a 60 mm Olympus lens and +5 Subsee diopter screwed on a 4 cm extension tube (not for sharks!). With sufficient sunshine, I take both camera’s down  to the sharks.  I use the Ike with strobes to start with,  and leave the Oly with filter on the flat sea floor for ambient light shots at the end of the dive. There is a risk though that a tiger shark  at Tiger Beach may steal your camera on the sea floor;  such things have happened before! 

13. Jan, 2018

Between the windows of the sea

Where lovely mermaids flow    

And nobody has to think too much

About Desolation Row

Bob Dylan (1965)


Stories of legendary sea creatures such as mermaids have existed since ancient times. Mermaids share much with  the sea and river nymphs, with one exception that nymphs don’t have fish-like tails but legs. Both mythical creatures have always fascinated writers and pictorial artists. Not only physically –they are almost always young, beautiful, long-haired and enchanting- but also for their mysterious and contradictory characters. In some legends mermaids appear as  dangerous, fatally  attractive, or even as agents of evil. In other, they are loveable and sweet but tragic because of their unfulfilled, often doomed romantic ideals.

Left: William Waterhouse, Mermaid

Perhaps even more important is the mermaids two-sidedness, fluctuating between two extremes: sweetness, purity, and love on the one hand and monstrous cruelty, when offended. Their unpredictability perhaps also contributed in creating their image of autonomous  ‘free spirits’: independent and untouchable  creatures of the sea.

Why is mankind  so fascinated by mermaids? Is it because we  once lived in the sea in a distant evolutionary past, when our feet and hands had not yet evolved from primitive caudal and pectoral fins? Looking at mermaids we perhaps recognize traces of our own ancient past and the essence of our own existence.  Some might say  that mermaids and nymphs are ‘nothing but’ male projections of  dreamlike female creatures. Symbols perhaps of both men's idealization and fear of women.  Mermaid tales  often circulated among sailors deprived of contact with women for long periods while they traveled across the big oceans, sometimes even mistaking manatees for mermaids. The two sides of mermaids, loveable and frightful,  also  fit  with the two faces of  the sea: sometimes peaceful and then cruel and dangerous. 

Even in modern times  the mythical mermaids have a strong appeal to the world of commerce and advertisement.  Mermaids have even have become a role model for transgender girls and women. Just like like ’mermaiding’ is now a form of modern escapism, with monotails scoring high as ‘must haves’ for  owners of private swimming pools Women can now even join mermaid schools where they are trained in breath-holding, free-diving and swimming with the awkward and potentially dangerous tails. Professional mermaid models are often capable to hold their breath for three minutes, allowing underwater photographers to shoot along  while the  model changes pose, occasionally interrupted for short gulps of air form a hookah regulator. Hannah  Frasar (alias  Hannah Mermaid) is such a professional mermaid star that combines mermaiding with ocean ecology activism. Sadly, some of the less fortunate and probably also less experienced models have paid for mermaiding with their lives and drowned. Possibly trapped by the clumsy tail, resulting in panic and inability to reach the surface.  

Transformations of the mermaids image. The earliest  classical visions of mermaids  were negative, and very different from the modern more positive and romantic vision of the mermaid as a tragic heroine. Just remember how Odysseus the hero from Homers epic poem the Odyssey escaped the Sirenes, notorious for their enchanting but fatal singing that lured sailors  to jump in the deadly currents. On the advice of the sea-witch Circe, Odysseus instructs  his sailors to plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast while approaching the island of the Sirenes. This is how he and his crew survived the deadly birdlike sea nymphs living on a nearby island on the rotten remnants and bones  of the male victims of their deadly songs.  

Only recently, in the 19th century, romanticism transformed the negative image of the mermaid, when her unstable and capricious character became a virtue rather than a dangerous trait. Most of the mermaid ballads had their roots in Ireland,  Danmark, and Germany. Not only romantic writers and poets but also painters like Arthur Rackham, John William Waterhouse, and Gustav Klimt found their inspiration in the tragic and mystical side of mermaids and sea nymphs. Here follows a selection of the most famous tales from that romantic period.

Irish mermaids The beautiful songs of the Merrow-maidens, sea-fairies from Irish folkore, were meant to lure men to them – just like the Sirens of Greek mythology.  The Irish were suspicious of these sea fairies, who could be violent or friendly by turns. Tales of violence (such as pulling the arms and legs off of their victims) were not uncommon. Interestingly,  merrows were only able to live in the sea with a special magic cap  called a cohuleen druith. Sometimes the merrows became married with men from the land.

The little mermaid  (Den lille havfrue) is perhaps one of the most famous and saddest  Danish fairytales (written by Hans Christian Andersen) about a young mermaid who is willing to give up her life in the sea and her identity as a mermaid to marry her human lover,  a prince she had once observed while swimming along the coast. The story is full of tragic episodes. The price the little mermaid has to pay for having legs (by drinking a magic potion)  is  the constant pain as if she is walking on sharp knives  when she walks or dances with her prince. The little mermaid will die with a broken heart when her lover marries the princess, and dissolve into sea foam upon the waves.

Disney’s famous  Hollywood movie version of the little mermaid named Ariel had a happy end but met mixed criticisms.  Some  felt that ‘Ariel is a fully realized female character who thinks and acts independently, even rebelliously, instead of hanging around passively while the fates decide her destiny.’ But others described her as ‘a .. denatured Barbie doll, despite her hourglass figure and skimpy seashell brassiere’. Ariel even seems to have become a role model for transgender girls.This raises the question why? It cant be the wish to change her sexual identity because the mermaid remains a female even with legs, but now better equipped to please her male idol. It was her love for the Prince that made her wish to change from  humanoid to human. 

Ondine  Even more dramatic is the mermaid ballad of the beautiful water-nymph Ondine, a  folk-tale written by the French poet Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. His story must have also inspired Andersen in his little mermaid writing.  It starts with the prophecy:   if a nymph ever falls in love with a man and bears his child, she will begin to age like a mortal woman, losing her eternal youthfulness and everlasting life.   The sea nymph Ondine (=little wave) has no soul. Only by marrying a man and bearing a child she can obtain a soul. After falling in love with a  handsome man,  Ondine gets married and gives birth to their son. From that moment on her beauty began to fade,  a reason for her husband to return to his first love Princess Bertha. On meeting her former lover again on the day of his wedding to Bertha,  Ondine speaks her curse: ‘You pledged faithfulness to me with your every waking breath and I accepted that pledge. So be it. For as long as you are awake, you shall breathe. But should you ever fall into sleep, that breath will desert you.’ So her lover was doomed to stay awake forever, or sleep and die by suffocation. A respiratory disorder that results in respiratory arrest during sleep is also known as  Ondine's curse

Loreley and the Rhine maidens The ballad of Loreley was composed in 1801 by  German author Clemens Brentano.  It tells the story of the beautiful Lore Lay who, betrayed by her sweetheart, is accused of bewitching men and drowning her lover in the Rhine. But rather than sentencing her to death, the bishop consigns her to a nunnery. On the way to her destination, she comes to the Lorelei rock. She asks permission to climb it and view the Rhine once again. When she is up the rock, she thinks that she sees her love in the Rhine and falls to her death; the rock still retained a murmuring echo of her name afterward. Lore Lay then becomes the legendary of a siren who, sitting on the cliff above the Rhine and combing her golden hair, unwittingly distracts shipmen with her beauty and song, causing them to crash on the rocks. The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote the poem „The Lore-Ley“,  in 1824. The Lorelei ballad was set to music in 1837 by Friedrich Silcher and is today one of the most famous  German Rhine songs.

The  Rhinemaidens are the three water-nymphs  who appear in Richard Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. Wagner probably was inspired by the Loreley saga in creating the  Rhine nymphs. They are the guardians of the Rhine gold and act essentially as a unity, with a composite yet elusive personality. Their initial attributes are charm and playfulness, combined with a natural innocence; their joy in the gold they guard derives from its beauty alone, even though they know its latent power. However, this veneer of childlike simplicity is misleading; aside from proving themselves irresponsible as guardians, they are also provocative, sarcastic and cruel.


Sources and links:

De zeemeemin. Vincent Kouters. NRC 12 Januari 2018.









20. Dec, 2017

Underwater caverns, caves and tunnels come in many varieties – from freshwater springs to volcanic island walls and limestone coasts, to Antarctic  icebergs and coral reefs. Many of these locations offer scuba divers enclosed spaces with a mysterious although potentially dangerous attraction. Deeper caves  are  not for the weak hearted divers, and certainly not for the claustrophobics.  It depends of course on  the amount of confinement:  the shallower caverns in general have sufficient orientation points, often with patches of blue at the entrance or end, or  light beams breaking through crevices and  holes in the ceilings. But penetration in the interior mazes of  deeper tunnels and caves is a different story:  more for the brave, well trained adventure and risk seekers.

Types of caves Seawater caves come in two varieties, littoral caves  and submerged land caves. Littoral caves are created by erosion:  the constant action of waves attacks the weaker portions of rocks lining the shores of oceans.  Many of these can be found along the coastline of  Mediterranean and its smaller islands. Related to these  littoral  caves are the  tunnels and caverns found  in coral reef formations in the open sea, where movements of the sea have caused openings, passages and crevices  in the  more fragile  parts of limestone beds or dead coral.   An example are the caverns of Fury Shoals and Shab Claudia in the southern  Red Sea. These caverns and swim-throughs  have become a hot spot for  UW photographers  eager to capture  the light beams breaking through cracks and holes of the ceiling of the caverns (see picture on the frontpage).

Submerged land caves Other underwater caves were originally  land caves that  became partially  or completely submerged through rising sea levels over thousands of years. Most of these caves are formed in limestone rock where calcite (calcium carbonate) is the main mineral. Here nature’s scenario followed five big steps that reflect the coming and go of successive periods of climate change: 1) acid rainwater dissolves the limestone, carves caves and tunnels deeper below  and  subsequently fills  the network of caves and passages   2) water drains out of the cave through lowering sea level and/or tectonic lifts,  3) stalactites and stalacmites are formed in the now dry caves by leaking rainwater, and 5) rising sea levels through melting ice submerge  the caves again with salt water. Caves with ceilings higher than sea level were partially flooded, leaving some remaining air space.

At some locations underground  river systems entered the caves and tunnels with sweet water, mixing with  high density  lower salt water layers. An example are  the  Cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula where the spectacular underground rivers formed a vast labyrinth of passageways and tunnels, flooded with crystal clear water. Some of the partially air filled cave ceilings became too thin to hold their own weight, collapsing and creating sinkholes or natural windows as entrances to the underground river system.  In these sink holes divers can experience the halocline, the boundary where the shallower fresh water on the top mixes with the sea water below resulting in amazing mirror and light effects. It is said the Cenotes were once used by  the Maya Indians for sacrificial offerings. Recently the worlds-longest-underwater-cave-system of 347km (216-mile)  was identified at the Yucatan peninsula. This connects the Sac Actum cave with the Dos Ojos tunnel complex. Probably this once was the Maya's metaphorical underwater world to which the cenotes formed the entry. 

In the Yucatan cave systems the sweet water of the underground rivers  mixes with the salt water layers. But other caves, for example in Florida, contain only sweet water produced by underwater rivers. Florida’s best diving caves are hidden in the northwestern corner of the state in Ginnie springs. This complex of  caves and tunnels  is fed solely by freshwater springs that flow through mazes of limestone passageways. The springs have the reputation to offer strange sights of underwater chambers—fossils, stalactites and sunlight beaming in from holes in the cave ceilings.

Grand Bahama has the second largest underwater cave system in the world, with over 32,000 feet of mapped tunnels (see Bens cave). The caves were formed during the last Ice Age when the sea level was much lower, leaving most of the Bahama banks that are now covered in water high and dry. In the subsequent meltdown the sea level rose again and  the caves were reclaimed by the sea. Another  notable example of a submerged  saltwater cave  is the Cosquer Cave  located in the south of France near the Calanques of Marseille. The entrance to the cave is located 37 m (121 ft) underwater, due to the Holocene sea level rise. The cave contains some miraculous prehistoric rock art engravings. It was discovered in 1985 by and named after diver Henri Cosquer, but its existence was not made public until 1991, when three divers became lost in the cave and died. During the glacial periods of the Pleistocene, the shore of the Mediterranean sea was situated several kilometers to the South and the sea level up to 100 m (330 ft) below the cave entry.

Hazards,  apparatus and training Good buoyancy control, trim and finning technique help to preserve visibility in areas with silt deposits. This counts for all caves including the more friendly and shallower caverns. As said, penetrating in the deeper caves and  tunnels is more for technical divers trained in procedures to survive in the  dark and dangerous submerged  labyrinths. Often a guide line (permanent or temporary)  between the dive team and outside of the flooded cave ensures that divers follow the correct routes.  Regular cave divers carry redundant equipment: for almost every piece of equipment they carry a spare. This is to make sure that if something undergoes failure, there's a replacement to take over and allow a safe return to the surface. It could include extra lights,  an extra mask,  regulator,  safety line, or a piece of equipment that ensures a diver's survival, like an oxygen tank. Many cave divers use side mounted cylinders that facilitate switching tanks and crawl through narrow passages. Rebreathers  are sometimes used for longer bottom times and to avoid bubbles. Cave divers are also trained to control situations like  getting out of air, avoiding stress and panic, navigating with  zero visibility, swimming back to the entrance of the cave. Helping  and freeing  a buddy that gets entangled in a  safety line etc.

The friendly caverns More shallow and divers friendly caverns have become a ’special’ for UW photographers*. They require shooting with natural ambient light with your ISO cranked up (say to 6400), large apertures and possibly also lower shutter speeds.  Here  UW photographers try to capture the light beams breaking through gaps in the ceiling, preferably cutting the interior in diagonal angles like cathedral lights.  A  diver on  the background,  perhaps aiming  a torch could be an interesting subject to  fill up the scene. The major concern in caverns  are divers getting too close to the floor kicking up silt, which means the end of visibility.  A snooted strobe can be fine to create a special lighting effect, for example to light up a colorful  branch of soft coral at the entrance of the cavern, without affecting  its background.

Sources and links:

 The Cave Beneath the Sea: Paleolithic Images at Cosquer by Jean Clottes and Jean Courtin (1996) Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York ISBN 0-8109-4033-7 English translation by Marilyn Garner from the French edition

Exley, Sheck (1977). Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival. National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section. ISBN 99946-633-7-2.

*Underwater Photography Masterclass. Alex Mustard.  Ammonite Press, 2016, chapter  Chapter six.






8. Nov, 2017

After returning from my (20th?) visit to the Red sea, I here like to share some of my reflections on the trip. This was not an UW photo workshop,  so the emphasis was more on diving than on making  UW pictures.  I must confess that over the years diving  has  become less important for me:  I rather see it as a condition for making pictures than a purpose on its own. UW photography also requires  different  underwater skills than diving as a sportive event. Which implies that typical diving hazards like strong currents, navigating in murky water, and visiting deep wrecks are not my favorite and even have become  a reason to skip a dive.

Our itinerary went  a.o.  via Shab Abu Nuhas, Ras Muhammed, Jackson reef, Thistlegorm and the 'tile wreck' Chrisoulis K. The majority of divers on our live-aboard  Whirlwind came from the UK  on a trip organized  by Scuba Travel in London.  This meant pleasant company  and lots of laughter and jokes on the upper deck between the dives. The essence of which I (a Dutchman)  was no always able to follow. Regular diving trips  often imply that individual divers follow the group and  swim around a lot with insufficient time for the UW photographer to lag behind on interesting photogenic spots.  Nevertheless, the dive masters on our trip were aware of this problem and permitted me and Jack Bernstein (my diving companion from the US)  to dive apart from the group. At the end of the trip Subatravel had arranged for our group  one overnight stay in the Hurgada Hilton hotel prior to our flight home. Here we enjoyed  free drinks and meals, and were entertained with a never ending stream of classical music (mostly Mozart)  flowing  from the loudspeakers of the lobby and pool area.

Diving trips in the Northern Red sea are different from those  in the Southern Red sea, where shark encounters have become  the primary target.  Compared with my trips in the early 90-ties, the recent explosive growth of tourism and an the diving industry in northern Egypt does not seem to have substantially  changed the conditions of the Red Sea reefs. The only nuisance perhaps being the more crowded  dive sites where several  live-aboards  are often lined up along the  reefs. With Ras Muhammed leading the list of favorite and busy sites. 

Egypt is still a country with a majority of underpaid or poor citizens. The military regime is often critisized by Western democracies, but   probably also guarantees that tourists can  still travel  safely and  enjoy their vacations in the Red sea area.  In the past  Egypts prosperity  and resources depended largely on the river Nile,  the reason why the Greek historian Herodotus called  Egypt a “Gift of the Nile".  Now,  almost  2500 year later  the Nile and its agricultural benefits seems to be not the only gift that the Gods had in mind for Egypt. Modern tourism industry has developed into the most important sector in the economy, in terms of high employment and incoming foreign currency.  This not only includes  historical attractions in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan, but also the Red sea resorts and diving trips. Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh now  collectively boast over 90,000 hotel rooms and provide jobs for half a million Egyptians. In the south, Marsa Alam is following the trend with similar wide scale investments. Charter flights allow citizens from various European countries, including Russia  and  more recently China to fly in to Hurghada in -say- five or six hours to profit from its relatively cheap hotels, resorts and splendid beaches. 

The investment  of billions of dollars spent in the last 30 years building a tourism industry with world-class resorts, beaches and hotels also created an awareness in Egyptians to protect  the Red Sea’s fragile marine ecosystem. A single major  oil spill  could  indeed cause economic disaster. In the northern Red Sea such could happen with oil platforms within striking distance of Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh. Luckily  the deep waters in  the central  Red Sea basin prevents building rigs further from the coast. But more  to the north, in the shallower waters of the Gulf of Suez, Egypt’s main oil producing area accounts for 80 percent of the country’s oil production. Over 180 offshore platforms siphon oil from the gulf’s maturing sub-sea fields, their gas flares illuminating the night sky.

The  northern Red Sea as we witness it today, still  offers interesting photogenic sites with healthy corals and many  fish species moving  around in their coral habitats. Lion-, butterfly-, soldier-, squirrel-, crocodile-, banner-fish and moray eels  are abundant, with occasional visits of a turtle or dolphins. Not to forget the snappers,  batfish, damselfish, blue spotted rays, groupers, and numerous anthias swarming along the drop offs. Sharks however have become rare visitors of the diving sites south of  the Sinai peninsula.

For fish-eye shooters many of these species are ideal targets to approach from a very close distance  against a blue background and with bright sunlight.  The presence of divers, or the diving boat on the surface can help to enhance the perspective. This wide angle mixed-lighting  technique* works very well on reef locations where  colorful fishes often linger in  their habitats, like a branch of soft coral expanding in the current or a stony  coral table.  My best pictures were actually taken  in shallow water under the boat were lionfish, butterflyfish and moray eels were willing to pose for me. The boat on the surface hid the sun but kept the sunrays spreading around the silhoutte of the boat. With a small aperture and the strobes set at half power this created a pleasant contrast between the bright strobe-lit fish on the foreground and the slightly darkish blue background (see picture at the front as an example). The resulting strong light-dark boundaries give the suggestion of clair-obscur, a suggestive effect often seen in in Dutch paintings of the 17th century. 

Another must for  northern Red sea divers are the wrecks.  Wreck dives are also  a challenge for UW photographers.  Our morning dive to  the famous  Thistlegorm wreck at Shab Ali near the SW point of the Sinai desert was quite hectic with strong currents and  low visibility on the wreck. The greatest challenge of visiting  the Thistlegorm are  the motorbikes and lorries, and swarms of smaller fish inside the holds. Another series of sunken ships can be found north of  Shab Abu Nuhas closer to Hurghada.  Here four wrecks are lined up in sequence:    Ghiannis D,  Carnatic, Chrisoula K. and Kimon M.  A strong wind and high waves made it difficult  to approach  Chrisoula K.  in the small ribs. A reason for the captain to cancel further visits to the wrecks and head for reefs closer to the coastline.

Overall, my feeling is that despite the beauty of the Red sea's underwater world, its diving hazards  should never be underestimated.  Strong winds, currents and high waves can create difficult conditions, especially for UW  photographers carrying heavy equipment.  When the big boat is not able to approach the diving site, a bumpy  ride with the ribs is the only option. Climbing aboard a rocking dinghy after handing over  camera and gear to the skipper in moving seas  is certainly  a physical challenge,  but not a pleasure for the less athletic or elderly divers. The same holds for deploying your surface marker buoy at the end of a dive, while holding the camera in one hand and  inflating the buoy with your free hand. 


Source and links:

*Underwater Photography Masterclass. Alex Mustard, Ammonite Press, 2016.



15. Oct, 2017

According to recent expert reviews (see: review1review2,review3) the new Nikon 8-15  fish eye lens seems to be a must for full frame UW photographers. The lens produces exceptional sharp images, great colors and offers a fully circular 180 deg image at  8mm (floating in a black background)  as well as a rectangular 180 deg diagonal view at 15 mm. A drawback might be that zooming in between  8mm and 15 mm will show a cut off circle with black corners.  Furthermore, a circular UW image may not be not everyone’s favorite, but it does promise spectacular creative images,  for example when taking over under shots of a sunset above a coral reef.

Left:  Tokina 10-17 and Nikon 8-15 fish eye's 

Interestingly, the new lens is  a 'hybrid'  that  can also  be used on DX cameras. On the zoom ring there is white marker placed at 11 mm, indicating the recommended zoom range for  cropped sensors: at 11 mm it will produce a 180 diagonal view and at 15 mm a 110 deg diagonal view (which is about the same range as the Tokina 10-17). At values lower than 11mm the image will show a cut off circle with black corners. That's  because the DX sensor is 1.5 factor smaller than that of a full frame FX camera.  So 10mm and 15 mm on a  DX camera would be equivalent to  15 mm and  22 mm on a full frame camera respectively.  

The question that remains if this new lens is worth  the big investment of around 1000 Euro.  DX users might say:  mmm.... maybe, but only if it will yield superior pictures on my DX than the Tokina  10-17. The ‘Tok’ is a much cheaper fish eye that  for many years has been the workhorse for many  cropped camera fish-eye adepts. Being one of those adepts, I am really looking forward to some comparative tests of both lenses on the D7200.

Another point to consider is  the minimal focusing distance. On the D7200/Tokina combo I use a 5inch Precision dome (virtual image about 18 cm) that  focuses on small objects at 10-15 centimeters in front of the dome. Which is a must for those that like to take CFWA or WAM shots. On my back-up 4/3 Olympus camera with a 4 inch dome (virtual image 15 cm) the  8mm fish eye lens (and small dome)  even allows me to get as close as  2 -5 cm to an object. While still preserving  a nice view of the background scenery. I am not sure if a full sensor camera equipped with the new Nikkon fish-eye lense and a larger dome can match such close focusing  distances.

A more general  question of course is if the advantages of more expensive new generation UW systems with high resolution cameras, advanced expensive  lenses, and a full frame sensor will outweigh those offered by older systems with low(er) resolution cameras, cheaper lenses and  a cropped sensor. The quality of future UW pictures will give  us the answer.