16. Aug, 2019

One of the most dramatic signs of climate change is the melting of ice in the Arctic ocean. Increases in temperatures and reductions in winter sea ice will likely affect the reproduction, growth, and development of krill and fish, leading to further changes in population sizes and distributions. A potential spin-off is that in northern Siberia and Alaska melting ice will create a richer banquet of nutritious ice algae. Although the melting ice is bad news for the polar bears, released ice algae, that live in water pockets at the bottom of the ice, are eaten by animal plankton, which in turn will become food for fish and squid, which forms the diets of narwhals and beluga whales.  

The other side of the coin is the impact of the imminent industrial exploitation of the Arctic. The melting Arctic ice offers great promises for the economies of superpowers China, the US, and Russia (see also my earlier Blog).  For cargo ships an ice-free Northern Sea Route is much shorter than the Suez canal,  to reach remote target countries.  For years, Russia has been using shallow-draft nuclear-powered icebreakers to aid shipping along the frozen Arctic waterways north of Siberia. But an ice-free passage for cargo ships is not the only promise. The exploitation of rich supplies of minerals such as gold and the immense gas fields by Gazprom is another.  Future drilling platforms and settlements along the coast of Northern  Siberia will need electricity. To fulfill this need, an enormous floating nuclear 70-megawatt power plant,  Akademik_Lomonosov,  equipped with two reactors is now ready to be towed towards the most northern ‘boom’ town  Pevek. Pevek is located about 14.000 kilometers north of the town of Murmansk at the polar circle (see small circles in the picture).  

And the foreseeing Russians want more.  Russia now claims the Lomonosov Ridge in the Arctic Ocean to be depart of part of the Russian Federation's adjacent continental shelf. The Ridge spans 1,800 kilometers,  about 200 kilometers wide, and divides the Arctic Basin into the Eurasian Basin and the Amerasian Basin (see the dashed area in the figure)  Russia formally submitted its request to the United Nations arguing that the shelf is an extension of the  Eurasian continent.

Some future investors feel that investing so much money in the exploitation of the Arctic continental shelf is a risky affair,  and there are doubts if the Northern route might be profitable in the longer term. Moreover,  in a period when the attitude of the general public and political arena moves toward reducing the negative environmental impact on climate change, exploiting the Arctic does not seem such a good idea. The presence of nuclear-powered vessels and power plants in the former pristine areas also creates risks for nuclear spills and might even lead to a ‘floating Tsjernobyl’, as environmentalists have warned.

5. Aug, 2019

Chimpanzee research in the United States started in the famous Robert Yerkes primate colony in Orange Park Fla in the 1920s. Yerkes groundbreaking studies primarily concerned the behavior and cognitive abilities of chimpanzees.  But in the 1940s, research at Yerkes Primate Research Center changed from behavioral to biomedical studies. The chimps genetic similarity  to humans was  the reason why chimps were used for  testing  for the toxicity of medical and non-medical substances,   the  search for the polio vaccine, and medications for tuberculosis, cancer, and hepatitis.#  

In 1986, the  National Institutes of Health (NIH)  started the Chimpanzee Biomedical Research Programs to study HIV and AIDS.  Hundreds of these primates received HIV injections in order to analyze how the virus develops into AIDS. Around the year 2000, there were about1,600 chimps in the United States being used for biomedical testing.  Some were owned by NIH, whereas others belonged to universities, foundations, and companies. A couple of years later it became clear that chimps were not a good model for human medical research since they are immune for diseases like HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and the most common forms of malaria. Chimps also develop other forms of cancer than those affecting humans. They also do not develop Alzheimer disease, although their brain contains amyloid plaques like humans**.  The conclusion was that three decades of vaccine research using chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates has been startlingly unproductive. This eventually led the NIH to cease funding for HIV-AIDS research using chimpanzees.

 In 2000  the U.S. government effectively ended invasive work on chimpanzees and funding of this research and decided to retire chimps. Then in 2015— only 4 years ago today—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified all U.S. chimps as endangered, effectively ending biomedical studies on them.   Great Britain also quit granting licenses for the use of any of the four great apes as research test subjects. Other countries have since followed, including the Netherlands (2002), Sweden (2003), Austria (2006) and Japan (2006).  

In subsequent years the use of chimpanzees for medical research also raised increasing controversy because of their humanlike traits and genetic similarity. The more critical attitude was reinforced by publications by Jane Goodall on chimps in the African wilderness and Frans de Waal from the  Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory. Their studies showed an astonishing similarity between the emotions and social behavior of chimps and those of humans.  These new insights convinced many people that chimp biomedical testing was ethically indefensible.

But what to do with the enormous number of retired chimps in the US, once used for medical research? NIH declared that all of its approximately 300 chimpanzees would be retired, though it gave no time frame. Experts assumed that the remaining 340 or so in private hands would follow suit.  A law passed in 2000 created a national chimpanzee sanctuary, Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana. The nonprofit sanctuary’s founders, who had worked with chimps in laboratories, felt that the highly intelligent animals—who, like humans, use tools, have some form of culture, and live in complex social groups—deserved to live out their lives in a setting designed wholly around their needs.

To date, still less than half (470) of the former 1000 lab chimps reside in sanctuaries,  Chimps Haven and Save the Chimp being the largest, while most of the other 577 chimps are still languishing in research facilities in suboptimal conditions (see *).  The happy and good news is that many middle-aged chimps -even after having spent many years in the confinement of research laboratories- when placed in sanctuaries have returned to their normal behavior and instincts, playing, grooming and even seeking ants in a termite hill***

#Other non-human primates frequently used in biomedical research all over the world are three species of macaques and various types of  Asian monkeys and baboons










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.