Ocean Leisure Diving and Photography Blog

  • Vacuum Leak Tests

    Photographing a Dugong in Egypt The Author photographing a Dugong in Egypt
    In a career as an underwater photojournalist spanning twenty-one years I made around three-hundred individual dive trips. That amounts to more than six-and-a-half -thousand dives and virtually every one was made armed with a camera. Would it surprise you to know that in the process I flooded a couple? Well, you might think that two floods in that many dives is not a bad average but I can tell you that every one left me cringing. It’s not just the cost of replacing the camera but it’s the cost of missing out on the pictures while you are so disarmed. How do floods occur? Inevitably it’s a case of user error. All you need is a badly seated main O-ring or some foreign body to drop on to it just as you close up the housing and it’s “Goodnight, Nurse!” Putting the camera into its housing after reloading a freshly charged battery of a new memory card should be straightforward. It is if you are in a clean environment such as a well-lit hotel room and nobody distracts you while you do it. However the world is not a perfect place and substitute those idyllically serene conditions for the rolling deck of a dive boat in a rough sea or the gloomy interior of an island hut and operational accidents can happen. Some people take their housings into the sea for a first dive without their camera installed. I see little point in this since the housing must be cracked open in order to install the camera later and that is when O-rings might pop unobserved or  a stray strand your girlfriend’s hair might float into the place where it can cause chaos. As a busy professional, I always carried a duplicate camera and lens with me in case the worst happened. I might see tell-tale bubbles escaping from the housing while underwater and lose a dive but at least I could carry on afterwards. To flood two cameras on the same trip is tantamount to carelessness.
    The author photographing a Great Hammerhead (Picture by Bob Semple) The Author photographing a Great Hammerhead shark (Picture by Bob Semple)
    With a little compact camera in a transparent plastic housing you can always check for a leak by gingerly immersing it in the fresh water rinse tank. The sight of a few drops of water that can be removed before they do any real damage will reveal a leak. Not only that but a cursory examination of the O-ring in its groove through the transparent plastic will show up any break in the watertight seal. Not so with machined aluminium housings. One just had to be fastidious in preparation and have faith in your ability to do it right. A leak detector merely sets off a loud siren should it detect water inside the housing. By then it is usually too late and only adds more crisis to the drama as you try to get back to the surface before the precious camera inside is lost for good.
    Leaksentinel unit Nauticam Vacuum Valve
    Gradually I evolved from shooting on 35mm film to digital cameras and from there inevitably ended up working with full-frame DSLR cameras. These became so expensive to buy that there was no way I could warrant the expense of doubling up but technology came to my rescue in the form of the vacuum leak-test.
    Nauticam Leak Detector In Use Pumping out the Air from the Housing
    Instead of testing for leaks with water that will ruin the camera should you get it wrong, you test for leaks prior to diving using non-destructive air. This is by and large how they work although different makes of equipment have intermediate lights using different strategies. After sealing up the housing with the interior full of air at ambient pressure, a warning light indicates that. It is red. You then pump out the interior through a special valve in the bulkhead of the housing using the pump supplied. Once the interior pressure-sensor determines that a suitably low pressure has been reached, the indicator light shows green. Green is good.
    Nauticam traffic lights Indicator Lights. Green is Good, Red is Bad!
    Leave the housing for at least twenty minutes. If any air leaks back in, the warning light changes to red. Red is bad. If that happens you should reopen the housing and see what is amiss. It’s not a test of the housing. It’s a test of how well you closed it up after installing the camera. During the last seven or so years that I had the benefit of the vacuum leak test on my camera housing, I never lost a camera. Twice in that time I got a red light but was able to rectify the problem before it was too late. In previous years I would only have discovered the fault once I was under water with depressing results.
    Leaksentinel by Vivid Housings Sentinel Vacuum Leak Test
    I recommend anyone with a valuable camera to get the advantage of a vacuum leak test installed. Both Hugyfot and Nauticam, makers of camera housings, can supply them although it is an extra cost with Nauticam. There is also and after-market version called the Leak Sentinel that can be fitted to a wide range of housings. I can confirm that I always slept well in my cabin or hotel room while that little green light winked all night but I woke up with a start both times a red light began to flash. Green is good. A by-product of depressurising the housing is that the fittings are pulled tight and it is impossible to open unless you purposefully release the air-input valve. This means that both lens port and back are secure from accidental opening, for example in the fresh-water rinse tank, the site of many an accidental flood. I recommend you get a housing with a vacuum leak test or get one fitted and be released from the stress of waiting for a flood. After all, the saying goes, it’s not ‘if’ but ‘when’. John Bantin is the author of Amazing Diving Stories.

  • Our Colourful World Underwater

    If you read the last blog about the physics of underwater photography you will understand why everything can look monochromatic underwater, once you have moved away from the surface. This can be misleading and often the new diver’s first introduction to the colour of our underwater world is during his or her first night dive.

    Soft corals in the Maldives (Vilamendhoo).
    Without the blue of the daylight swamping the true colours of the reef, the diver’s underwater light illuminates everything in its true colours – and what a colourful world it is! It’s for this reason that experienced divers are often seen going into the water with powerful lights or torches even on the most brightly lit days. By taking a bright white light close to a subject, it’s revealed in its true kaleidoscope of tints. However, at night you’ll see the fishes in their night-clothes (so to speak) because often the colours they exhibit in daylight are different to those in the dark.
    Coral trout on a sponge encrusted wreck.
    It’s amazing how much marine animal life is actually bright red when you consider that red looks black to most marine life. Nobody can really explain the reasoning but it’s true. Often, fishes that may appear a dirty green colour by natural light are revealed to be bright scarlet in the beam of a lamp. Underwater photographers can take advantage of this phenomenon by lighting up their subjects with an underwater flashgun or strobe light while those shooting live action can employ powerful video lights to the same effect.
    Anemone fish in a purple anemone.
    Even the smallest subjects can be revealed in a startling vividness once they are subjected to a full spectrum of light. Sharks may be the guys in the grey suits, along with many other predatory pelagic species, but once you look closely at any territorial animal with the aid of your diver’s torch, you can appreciate the full range of hues that they wear.
    A wreckfish in the wreck of the Chikusen, BVI.
    Big grouper suddenly appear to be much prettier than their otherwise brutish look might signify.
    Green turtle feeding on seagrass (Egyptian Red Sea)
    Even green turtles can be revealed as more colourful than you would expect. You would not contemplate entering a dark wreck without a lamp to guide your way (and possibly a second one stowed about your person as a back-up should the battery in your primary lamp inexplicably fail). That may seem obvious but even rusty shipwrecks and their cargoes can be quite colourful beyond the range of the oxidising metal because they get encrusted with tiny sponges and hydroids that give them colour. It's a colourful world.
    Inside the Rio de Janeiro Maru, Truk Lagoon.
    As for soft corals, these colonies of animals blossom in a strong current and display themselves in a wide range of reds, oranges, yellows, purples and blues. Going diving on a tropical coral reef without the aid of a lamp is rather like turning down the colour on your television set and watching everything in black-and-white.
    The wreck of the Bianca C in Grenada.
    Get yourself a good diving lamp and a back-up if you are diving at night or in wrecks and if you are shooting pictures, the people in Ocean Leisure Cameras, the store within the store, can fix you up with the appropriate lighting array. Come in and discuss it with them. The store is open seven days each week. Take a suitable light with you when scuba diving  and reveal the colourful underwater world. If you've enjoyed reading these blogs, you will enjoy reading Amazing Diving Stories by the same author.

  • It's Not a Competition!

    Scuba diving should be in no way competitive. If you are part of a group of divers, you want everyone to have a good time. That said, the human spirit is without doubt naturally competitive and we will find ways to compete, however irrelevant.30-31-5 copy You’ll often see divers post-dive comparing how much air they used. Somehow it’s often seen as clever to use less than the next person. I was on a dive trip once where my buddy used exactly half the gas I went through. Did this mean he was a better diver? Another friend of mine was supremely fit. When his family came to visit, his wife and daughter would drive over from their home ten miles away but he would always prefer to run. The London Marathon? He completed runs across the Sahara! However, when we went of a dive trip together I was amazed at the rate of knots with which he went through his air supply. I put it down to poor technique at the time. Then I went away diving with a young television Gladiator, Hunter.

    Hunter the TV Gladiator needed a bigger tank!
    He was young and fit and made me look totally puny by comparison. It was lucky he could easily manhandle an 18-litre cylinder because that is what we had to get for him to allow him any time underwater on the shallowest and most benign of dives. On the other hand, Umberto Pelizzari, formerly the free-diving world champion, uses yoga to reduce his breathing requirements to negligible levels.
    Umberto Pelizzari, champion free-diver, uses yoga to reduce his air consumption.
    One quickly comes to realize that women generally use less air than men on dives. Is it because they are serene and become part of the underwater environment unlike men who tend to be more active? Or is it because they are usually smaller than men and thus have smaller lung capacities? I’ve dived with elderly over-weight ladies who went through less air than me, and a lot of other people, so it’s probably a combination of both. Recently, I was diving with twin-cylinders on a deep dive in Truk Lagoon. A rather large lady of a certain age did the dives with a single 11-litre cylinder of air while her very muscular husband went in with her, armed with twin-cylinders (like me) plus an additional side-slung tank. The dives required considerable decompression stops. I asked if he carried the sling-tank for his lady wife but was told she didn’t need it. He did! What about my lightly breathing friend? Well, he could come back with half a tank of air when I was completely out but he couldn’t get through the night without waking up for a cigarette. He was a very heavy smoker. He also ended every dive with a humdinger of a headache.
    Women tend to breathe a lot less air than men whilst diving.
    Am I saying that divers should take up smoking? Definitely not! New Zealander, Professor Simon Mitchell has investigated a subject that could be connected with the smoking phenomenon. He has studied carbon-dioxide retention in divers. Some people are able to retain a lot more carbon dioxide during the act of breathing than others and as you may know, it is the build-up of carbon dioxide that triggers our breathing reflex. It’s not the lack of oxygen but the raised levels of carbon dioxide that makes us have the desire to breathe. As I understand it, carbon-dioxide retainers breathe less. As a complete non-scientist, I wonder if heavy smokers with their constant lung exposure to carbon monoxide get a raised tolerance to carbon dioxide too, so that they can skip-breathe, leaving longer intervals between inhalations. Maybe their lung volumes have simply become very small due to the build-up of tar. Whatever the reason I’ve noticed they are more economic with their air supplies underwater.
    Bradley Wiggins during his Gold Medal Olympic time trial triumph in London 2012.
    Cyclist Bradley Wiggins is supremely fit. After winning the exhausting 2172-mile Tour de France, a few weeks later he was competing in the London Olympics road race. How’s that for stamina? I read on the BBC website that he probably has huge left ventricles to his heart, which allows more oxygen-rich blood to be pumped to his muscles than we more ordinary folk.
    Chris Boardman - cyclist and scuba diver.
    Chris Boardman, the Olympic Gold medalist in the Pursuit at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, with whom I once dived a lot, had a resting heart-rate at his peak of around 38 bpm which indicates a large heart. I noticed he was an experienced diver who was able to be very relaxed on dives, with good technique and perfect neutral buoyancy, so that he didn’t rush through his air.
    Chris Boardman
    A person’s endurance can be measured by taking a reading, which indicates how much oxygen is used every minute for each kilogram of body weight. It’s called a VO2 Max reading. A typical young male might have a VO2 Max of around 40 whereas a top cyclist might have a value of twice that, so that not only are they able to use more oxygen, they can also keep their muscles active for longer periods of time. Of course, cyclists have a never-ending air supply whereas for a diver it’s totally finite. I suggest it’s not clever to use less air than anyone else on a dive, although it may under certain circumstances be fortunate. I suggest it’s more intelligent to take sufficient gas with you for the dive in question and to manage that supply in such as way that you get back safely. Unlike running races and competitive cycling, it’s not a competition. A gas-integrated diving computer will help you manage your air supplies.
    Take sufficient gas for your needs.

  • The Physics of Underwater Photography

    _FFF8337 The rules of physics apply to all underwater photographers. Get close!
    When it comes to water everyone realises that to get your camera wet spells disaster. It’s either got to be designed to be waterproof or it must be enclosed in a waterproof housing. Water pressure is such that at only ten-metres deep it’s twice air pressure at the surface and much more as you go deeper so designers of housings take that into account. However, there is much more to underwater photography than simply keeping the camera dry and the same rules apply even if you have the very best kit. Photography is all about light and light acts in a different way in water to the way it does in air. For a start, water is never as clear as air. If you had 30-metres of visibility under water it would seem gin-clear yet the same visibility on a motorway would see you driving very slowly. It’s all about turbidity. Water is full of detritus and tiny life-forms. The secret to getting clear sharp pictures is to reduce the amount of water between your camera and your subject, to get as close as possible.
    Daylight is naturally filtered blue by the water.
    Water also absorbs light but it absorbs light selectively. The longer wavelengths of light, the reds and the greens, get filtered out within only a few metres from the surface so that the brightest daylight looks blue under water. You can make the most of what red and green light gets through by filtering out some of the blue with a reddish filter or by repeatedly white-balancing your camera as you find yourself at different depths. You can take some portable white light with you in the form of an underwater flashgun (or strobe light) for stills or a bright video light for movies. However, remember that the light from these is affected in the same way and the range of such accessories is limited, possibly to less than two metres, so you still need to get close to your subject.
    LibertyWreck An independent flashgun or video light will give good colour to closer subjects.
    At the same time you need to position these lights well away from the camera’s lens axis or they will simply light up all that detritus in the water and give you a very messy result. We call it ‘backscatter’. Mounting a flash or light on the end of an accessory arm does the trick but for convenience sake we normally have this attached to the camera housing via a suitable tray and manipulate the light via a series of one-inch ball joints and clamps. Ocean Leisure Cameras stocks a vast array of these to solve every mounting problem whether it be for a GoPro, for a top-of-the-range DSLR camera rig, or for something in between. Light is refracted when it passes from water into air through a flat glass camera front so that things appear at least one-third closer. It effectively makes your standard camera lens slightly telephoto. So having got close to our subject, we might find that we cannot include all of it in the shot. This is where a wide-angle lens comes into play. Under water, wide-angle lenses are used differently to the way they are used on land. They allow the camera to come close to the subject with the minimum of water between them, while at the same time restoring the image size.
    Bantin62-63-2 A wide-angle lens enables close positioning to larger subjects.
    A dome port combined with a wide-angle lens or a compact camera’s zoom lens at its widest setting will restore the angle of view by reducing the amount of light refraction. These are available to fit some compact camera housings as well as housings for cameras with interchangeable lenses.
    _DSC3408 Macro photography is a good place to start,
    Many underwater photographers start off by concentrating on macro subjects. A macro lens allows you to get very close indeed to the smallest of subjects and by using a flashgun on a mounting-arm, you take in with you your own ready-made mini studio set-up. Good results are assured because as your lens gets very close there is so little water to contend with. Flat housing ports help in this case because the refraction of light helps you stand off from your subject so that you can light it more easily. In summary, you need to prevent water ingress to your camera, you need to make the most of the full spectrum of natural light that penetrates the water, you need to avoid lighting up the turbidity of the water and, by getting as close as possible to your subject, you can reduce the effects of the poor optical quality of the water. The people working at Ocean Leisure Cameras can provide you with everything you need to achieve that. You just need to perfect your diving skills so that they become second nature while you take pictures or record video.

  • The Best Place to Dive?

    There’s a great team of people working at Ocean Leisure with an extensive product knowledge. I’ve joined to add to that my knowledge of dive sites around the world. After making nearly three hundred dive trips to many different places, there are few dive spots I haven’t been to. Inevitably people will ask me which is the best.

    Seahorse in Lembeh
    It’s an impossible question to answer. I ask in turn what they are interested in. How can you compare diving over a three-thousand-year-old rubbish dump that is the Lembeh Strait and its plethora of weird and wonderful macro marine life with diving surrounded by tiger sharks and lemon sharks at Tiger Beach off Grand Bahama?
    Scalloped Hammerheads at Malpelo
    How can you compare being surrounded by schooling scalloped hammerhead sharks in Malpelo, Cocos or the Galapagos with being surrounded by manta rays at cleaning stations in the Maldives? If it’s coral reefs that draw you, the remote islands of Raja Ampat in West Papua will be your ultimate aim yet as far as soft corals go these reefs fade into insignificance when compared to Rainbow Reef area of Fiji. French Polynesia has no such soft coral whatsoever but these islands have a burgeoning shark population and provide a high voltage diving experience. If its wrecks that you love diving near to, the far off dive sites of Micronesia, Truk Lagoon or Bikini Atoll, offer the dedicated wreck diver a Mecca to aim for yet the wrecks of the Northern Red Sea are a lot nearer to Europe and the Thistlegorm compares with the best.
    Military motorbike on the Thistlegorm.
    The Americans have purposefully sunk wrecks all down the coast of Florida. They make spectacular dives despite their artificial nature. Four similarly sunk wrecks are to be found off the Algarve where the Portuguese navy donated four large vessels including a frigate to make a diving destination. How many of you have dived the wreck of the Don Pedro outside Ibiza town or the wreck of the Zenobia outside Larnaca? Both were the result of accidents.
    Grouper at Ribbon Reef No10, Great Barrier Reef.
    Both East and West coasts of Australia provide fantastic diving opportunities. My favourite is diving with the giant groupers at Ribbon Reef No10 near Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef. Don’t forget the Caribbean. The British Virgin Islands have some great and varied diving with both wrecks and reefs as do the twin sister islands of Grenada and Carriacou further south. The list is endless. The Dutch Antilles, Mexico, Belize, and Baja California on the Pacific side of Mexico -  they are all worth visiting.
    Mediterranean Scorpionfish
    The Mediterranean may have less colourful marine life but it can provide spectacular diving during its four to five month season, with water that has incredibly low levels of plankton and incredible clarity.
    Don Pedro, Ibiza
    Maybe you should decide what you want to see and then ask which is the best place to see it. We’ll do our best to advise you. On the other hand, tell us where you are going. Between us we’ll tell you what it’s going to like and what you’re likely to see. We’ll make sure that you are properly equipped. We’ll do our best to ensure that if it’s a wide-angle location or macro location you take the right camera equipment and most of all we’ll do our best to ensure you manage your expectations. For example, if you are going to he Maldives during the wet monsoon we’ll point out that the diving is still good but a non-diving spouse might not enjoy a rain-sodden desert island. If you are going to dive in Egypt during our winter, you should be made aware that the diving is as good as ever but that it will be very windy and the boat might rock and roll more than you’d like. I’ve mentioned here only a tiny number of destinations with remarkable diving. We form a great team at Ocean Leisure and we’ve accumulated a vast amount of knowledge between us. It’s our pleasure to share that with you.  

  • The Right Stuff.

    Every day, people come through the doors of the Ocean Leisure store on the Embankment in London’s West-End with the intention of equipping themselves for a dive trip to somewhere exotic. They buy masks and fins, wetsuits, dive computers, reef-hooks, regulators and all manner of paraphernalia that will enhance their trip. Some step into Ocean Leisure Cameras, a store within the store, and buy underwater cameras or accessories for cameras they might already own. One of the questions that the staff inevitably asks them is where they are intending using the things they buy. It helps the diving experts that work at Ocean Leisure to advise customers properly. For example you’d feel a little chilly in a 3mm shortie wetsuit if you intended diving in Egypt’s Red Sea during the early part of the year. This year they enjoyed a fall of snow! It never ceases to amaze me that people baulk at the cost of some essentials. For example there was the gentleman who wanted an inexpensive red filter for his GoPro camera. When he told me he was off to Truk Lagoon in Micronesia I asked him if he had any lights and was very much surprised when he answered in the negative. Truk Lagoon is unique in that it is a place where the American forces bombed and sank a stupendous number of Japanese supply ships during World War II. Today it is a mecca for wreck divers.

    Submarine periscopes stored on the Hein Maru.
    Although I suppose you could spend a trip simply swimming round the outside of them, the joy of diving at Truk is to enter the stricken vessels and see their cargoes and to swim around their engine rooms. I told this gentleman that if he didn’t take a diving lamp he was going to bang his head a lot. As for recording video footage on his GoPro, he certainly needed some video lights. These start from around £400 and quite frankly he did not want to spend that sort of money. On the other hand, I asked him how often he intended going to Truk Lagoon. He was not young and admitted he’d probably only go the once.
    Engine room detail of the Fujikawa Maru (Truk).
    He was off on a trip-of-a-lifetime involving four long flights to get there and that was costing him around four-and-a-half thousand pounds. He soon realised that to go without the right stuff would be folly. I asked him to come back and show us his footage from his trip. Another person was off to Socorro, Cocos, Malpelo and the Galapagos, high voltage dive sites in the Pacific of the coast of Central and South America. We at Ocean Leisure and Ocean Leisure Cameras take it as a personal responsibility that people arrive at these distant places with the appropriate equipment. On the other hand, besides those taking trips to somewhere enviable with the required huge travel costs spent, we get those people on much more modest budgets come in to the Ocean Leisure store and it’s our task to find solutions that match the funds they have available.
    Manta ray in the Maldives.
    If someone asks if it’s worth buying a diving computer rather than always needing to hire one at their chosen dive resort, we are happy to guide them towards the basic instrument that is probably all they need. If they want a gas-switching all-singing all-dancing device, we’re happy to help them in that direction too.
    Shark feed dive in the Bahamas.
    When it comes to camera kit, it’s very easy for underwater self-styled underwater photography gurus to advise people to fork out for a high quality DSLR with tailor-made housing and two top quality flashguns at around £8000 but some people just want to take a few snaps of their buddies having fun underwater and a £300 amphibious camera that goes to 25-metres deep might fill the bill. Of course, if we sense that someone will possibly get hooked on the pastime of underwater photography, we’ll direct towards something that can evolve along with their ambitions and accept an ancillary flashgun and additional lenses later when they are ready for that. We always ask where you are going. If it’s the Lembeh Strait in North Suluwesi we know you’ll need the ability to photograph exceedingly small things whereas if you are visiting the Bahamas to dive with the sharks, for example, or you want to photograph mantas in the Maldives, you’ll certainly need a wide-angle capability with your camera.
    Pigmy Seahorse (extreme macro) in Lembeh Strait.
    People often spend hours discussing their needs. That’s what we are there for. We want our customers to come back with a smile on their faces and triumphantly show us the pictures from their trip. We like the tiniest forms of marine life like pigmy seahorses as much as we like the big animals. Buying equipment for underwater photography can be daunting at times but we do our best to demystify it and send you away equipped for one hundred percent success in your endeavours and and the combined expertise of the staff at Ocean Leisure and Ocean Leisure Cameras is at your disposal. Please visit our store, handily positioned near to Waterloo and Charing Cross main line stations and over the Embankment Underground station on the District Line.

  • Legendary?

    Distinguished marine biologist and shark scientist Dr. Eugenie Clark recently passed away, aged 92 years. How many of you know that she was almost single-handedly responsible for the establishment of the Ras Mohammed Marine Park? Many who knew her thought she was legendary. After more than two decades of regular exposure in Britain’s most popular scuba diving magazine, and also in Scandinavia and the USA, my face became well known to a lot of people who participated in the sport. Total strangers would come up to me at airports on the way to popular diving destinations and engage me in conversation as if they were old friends. This happened in places as far apart as Costa Rica, Indonesia, Micronesia, Australia and Africa. I could be forgiven for thinking I might be famous. I was not. Recently someone wrongly ascribed the term ‘legendary’ to my name. When I worked in the advertising industry during the ’seventies and ’eighties we would often joke that one of our number had become legendary in their own lunchtime! That's what we thought of the term. This has given me pause for thought. Scuba diving is such a minority interest even today and without any competitions to win, people can only claim to be as successful as they say they are. Who is legendary? Those who tried to break diving records like Dave Shaw and Audrey Mestre paid the ultimate price and have been long forgotten by the public.

    Rob Palmer descending on a dive shortly before his demise.
    Rob Palmer, not the well-known guitarist but the founder of technical diving in the UK, died during an incautious dive and few now remember him. The same can be said for others like Shek Exley, Carl Spencer and Wes Skiles. Famous for a time, they are remembered now only by those who were close to them. Lotte Hass recently passed away. She and her husband Hans made television films in the ’fifties that rivalled those of Jacques Cousteau and, since so few were doing that, Cousteau and Hass had a clear monopoly and their films gave them fame. Hans and Lotte became disenchanted and went on to do other things. Maybe they were forgotten too whereas the Cousteau Foundation has kept that name alive in the public consciousness.
    Bret Gilliam now lives in Maine.
    Fame is a fickle mistress. Bret Gilliam, a pioneer of diving himself in the USA, has written a book about the pioneers on his side of the Atlantic yet few people over here are aware of him now or what he did, or of the others he so eloquently describes. So who were the famous divers elsewhere? Commander Lionel Crabb, a war-time diving hero, was made famous by the media when he disappeared during a covert mission to examine the underside of Kruschev’s battleship during a state visit to Britain yet journalists continually get his name wrong and confuse him with the American Olympic swimmer Buster Crabbe. Few can recall Willy Halpert kick-started diving in the Red Sea in Eilat together with Brit Alex Flinder who wrote a pivotal book about diving the Sinai. German Rudi Kneip pushed on with diving in the Red Sea while compatriot Herwarth Voightmann gave the Maldives and diving the publicity it needed with his shark circus. His best-selling book about photographing sharks might have made Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch famous when it was published in 1987 but he now lives a reclusive life in Cornwall and has long since stopped diving. Even iconic dive guide Larry Smith, the man that gave us ‘muck diving’ when he was first based at Lembeh Strait and later died of a lung infection bringing Raja Ampat to our notice, has gone off the radar.
    Umberto Pelizzari free diving.
    Presumably Umberto Pelizzari is still free-diving somewhere though his depth-record has long been broken. Free divers risk their lives to break records yet I fear the general public care little for their endeavours, out of sight and out of mind. Australians Ron and Valerie Taylor were famous for their television appearances. Ron has since left us and I recently noticed some footage of Valerie with a moray eel on YouTube getting some criticism from those who were obviously unaware of whom she was. Dick Rutkowski, the man responsible for giving us Nitrox and changed diving forever, is still alive and living quietly in Florida.
    Stan Waterman prepares his camera in Cocos at eighty.
    Stan Waterman, the man that was responsible for filming Peter Gimble’s iconic Blue Water White Death and the underwater sequences with Jacqueline Bisset in The Deep is still with us. For his ninetieth birthday he went to Mexico’s Guadaloupe Island to dive with Great White sharks. However, I’ve been on liveaboard dive boats with him and witnessed those that patently don’t know his history giving this elderly man, now frail, advice about diving. He’s always very patient with them despite having spent more time underwater than they have been alive. Forgive me for not mentioning any diver you think to be famous. Today, thanks to social media, we can kid ourselves we are more famous than we really are. Andy Warhol was right with his prediction that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. I simply caution those that wish to be famous through diving that the nomenclature ‘famous diver’ is something of an oxymoron. Legendary is something else!

  • New Compact Cameras for Underwater Photography

    I have to admit that during my twenty-one years with Diver Magazine as its Technical Editor, I was never much of a fan of compact cameras for underwater use. I found that generally speaking, their response time and underwater white-balancing left a lot to be desired. Even using a compact to record my children on a beach holiday in the Maldives left me feeling frustrated because the time-difference between pressing the shutter-release and recording the image left me with lots of pictures of vacant sand where the fast moving kids were no longer present. All that has changed. For example, the latest range of Canon compacts, starting with the S120 and peaking with the G7X, has a wide range of manual white-balancing specifications for in-camera jpegs that can be activated with a single press of one button once that option has been chosen when setting up the camera. Not only that but each takes a picture almost instantaneously the shutter release is pressed. They both also shoot RAW files with all the advantages those represent when it comes to home computer post-processing but these take a little longer to record onto the memory card in the camera than a conventional jpeg.

    Canon G7X
    The Canon S120 is the latest incarnation in a long-running range of little cameras that have long been popular with divers and costs only around £490 when bought as a package with its proprietary housing, but the Canon G7X has a much larger sensor meaning it can be used at higher light-sensitivity (ISO) settings without any electronic noise disfiguring the pictures. This means it gives excellent results by the light available at greater depths. With a polycarbonate Canon proprietary housing, expect to pay around £700 for it. The fly in that particular ointment was until recently the fact that the only submersible housing originally available for the G7X was one that did not accept ancillary lenses. Without a wide-angle wet lens fitted, one had to stand off the subject further than would otherwise be normal and the ensuing loss in quality thanks to the extra water it shot through lost the G7X any advantage over the S120 it might have had. recsea_rx1003_rearAgain, all that has changed with the advent of housings for the G7X by third-party manufacturers and the soon-to-arrive Inon adapter for the proprietary Canon housing. These can accept both wide-angle and macro lenses that fit directly to them without resorting to any adapter. Of course a bespoke precision machined aluminium housing such as that made by Nauticam at around £765 comes with a cost differential that puts it beyond the budget of many people but the neat little Recsea housing bridges the gap between that and the polycarbonate entry-level version. (Incidentally, there will soon be an additional fitting available at extra cost that will finally allow you to fit wet lenses to this too.) recsea_g7x_frontThe Recsea housing costs around £475 meaning this package of G7X and housing totals approximately £975. The housing is machined in Japan from durable corrosion-resistant POM and acrylic and as such is lightweight. POM is an engineering thermoplastic used in precision parts requiring high stiffness, low friction and excellent dimensional stability. In common with many other synthetic polymers, it is produced by different suppliers with slightly different formulas and sold under various names such as Delrin etc. The Recsea housing is rated to operate down to 50m deep and its clear acrylic back-plate is kept closed on to its water-tight sealing O-ring by a dial locking system. It offers full access to all the regular camera controls including the rotating front ring around the lens. You can use it in full Manual mode with access to both shutter-speed settings and lens apertures. A camera strobe diffuser and strobe mask with external strobe connection mount is included.recsea_g7x_open It weighs a mere 678g out of the water yet it is conveniently just negatively buoyant with camera installed when diving. Most importantly, the fixed front port of the Recsea housing has a 67mm thread that allows the user to fit a wide-angle or macro lens. The Inon UWL-S100 ZM80 (around £350) and the Subsee +10 Close-up lens (around £210) are popular examples. There is also a similarly neat Recsea housing available for the Sony RX100 mkIII camera that employs a sensor of almost identical specification to the Canon G7X. Both these cameras offer an interesting compact solution with picture quality approaching that of the more bulky and commensurately more expensive micro four-thirds cameras in their own submersible housings. recsea_g7x_rearI anticipate seeing a lot on the camera tables of dive boats and can recognise that the G7X and Recsea combination will appeal to those travelling Economy class by air without too much carry-on baggage allowance because it weighs so little and takes up so little space. You can buy both Canon cameras and housings at Ocean Leisure Cameras.

  • Choosing a Liveaboard Dive Boat

    Some years ago I was asked to write a feature about the worst liveaboards in the world. It was easy for me. I didn’t need to do much research. I simply wrote about the ones I had experienced and, shamefully, even one that I had worked on as a dive guide. We all tend to be rather naïve when making purchasing decisions. We are led by marketing hype, brand image and, quite frankly, the features that are important to us personally. When we chose which liveaboard to take a diving trip on we are often keen to confirm that the cabin will be large and comfortable enough, the food will be to our taste, and that the vessel looks like our idea of the sort of luxury yacht that will make our friends and neighbours envious of our holiday. Quite rightly so. However, recent tragedies that have happened in the world might give us pause for thought. Who would have thought that a magnificent luxury cruise liner would run into a reef near an Italian island and turn turtle? Who would have thought that a modern Boeing 777 would simply disappear in flight? When we choose a liveaboard we should remember one very important aspect; it isn’t simply a hotel that we choose to spend a period of time in. It’s a vessel that is floating on the surface of the ocean and that only by the grace of Archimedes’ principle.

    This vessel was lost to a fire while the passengers were diving.
    Coming back from a dive to find that your mothership no longer exists is an experience that will live with you forever, but it has happened. Abandoning a vessel during a trans-ocean crossing is not something that I’d recommend as a character-building experience. Swimming with nothing more than you were wearing in your bunk (mainly nothing) because your vessel went down in the night might save your life but it takes the edge off your vacation. You might think that these are extreme examples but, without pillorying any particular liveaboard operation, they have all happened recently and on more than one occasion. So what tips can I give you to help in deciding which liveaboard is best for your needs? I’ll leave the details of creature comforts to you to decide on and deal with aspects that you might not have thought of, bearing in mind that all boats float on and are at the mercy of the ocean.
    An Egyptian liveaboard dive boat that touched the reef.
    Firstly, there are mainly two types of hull construction, wood and metal (usually steel but sometimes aluminium). Wooden vessels are quick and cheap to construct and easy to repair – but then they need to be. Back in the early ’nineties, the steel hulled motor yacht that I worked on, as a dive-guide, in the Sudan ran onto the reef-top nearly every night when the wind changed and the impossibly difficult skipper refused to accommodate that idea when we moored up. If we had been in a vessel with a wooden hull, it would have been damaged, possibly fatally, the first time but the heavy German steel of our vessel took it out on the reef each time rather than the other way around. We crew only had the regular task of pulling it off as soon as we heard the first tell-tale groaning sounds that were only matched by our own as much needed sleep was interrupted. Today, most Egyptian liveaboard are built from wood and despite being finished to afford the height of luxury for the passengers, the Red Sea is littered with the remains of those that ‘touched’ the reef. That said, nothing sinks quicker than a steel vessel full of water, which is where watertight doors become essential. If a vessel is divided into sections separated by watertight doors, safety in a worst-case scenario can probably be assured. I remember the owner of one newly-built steel vessel proudly showing me round and pointing out such a watertight door at one end of the companionway below decks but being unimpressed when I in turn pointed out that the stern end had no such protection and was effectively open to the sea. After some years of operation, that otherwise lovely yacht. Mv.Oyster, lies on the seabed near the reef it hit at speed. Hull shape can be important too. If the vessel is likely to meet anything more than a glass calm sea, it will need to be a ‘dry’ boat in that water does not pour down the decks and it should not roll so alarmingly that the passengers are left clinging to their bunks. Wooden vessels tend to bob on the surface while steel hulls plough through the waves. Wooden vessels are lighter and can be faster while steel-hulled vessels are often more ponderous but more stable in rough water. Ask about the sea-keeping qualities of the vessel. Safe open ocean crossings demand the safety of two engines. A vessel without motive power is a vessel at risk. If your itinerary remains close to shore and help should you need it, a single-engine vessel will probably be safe enough. A good example of this is any vessel working within the weather-protected atolls of the Maldives where the mothership is usually closely permanently accompanied by a large ‘diving dhoni’. Other examples might be vessels working within the calm lagoons of Palau or Truk (Chuuk). Consider the intended route, ask how many engines a vessel has and make an informed decision.
    Panorama Explorer on its maiden voyage.
    Should it be intended to make a long ocean crossing such as that made out to Cocos Island or Aldabra Atoll, a single engine is one too few. I have been amazed to see a local bangka boat, constructed mainly from bamboo poles and fishing line, powered by a single improvised truck engine, hundreds of miles from shore at Tubbataha Reef in the Philippines. Some popular vessels that were designed with a single engine in the style of those you might see working safely within the close knit islands of the Indonesian archipelago, have recently been fitted with an auxiliary engine to satisfy safety requirements but I wonder how easily, in the event of need, they are steered by a propeller set well to one side of the rudder. You’ll want to know about generators and water-makers because running out of either electricity or water can be very inconvenient but the loss of generators can be disastrous (I know!) so you need to know that the vessel has more than one. Much of the vessel’s essential equipment depends on the ability of the generators to deliver. Thankfully, most vessels now have good navigation equipment but it still depends on the crew’s ability to use it. Back in my day as a crew member aboard the mv.Lady Jenny V, I always marvelled at the way the passengers slept soundly in their cabins while we made night crossings. Apart from the captain and I, the crew were all ‘backpackers’ working their passage in exchange for some free diving. None of them were competent to drive the boat but they each had to take a turn in the wheelhouse. We had auto-pilot, radar, a compass and the new-fangled GPS so it should have been simple but it seemed to me that every night when I took over I needed to avert an otherwise imminent disaster. One night all the passengers fell out of their bunk when our ‘engineer’ suddenly realised he was about to hit the shore and turned the vessel so abruptly he nearly sank it. It should never have happened. Ask about the competency of the crew.
    Royal Evolution is certified as an international passenger-carrying vessel with all the safety requirements.
    Communications equipment is vital. Does the vessel have a powerful marine VHF radio and are all the passengers briefed on a Mayday procedure before setting off? It’s not good having the means if the only person who knows how to use it is incapacitated or fallen overboard. Are the life-rafts regularly serviced? I was recently on a fabulously well-appointed boat but realised after a couple of days there were no life-rafts. (There are now!) People never like to think about these things. Let’s hope you never have to. Finally, what medical facilities are there and what happens in the event of the need for an emergency evacuation? All good passenger vessels, whether small liveaboard motor yachts of vast Italian cruise liners should give the passengers a proper safety briefing before leaving port. Evidently the passengers of the Costa Concordia were due to get one on the third day of their trip and that was after disaster had happened.
    Liveaboard mv.Orion in the Maldives.
    Ask the questions and get the reply in writing before you book.

  • It’s Amazing!

    The aft deck of dive boats regularly ring with anecdotes of past experiences delivered with relish. Divers enjoy an adventurous pastime and we all have had experiences, both good and bad, that are unusual. As a diving journalist of over twenty years with more than two hundred and forty different dive trips under my belt I had more than most, so when a publisher approached me to write a collection of diving stories to sit alongside its Amazing Sailing Stories and Amazing Fishing Stories my ego was boosted and I thought I was obviously the man for the job. It was only when they told me they needed around sixty-five different stories that my confidence began to falter. It seemed rather a lot. So I negotiated an extra few months to the manuscript delivery date and went home to sit down and write it.

    Trapped! (p225)
    It’s funny how one story reminds one of the next and it was only a couple of months before the job was done. Although I witnessed or was directly involved in most of the events I retold, the book is in no way autobiographical. I decided to write myself out of the commentary. It reads better that way. Once I had sent copies of the text to each of the other divers featured, so that they could confirm that I had got each story factually correct, it went off to the publisher.
    Lord Tebbit and the Turtle (p11)
    I was away on holiday at my old stamping ground in Mallorca when the first finished copy of the book was delivered to me and I was able to show it to a few old friends who lived there. They immediately asked if I included the tale of when the girl diver got bitten in the face by the conger eel, followed only by enquiries about the time we fell out of my dive boat at speed and it circled round unmanned, trying to kill us. These were just two of the sixty-five stories.
    Mauled by a Dinosaur! (p157)
    It’s not a ‘how to do it’ book nor is it a book of photographs. It is simply a collection of true events, set all around the world and as varied from each other as can be possible, so that each is atypical but retold as it happened. Five thousand hard-back copies of Amazing Diving Stories were sold within the first year, which is unprecedented for a diving title. It has recently been reprinted as a paperback and it’s in stock at Ocean Leisure (£12.99) if you’d like a copy signed by the author and if you already have a copy, bring it in to be signed.

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