Field Notes From Belize – July/August 2011

Our trip to Belize, on the Aggressor liveaboard was excellent and a chance to concentrate on both underwater and also some topside photography.

There were some interesting photographic challenges – one in particular that stands out was the feeding tarpon at Silver Caves. Here’s a description of how I tackled it. – JC

There were always several tarpon in the area, all going in and out of the cave to seize a snack before coming back out into the open.

However, I soon worked out that if I waited inside the cave, among the mass of silversides, the tarpon wouldn’t enter, so I needed a different approach.

I decided to wait outside of the cave and watch what was happening and found that if I parked myself right outside the cave entrance, the tarpon still wouldn’t go inside as they would have to pass directly by me. But when I stayed further back and to the side of the cave, the tarpon began entering the cave again, into the mass of fish.

Once a tarpon was “committed” to entering the cave, I would follow it in. On each attempt, I couldn’t see the tarpon through the wall of fish, so I had to be ready for it to suddenly appear as the silversides parted. I also worked out that I needed to switch on my strobe’s pilot light so that I could see what was going on, and to prevent my auto focus “searching” in the gloom, and being unable to lock on to the subject.

With each tarpon encounter in the cave, I would probably get a chance for only one image in most instances, so it was a difficult and time consuming shot to capture. On some attempts, the tarpon would escape from the cave without me seeing it at all.

Both the silversides and tarpon’s scales are what I call “hyper-reflective” and therefore difficult to light correctly. Careful strobe positioning and reducing the strobe power was the only answer here to avoid the nightmare “whiteout” on certain parts of the fish, which can ruin an otherwise acceptable image. To help with this, I set the camera to show highlights which is a very useful function in helping to avoid this problem.

So, after two dives, I did get an image along the lines of what I was hoping for. Without a doubt, there are better images of this spectacle that can be captured, but I went away thinking that I did everything I could to get the result.

<Read about this trip here>

Field Notes From Bandos in the Maldives – April 2011

Nothing startling to report from this trip from a photographic perspective, though we were able to capture some nice images in amongst spending time with Zac.

Here’s an excerpt from a feature that I wrote describing a surprise manta encounter. – JC

We visited a site called Lankan Reef which promised a fast moving show, but when we arrived there the current was slight, almost non-existent. It also boasted a manta cleaning station which we would pass en route down the reef, but it was too early in the year for manta ray encounters (it was April, and the season is May – November). Or was it?

Later in the dive, someone tugged excitedly on my BCD. I turned around to find a manta approaching me. I instinctively attempted to capture an image, but it was too late to sort out my camera settings as it passed overhead. Though it was great to see a manta so unexpectedly (and so close), the photographer in me felt more than a little frustration as it cruised majestically away from me down the reef. I guessed it might be the only chance I would get.

But no, somewhere beyond the edge of the visibility it must have turned around and began heading back towards me. I didn’t notice it straight away, but when I did, there was time (though not much time) to prepare to capture an image. I quickly fired a test shot to get the water colour “in the zone” but to my horror, it was way out. Way too dark. I’d have to sort it out very quickly, adjusting the settings as the manta headed straight towards me.

This was really “staring down the barrel” as I intuitively made some changes with no time for another test shot. A quick glance up and I’m thinking “don’t panic, don’t panic, it’s not here yet” and with the adjustments frantically made, the manta was upon me. This time I captured a small sequence of shots as it soared past. Yes!

But the action wasn’t finished yet. As there wasn’t any current, we turned around and headed in the direction of the manta, back towards the cleaning station we’d passed earlier in the dive. By the time we arrived there, most divers were low on air and close to deco but there was one final spectacle to enjoy before we ascended back to the surface.

The lone manta was indeed at the cleaning station as we had hoped, but it wasn’t alone for long as it was soon joined by another. For a few minutes we watched them circle the cleaning station, with all divers behaving impeccably by respecting their space so as not to spook them. It was a great encounter.

<Read about this trip here>

Field Notes From Donsol & Ticao Island in the Philippines – March 2011

This trip turned into a bit of a “nightmare” thanks to poor weather/diving conditions and picking up a nasty sinus infection en route. Here, I quote from a feature that I wrote about the experience. – JC

Donsol– On the first interaction, the visibility was at its worst, possibly three meters maximum and probably less. This made it impossible to see the shark approach, and I wasn’t able to see anything until it was literally passing underneath me. You couldn’t see the whole animal and it reminded me of some dives in the UK when the visibility is bad, where instead of suddenly finding yourself face to face with a pier leg or a diver that suddenly appeared out of the gloom, it’s a 25 foot plus whale shark!

Nonetheless, on my first interaction we got four whale sharks and on the second visit (after my Ticao Island visit), we got two sharks. For the second interaction, the visibility was improved, allowing snorkellers to just about see the whole animal, and we were able to remain with one massive specimen for quite a long period.

Photographically, the lens of choice could only be a fish eye (a 10.5mm Nikon in my case) but it was very difficult thanks to the conditions and I was unable to get anything on the first interaction that I could possibly be pleased with, so I’d have to hope that it would be better a few days later. I selected higher ISO’s of 400 and 640 due to the dark water, and set the camera to shutter priority.

Six days later, on the second interaction after my Ticao Island interlude, I was able to benefit from the slightly improved conditions to capture I couple of images that I thought best represented the conditions I experienced, but in a way that was acceptable to publish. For these, I used similar settings to those described above, and basically persevered among countless snorkellers and difficult conditions until the whale shark moved on.

Ticao Island – From a photographer’s standpoint, the Manta Bowl had subjects that you would wish to photograph, if only you could get close enough to do so. The lone manta looked as though it might grant us a close pass but it frustratingly veered away not to return, so I was only able to get one image of it in the middle distance. I took very few photographs on these dives thanks to the strong currents, hanging on with reef hooks, and the inability to get close to anything. It wasn’t the conditions for “photo-diving”.

On the second day, we visited an area known as San Miguel located at the northern tip of Ticao Island, more than an hour by boat from the resort. It’s characterised by rocky islands typical of the Philippines and other areas of the Far East.

There are several dive sites in this area, mostly offering slopes and walls adorned with impressive soft corals. The area is reputedly good for nudibranchs and other “macro” reef life, but I wasn’t able to complete the day.

<Read about this trip here>