Monthly Archives: February 2015

  • 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.

  • Regulator Testing by Diving Magazines

    Everyone has had the experience of a broken domestic iron because it got knocked off the ironing board but would you think it a legitimate comparison test of domestic irons to see how well each fared subject to a drop test? No? I thought not, but that’s equivalent to what a British diving magazine has resorted to with its latest comparison test of regulators. They wanted to find out which regulator was toughest when subjected to the sort of disaster that rarely happens, by dropping a scuba tank on each or dropping a scuba tank in turn with each regulator fitted. Not very scientific nor easily kept consistent between each drop but they did it anyhow. It was like testing and comparing domestic irons by dropping them on the floor! Magazine editorials have been reduced to performing such stunts because since CE-certification for regulators was introduced and the ANSTI regulator-testing machine was developed to give an objective computerized result, quite frankly all regulators, certainly all those sold at Ocean Leisure, will give an easy breathe.

    Test divers with multiple tanks head out to deep water. Test divers with multiple tanks head out to deep water.
    86-87-1 Two divers breathe simultaneously from one regulator.
    I’m partly to blame for this state of affairs because around thirty years ago I started doing comparison tests of regulators, not only with a breathing machine but with groups of divers who actually breathed off each tested model at depth and compared the qualities of each. When we started doing this we discovered some horrors. Some regulators were not safe to take deeper than eighteen-metres while others were excellent breathers. The test made good copy for the magazine I was technical editor of and we managed to get the overall quality of regulators available up to a high standard. I went with a group of divers and multiple tanks each time down to fifty-metres-plus where they were able to experience the different way in which these regulators delivered air (the densest gas likely to be put through such a device) and make notes. In fact copious notes were made and two divers would breathe off one regulator to check each was good for an out-of-air emergency.
    Copious notes were made at depth. Copious notes were made at depth.
    It was uncanny in the way the experiences of the different divers coincided. I was always careful to choose experienced divers who were competent to work at depth and checked by springing upon them a written test at depth for nitrogen narcosis before we started the regulator comparisons in earnest. Then CE-certification came in and manufacturers had to make sure their products met the standard or go out of business. In the most recent tests I orchestrated, we found that there was little to choose between them unless any had a positive manufacturing fault. Most recently we were reduced to noting cosmetic differences and by-and-large these tests became pointless. Hence the ‘toughest regulator test’ we have recently witnessed. Of course there are some design differences. Piston-type regulators deliver the most air and for this reason they prove popular with those that dive in warm water conditions, but they are less suitable for use in cold fresh water than diaphragm-type regulators. Many of these have heat-sinks incorporated to take what little warmth there is in the water and transfer it to the very cold gas that is passing depressurized from the diver’s tank. If you are going to use a regulator in water polluted with muck or fine sand, one that is environmentally sealed might be more appropriate._DSC0159 Then there’s the question of servicing. Some makes are less well supplied with spare parts in remote parts of the world than others. Some enjoy very long servicing intervals indeed whereas others should be serviced annually, The staff at Ocean Leisure are exceedingly knowledgeable and if you can tell them your particular needs and requirements will be able to advise you which regulator is best for you. Whichever you choose to buy, hopefully, you won’t experience a car driving over your regulator anytime soon and they all breathe well!

  • Choosing a Suit for Diving.

    Water is a great conductor of heat. It conducts heat twenty-five times faster than air, which is why we use it in our central-heating systems. However the same thing applies when we are surrounded by water. It conducts away heat very quickly and no matter how tropical it may be, unless the water is as warm as your normal skin temperature, you will eventually get chilled. The right suit for the prevailing conditions will keep you comfortable. You may only need a skin, or maybe a 3mm neoprene wetsuit, but it will make all the difference between a long and relaxed dive and maybe one that is shorter and ends with the shivers. People vary greatly in their physical make-up together with their tolerance for discomfort so there are no strict rules. While a 3mm suit might be right for one person, another might demand a 7mm-thick wetsuit. Ocean Leisure stocks a range of suits from the lightest of lightweight dive-skins through to the warmest of warm drysuits. What is really important is that whichever suit you choose, it fits you properly and the changing rooms at Ocean Leisure are busy with people checking just that. Luckily, the modern materials from which these suits are made of are so flexible that these suits are easy to slip in and out of.360836 You may feel comfortable swimming in nothing more than a skimpy swimming costume but another advantage of a diving suit is that is makes the wearing of scuba equipment much more comfortable and it also stops your skin from getting inadvertently damaged by knocks against coral or rocky substrate. Abrasions to your epidermis can be significant especially in the tropics as there are a plethora of pathogens in sea-water. Your skin is your first line of defence and a break in this can lead to infections that can end up being more than inconvenient. Not only that but a wetsuit can protect you against the ravages of man-eating plankton too. This minute zoo-plankton is formed from tiny animals that inhabit all tropical seas and in some areas its irritating effect is known as sea-itch. That’s why we tend to recommend a full-length suit. 310175A dry suits keep you dry while the insulation against the cold is provided by the garments worn underneath it. This can vary from a mere thin woollen undergarment that one might wear in Egypt’s Red Sea in the colder months to the full nine-yards of a thick undersuit more suitable for use in Britain’s chilly waters. If you are surprised at the suggestion to wear a drysuit in Egypt, bear in mind that while the water temperature might be equable, a cold wind can blow off the desert and this can leave those who climb out of their damp wetsuits feeling quite chilly while the drysuit user is still comfortable and warm.   132053Some people will tell you that the fit of a drysuit is less important. We disagree. A properly fitting drysuit will allow you to swim as freely as you would in a wetsuit. Whichever suit you choose, make sure it’s one that fits you properly. Spend time trying on more than one. The helpful people that form the staff at Ocean Leisure are there to help you choose the suit that’s right for you and the water in which you will be diving.

  • Shark Feeding - The Rights and Wrongs?

    Bull shark in the Bahamas with Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch
    It seems that many modern-day divers have very mixed feelings about methods to get close-up and personal with sharks. They want to say they have dived with sharks but many don’t want them close enough to see properly or for them to feel it’s they that have been seen by the sharks. Dive guides in the Red Sea will protest that they get plenty of close-up interaction with sharks without baiting but these are Oceanic White-tip sharks that are ocean wanderers and opportunistic feeders. They will make a close pass of anything including a diver to check out if it’s a potential meal. Interactions are exciting but brief in the extreme.
    Oceanic White-tip Shark in the Red Sea
    These sharks are regularly fed because they follow the busy shipping movements on the Red Sea, a main route between Asia and Europe. All the trash is thrown overboard from these vessels. They’ve been doing this for more than 100 years. The bigger diving liveaboards that are now in evidence make the same noises and ring the dinner bell for these animals. On the other hand, the big populations of grey reef sharks and other reef species have, in the main, long since gone from Egyptian waters. Most sharks are cautious. That’s how they get to grow old in a shark-eat-shark world, and size matters. Divers are usually bigger in comparison to most sharks and sharks usually prefer to stay away from them rather than risk injury from what might be another large predator.
    At a Caribbean reef shark feed in the Bahamas
    Of course, there are many different ways to attract sharks and I’ve witnessed shark-feeding techniques in many parts of the world. Bearing in mind that sharks tend to be big animals with mouths full of sharp teeth, my opinion of the different methods I have seen is quite variable from the orderly method using one piece of bait at a time at the end of a short spear as developed by Stuart Cove, the famous shark-wrangler to the movie industry, to the rather risky methods I witnessed in French Polynesia. There, the dive guide carried a severed mahi-mahi head under his BC and would cut bits of with a knife, offering it in his bare hand to passing hungry sharks. I questioned if this was not just a bit too risky? I think he finally agreed after he had his hand sewn back together later. We hear all sorts of arguments along the lines of how sharks lose their ability to hunt naturally if they are fed. I would suggest that the amount of food offered at a typical shark-feed is tiny in proportion to the number of sharks present so it represents nothing more than a free snack. Sharks have a hierarchy and defer to larger sharks. None want to get injured by another shark so that when dead bait is offered there is little sense of competition among the animals. Sharks are not the undiscerning predators depicted by the media. Stuart Cove will tell you that he uses different types of bait for attracting different species of shark. For instance Caribbean reef sharks love grouper heads whereas Great Hammerheads look for stingrays in the sand. In the absence of any stingray cleanings being available, he’ll use barracuda parts. For an expedition to photograph oceanic white-tips, I saw him buy 500lb of bonito, and so on. We also hear opinions that shark-feeding encourages sharks to associate humans with food and yet there are no facts to back this up. There are far more shark attacks off the coast of Florida where shark-feeding has been banned for years than almost anywhere else in the world.
    If you want dramatic close-ups, like this Great Hammerhead shark, you've got to get close!
    At the same time Mike Neuman, owner of Beqa Adventure Divers in Fiji says he is against the ‘shark huggers’, that’s to say, those people who say that sharks are harmless and need our affection. I think we can all agree with him in that requiem sharks generally have a mouth full of sharp teeth and if you want to get close to them you should be aware of that but if you want good pictures of sharks, you've got to get close – very close!

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