Safety and Underwater Macro Photography

Underwater macro divers have several types of injuries that are more common than “normal” divers. This is a non-exhaustive list of them.

Bottom-Related Injuries. No, not *that* kind of bottom…. We spend a lot of time grabbing, laying down, or kneeling on the sandy bottom.

For starters, please don’t kill the coral or animals by squishing them. Only touch the sandy bottom, and even then, think about if you really need to touch anything or if you can hover.

Some nudibranchs and skeleton shrimp live on hydroids. Hydroids have many different species but mostly look like little white bushes with a white or brown stem. Fire coral looks like a brown elkhorn coral. Both hydroids and fire coral have small nematocysts like jellyfish that sting you when you touch them. After 3 or so days, this turns into a very itchy rash like poison ivy or poison oak. I normally get it on my hands, arms, and knees. Prevention is easy: don’t touch anything and wear a 2/3mm wetsuit as protection. If you do get a rash, you can kill it easily by rubbing it with white vinegar like a jellyfish sting.

Stonefish, scorpionfish, cone snails, etc live on the bottom and are completely non-aggressive. They also can stab you and inject venom. The zebra crab pictured below lives on top of an animal called a “fire urchin”. It’s called “fire urchin” because with the red and white coloring it looks like it’s on fire and because when it pokes you and shoots its venom into you, it feels like it’s on fire. Short answer: always check where you’re going to be for dangerous bottom-dwellers before you touch anything.

Sea urchins have very long spines that are impossible to remove: the more you try to grab them, the more they fall apart. The Southeast Asian remedy is to take a shoe and beat on the area where they went into your skin. This breaks up the fibers and your skin can eject them normally over time–and a longer time at that. However, it’s not a fun experience.

Overweighting. I usually go 1 or 2 kg overweight on macro dives (except when there is a full-coral bottom) so that it’s harder for the current and waves to push me around. In a big surge, I might add 3kg. It’s not fun to swim with that much extra weight, you have to add a lot of air to your BCD. That extra weight is dangerous if you can’t ditch it in an emergency like a BC failure. Don’t rig it on your body without being able to drop enough of it to get to positive buoyancy. IE, make that extra weight ditchable/removable.

Standoff distance. Some animals are dangerous if you get too close. The more obvious ones are the kind with teeth like eels. They have a habit of hiding under the rocks and coming out at you when you least expect it. But also think about the mantis shrimp. They can crack glass on the end of a camera housing port. Some bigger fish like bumphead wrasse can ram you like sheep. Crabs and lobsters can pinch. Supermacro shooters are the worst at standoff distance because the focus distance on these rigs is sometimes less than 3cm. Always determine the minimum standoff distance to the subject and to other things in the immediate area. Watch the animals in your area to see if they look alarmed and back off if you need to.

Decompression Limits and Out-Of-Air. Macro divers usually have better air consumption and as a result, they have longer bottom times. They also get hyperfocused on taking pictures and don’t pay enough attention to their dive time. Some quick tricks to help you out:

  • Set a time alarm on your computer as a reminder. Even better if you can set several of them. If you’re used to 60-minute bottom times, set up an alarm for 40 minutes and every 5 minutes after that.
  • Use an air-integrated dive computer. They compute both nitrogen loading/no-decompression limit (NDL) and your breathing rate and alarm you when either is starting to run low.
  • Put your computer on your camera where you can see it easily. You can strap it to a float arm. There are even some float arms that come across the top of the camera horizontally just to hold your computer.
  • Learn from tech diving/DIR. There is a lot to be said about incorporating some of the risk-management concepts and setup for tech diving into your macro diving routine. I use a backplate/wings, long hose, jet fins, air calculation, etc in all my dives now.

Entry and Exit. Camera gear is usually close to neutrally-buoyant underwater but on the shore and getting into the water, the amount of gear on your body can be enormous. You hit the water surface harder and you float less than normal divers. For boat dives, always enter the water then have somebody hand you your camera. For shore dives, a couple of pointers:

  • Abort the dive if the waves are bigger than a meter. There is always another website. Plus if the waves are that big, you’re probably not going to be able to take good pictures anyway. Go driving and find a better spot.
  • Pick the most sheltered entry point. Even if it means a longer swim, it’s still better.
  • Use a tech-diving regulator necklace. Put your alternate second-stage on it so if you get rolled by a wave you can get a regulator in your mouth easier.
  • Stage some of your gear in the water. Pick it up after you do your entry. I have an idea to try using 2 half-sized cylinders rigged sidemount because you have the same amount of air but it’s easier to manage and you can pre-stage the cylinders in the water.
  • Get help to carry your camera and your weights. Even with a small team, you can hold someone’s camera while they go ashore in just scuba gear, drop their gear, and come back to get everyone’s cameras and other heavy things. It takes more time but it’s safer in rough conditions where you don’t have a shore crew to help.

Burning out torches and strobes. You can’t take photos without light. You can’t hunt effectively for supermacro subjects without a torch. In low-light conditions, we might use our torch the entire dive. Always carry an extra torch and replace torch batteries after every dive. In an emergency where you lose your torch batteries completely, you can use your focus light on your camera and sometimes your strobes have a light that you can turn on.

Current, Waves, and Surge. Both of these have a larger impact on us. Because we have more weight, we don’t float as well on the surface. When we are in shallow water, we don’t have the use of our arms like we do on normal dives and the surge and waves can roll us on the rocks. Pushing a camera into a strong current is less hydrodynamic, so don’t swim down-current at the start of a dive where you’ll get trapped and can’t swim back up-current while you’re racing the last of your air supply. In an extreme emergency, you can do an open-water ascent.

Addiction and costs. Not really an in-water danger, but underwater macro photography is so much fun that you’ll find yourself dreaming about it at work, while you’re driving, etc. Try to stay in the present. And, with some exceptions, underwater photography gear is expensive. Set a budget and stick to it.

Solo Diving Risks. We dive solo very frequently. I’ll address this in a later blog post.

See you underwater!!