On Solo Diving

I think it’s time we all face up to a an unpopular fact. Macro divers are solo divers, and it’s time that we start acting like it. In Singapore, almost all of us are solo, low-visibility divers in dive sites next to shipping lanes. The only saving grace is that most of the time we’re at 12 m or less deep and can do a CESA if we have an air supply problem.

Nobody else is going to be your dive buddy when you spend 30 minutes trying to coach a 5mm glass shrimp into focus. Even if your dive buddy is a macro photographer themselves, that just means that both of you will end up absorbed in taking pictures and completely unaware of what is going on with the other diver. You’re not really doing the job of supporting each other if one of you has an emergency. You just happen to be “same ocean same time” dive buddies which isn’t really dive buddies.

And then there is the problem of diving with other divers when you want to do macro. Even in a well-meaning group, you can’t really take any good macro photos while you’re trying to keep up with everybody else. You get frustrated and take along wide-angle gear on the next dive. In short: it’s impossible to do underwater macro photography with other divers unless they understand that the point of the dive is to not swim anywhere.

Now it’s not that I’m trying to give anybody a “guilt-trip” or say that you should stop doing macro dives. In fact, just the opposite. DIVE MOAR!!! What I’m saying is that all macro diving is solo diving and that our style of diving involves a higher level of risk and some additional training, gear, and techniques to deal with that risk.

It’s not just me, the dive training agencies and magazines have some thoughts on solo diving, although it’s a bit bipolar sometimes:

With all of this in mind, back in November/December I went through the SDI Solo Diver class with Dive Zone Tokyo. It’s more about the theory: better air management, solo navigation, risk assessment, risk mitigation, and understanding what and why you’re doing something. The knowledge was pretty good (although I harbor a humorous theory that it’s a gateway drug for tech diving), and then my practical application was to go on a drysuit solo macro photography dive. That was cool. I got dropped off at 12 meters near the entry point and hunted subjects through the boulder field while the rest of the group beelined out to the soft coral. Later on, I tried to find the blue-tipped pikachu nudibranch in the inner bay and almost got to the spot but spent too much air searching and had to come up to the surface.

Even if you don’t want to go the certification route, you should start carrying the gear to survive a solo diver emergency and know how to use it:

  • Spare air supply
  • Cutting device
  • Spare mask
  • Compass
  • SMB

Shrimp from my first official solo dive in Osezaki, Izu Penninsula, Japan:

And me on the same dive:

See you underwater!!

–Mike

The Nemo Rule

Elaine and I have a rule about anenomefish, clownfish, and Nemo fish: don’t take pictures of them on the swim out to the dive site.  Instead, take pictures of them towards the end of the dive if you still have air.

The reason is that anemonefish are pretty cool.  Ever since the movie, we have a love affair with Nemo.  They also have some reasons why you shouldn’t take pictures of them early on in the dive:

  • They move around a lot.  This means you spend more time trying to get in the right position for a shot.  Sometimes you’ll spend the entire dive working an anemonefish and not have the air to go deeper for the subjects that you’re there to take pictures of.
  • They’re very photogenic.  Lots of charm.  Everybody wants a picture of them, especially if you’re new to underwater photography.  It’s like the underwater macro version of ADHD: “Oh look, SQUIRREL!!!”
  • They’re very common.  You see them everywhere.  This means that the chances of you seeing one at the beginning of the dive is very high.  But that Nemo is keeping you from all of the other rare macro subjects that you’re looking for.
  • They usually live at shallower depths.  Conveniently, you’ll see them frequently at 5 meters deep where you’re doing your safety stop.  As long as you have air, extend out that safety stop and get some Nemo pictures.

Two huge huge huge HUGE tips.

  1. Always when you see an anemonefish, check the anemone for other animals.  Things like porcelain crabs, transparent shrimp, etc also live in anemones and they make awesome subjects.  One dive in Anilao, I watched an anemonefish continually bite a porcelain crab that was in their anemone.  Great behavior, great photos.
  2. When you see a large anemonefish, they are the female of the group.  Back off a bit and watch them to see if they go someplace and “kiss” a rock nearby.  Or even keep gravitating back to a rock a meter or so away.  If you check on that rock, you’ll find little fish eggs.  Break out the supermacro adapter and get some shots!!

So when do you take pictures of Nemo?  Here are some good times:

  • Dive is more than half over and you don’t have a different subject.
  • You’re at or near your safety stop, both in depth and distance from the entry point.
  • You have plenty of card space and camera battery.
  • You can’t find any other subjects after looking for a long time.

And you get a 2-for on photos.  Because Nemo……

See you underwater!!!

–Mike

Why You Should Take Macro Pictures Underwater (Or at Least Try..)

There are many reasons why you might want to try underwater macro photography while you dive. I personally got started when my wife and I attended a macro workshop with Irwin Ang and Jane Mong Lee Kian in Tulamben, Bali. We didn’t really know much other than basic photography techniques. As far as macro, we only knew that it was a type of underwater photography and we are always ready for another diving trip to Tulamben.

  1. It’s fun. Almost addictive. It’s like a miniature treasure hunt each and every time. In my usual dive site, there is almost a flavor-of-the-week feel to it. Some days it’s nudibranchs. Other days, skeleton shrimp, or even seahorses.
  2. You’ll amaze your friends. I’ve seen it time and time again: when I show friends my underwater macro photos, they don’t believe that they were taken on the same planet that we live on.  Good pictures look like they come from the mind of Dr Seuss.
  3. You can do it anywhere. Where I live now in Singapore, they call the water “milo peng”–iced chocolate drink–because the visibility on a good day is 3 meters. On a bad day, it’s 0.5 meters–1.5 feet. But when you are on a dive taking macro pictures, all you need is 20cm of visibility. You would be surprised how many sandy, silty, shallow “muck dive” sites that exist.  These sites have no interest for normal divers but for macro shooters, they are paradise.
  4. It can save a trip. Even in some of the best diving locations, the weather is beyond your control. Wind and waves can stir up sand and silt to reduce visibility and make the surface unsafe for boat activity. Current and tides can push divers out past the dive site or turn the dive into a drift dive. But no problem, just look for a shallow, flat dive site in a sheltered bay and try your skills at macro.
  5. You get better diving skills. Macro diving requires breath control, fin movement, and buoyancy skills on a microscopic level. Move too much and you can’t find your subject again. I’ve personally seen my air consumption slowly get better as I get more relaxed and efficient underwater.
  6. You find more wildlife. I’ve taken friends on macro dives, and when we go slow and deliberate and “check all the shrubberies”, we see 10x the normal amount of sea life. Part of that is the new small things we find, but the big sea life also is less afraid of you when you don’t charge right at it and stick an action camera and video light in its face.
  7. You learn more. You start to learn about ecology and habitat. You find where the animals live and what their behavior is. You learn more about photography, waterproofing, and lighting. You learn more about yourself, your skills, and how to stalk underwater subjects.
  8. It’s as uncomplicated (or complicated) as you want it to be. I’ve seen photographers with a handheld torch and an Olympus TG-4 that can take better pictures than other photographers with expensive setups. With macro modes on compact cameras, macro doesn’t require a huge investment in equipment.
  9. It makes you a better photographer. Underwater macro is sometimes demanding on your lighting and camera use. You’re using a paper-thin plane of focus and being pushed side-to-side by the surge. You have to find a stable position and not crush the coral. You’re breathing through a hose underwater. This stress-test of your skills translates into better photography skills on land and subjects like flowers that suddenly seem easier to photograph than before.
  10. Guaranteed whale shark sighting! Or mola mola. Or manta. Or something big that you can’t capture an image of with a macro rig.  Even in a group of divers, somebody has to take a “sacrificial” macro setup to make sure that you’ll see big animals.

See you underwater!

–Mike

Policies and Disclaimers

Because bloggers sometimes “roll in the dough” that they got from pushing paid-for-reviews on their readers…..

  1. I’m not really making any money on this blog yet. It doesn’t even come close to how much I spend on gear, trips, certifications, etc.
  2. I won’t review it unless I’ve used it.
  3. Assume I paid for something (gear, trips) myself unless I say otherwise.
  4. I will use Amazon affiliate links where applicable for products.
  5. I use Google Adwords via WordPress plugin.
  6. I can change this policy as I see fit.