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Intro to Blackwater diving and photography

So, you may or may not know what blackwater diving is, to many, it sounds just like a regular nightdive, it’s dark (black), and you’re in the water, right? Wrong, it is an entirely different way to dive, personally I feel it is more exciting and thrilling than any other dive. Although I had known what it was for a while, I had never actually experienced it first hand until a few months ago. Since that first time, I was desperate to try again, while the dive itself was amazing, I wasn’t happy with my images at the end. I will get into some photography tips I wish I had implemented on my introduction dive.

What exactly is Blackwater diving?

As I was staying in a resort for a number of months, I saw a lot of guests come and go. Every so often the topic would come up as people were intrigued as to what this mysteriously titled event actually entailed. After my first time I did it, I was able to shed some light on this for them. To be honest sometimes my explanation made it sound quite scary, no more giant squid jokes….

Set Up

Essentially, it involves a weighted downline from a buoy, somewhere around 20-25m, with some powerful lights attached to the bottom and top, this is what will attract the marine life. Now the part that scares people, you will be doing this over deep water, ideally 200m as a minimum and sometimes up to 1000m depending where. This is important as it’s the creatures from the depths that make up the planets biggest migration on earth, which is what we are all there to see. The buoy is attached to the boat so that the line and boat drift together. Each 5m, another light is added, this brightens up surrounding water and allows you to see everyone else, it also serves as a reference point to where you can attach yourself. Although not essential (but highly recommended). Each diver will have a leash, a small rope about 3m or 4m with a snaplock each end, one for the bcd, and one for the line. It can get annoying being tied to the line, but it is very easy to lose focus on your surroundings while chasing round tiny alien like animals. Add this to any drifting current and you may find yourself alone with just your torch light in no time at all. Due to the nature of the dive, it is best to keep to small groups, maybe 4-6 maximum.

Planning Ahead

For the best results, after everything is set up in the water, wait a while. Giving the lights a head start to attract life before getting in can save the initial waiting in some cases. I never minded the wait, for me it added to the suspense. During this time on the boat you can console fellow divers questioning what they have signed up for, make any final changes to your dive rig or camera gear, or if it’s your first time, sit in silence and pretend you aren’t a little worried about what your’e about to do… It’s going to be FUN!! One thing I learned was to use this time to plan peoples positions. Once you are under there is no way of communicating this so it’s best to have it near enough sussed before you jump in.

I would recommend splitting up the 5m depths so everyone doesn’t end up on the same level, bumping together or kicking each other gets annoying very quickly. Some may have preferred depths, others may be less conservative on air so might want to stay nearer the surface at 5m or 10m. I have heard mixed comments on the ‘best’ depth, I think it’s all a gamble, I always chose to go where you have the most room and I never regretted it. So it is much easier to think this through beforehand, everyone can pick a depth to start at, or maybe rotate to make it fair, it just saves all the confusion.

During the dive

After hearing how it works but not really knowing, you will quickly work it out after jumping in. After hooking yourself on the line at your chosen depth, you are now free to roam around and search for critters you may never have come across before.

Technique

  • Take it slow and easy, be mindful of others around you, do not chase
  • Use your torch to look beyond the illuminated areas to search for subjects , if you have a camera light, this extra torch is helpful also
  • If there is current, it is usually a good idea to be ahead of it, when you find an interesting critter you want to have as much time with it as possible, so give yourself that extra few seconds by anticipating this instead of being pulled along
  • Approach subjects very slowly, many species you come across are sensitive to water movement and will vanish or back away if they sense you rushing toward them
  • Look for small things, many first timers have their eyes set to search for larger animals, some of the blackwater critters can be very small and should not be missed

What will I see?

Imagine being in space and having alien like creatures floating all around you, this will be your environment from the moment you dive in to the moment you’re back on the boat. Unlike other dives, rather than everyone observing the same creature, queuing up to take a picture, divers should return with their own unique images and tales of their encounters.

Expect to see all manner of plankton species, jellyfish, juvenile stage species, squid, larval gastropods. It’s a bit of a lottery which for me is the draw, like all dives, some will be better than others. Appreciating all the small things will keep you hooked. Of course there is the sought after sightings like the Paper Nautilus and larval Octopus species which everyone hopes to come across. Some juvenile fish look completely different to their maturer counterparts and can be just as fascinating. The hard part can be identifying what you have seen, which is why a good picture is all the more rewarding.

Camera Settings and technique

From my own experience and what I have read I believe an optimal lens to be around 60mm. This allows for a good balance of working distance, focal length and focusing speed. You want to get as close as possible to avoid backscatter, sometimes a little is inevitable but you can limit this. I only had a 90mm lens at the time which was quite challenging, slow to focus, it didn’t yield great results my first time but it is possible, just requires more practice.

Multiple shots are usually needed to get that perfect picture, so I would recommend setting the strobe strength to no more than 2/3 depending on your recycle time. You can lift the ISO to compensate for this, some good starting setting would be something like

  • ISO 360
  • f/14 to f/16
  • Shutter Speed 1/160- 1/200
  • Strobes set to 1/2 to 2/3

Focusing

You will find that the majority of what you will find is fairly transparent and will soak up a lot of light. A modelling light with a narrow beam will help the cameras auto-focus and hopefully prevent it from locking onto particles in the water. In my case, using auto-focus with my mirrorless 90mm became so frustrating I opted for manual focus. If you have similar problems, try manually focusing to your shortest working distance using your hand or the downline. With this set you can just rock the camera back and forth using the viewfinder or LCD to press the shutter when the area you want comes into focus. This is a difficult way of doing things but can be less infuriating then letting the camera hunt for focus.

Strobe Position

Everyone has their own opinion on the optimum positions, I’m sure there is benefit to each. I found for eliminating back scatter, having strobes pointed a little inwards to avoid lighting up the background worked best. Setting them at at angle so the edge of the beam just lights the subject should yield the good results. If you only use 1 strobe then having it above and to the side of the port would work well, again ensuring the beam doesn’t light up everything in front of the port.

Only Macro?

I guess this would all depend on where you are diving and what you hope to spot. Generally Black water is all about macro and getting close, however not always. Don’t forget, you are in deep water and anything can come up and pay you a visit. The highlight of the last blackwater I did was a small group of Mobula Rays that circled the bottom of the line for a few minutes, of course I had my 90mm on but would have been a great wide angle opportunity. You could come across sharks, rays, dolphins, anything. It’s up to you if you want to take that risk for something bigger to drop by.

Diving in North Sulawesi

Welcome all to my first blog, I hope to provide some useful information and insight on any topics, experiences, or dive destinations I deem worthy. I hope it may be of use to anyone reading or at the very least an interesting read, we shall see!

For the second half of 2019 I was fortunate enough to be diving in the rich waters around the northern end of Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s bigger islands. You can fly to the Island’s capital Manado from nearby better known locations like Jakarta and Bali, taking 2 to 3 hours.

Murex Staff and Boat

I spent 5 months doing photography work for Murex Dive Resorts, one of the oldest and most established dive resorts in the area. They have three locations they offer in a package known as the ‘Passport to Paradise’, an accurate description by all means. These locations include Manado (about an hour from the airport), Bangka Island, a 20 minute boat from the very tip of Sulawesi, then there is Lembeh, the proclaimed Mecca of muck diving. Each location offering something a little different above and below sea level.

Northern part of Sulawesi and Bangka Island

Manado and Bunaken National Park

The diving in Manado was a superb mix of muck and coral diving along the coast, as well as some excellent wall diving in the Bunaken Marine Park. A sun filled half hour boat ride which can boast sighting of dolphins, whales and other large fauna. During my stay we saw pods of dolphins playing with the boat, Pilot Whales, Sperm Whales and on one occasion Orcas were spotted from the shore. The marine park charges a small fee for a pass allowing you to dive there, which aids the conservation and protection of these wonderful sites, as well as the villages in the area. I plan to go in to more detail on each location but the thing that truly stands out in Bunaken is the crazy number of turtles, some sites it is common to see 30 or more! I believe one time the dive guide counted throughout the dive and the number was somewhere in the 50s, so more a less everywhere you look.

For a full blog on Bunaken please read my dedicated blog here
Dodging Turtles

Bunaken sits near the centre of the Coral Triangle and comprises of mostly wall dives, offering something for everyone, snorkelers included. It has been a true success story for marine conservation in Indonesia, with many saying the fish numbers have largely increased and other species of fish are appearing that were not present before. The coral on the walls is amazing, with colourful sponges and seafans, while the reefs, sitting at around 5m, play home to a huge diversity of marine life and reef critters. I spent a lot of time on top of the reef, encountering Blue Fin and big eye trevally, schools of Needlefish, Anthias, Sergeant Majors, Black Snappers and many many more. As you reach the drop off it was common to see huge gatherings of Redtooth Triggerfish filling the water column. For those who like to look out into the blue for the bigger things, you may be rewarded with some big Tuna, Reef Sharks, Rays other game fish.

Manado Muck Diving

Along the coast of Manado you can find many exciting coral and muck diving sites, all within 5 to 25 minutes from the resort. For those who like to hunt there is a few true sandy bottom muck sites that can be great for tiny critters. Over the months I was able to capture many Frogfish, Cuttlefish, Octopus, Nudibranches, Shrimps, Sea Kraits and much more.

Nudibranch found at Murex House Reef