Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Goodbye Seven Skies

Goodbye 7 skies
It is like losing a friend. it is with a heavy heart that we say 7 skies wreck is gone. just like that, illegal salvagers destroyed a wreck that given many divers wonderful memories. #RIP7SKIES
Posted by DiveRACE on Monday, June 1, 2015

I am outraged and terribly saddened. Illegal salvagers destroyed the Seven Skies, one of the best known shipwrecks in the South China Sea. She went down in 1969 in a mysterious explosion that killed several sailors. I first dove her in 2004 and had the opportunity to dive her again many times over the years. She was one of the reasons I first learned how to technical dive. Our "Wrecks of the South China Sea" trips always featured the Seven Skies heavily. I once saw a whale shark and another time saw a beautiful black manta on her. She was home to many many animals and plants. She was sometimes an easy, calm dive and other times a challenge (where we had to climb hand over hand down the downline) due to screaming currents. But she was always a treasure and it was always a treat to dive her. Endangered species, historical monuments, and shipwrecks at the bottom of the ocean - once they are gone, they are gone forever.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Diving Bintan Island, March 2015

I went to Bintan Island again last weekend, staying at Sahid Bintan Resort and diving with Tasik Divers Bintan again.  The diving was good but the shooting conditions were quite tough with current or strong surge on most dives.  Vis was somewhere between 5-8m on average but there was a lot of floating crap in the water.  On Sunday it thunderstormed for most of the day, making surface conditions very rough and soggy, but the diving was good.  The trip reminded me that shooting with a 105mm lens in surge is very very frustrating.

Highlights for me were bornella stellifer (3), phyllodesmium opalescens, and several small shrimp and nudis that I didn't photograph like nembrotha, tambja, and doto.

 Feeding bornella stellifer.  105 mm, 1/320s, f/25, ISO 100

Rosy spindle cowrie (phenacovolva rosea).  60mm & Subsee +5 diopter, 1/320s, f/22, ISO 100

A pair of large whip gobies (bryaninops amplus).  60mm & Subsee +5 diopter, 1/320s, f/22, ISO 100

Phyllodesmium opalescens with eggs.  60mm & Subsee +5 diopter, 1/320s, f/22, ISO 100

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Lembeh Video, October 2013

It was ages ago now but here's the awesome video of Alex Mustard's Wetpixel macro workshop that I attended in October 2013.  Lots of great memories, thoughtfully and painstakingly put together.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Diving Pulau Hantu, November 2014

I joined GS-Diving for an afternoon trip to Pulau Hantu this past Sunday.  The boat was the Dolphin Explorer and departed from the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club.  We did a 2 dive trip, leaving the dock at 1.30pm and arriving back at 6.30pm.  The boat ride was about 60 min to the dive site, which was the Ghost Wreck, a small wooden wreck in about 10m of water.

Visibility was 2-4m and quite milky.  The wreck, though small, had a lot of interesting life.  The highlight for me was seeing a beautiful orange/brown ceratosoma trilobatum.  We also saw lots of blue dragons (pteraeolidia ianthina), a few large orbicular batfish, a school of large sweetlips, and 2 chromodoris atromarginata.  On our first dive, we also spent a few minutes on the nearby reef, which was ok but not as interesting as the wreck.

Overall, the trip was short and sweet.  Nice boat, short boat rides, and decent macro life.  I'd do it again.

Dog conch ((laevistrombus canarium).  60mm & Subsee +5 diopter, 1/320s, f/25, ISO 100

Ceratosoma trilobatum.  60mm, 1/320s, f/20, ISO 100

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Bintan Island Photos, November 2014

Here are some of the photos I took in Bintan last weekend.

Snooted spider crab (achaeus spinosus).  105mm & Subsee +5 diopter, 1/320s, f/32, ISO 100

Mating doto bella and eggs. 105mm & Subsee +5 diopter, 1/320s, f/32, ISO 100 

Rosy spindle cowrie (phenacovolva rosea).  105mm & Subsee +5 diopter, 1/320s, f/25, ISO 100

Bornella stellifer.  105mm, 1/320s, f/25, ISO 100

Monday, November 03, 2014

Diving Bintan Island, November 2014

This past weekend, I dove Bintan Island for the first time.  I have been looking for a a decent place to do weekend trips since I've outgrown the options of Aur or Tioman.  Aur is off limits these days and I've had enough of Tioman because of the awful travel logistics and the bad accommodations.

It is now the tail end of the diving season before the monsoon starts.  I did 2 dives each on Saturday and Sunday and wasn't able to do more because the winds pick up in the afternoon, making diving conditions unsafe.  I dove with Tasik Divers Bintan, which is affiliated with Tasik Ria Resort in Manado.  While it is a new operation, having just completed its first full season, some of its guides come from Manado and bring experience and high standards with them.  I thought the operation was quite well run and the guides know how to handle photographers well.

The diving itself is not bad.  All our dives were near Trikora Beach, where the diving is best described as white sand muck diving.  I saw lots of crabs, shrimp, and nudibranchs, including 2 rare bornella sp., a leaf with about 10 tiny costasiella kuroshimae, and what appeared to be hundreds of pairs of mating doto bella.  I saw also a beautiful zebra batfish, 2 cowries, and a coconut octopus.  Visibility averaged 5m, which is doable for macro photography but not wide angle.  There are quite a lot of suspended particles in the water, especially when the current picks up, and this makes it vital to use creative lighting techniques or a snoot to minimize backscatter.  I understand that currents can be very strong and it is important to check the tide tables before planning a trip.  I was told that night dives are spectacular but wasn't able to do any myself.

I stayed at Spa Villa Bintan, which was very clean and comfortable as a diving base.  The food is so so.  They have wifi but it can be spotty.

Logistics are indeed a lot better than Aur or Tioman.  The ferry to Bintan Island leaves from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal and takes about 60 minutes.  And then a 60 min car ride takes you to Trikora Beach in the east, where the diving is.  The pace is also a lot more relaxed than at Aur or Tioman as travel times are short and there is no need to rush at any point.

Overall, Bintan makes for a good weekend diving trip.  I will be back.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Bali Photos August 2014

Here's a selection of photos from Bali:

Selfie on deco at Gili Tepekong.  Tokina 10-17mm @ 10mm, 1/125s, f/8, ISO 100 

Huge gorgonian sea fan on the USAT Liberty.  Tokina 10-17mm @ 10mm, 1/320s, f/13, ISO 100

School of bumphead parrotfish on a dawn dive an the USAT Liberty.  Tokina 10-17mm @ 11mm, 1/30s, f/4.5, ISO 100 

 Huge soft coral cluster on the USAT Liberty.  Tokina 10-17mm @ 14mm, 1/30s, f/10, ISO 100

Costasiella kuroshimae.  105mm & Subsee +5 diopter, 1/320s,  f/25, ISO 100

Stiliger ornatus.  105mm & Subsee +5 diopter, 1/320s,  f/20, ISO 100 

Doto sp. with eggs.  105mm & Subsee +10 diopter, 1/320s,  f/25, ISO 100 

 Doto bella.  105mm & Subsee +10 diopter, 1/200s,  f/20, ISO 100 

Bali Trip Report, August 2014

It’s now 2 months after my 9 day diving trip to Bali, but as they say, better late than never.  It was a fantastic trip indeed.  I spent the first half of the week tech diving with Leon and the second half focusing on photography in Tulamben.

It was a very interesting and varied week.  We started out diving in Lake Batur, a crater lake in northeast Bali.  Our mission was to take some video to help a local government geologist in his research on what’s going on in the lake.  Our video proved to him the existence of lava flowers at the bottom of the lake, which was something nobody knew or expected.  So the 1m vis and 22 degree water was worth it.

Leon and I then went on to do a few tech dives at Gili Tepekong and Padang Bai.  I had a catastrophic wing failure at our 60m dive at Gili Tepekong.  I’m thankful for my GUE training and good buddy, which made the consequences of the failure an inconvenience rather than a problem.  I managed my buoyancy with my drysuit and SMB and got through the dive and 30 min of deco stops.  At Padang Bai, I saw my first ceratosoma magnificum and janolus sp. just below 30m but could not get a decent shot of them as I had my wide angle lens on.

Then we did Nusa Penida, which was hugely disappointing as our dive boat refused to go to Crystal Bay or Manta Point.  Nusa Penida is completely overrated unless you see mola molas or mantas, which is the whole point of going there.

Then we went up to Tulamben to dive the USAT Liberty and surrounding area.  The Liberty is one of my favorite wrecks.  It is covered in soft coral and all manner of marine life have made it their home.  There are huge groupers, snappers, sweetlips, and lots of small critters all over the wreck.  With Leon, we dove the wreck on doubles and stages and did 2 very long deco dives, which gave us a lot of time to explore the wreck thoroughly.

Finally, my last dive with Leon was a 2.5 hour staged dive with a 75 min deco, which he calls the Traverse.  It starts at the Drop Off in Tulamben and ends at Macro Point.  We spent most of the dive at 45m and saw some very healthy reefs along the way that rarely get dived.  We saw a large reef shark, a whitetip shark, barracuda, snapper, and lots of cleaning action.

After Leon took off, I changed gears to focus on photography.  I checked in to the Liberty Dive Resort in Tulamben.  I had reached out to Jeff Mullins at to request a dive guide who was experienced in dealing with photographers, and I wasn’t disappointed with my guide Tisnu.  We would wake up at 5am each day to do a dawn dive on the Liberty and shoot the school of bumphead parrotfish as they left the wreck for the day, then spend the afternoon muck diving and looking for tiny critters.  He found me every critter on my list and more, and planned our diving schedule to maximize the photo ops and minimize running into other divers.

I am continually impressed by the diversity in the diving Bali has to offer.  From the deep sloping reefs of the southeast, to the black sandy critter hunt of the northeast, to the Liberty wreck, every dive in Bali is a totally different experience.  And now that there are legitimate technical diving options available with Living Seas, there are no limits on diving in Bali.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Bali, Here I Come

I am spending next week diving with Living Seas in Bali.  Living Seas set up shop in Bali about a year ago and is fully set up for technical diving and bespoke adventures.  We will be heading all over the island to dive some common and some off the beaten path sites.  We are going to be diving Padang Bai (southeast), Nusa Penida (island off the southeast), Lake Batur (inland northeast) and Tulamben (northeast).  Nusa Penida is home to a mola mola and manta cleaning station.  Fingers crossed to have good conditions, reasonable vis, and responsible divers so I can get some decent photos.  Tulamben is home to the USAT Liberty, a 125m long US Army cargo ship torpedoed by the Japanese in WWII and one of the best wreck diving sites in the world.

We'll be doing a mixture of technical and recreational dives, depending on what's hot.  At the tail end of the trip, I have arranged an additional 2 days of guided diving in Tulamben with Jeff Mullins' Reef Wreck & Critter focused on photography.

Bali has great diving and very diverse marine life, but the obvious problem is overdiving and diver damage.  There are also a lot of unscrupulous dive guides who have no qualms manipulating the marine life.  I'm hoping to avoid the crowds and dive at pristine sites given all the arrangements that I've made.  Also, Bali is largely unexplored below recreational depths so I'm hoping that we'll be lucky and get some surprises on our technical dives.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Diving Tioman Island, June 2014

We had another fun weekend trip to Tioman Island last weekend.  The school holiday traffic made the journey to and from Tioman Island very painful, but the diving was worth it.  Highlights of the trip were bumphead parrotfish, 2 turtles, and lots of clownfish and anemones.  I had a lot of fun experimenting with the Tokina 10-17mm and Zen 4 inch dome port.  I'm finding it challenging to avoid/minimize backscatter in CFWA shots but am making progress.  Examining some of the pictures, I am not happy with the corner sharpness of the Tokina 10-17mm and mini dome at f/8, so I am going to try f/13-14 as my base aperture from now on.

Hard coral landscape in the shallows. Tokina 10-17mm @ 10mm, 1/125s, f/8, ISO 100 

Giant sea fan.  Tokina 10-17mm @ 10mm, 1/320s, f/13, ISO 100

 Turtle.  Tokina 10-17mm @ 10mm, 1/125s, f/8, ISO 100

Monday, June 02, 2014

Diving Tioman Island, May 2014

A couple of weekends ago, we had an excellent trip to Tioman Island.  It was Taitti's last trip to Tioman for now and a very apt farewell as the conditions and marine life were as good as any of us had ever experienced in Tioman.  It was also my first trip out with my Tokina 10-17mm lens and Zen 4 inch dome port, and I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of pictures that I was able to get.

Highlights of the trip were having a chance to shoot Grouchy, the resident turtle on Roger's House Reef, seeing 2 bumphead parrotfish and a cuttlefish couple laying eggs at Chebeh, lots of anemones and clownfish at Malang, the biggest spiny lobster I have ever seen on the House Reef, and lots of schools of juvenile fish in general.  The cuttlefish laying eggs in particular was very special for me as I felt blessed to witness such a tender underwater moment.  I saw her placing her eggs within the folds of a large hard coral head while her partner looked on.

This trip renewed my interest in Tioman and left me very grateful that we have such good diving so close to home.  Weekend trips to Tioman are tiring because of the long travel time and many transfers but totally worth it for this quality of diving.  I had a lot of fun with the 10-17mm lens and I'll definitely be spending more time with it learning how to shoot wide angle.

Goodbye Taitti and come back to dive with us again soon!

 Grouchy the turtle.  Tokina 10-17mm @ 17mm, 1/200s, f/8, ISO 100

Broadclub cuttlefish.  Tokina 10-17mm @ 17mm, 1/320s, f/16, ISO 100

Giant spiny lobster.  60mm, 1/320s, f/14, ISO 100

Diving Catalina Island, March 2014

When I was in Los Angeles in March, I had the opportunity to sneak in a day of diving so I contacted Scott Gietler, owner of Underwater Photography GuideBluewater Photo Store, and most recently, Bluewater Travel.  He arranged a day trip to Catalina Island, about 1 hour south of Long Beach by boat.  While Scott was unable to join the dive trip, Brent Durand did instead.  Brent is a cool, laidback dude who has tons of experience with photography and diving Californian waters, and was the perfect buddy.

We met bright and early at Long Beach and after a slow start, were on our way.  Catalina Island is very accessible from LA and is a popular destination for short trips for both divers and land visitors.  We spent the day moored around the island and did 2 leisurely dives among the kelp forests.  The kelp forests are quite a unique underwater environment.  Kelp is a type of gigantic leafy seaweed that stretches from the rocky bottom all the way to the surface.  The fronds create a natural shelter for juvenile fish so the kelp forests tend to be quite fishy.  The highlight of the dives was seeing a few giant sea bass, which can grow up to 2m long, in the distance.  During the surface interval, we had a friendly baby sea lion hop onto the back of our boat and hang out for about an hour, which I understand doesn't happen too often!  We had a very nice sunny day but the water was around 13C, which was a little chilly in my DUI 30/30 drysuit.

My drysuit neck seal had deteriorated significantly since the last time I used it and I had to duct tape it to my neck to keep the seal watertight.  I had to be very careful not to move my head too much to avoid any leaks, and as a result, I wasn't very productive in taking photos.

It was a fun day out and a cool first experience in the kelp forests.  Next time, I will be back with a wide angle lens to try to capture the full splendor of the kelp forests.

Curious Garibaldi.  60mm, 1/320s, f/14, ISO 100

Spiny lobster.  60mm, 1/320s, f/14, ISO 100

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Lembeh Photos October 2013

Here are some of the highlights from the Lembeh photo workshop:

Ceratosoma tenue and emperor shrimp.  60mm & 1.4x teleconverter, 1/320s, f/25, ISO 100

Peacock mantis shrimp.  60mm & 1.4x teleconverter in 1.3x crop mode, 1/320s, f/16, ISO 100

Juvenile pinnate batfish. 60mm & 1.4x teleconverter in 1.3x crop mode, 1/320s, f/16, ISO 100

Hairy frogfish.  105mm, 1/320s, f/20, ISO 100

Blue ring octopus.  105mm, 1/320s, f/18, ISO 100

Cuthona yamasui.  60mm & Subsee +10 diopter in 1.3x crop mode, 1/320s, f/25, ISO 100

Marionia pustulosa.  105mm, 1/320s, f/22, ISO 100

Mating mandarinfish.  105mm, 1/320s, f/13, ISO 100

Lembeh Trip Report, October 2013

I attended a most excellent underwater photography workshop in October 2013 that I am only writing about now.  My wife’s awesome wedding present to me was, in addition to the new camera set up, a dream diving trip. So I chose to attend Wetpixel’s Lembeh Macro Workshop at Lembeh Resort, led by famed marine biologist and underwater photographer Dr. Alex Mustard and Wetpixel editor Adam Hanlon. And it did not disappoint.

It was a very productive trip.  We were blessed with prolific marine life and all the strange critters were out in droves.  Despite having been to a number of muck diving havens such as Anilao, Bali, and even Lembeh itself (twice previously), I still recorded a number of first sightings on this trip: Denise’s pygmy seahorse, ceratosoma nudibranch (6), paddleflap rhinopias, blue ring octopus (3), cuthona yamasui, marionia pustulosa, thecacera pacifica, Lembeh hairy frogfish, and juvenile pinnate batfish.

Alex more than lived up to the hype.  Obviously, he is an excellent and visionary photographer and it was great to see him in action.  But what made his workshop extra special was his passion for making outstanding photos and especially his strong desire to teach us how to do so for ourselves.  He is a strong communicator and put a ton of effort into his presentations, demonstrations, and lectures to make sure that we grasped the techniques and added them to our shooting toolboxes.  Alex is all about originality and pushed us to take artistic, novel, and differentiated photos.

It was also a real pleasure to be in the company of many other excellent photographers, many of whom have won prestigious awards and been published!  I learned a tremendous amount from speaking to and diving with the other trip participants.

Lembeh Resort is a beautiful, high-end resort for divers.  It is designed with respect for nature in mind and the rooms are built around the trees and vegetation.  The practices are eco-friendly, with no plastic bottles on the premises and minimal waste.  Rooms are comfortable and clean.  The staff is very friendly and well trained.  The food is plentiful but I thought it was so so.

The dive operation, Critters@Lembeh, is professionally run and is a high quality operation.  The dive guides are truly excellent – they are very knowledgeable about the local species, try hard to find good subjects, and are passionate about what they do.  The boats all run smoothly and you don’t have to worry about carrying anything yourself or setting up your own gear as they do that all for you.  The camera room is great, with individual table space for each photographer.  There is plenty of room for gear, accessories, and battery charging.  Between the dive operation and camera room, Lembeh Resort takes care of all of a serious underwater photographer’s needs. But perhaps the most differentiated aspect of the resort for photographers is the fact that they have a photo pro, Sascha Janson, based there full-time.  I found him invaluable for his advice, local knowledge, and resourcefulness in dealing with camera issues.

Monday, September 23, 2013

My New Camera

My wonderful wife bought me a new camera, housing, and associated accessories as part of her wedding gift to me.  So, I recently acquired a Nikon D7100, Nauticam NA-D7100 housing, Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobes, and Reefnet Subsee wet diopters.

I’ve had a chance to take the new system out on a couple of short trips to Tioman Island now, and I can say unequivocally that this is a huge upgrade from my previous system.  There are lots of improvements but the ones that I’ve found that made a real difference to my underwater photography are the improved autofocus system, internal motor for non-AF-S lenses, 1.3x crop mode, and U1 and U2 recall modes.

With this system, I now have several options for supermacro photography: 1.3x crop mode, teleconverters, and wet diopters (or some combination of this).  The best thing about it is that I can choose at any point in the dive whether to use 1.3x crop mode and/or the wet diopters.

The YS-D1 strobes are great.  They are tiny, powerful, and user friendly.

I am reserving my judgment on the Nauticam housing until I’ve spent more time with it.  In general, I love the ergonomics and smart design, but I’ve been having a few issues with the housing.  Nothing huge, but annoying enough to make a difference. 

Tioman Island 

I spent 2 weekends in Tioman using the new camera system.  Having not been there for a few years, I was pleasantly surprised by the vibrant marine life.  I saw lots of clownfish and anemonefish, a few interesting nudibranches, lots of gobies and blennies, and millions of marble shrimp (which are very rare except in Tioman, apparently!).  Definitely enough to keep a macro photographer busy.  Conditions were generally benign except for some surge, which made supermacro photography challenging at times.

I tried the 60 mm & 1.4x teleconverter combination for the first time and it was great.  I didn’t really notice any deterioration in autofocus capabilities, which is really a testament to the camera’s good autofocus.

The things I don’t like about Tioman are the accommodations and the journey.  The accommodations are very basic and I didn’t have any hot water on both trips.  The journey involves a long van ride, going through Singapore and Malaysian immigration, and a long ferry ride.  The part I like the least is the long waiting time in between stops and the unpredictability of the ferry.

Salang panorama.  iPhone 5

Pink anemonefish.  105 mm, 1/320s, f/10, ISO 200

Striped triplefin.  105mm, 1/320s, f/7.1, ISO 200

Triplespot blenny.  105mm, 1/320s, f/14, ISO 200
Tiny Flabellina Rubrolineata, about 1cm long!  105mm & Subsee +5 diopter, 1/320s, f/29, ISO 200

Yawning tomato anemonefish.  60mm & 1.4x teleconverter, 1/320s, f/18, ISO 200

Chromodoris Reticulata.  60mm & 1.4x teleconverter in 1.3x crop mode, 1/320s, f/16, ISO 200

False clown anemonefish in balled up anemone.  60mm & 1.4x teleconverter, 1/320s, f/16, ISO 400

Pink anemonefish.  60mm & 1.4x teleconverter, 1/320s, f/14, ISO 400

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Cabilao Photos December 2011

Here are some highlights of my Cabilao trip. Full set of photos is here.

Dwarf hawkfish. 105mm, 1/250s, f/10, ISO 200

Bubble coral shrimp. 105mm & +7 diopter, 1/250s, f/25, ISO 200

Ornate ghost pipefish. 105mm, 1/250s, f/22, ISO 200

Spotted porcelain crab. 105mm, 1/250s, f/18, ISO 200

Network pipefish. 105mm, 1/250s, f/10, ISO 200

Halgerda Batangas. 105mm, 1/250s, f/18, ISO 200

Backlit leaf scorpionfish. 105mm, 1/250s, f/18, ISO 200

Rock's pygmy octopus. 60mm & +7 diopter, 1/250s, f/16, ISO 200