Diving in Alaska, and the Rules of Underwater Photography

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When people think of traveling for scuba diving, they think of warm blue water locations such as the Red Sea, Australia, Fuji, the Bahamas, Grand Cayman, Cozumel, and Bonaire. But Alaska? The green rich waters of this temperate rain forest are full of life and photographic opportunities. A trip to Alaska is a true adventure, both above and below the surface. My dive buddy Olga Torrey and I decided to experience Alaska on the liveaboard dive boat, the Nautilus Swell. This 100-year-old refurbished tugboat is the perfect platform for cold-water exploration, and is very photographer-friendly. The crew is well versed in dive procedures in this very different environment. We would board the boat in Juneau, and after a week of diving, we would depart from Sitka.

On a trip such as this, it pays to be prepared for equipment failure. Bringing backup gear is expensive with today’s airline policies, but it is a must. We both had extra dive gear and photo equipment. We took two drysuits each. Drysuits are a must in the 47°F water. Olga uses OS Systems suits, and I use Whites Fusion suits. The important thing is that the suit keeps you dry, so the multiple layers of undergarments will keep you warm, comfortable, and safe. Since water is denser than air, it could lower your body core temperature, which could be life threatening. So a leaking suit could end one's diving for the trip. Besides extra photo gear, including strobes and camera bodies, we also packed small items, such as extra o-rings and batteries. By the end of the trip, one camera battery went overboard, an Olympus FL-36R flash hit the deck, snapping off the hot shoe, and a left-foot booty was lost when getting back on the boat in heavy seas. Booties were one of the few things we did not have extras of. Luckily, the captain—who was not diving—has the same size feet as I do!

I was shooting with the now-discontinued Olympus E-620, in the Olympus PT-E06 housing, with Olympus UFL-2 strobes. Since Alaska is rich with both wide-angle and macro subjects, I was using the Olympus 7-14mm wide-angle zoom and a 50mm macro lens, with the correct ports.

Olga was shooting with the Nikon P7000 in the Fantasea housing. Since the P7000 takes very good video and still images, she was using Sea & Sea YS-01 strobes and video lights. The lights are attached to the housing with the Beneath the Surface tray and ball joint arms. A triple ball clamp is used to have the video light next to the strobe. For wide-angle work, Olga also used the BigEye wide-angle dome.

In order to concentrate on taking photos underwater, you have to be comfortable in the water and in your dive gear. Drysuits, hoods and gloves add task loading. It is important to be able to dive in this environment before adding a camera. Since we dive in the NY/NJ area on a regular basis, this was not a problem. On most weekends between April and November, you will find us on the dive boat John Jack, or at the Dutch Springs quarry.

One of the biggest problems in coldwater diving is being able to control the camera with bulky gloves on. Many divers like to use dry gloves. I never warmed up to them. I find the Fourth Element gloves warm and very flexible. It is best to use a housing and strobe with large controls. The Fantasea housing for the P7000, as well as the Olympus PT-E06, are easy to operate even with gloves on. The power dial on the YS-01 is also easy to operate when wearing gloves.

All of the rules of underwater photography become even more important in this environment. We had rain for most of the trip, so the light was low, and on some dives we had limited visibility. So it was very important to shoot up and get close to the subject. The Fantasea BigEye dome corrects for the size distortion that happens underwater. So with the dome in place, the P7000’s lens has the same angle of view (28mm equivalent at the widest) as it does on land. Sea lions, metridium anemones, sea stars, octopus and other marine creatures get very large in Alaska, so shooting wide angle is important. You do have to be careful with your strobe position when using the dome, or you could get flair.

The Fantasea EyeGrabber allows you to store the dome on your strobe arm when it's not on the camera. It is important always to have it with you. When diving a site named “All You Could Eat Shrimp,” we were told the site was rich with macro subjects (including shrimp) but nothing to shoot wide-angle. So Olga decided to leave the dome topside. As we stood still getting our eyes used to small subjects, we noticed some movement in the distance. We saw four sea lion pups playing, slowly moving closer and closer to us. Once they decided we would not harm them, they came in close to play. Without the BigEye on the Nikon, and with the Olympus set up with a 50mm macro lens, we were only able to capture their images in our minds' eye. It was still a great experience, but as photographers, we still want the photo.

Other underwater trip highlights included snorkeling with salmon, photographing wolf eels, and diving in a forest of metridium anemones. The adventures on the surface were just as exciting. From the Nautilus Swell we visited Port Alexander—a fishing village with a population of 80—we kayaked around icebergs, and bathed in a hot spring next to a waterfall. From the surface, we also saw whales, seals, sea lions, and sea otters. Since it rained most of the time, the P7000 was kept in the Fantasea housing for protection. The Olympus DSLR was protected with the AquaTech Sport Shield Rain Cover.

Before getting on the Nautilus Swell, we visited the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. Hiking there, we saw bears and bald eagles. We also took a helicopter to the top. Photographic images do not do justice to the stark beauty of this amazing landscape. Seeing and capturing the wonders above and below the surface in Alaska made it worth dealing with the cold water and rain. Next adventure: The warm blue waters of Bonaire.