How to Avoid Getting Lost at Sea When Shooting Photos Underwater

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Underwater diving and photography on location can be thrilling and exciting. If you really think about it, you’re exploring a world that isn’t seen by many, and you’re internalizing nature’s beauty. While it can be very adrenaline packed, it can also be dangerous, if you’re not careful.


In 2003, the independent movie "Open Water" became a surprise box-office hit. The movie cost $500,000 to produce, and earned $55 million worldwide. The film was captured on handheld digital video cameras purchased right here at B&H Photo. The film was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, and then distributed by Lions Gate Entertainment. It was loosely based on a true incident of a couple being left behind by their dive boat on the Great Barrier Reef. In the movie, the American couple was diving in the Bahamas. Due to the dive boat’s crew making a mistake with the head count, the couple got left behind in shark-infested water. Stuart Cove’s dive operation was used to handle the live sharks in the movie.


Setting the Line

A diver being abandoned at sea is an uncommon occurrence, but divers do get lost. Underwater photographers want to dive where marine life is plentiful, and more often than not, these locations have strong currents. Depending on the location, there are many ways to handle this. Usually this involves an SMB (Surface Marker Buoy) or a safety sausage. SMB's have a relief pressure valve, and can be inflated while under water, before attaching it to a dive reel. Once the marker is above water, the diver slowly reels up to the surface. If decompression is required it should be completed under the SMB, so that the boat can keep track of the diver. Safety sausages do not have relief pressure valves, so they should be inflated on the surface so that the boat can spot the diver. In a current, the diver could still drift out of sight, even when holding onto a seven-foot-long orange marker.

On the East Coast of the United States, most diving is done on shipwrecks. The procedure here is for the dive boat to attach a line to the wreck, which is then attached to the dive boat. On many popular wrecks, a permanent mooring is put into place. The dive boat just needs to pick up the end of a line on a float, and attach it to the dive boat. On more remote wrecks, a crew member has to dive down to the wreck and attach a line. This is called 'setting the hook.' Once this is done, the divers start their descent on this line. When the dive is over, they find the line and ascend back up to the surface. If visibility is poor, finding your way back is not so easy. Also, if the seas get rough the line could break. When this happens, the diver should attach the SMB to a reel, and inflate the buoy. In the Northeast, this is called 'shooting a bag.' Once it reaches the surface, the line is tied to the shipwreck. This way, the diver has a safe way to reach the surface. Since the line is attached to the wreck, the diver knows he is close to the dive boat, and they should not drift off. Of course, this is in a perfect world. But Murphy is a scuba diver, and when he starts enforcing his law, the situation could go bad quickly.

Being Spotted

Divers use many devices to be spotted. A simple mirror could be used to reflect the sunlight back to the boat. A whistle will allow you to be heard from a distance. Dive Alert takes the whistle idea to the next level. It is a device that uses a loud air horn to signal the boat. It connects between your BC and BC Inflator hose. The gas in your tank is used to power the extremely loud horn. Some divers carry smoke flares in a waterproof container. Once on the surface, deploying the flare will make the lost diver visible for many miles. Divers who are really concerned about being lost carry a personal EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon). These devices alert search-and-rescue services in the event of an emergency. They do this by transmitting a coded message on a distress frequency, via satellite and earth stations, to the nearest rescue coordination center. None of these solutions allow the lost diver to communicate with the rescue crew.


Safety First

The Nautilus Explorer and Nautilus Swell are two live-aboard dive boats that operate in areas with strong currents. The Swell operates in British Columbia and Alaska. The Explorer visits Socorro, Guadalupe, Sea of Cortez, Baja, Clipperton Atoll, and the California Channel Islands.  Both boats take safety very seriously. Fire and evacuation drills are performed at the beginning of every cruise. The safety standards are closer to those required by cruise liners than dive boats. Dive operations are usually carried out on small skiffs, or Zodiacs (rubber boats). When a dive team surfaces, they employ the marker, and are then picked up by the skiff or Zodiac. The Nautilus crew is really great at what they do, and the Nautilus caters to experienced divers. But owner Mike Lever was concerned that it was only a matter of time before Murphy would dive off one of his boats.


Being pro-active, Mike decided to develop a GPS/two-way radio that divers could take with them. That is how the Nautilus Lifeline was born. The Lifeline is a unique device with three modes.

  • The green button allows you to call your diver boat with a two-way marine radio. It is important to talk to the captain and make sure you are on the same channel as the boat. If you surface far away, but within sight of the boat, this is the mode to use.
  • The orange button allows you to communicate with all the boats in the area. The default channel is 16. This is the international hail and distress channel. If you surface and you're not in sight of a boat, this would be the button to use.
  • If you use the orange button and there is no response, or if one of your dive-team members is injured, it's time for the red button. This button sends out an automatic alert message and your real-time GPS coordinates to all modern radios within range.

The Nautilus Lifeline is an important safety device, not only for divers, but also for surfers, paddlers and sailors. But this is a must-have for the underwater photographer. As much as everyone talks about safety before image capture, sometimes we get distracted. While our minds are concentrating on the image-taking process, it is very easy to forget where the hook is set. So with all the gear we carry, the Nautilus Lifeline is an important addition.

Prevention and Planning

As divers, and especially as underwater photographers, we always need to be aware of our environment. Keeping track of our location is key. Knowing the direction of the current and being aware of the tides is important in certain parts of the world. We need to communicate with the captain and boat crew, as well as with our fellow divers. They should know our dive plan, including where we are going, how long we will be there, and our maximum depth. By following these few simple rules, we should be able to avoid the fate of the divers in “Open Water,” and return to the dive boat without incident. Diving is a safe activity, but we should be prepared. Our skills should be practiced until they are automatic. This way, a problem become a slight inconvenience, rather than a disaster. Our survival skills should always be in the background while we explore and capture images of our amazing underwater world.

Want to Know More?

Larry Cohen and Olga Torrey will be giving a presentation on Alaska at the New York City Sea Gypsies dive club on November 13th, 2012. Larry and Olga will show images that capture the beauty of this cold-water environment, and the landscape above the water-line. Everyone is welcome.

When: Tuesday November 13th at 7pm.

Where: McGee's Irish Pub

240 W. 55th St.  (between 8th and Broadway)

3rd floor (Symphony Room)