Cool Photo Fun Under and Over the Water in Newfoundland | B&H Photo Video Pro Audio

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Cool Photo Fun Under and Over the Water in Newfoundland

Photos by Larry Cohen

When most people leave home for a dive destination, they are going from a cold environment and heading for warm air, warm water and palm trees. On June 9th when we left New York it was 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Arriving in the Canadian Province of Newfoundland (pronounced Nufin-Lánd), the air temperature was 45 degrees Fahrenheit. We knew right away we were in for an adventure! Although heading north for a dive trip is not typically the norm, we knew the underwater treasures awaiting us would be worth dealing with the challenges.

Newfoundland is an island northeast of Nova Scotia. Our home for the next ten days was the Ocean Quest Dive Lodge in Conception Bay South near the city of St John's. Ocean Quest ( is a full service dive shop and training facility. The owners, Rick and Debbie Stanley, along with their staff, are all competent divers and avid photographers and videographers. Most importantly, the Ocean Quest crew has extensive cold-water experience, enabling them to help divers be comfortable and safe in these cold waters.

Just like any other underwater imaging project, it is important to feel at home diving in a particular environment before adding a camera. Having drysuit experience before going to Newfoundland is a very good idea. Also keep in mind that this is advanced, but not necessarily technical diving. Any advanced diver who is comfortable in warm water can acclimate to Newfoundland diving with just a little more training.

So why dive in Newfoundland's 32 degree water? One reason is the spectacular marine life. The cold-water corals and anemones are gigantic compared to those found in warmer waters. Abundant fish life includes ocean pouts, lumpfish, wolf eels and sculpins. In July whales come into the area to feed. Another reason to dive in this area is the history of the sunken wrecks and the regional whaling industry.

The story of the Bell Island wrecks is one of the most fascinating stories of World War II. Bell Island is located near St John's in Conception Bay. In the 1890's high–grade iron–ore was discovered and mined here. In the 1930's, a large percentage of this iron-ore went to Germany for rearmament. In 1939, one-half million tons of ore were shipped to Germany. Once World War II broke out, shipments to Germany ceased and the iron-ore was redirected to support armaments for the Allied Forces. Germany knew how important the iron ore was to the allied war effort, so they attempted to disrupt its flow to Europe. Doing so posed little challenge to German U-Boats, since Germany already knew the harbor.

On September 4th, 1942, the ore carriers SS Saganaga, SS Lord Strathcona and PLM 27 were at anchor off Lance Cove, Bell Island. That night, using the freighter Evelyn B as cover, the German submarine U-513, under the control of Commander Rolf Ruggeburg, entered Wabana Harbor and rested on the bottom until the following morning. After surfacing, U-513 was spotted and fired upon by the Evelyn B. Although damaged, it fired two torpedoes, sinking the SS Saganaga. While maneuvering, the SS Lord Strathcona hit the U-boat and damaged the conning tower. Recovering quickly from the blow, U-513 fired two more torpedoes and sank the Lord Strathcona, after which the U-Boat made her escape, again using the Evelyn B as cover. Twenty-nine men were killed on the Saganaga and fourteen survived. Fortunately, the crew of the Lord Strathcona were able to abandon ship safely. The actions of the Evelyn B's crew probably saved the PLM 27 from the same fate as the other ships that day.

Two months later, on November 4th, the PLM 27 and the SS Rose Castle, were anchored in the same location. That evening, Commander Friedrich Wissmann surfaced the U-518 about 1km south of the Rose Castle and fired a torpedo at a nearby coal boat. It missed and struck the Scotia Pier, after which two more torpedoes were fired on the Rose Castle, sinking her with the loss of twenty-eight lives. When the torpedo hit the pier, the residents of Bell Island expected a landing by the Germans. Parents dressed themselves and their children in their ‘Sunday Best', anxiously awaiting an invasion. Fortunately, it was never to occur. This was the only land attack on North America during WWII.

The PLM 27, which had by now witnessed the sinking of three of its fellow freighters, sent up a flare to light the scene. U-518 responded by firing another torpedo, which sank PLM 27 in around 90 seconds, killing twelve of its crew. U-518 then successfully escaped. The fifteen survivors from the Rose Castle and thirty-eight from the PLM 27 had to make their way to shore as best they could, as there were no rescue boats available.

The U-513 was sunk on July 19, 1943 by depth charges from a US aircraft. The USS Carter and USS Neal sank the U-518 on April 22, 1945, in the North Atlantic. Both U-Boat commanders involved in the attacks at Lance Cove survived the war and Capt. Ruggeburg eventually became the German Naval Attaché in London.

When you dive these wrecks you can feel the history. When swimming through these time capsules, one can imagine the mayhem when the torpedoes struck. They are well preserved with many of their artifacts undisturbed. Many wrecks located on the United States east coast were wire-dragged and blown up during the war. The reason was to avoid navigational hazards and eliminate U-Boat hiding places. The Bell Island wrecks, on the other hand, are all intact and right side up like a Hollywood movie set. Perhaps this is because Newfoundland was a British Colony at the time. The UK, which had the war at its doorstep, may simply not have had the resources to concern themselves with the Bell Island wrecks.

Regardless of what saved these wrecks from destruction, they are not only thought-provoking relics of war but visually stunning reefs. Along with the abundant marine life, this is an underwater photographer's dream. In order to maximize your experience, listen to the crew and ask questions. They dive the wrecks day in and day out and will be able to tell you where to find some of the most interesting subjects.

click on the image to view slideshow photo by Larry Cohen

Preparing your gear and working in cold water is a little different than working in the tropics. Since most photographers now work with digital imaging we are no longer limited to a 36-exposure roll of film. However, batteries will not last as long in the cold. It would be a shame to see that narwhal swim by and have your batteries die! Therefore, it is a good idea to change your batteries after every dive (Be very careful opening housings and strobe battery compartments in the field). If you are using Lithium-ion or NiMH batteries, you might be able to get two dives out of a set of batteries, depending on how much you shoot. (This assumes you are using high-capacity cells such as 2650 mAH AA's). Alkaline batteries should be avoided because their life is limited in the cold. Your batteries will drain faster in your dive computer and other life support equipment as well. Monitor these batteries as well. Practice safety first; no photo is worth getting hurt over.

Don't let your housing heat up in the sun before jumping into the cold water. This could fog up your port. Have someone hand you the camera after you have entered the water. Jumping off a boat with housing in hand could damage your equipment. It is best to always have a lanyard with a clip so the camera gear could be clipped to your BC or harness. This will prevent you from losing your camera due to limited dexterity. Since you will be wearing a drysuit with thick undergarments and heavy gloves and a hood, you will not have the same flexibility as you would in a 3mm wetsuit.

When photographing wrecks, we want to use an ultra wide-angle lens in order to capture the overall scene. The number one rule of underwater photography is: GET CLOSE! The less water between your subject and the lens, the better your results will be. When you think you are too close, get closer.

Always shoot with manual settings. In an underwater environment, it is essential to control ambient exposure separately from strobe exposure. Set your shutter speed to underexpose your available light about 2/3rds to 1.5 stops. This will produce a slightly dark background so your subject will pop out. Remember changing your shutter speed will affect your ambient light exposure (background). Changing your f-stop will affect your ambient light and strobe exposure (background and subject). Changing the power of your strobe will only affect your subject. It is best to use strobes with power control dials, which allow you to dial in the proper exposure for your subject. I found the power dial on the Sea & Sea YS-110 strobes a little small to control with thick gloves. Sometimes I just had to change the f-stop instead, and readjust the shutter speed. I then added some duct tape around the knob to make it bigger. This really helped. Then again, I have duct tape on all my dive gear! Using latex surgical gloves under your neoprene gloves will help keep your hands warm with less bulk.

Don't forget all the small marine life that calls the wreck its home. Bring your macro lens on some of your dives. Because a short depth-of-field could be a problem with macro, you will want to use a high f-stop number in order to increase depth-of field. Also, working close-up will exaggerate camera shake. Using a higher shutter speed will prevent camera motion. This will result in background underexposure, but many macro subjects look good with a black background.

Besides the wrecks, there are many other unique dive sites in Newfoundland. Down the coast in Trinity Bay is the fishing village of South Dildo, which is also a former whaling village. In the water, just in front of the whale processing plant, you will find the bones of many of these unfortunate animals. This is a shore dive. The entry is rocky and you have to be careful. It is best to gear up on the beach using the dock for support. After gearing up, have someone hand you the camera. Use the dock to support yourself as you wade backwards into the water. Be careful not to scratch the port on the dock.

Near the dock, there is a mixture of fresh and salt water. This causes a blurry effect, called a halocline, which clears up as you swim away from the dock. The water is very green, adding to the surreal feeling one gets on this dive. Viewing and photographing these bones, one is disturbed by thoughts of how these magnificent creatures were killed and used for pet food and oil. The bones are so large that you'll want to use a wide-angle lens. Photograph your dive buddy exploring the graveyard. Shooting the bones alone can also make for some eerie and emotionally moving photographs.

click on the image to view slideshow photo by Polina Reznikov

From whale graveyards we move to the inspiring sight of icebergs. An encounter with an iceberg is a truly transformative experience. Even the best photos don't really tell the story. Upon my first sighting, all I could say was. "WOW!!" When I realized this was a 10,000-year old chunk of ice that calved off a glacier in Greenland, I thought, "WOW!!" When I learned that it takes about three years for the berg to end up in Iceberg Alley in Newfoundland, then I thought, "WOW." The ice is so condensed that, when used in a drink back at the lodge, some claim that it will last five hours (the ice, not the drink). At the lodge, there is a freezer filled with blocks of iceberg ice. To this, all I can say is, "Cheers!!"

click on the image to view slideshow photo by Darryl Leniuk

Iceberg diving and iceberg watching take place from an inflatable boat. In these operations, safety is of the utmost concern and importance. Icebergs are constantly changing and reconfiguring. Rick and the Ocean Quest team are experts in reading the bergs and identifying those that are most stable and accessible to divers. Still, the bergs are unpredictable. It is important to be alert. Once you roll off the boat, have someone hand you the camera and get underwater as fast as possible. In case the berg breaks, you are safer underwater. Shoot wide-angle. It is best to use a lot of ambient light and just add a little flash fill. This will also bring out the natural color, but the blue color of the water is quite effective. Unless the berg is grounded, it will be bobbing up and down, causing a lot of surge. This could be very disorientating and even cause some divers to become seasick underwater. Between the small, inflatable boat, the cold, the surge, and the stress of the threat of the berg cracking, diving on icebergs is challenging. Photographing them underwater is even more so. Don't be disappointed if you do not get great results the first time. As always, only practice and experience can get you the results you want. It is important to enjoy the learning experience.

The adventures offered by Ocean Quest include other activities besides diving. Iceberg watching, birding and observing wildlife are just some of the other photo opportunities. Another must-see is the Bell Island mine that produced the iron ore that caused the demise of the freighters.

Visiting the Bell Island mine is a treat. You enter into a museum area filled with incredible artifacts including the tools used for mining and artifacts from the four wrecks. On the walls hang photographs of the miners taken by Yousuf Karsh. These environmental portraits are very different from the studio work Karsh is famous for, but they are stunning and just as effective. To quote Karsh "Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can." These photos really bring out the pride and dignity that existed in the souls of these hard working men and women.

Beyond the museum is the tour of the mine itself. Our guide, Karen Seward, did not learn the story of the Bell Island mine from a book. Her grandfather was one of the miners. Her grandmother worked at one of the boarding houses, washing the miners' clothes for a dollar a day. As you walk through the mine, taking photographs, Karen brings history to life with stories of her family and friends, of how these men and women worked and took care of each other in this dangerous environment. She sings a song that the miners would sing of their pride in the work they did. When the mine was open, 16,000 people lived on Bell Island. Since the mine's closing, the population has dropped to under 3,000. Many have had to move elsewhere to make a living, but their hearts are still on the island. Many of them return after retirement.

The mine is dimly lit. It is best to bring a tripod to try to capture stark lighting and add a little flash fill. There are many artifacts in the mine that make good close-up subjects, as well as interesting tunnels. The mine tour ends at where the mine becomes flooded. A large percentage of the mine is now underwater. Rick, Steve Lewis and a team of experienced cave divers have organized and laid line in many of the tunnels. While the mine is not currently opened for diving, Rick has it on the drawing board to provide access to properly trained cave divers with the help of NACD and TDI.

The platform for iceberg watching and birding is the inflatable boat. The ride is very bumpy and the floor gets very wet. If you are not wearing a drysuit, Ocean Quest provides you with a floater safety suit. It could get cold, so don't forget your hat and gloves. The floater suits have bibs inside that are perfect for holding and protecting your camera body and lens. For holding extra gear, you should use a water-resistant – or, even better, waterproof – camera bag. Use the shoulder strap to hang the bag somewhere on the console or seat of the boat. This should keep your gear dry and accessible.

Bag-style housings, such as those made my Ewa-Marine or Aquapac, will help protect your gear but will make controlling the camera harder. For photographing birds, you will need as long a lens as possible. Since the boat is rocking, lenses with image stabilization are preferred. I was using the Olympus 18-180mm lens, which has equivalent angle of view of a 36-360mm on a 35mm film camera. For the icebergs, this lens was very good, but I wished I had a longer lens for the birds.

A visit to this region of Newfoundland would not be complete without visiting the city of St John's. St John's has many charming and picturesque scenes to photograph. The weather in this part of the world changes quickly. The locals say, "If you look out the window and don't like the weather look out a different window!!" Having a rain cover, or in a pinch, a plastic bag to protect your camera, is a good idea.

Signal Hill sits amidst spectacular views of St. John's and the sea. Depending on the weather you get some spectacular landscapes. Historically this was the reception point of the first transatlantic wireless signal by Guglielmo Marconi in 1901. With its strategic location, Signal Hill became the site of harbor defenses from the 18th century through the Second World War. The last battle of the Seven Years' War in North America was fought here in 1762.

After visiting Signal Hill it is fun to visit the charming fishing village of Quidi Vidi. Quidi Vidi is a beautiful little fishing village with clapboard houses painted in bright colors protected by large cliffs on the opposite side of the harbor. Here you can find boats, fishing stages where fisherman set up their rigging, and fish processing buildings that make wonderful photos. The entrance to Quidi Vidi Harbor - known locally as "The Gut" is very impressive. Quidi Vidi Battery Provincial Historic Site was used as a battery during the War of 1812.

Fort Amherst is another historic site in St John's. It is located on the southern side of "The Narrows", the entrance to St. John's harbor. Fort Amherst consists of a man-made harbor, lighthouse and the remains of gun emplacements built during World War II to defend against German U-boats. The original fortifications at Fort Amherst, built in the 1770s, are no longer visible. The fortifications were named for William Amherst, who successfully recaptured St. John's from French forces in 1762. You can only drive so far up the hill and then you have to walk. From here you can take photographs of the harbor and the gun emplacements. At the top of the hill is the lighthouse along with a grand view of the harbor.

After seeing and photographing all these historic sites, you will be thirsty. So, put down your camera and head to George Street, which has the most pubs and bars per square foot of any street in North America. Everyone there is very friendly and will quickly make you feel like a local.

Our adventures in Newfoundland were amazing. The staff at Ocean Quest made all the difference. We can't wait to return to Newfoundland to see and photograph everything we missed on this trip.

Equipment used:

Larry Cohen

Land: Olympus E330, Olympus 18 to 180mm Lensrrctqewrdwtecdevwusysbyswsxeyxwr, Olympus FL36 Flash

Underwater: Olympus E410, Olympus 7-14mm Lens, Olympus Housing, Two Sea & Sea YS110 Strobes

Polina Reznikov

Nikon D200, Nikkor 12-24mm Lens, Sea & Sea Housing, Sea & Sea YS110 and Ikelite DS125 Strobes

Darryl Leniuk

Nikon D2X, Nikkor 10.5mm Lens, Aquatica Housing, Two Nikonos SB105 Strobes

All images unless noted by Larry Cohen

Larry Cohen has worked as a studio and location photographer since the late 70's. His clients included Baccarat Crystal, Fuji, Kodak, Sony, General Electric, Time Warner. His underwater photos have appeared in such publications as Sport Diver, Immersed Magazine, Sub Aqua Journal, Alert Diver and Northeast Dive News, where he is now writing a monthly column. His photos have also appeared in books such as National Audubon Society Field Guide to Tropical Marine Fishes. In order to extend bottom time and to get closer to marine life he now dives with a Closed Circuit Rebreather. Larry is a founding member of the New York Underwater Photo Society. He is a past president and active member of The NYC Sea Gypsies dive club and is on the committee of Oceanblue Divers dive club in Manhattan. At B&H Photo Larry is a technical writer. Visit Larry's site at

Polina Reznikov is an avid scuba diver and underwater photographer based in New York. She is the Vice President of the NYC Sea Gypsies dive club and Events Director for Oceanblue Divers. As well as exploring diverse diving environments like caves, icebergs, wrecks, and reefs, Polina also immerses herself in other activities such as equestrian sports, inline skating, climbing, and snowboarding. She has traveled all over the globe in pursuit of adventure and enjoys expressing her stories via photography. Some of her work can be seen here.

Darryl Leniuk is a Vancouver based photographer with a diverse background. After obtaining a degree in Biochemistry from the University of British Columbia, he took up photography while on a trip around the world in the mid 1990's. As an avid scuba diver, he quickly was drawn to the diverse subjects found beneath the sea. His underwater images have been published in numerous magazines around the world. A keen participant in several adventure sports, he has a knack for getting to the action and telling powerful stories about his subjects and their sport. His sports photography is now represented by several stock photo agencies and is widely used in the advertising and editorial markets. When he's not busy shooting, he can usually be found pursuing his other passions: travel, scuba diving, mountain biking, and skiing or combining them with photography in some unusual way. Visit Darryl's site at:


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