Friday, March 16, 2012

Review of Maluku Divers, Ambon, Indonesia: Photographer’s Delight!

I have been a professional underwater photographer for 28 years.  I sold the rights to my first photograph, a cornetfish, to Sea Frontiers magazine in 1984, and I had a portfolio of my images published by Underwater USA in 1984 as well.  That was a heck of a long time ago.  Since then, I’ve spent more than my fair share of time on liveaboard diving boats, ranging from Cousteau’s Calypso, to my friend filmmaker Bob Cranston’s Betsy M, to Mike McGettigan’s famous Ambar, to luxury liveaboards like the Caribbean Explorer, Nautilus Explorer, Undersea Hunter, and Solmar V.  I’ve been on many of the Aggressor and Peter Hughes boats also.  Oh, and I have to add Jim Abernethy’s Shearwater, which has taken me to some of the most memorable shark diving in the Bahamas that I’ve ever done. 

I am finding that I prefer the peace and pace of land-based operations in my middle age.  Liveaboard operators are usually forced to cater to divers who want to go to a different dive site on every dive.  As a photographer, however, I am different from most divers.  If I find a good reef or a good diving site, then I want to go back there again and again.  A big part of the fun in diving is discovering things yourself, and a land-based operation lets you do that. 

In the past couple of years, I’ve traveled almost exclusively to dive from land-based resorts or destinations.  As I write this, I am waiting out the weather in South Australia, where I’ve come to film leafy seadragons and blue-ringed octopus, diving from shore.  I have been comfortable in my motel room.  Although a bit bored, I am having far more fun than if I were in a boat, rocking away out there in the Southern Ocean, waiting for the 10-foot swells to subside.  Instead, I spent an hour trying to lure in the local magpies closer to my camera yesterday morning before I was forced back inside by the wind and rain.  I have not been seasick, nor have I been forced to tell the truth and suffered pupil dilation by using the anti-seasickness drug Scopolamine. 

Don’t get me wrong.  Being able to dive with great white sharks on the very comfortable boats Solmar V or Nautilus Explorer is wonderful.  But I’ve had a great time in the past two years diving out of land-based resorts like God’s Pocket on Vancouver Island; snorkeling with aggregations of huge whale sharks from Isla Mujeres, Mexico; and swimming with sperm whales from Dominica, in the Caribbean. 

Indonesia and the Philippines have become known for their land-based diving resorts, along with guides who specialize in finding elusive, rare, and bizarre critters to photograph.  Maluku Divers in Ambon, Indonesia, is one of them.  I spent three weeks out there in February 2012, and it was just what the doctor ordered – plenty of diving at my pace, lots of incredibly interesting marine life to photograph, good food, and comfortable accommodations.  Maluku Divers in Ambon, Indonesia, has just become one of my favorite land-based dive resorts. 

It can take a while to get to Ambon, but once you are there, the diving life is easy at Maluku Divers, undoubtedly the best diving resort on the island (this is easy to say, as I believe that there are only two diving operations on the island, Maluku Divers being the only one that can be called a resort).  The resort offers everything a spoiled American diver needs -- air-conditioned bungalows, great diving (mostly muck diving, with incredible critters), three to four dives daily, great Indonesian-themed food, and splendid service from the diving guides and the resort staff.  Highlights of the diving and critters include the rare and beautiful Rhinopias scorpionfish, which come in purple, pink, red, and yellow (and in lacy and non-lacy varieties); the incredible wonderpus octopus, Coleman's shrimp on fire urchins, and my favorite, stargazers.  These amazing animals are highlighted in the web gallery at:

Getting to Ambon can be a hassle.  I have written about some of my trip in my February 2012 blog entries.  Most folks fly to Ambon from Singapore or Hong Kong, through Jakarta.  I myself wanted to spend some time diving in Australia, so I flew round-trip from California to Sydney, then booked an incredibly inexpensive (US $1400) business class seat from Sydney to Jakarta on Garuda Airlines.  I was pleasantly surprised – the service and the seats on the Garuda flights were just fine, comparable or better to any other airline. 

Coleman shrimp are always found on fire urchins. 
Once you arrive in Jakarta, you generally need to wait for 8 to 20 hours for a domestic flight to Ambon.  For some reason, all the flights to Ambon leave around 1AM from Jakarta, arriving in Ambon in the early morning hours.  I stayed at the Jakarta Airport Hotel, which I describe in another blog entry, and which may or may not be the best choice.  I describe my trip to Ambon:

The diving at Ambon is mainly muck diving, meaning it is on black sand or silt-covered rocks – not traditional coral reefs.  If you are muck diving, then you delight in the bizarre creatures that you will find in the muck and patches of coral.  You’ll find all the usual coral reef animals, but you will also find animals that make their living in eelgrass beds, in the sand, and which are camouflaged so well that only your Indonesian guide will be able to see them. 

Sure, you can sit back and let your guide find all the critters for you.  But that becomes a trophy hunt – not so fun for me.  I’ll typically try to get a bit away from the rest of the group, find my own subjects to film, and check on the dive guides and what they’ve found every once in a while.  The guides are always better at finding cool subjects than I am, but if I just follow them around and take snapshots of what they point out, I don’t enjoy that sense of discovery. 

Lembeh Strait, near Manado on the island of Sulawesi, is another world-renowned place for muck diving.  Like Lembeh, diving in Ambon means that you are diving near a port – near human habitation, rather than on pristine coral reefs.  I was shocked at amount of garbage -- mostly plastic bags and trash – that was present on some of our diving sites.  If you come to Ambon, be prepared to find lots of bizarre and cool animals amid lots of trash, and overall a bit of too much human stuff around.  The best sites with the most critters (of course) are located right by some big fishing boats that had no holding tanks and probably delighted in flushing as divers were near.  

Stargazers lie buried in the sand, usually with only their eyes and mouths showing. 
The web galleries show the marine life to be found there.  I saw more Rhinopias (incredibly colored and camouflaged leafy scorpionfish) than I have seen anywhere else, as well as wonderpus octopus, Coleman’s shrimp on fire urchins, and stargazers. 

Sometimes they will extend their tongue out and flick it; the wormlike tongue attracts prey.  

Maluku Divers is a great resort, with a genuinely friendly and helpful staff, and a photographers' paradise.  My friend and fellow photographer Douglas Seifert highly recommended it to me and I've come to trust his recommendations.  I hope to get back there soon. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Using a Tripod to Shoot Underwater Video is Essential

A small tripod is the one tool that underwater shooters often don't use, and it is perhaps the most important tool that shooters can use to improve their underwater video. 

I've used all kinds of tripods, for all kinds of video and film cameras.  I’ve used $1500 Miller heads with my giant HDCAM housing under the ice in Antarctica.  I’ve used cheap $150 tripods to shoot time-lapse videos of soft corals and nudibranchs ( ).   Most of these tripods and heads have frozen up after one season of diving, or I’ve had to spend hours after each trip to take them apart and spray every part down with WD-40 lubricant.  I’ve finally found an all-aluminum tripod that fits my underwater needs and doesn’t need hours and hours of after-dive care. 
Marcel Hagendijk using the Really Right Stuff Ground-Level Tripod with a Canon 7D in a Nauticam Housing, Ambon, Indonesia

I have been using Really Right Stuff clamps and other gear for years and years, both underwater and topside, and I’ve never had the slightest problem with them.  I used their clamps and dovetail plates for all my still housings when shooting underwater, under the ice in Antarctica, back in 1997 when photographers were still using film and I was forced to use 15-second exposures.  I am still using these great clamps and plates to attach my underwater housings to tripods.  Being able to quickly clamp an underwater stills or video housing to a tripod using an RRS clamp has meant the difference between getting the shot or losing the shot – both topside and underwater.  I have RRS plates on all my cameras and lenses for topside and underwater work.  The plates and clamps are workhorses – made of top-quality anodized aluminum, they do not freeze up or rust when used in salt water. 
Canon 7D in a Nauticam housing, mounted on a Really Right Stuff Ground-Level Tripod

On my recent trip to Ambon, Indonesia, I brought a Really Right Stuff Ground-Level (their TP-243 Ground-Level Tripod), and I recommend this little marvel of engineering highly.  It is made of anodized aluminum, and like all other RRS products, it has almost no parts that will rust or freeze up.  It is a near-perfect tripod for underwater shooting – it is small and low to the ground (almost all underwater close-up shooting will be of bottom animals), the legs spread out to various angles and lengths to accommodate almost any position you may need underwater, and it can get as low to the ground as needed. 

The RRS Ground-Level tripod (I call it a groundpod) will withstand years of abuse, both underwater and topside.  It is light, but not so light that it cannot handle heavy underwater housings, and the legs click into four positions for all kinds of positioning flexibility. 

I put a RRS dovetail clamp (B2-Pro: 60mm clamp with dual mounting) on the top of this tripod and shot dozens of hours of fantastic underwater close-up shots in Indonesia with this arrangement.   I’ve included two clips showing how using this tripod brings needed stability to underwater close-up shooting. 

The only improvement to this tripod and clamp would be a focusing rail.  I used a Canon 60mm macro lens on a Canon 7D body.  This gave me plenty of distance from a subject, but there were many times where I could not place the tripod in the best position from the subject.  Having a focusing rail on top of the tripod, such as the RRS B150-B: Macro focusing rail would be a good solution.  I could then get the tripod fixed in place, then put my housing on top of the macro focusing rail, and then move the housing back and forth on the rail to achieve the fine positioning that I would need.  I could put one of RRS’s nice ball heads on top of their tripod for the ultimate flexibility, but that would raise the housing higher than I would like.  For the best underwater close-up shooting, I usually want the housing down as absolutely low as possible.  I also don’t know how well their ball heads will hold up in salt water. 
RRS also makes camera bars that would allow me to slide the housing back and forth on a bar; an example is their CB-10 Duo Package: CB-10 and B2-Duo.  However, since my housing is designed to accept an RRS plate perpendicular to the lens direction, the rails would seem to be 90 degrees off from what I want. I’d want a bar where the clamp is oriented 90 degrees to the rail, so that the front of the housing can slide back and forth on the bar.  Their 192 FAS Package: FAS Clamp & MPR 192 has this orientation.  RRS’ 192 Precision Plus Package has two mini-clamps which will allow me to orient my housing either parallel to or perpendicular to the rail. 

Buy this tripod.  Put a RRS plate on the bottom of your housing and a clamp on the top of this ground-level tripod.  It will improve your underwater shooting of close-up subjects, turning formerly amateurish, shaky video into professional, smooth footage that you will be proud to show. 

Stuff I Pack for a Typical Diving Trip

Here is a small sample of the gear that I bring on a typical diving trip.  The airline's baggage policies don't help; products like Lowepro's camera backpacks and Pro Rollers are a great help.

Diving gear, clothes, personal items, etc are not included in this photo.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Review of the Lowepro Pro Roller Lite 250 AW

Martin Schuster, a member of my Antarctic crew, using the Super Trekker AW II to carry a large broadcast camera around a penguin rookery. 
The Lowepro Pro Roller 250 AW Lite
I’ve been a huge fan of Lowepro products over my 30-year career. I’ve used their bags for everything, undoubtedly over and beyond what their engineers and designers intended them for.

I used a Super Trekker AW II to carry around my Hollywood-sized Sony HDCAMs for four expeditions in Antarctica.  I’ve always carried the bulk of my camera gear using their superb camera backpacks (the Nature Trekker AW II backpack was one of my favorites), and I’ve used their waterproof Dryzone packs for numerous trips through the Grand Canyon and river expeditions. Their Pro Roller series of rolling airline cases have been my constant companions through years of air travel.

I have to constantly keep familiar with the details of airline travel and what a photographer can or cannot bring on a plane these days. On my most recent trip, to Australia and Indonesia, I was flying Qantas Airlines to South Australia, and I therefore realized that I had to be sure that all my carryon bags would fit Qantas’ restrictions.

Qantas Airlines is known for being extremely strict about forcing passengers to adhere to their size and weight restrictions for carryon bags. I have not flown Qantas Airlines in many years, and the last time I flew with them, the flight attendants gave me a tremendous amount of trouble since I was carrying a long 500mm f4 lens in its own box, along with a backpack and another case. I’ve learned by talking with other travelers that Qantas remains as bad as ever about charging for excess bags or too many carry-ons.

For this trip, therefore, I started packing a full two weeks before leaving. In fact, packing my carry-ons within their limits was on my mind for several weeks. I was careful to make sure that my carryon gear would fit within all of Qantas’ restrictions. I was fortunate to browse through the North American Nature Photography Association’s (NANPA) newsletter and read a news item that Lowepro had just come out with a new Pro Roller Lite AW series. These looked perfect for my upcoming trip. After carefully studying Qantas’ restrictions on carry-on bags, I traded in my old, largish carryon bag for a new Lowepro Pro Roller Lite 250 AW. It was the best thing I did to plan for my entire trip.

Lowepro hit a home run with their newest line of rolling cases for air travel. I used a Pro Roller Lite 250 AW for my recent trip to Indonesia and Australia. It was the perfect fit for my travels and numerous connections in various airports.

The Pro Roller Lite 205 AW is a rolling case that contains Lowepro’s usual fabulous set of padded dividers, which let you organize, pad, and separate all your gear. Unlike earlier Pro Rollers, this model has the padded dividers within the case itself, rather than in a separate bag that fits within the rolling case. I prefer this, as space is at an absolute premium when traveling by air today. I used the dividers to separate, pad, and divide my larger and heavier items.

Whenever I travel, I pack a change of clothes in my carryon bag, a DSLR body, a wide zoom lens, and a long zoom lens. I always pack some energy bars and my favorite, a pack of Pepperidge Farm Geneva cookies, in case I arrive somewhere and there is nowhere to eat – or if I am suck on a plane for 12 hours with no food. In this case, I also packed some heavy underwater photography gear and scuba gear in my carryon so that I would not be charged excess baggage fees. Lastly, I packed my usual complement of electronic and computer cables, my 15” Macbook Pro, laptop power adapter, and iPad. All of this fit in the Lowepro Pro Roller! I could barely lift the case, but that was not a problem. If I needed to lift the case into an airplane overhead compartment, I just took out my computer and iPad. When making my mile-long walks from airplane to customs counters – I put my laptop and iPad in one of the inner or outer pockets of the Pro Roller, and the wheels took all the weight off.

I was astounded at how easy packing the Pro Roller was, and this is because the padded dividers can be so easily set up and changed to accommodate different items. I was also pleasantly surprised at how easy having this carryon made my trip. The various pockets, both inside and outside, are well thought out, so that I could quickly put in or take out a laptop, for instance. There is a flexible, mesh outer pocket that I found was perfect for sliding a MacBook Pro or iPad into; and two smaller, zippered pockets on the outside and inside flap of the Pro Roller were perfect for my passport and assorted customs papers.

If I had anything critical to say about the Pro Roller Lite 250 AW, it would be that the telescoping handle seems a bit flimsy. It does move around a bit, but I have a feeling that this is something that Lowepro planned – the handle will allow you to put a heavy second bag on top of it and while it does seem flimsy – it is likely not all delicate as it held up just fine through all my travels. Having four, rather than two wheels on the bottom would make those mile-long treks through airports a bit easier. As it is, if I put a second bag on top of the Pro Roller and walked a long distance, the weight of the second bag on the handle became significant. Having a dedicated second bag designed to fit the top of the Pro Roller in a fashion that minimizes the weight on my arm would be a welcome touch, and it would make a perfect bag even better.

By the way, my flights to Qantas went without a hitch. The flight attendants did not hassle me about the size of my carryon bag, and the Pro Roller fit easily in the overhead compartment. Small things like this make a huge difference in relieving the stress of airline travel.

This Lowepro Pro Roller Lite 250 AW will be my constant traveling companion for years to come. It is a perfect fit for me and my travels, and it should be a perfect solution for most traveling photographers.

Friday, March 9, 2012

What’s the Best Way to Get Cash Internationally?

If you travel internationally, there are a few things you should know in order not to get fleeced by money exchangers or banks – or ATM machines.

Anyone can use a moneychanger – and I do not recommend them. They will make money from you two ways – by offering a bad exchange rate, and by charging a commission.

Beware anytime you try to change cash for foreign currency. For instance, I was just in Indonesia, and one US dollar equals roughly 10,000 rupiah. I had gotten money at an ATM machine in Jakarta when I first arrived (see below), and had then spent two weeks at a diving resort, where I did not have to use cash. When I traveled out, I was giving tips to porters, and the porters were more than unusually happy when I gave them their tip. I finally realized that I had been giving the porters Rp 100,000 notes instead of Rp 10,000 notes – US $40 to $50 instead of what I thought was $4 to $5. I had many connections that day, so I ended up spending a lot of money on tips by mistake! Oh well, I made some porters VERY happy and hopefully struck a blow against the stereotype that Chinese guys are cheap!

I opened an account at First Republic Bank, which has branches all over California and in select cities around the US. They state this on their website: First Republic Bank will refund ATM access fees from other banks, worldwide!

I therefore carry an ATM debit card from First Republic Bank wherever I travel, and I use it as soon as I reach another country, to get $60 to $100 in cash for meals, taxis, and other items that require cash. Their promise has held up pretty well; using this ATM card will give you a good exchange rate (the banking world’s going rate for that day and time) with no glaring ATM fees. I did find that on one transaction in Australia where I was able to compare this card with another ATM debit card – that I paid 2% or so more than the other ATM debit card. More on this below.

For all other transactions that allow me to use a credit card, I use a credit card. I NEVER use a debit card to make a purchase (even in the US), only for the ATM, because credit cards give me protection.

Most credit cards, however, will charge you u to a 3% foreign transaction fee. They’ll charge you for that dinner you just paid for at the normal exchange rate, and they will then tack on the additional 3%. I avoid this by using credit cards that do not charge foreign transaction fees. All credit cards offered by Capital One, as far as I know, do not charge transaction or currency exchange fees. Here’s a quote from a financial magazine: “Discover and Capital One are the only cards that don’t charge a dime in currency-exchange fees; Capital One doesn’t even pass on the 1 percent fee charged by Visa and MasterCard.”

Here’s advice from Undercurrent, a newsletter for traveling divers ( American Express doesn’t charge a foreign-transaction fee but it does carry a 2 percent currency-conversion fee. Besides Citibank, those that charge 3 percent include Bank of America, Chase and Wells Fargo. Don’t think you can get away from fees by using your debit card - - fees of 2 to 3 percent are the norm.

Now, if you absolutely have to get cash from an ATM machine overseas, try to use a debit rather than a credit card. If you use a credit card, the bank treats this like a cash advance and will charge you a minimum cash withdrawal fee of $10 to $20, then will charge you interest and finance charges starting from the date you withdraw cash. Not only that, the interest will start accumulating on your entire credit card balance from that date, as opposed to the normal 30 days or less from a credit card charge.

As mentioned above, if you use a debit card in an overseas ATM, your bank, as well as a charge by the ATM’s operator will charge you a fee of 2 to 3 percent. This can be significant but it is probably still cheaper than using a moneychanger. There is one great solution that I recommend.

I am a Bank of America customer, and I can use their ATM debit card at certain overseas ATMs/banks that are part of the Global ATM Alliance. When I use my BofA ATM card to withdraw cash from a Global ATM Alliance ATM machine, then all ATM fees on both sides are waived. BofA may charge an International Transaction Fee is 1% to 3%, but I was just in Australia, and I did not see this fee appear (yet) on my statements.

In Australia, the bank that was part of the Global ATM Alliance was Westpac. In France, the bank was BNP Paribas; and in Italy, it was BNL D’Italia.

Here are banks in the Global ATM Alliance:

When I was in Australia recently, I had to withdraw AUD $1200 in cash to pay a guide. I did an experiment.

At a Westpac Bank ATM (part of the Global ATM Alliance), I withdrew AUD $200 using both my Bank of American ATM card and my First Republic ATM card. I should not be charged any fees for using either of these ATM cards – and that seemed to be the case – the transactions showed up as US $214.79 withdrawals on my bank statements.

A few weeks later, I withdrew AUD $400 from a Westpac ATM using my BofA debit card, and then withdrew AUD $400 from an ANZ bank using my First Republic debit card. With the ANZ transaction, a note flashed across the screen stating that I would be charged AUD $3 for this transaction. I did get a slightly better rate from Westpac, which says to me that using my BofA debit card from a Global ATM Alliance machine is slightly preferable to using the First Republic ATM card. The difference was not quite AUD $3.

Withdrawing AUD $400 from Westpac resulted in a charge of USD $431.70 from my Bank of America account. Withdrawing AUD $600 from ANZ resulted in a charge of USD $433.85 from my First Republic account. Hey, I’m not complaining. The difference is only $2.15, or 0.05%.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Best Western Ensenada Motor Inn, Glenelg, South Australia

I researched hotels and motels in the Adelaide area thoroughly. I generally travel alone and have a lot of bags due to my work. I prefer hotels and motels that are clean, have air-conditioning, and are safe; but I don’t want to pay for luxury hotels. Free wifi is a plus; I am willing to pay a reasonable rate for wifi and internet access is essential. I almost always rent a car to get around and to store and carry my large load of bags.

After arriving in Glenelg, South Australia, my first night, I stayed at a very basic hotel that was OK but a bit depressing (the Glenelg Motel). After walking around Glenelg that evening, I checked some sites and discovered that the Best Western in Glenelg had reasonable rates for a package that included a room, free wifi, and a free hot breakfast. Parking was also free and in a secure lot that was gated and locked at night (guests had in and out access using a PIN and their room key).

This was a good deal and I was not disappointed. The room and bathroom was perfectly adequate. It had a small refrigerator, and the A/C worked well (very important in the record heat that we had). The room and bathroom were clean and functional – perhaps a bit dated, but perfectly pleasant and comfortable. The bathroom would be a bit small for two people but would work. The room itself had a large queen bed and enough room for a small table and sofa as well.

The location is fantastic – almost right on the beach, with just a field and one recreation building between it and the beach/jetty. The hotel was located in a very convenient location – close to the beach and main shopping/restaurants, but just a half block away so that it remained quiet. There is a tram that will take you into downtown Adelaide.

I was very impressed by the professionalism and quick communication of the staff. I asked to check in early, at 12 noon, on my first day after making a booking for two nights. Kathy Harrison of the hotel replied promptly, stating that it would not be a problem. The staff responded quickly to my requests for ice (there is no ice machine in any hotel in Australia, but they gave me their personal ice trays); parking, a double hot breakfast (their package was for two guests but I was solo), and the list goes on.

I liked the hotel and location so much that I asked to stay there again on the last night of my stay. I could have stayed at a hotel in downtown Adelaide that was $30 cheaper and rated very highly on Tripadvisor’s list of Adelaide hotels – but I chose The Best Western Ensenada in Glenelg for the convenience of free onsite parking, the free internet, and free hot breakfast. I emailed them to ask about availability and prices, and Kathy Harrison gave me a discount on the same internet/breakfast/room package that I had before. It was great to be recognized as a repeat customer.

I enjoyed staying at the forward to staying at the Best Western Ensenada Motor Inn, Glenelg (Adelaide) a place that I know will be comfortable, safe, and hassle-free, before I take my rental car, my bags, and myself to the airport the next morning. It was only 3 or 4 kms to the airport, a very short ride.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Be Careful If Port on Nauticam Housing is Hard to Get Off

A couple of weeks ago, a friend had trouble getting her port off her Nauticam housing. She had all kinds of expert help, and they finally got the port off with a screwdriver. Today I had the same problem with trying to remove a port from my Nauticam housing that she had. Untypically, I was careful and did not damage the port/housing, but I could have. In my case, I would have severely damaged the housing. I'm writing this so folks know about this and so will not damage their housing if this occurs.

The Nauticam port lock uses a gear to slide locking flanges over the port's bayonet ring. If those gears inside the housing (easy to see, in the bottom right side of the front of the housing) don't move all the way to let the port's flanges out, then there's no way you are getting that port off. If you take a screwdriver to the port, you will damage the port and housing permanently. In my case, an allen screw that kept the port lock gear attached had gotten loose, so the port lock was not opening the flanges all the way. I had to experiment a bit, completely unloosened the screw and gear, to see how the plates needed to be in order to release the port. Then I removed the port and put the gear back on.

I'll try to post photos of this.