|Use the current to your advantage by letting it push you closer to your subject. But be prepared to shoot quickly. Photography by Stephen Frink|
In an ideal world, we'd all be taking photos in 84-degree water, calm seas and 100-foot visibility. But Mother Ocean often works against us, and we have to learn tricks to bring home the shot regardless of the conditions.
Extreme current is one of the conditions that make underwater imaging a challenge. So, if it's so hard to shoot in current, why bother? For the same reason people rob banks: That's where the goods are. Currents nourish both hard and soft corals, and attract reef dwellers and pelagics. Healthy, colorful coral and abundant marine life is often the lure that draws underwater photographers into the "Flow Zone."
Some of the most photogenic diving in the world occurs on current-swept sites, from the offshore pinnacles of Cocos Island and the straits of British Columbia to the channels of the Maldives and the atoll passes of Tahiti. But in many of these locales, tides and offshore currents can move water at such velocity that a diver can feel pretty helpless. On the first day of some live-aboard cruises, the crew will issue emergency horns, safety sausages or signal mirrors to divers. If that happens to you, it's safe to assume currents will rage at some point during the trip. Here are a few tips to help you bring home the hot shot from fast waters.
Customize the Tools
There are ways to make diving in current a bit easier. You never want your gauges to dangle and drag on the coral, but in current it's even more important because an errant console or alternate second stage can get wedged in a crevice. Hose clips and retractors will keep your gear close--and off the reef.
A regulator that is tuned to breathe easily in normal conditions may free-flow with a stiff current pushing against the purge. Look for a reg that you can adjust on the fly. A strong current can push you into sharp rocks or coral, so you'll want a good wetsuit to provide both thermal and abrasion protection. A low-profile mask is less likely than a bigger mask to be ripped loose when turned sideways to the current. And, of course, you'll want powerful fins for maneuvering or moving up-current if you need to.
Certain camera equipment is better suited to working in current as well. As the underwater photo industry embraces a wide variety of camera housings and multisegmented ball-joint arms that may be perfect for capturing that elusive blenny with a 105mm macro lens, there is still a strong argument to be made for the keep-it-simple philosophy of using a Nikonos V with a 15mm or 20mm lens. Once distance is properly estimated, the large depth of field is very forgiving of focus problems, and the whole package presents very little water resistance.
Housed systems can work well in current too, but smaller domes are easier to handle than massive fisheye ports. Many of the digital cameras available today are tiny and perfect for shooting in current. Wide-angle zoom lenses offer excellent compositional latitude, particularly if your movement is restricted, such as when you're using a reef hook or hiding in the lee of a coral head.
One of the hardest things about shooting in a strong current is aiming the strobe. Some ball-joint arms won't support a strobe in a current, particularly when a large or heavy strobe head presents significant water resistance. But there are certain arms that are well-suited to the task. Ikelite makes a very robust ball-joint arm, and Ultralight integrates O-rings into its arm balls so the clamp locks down with greater security. I find that the standard ball joints on my TLC arms aren't up to the high-current challenge, so I have replaced their ball-joint assembly with the levered Delrin clamps available from Seacam.
While a variety of stability-enhanced strobe arms are available these days, the simple angled post of a Nikonos SB-105 works well in current. Its relative lack of articulation can be frustrating in normal dive situations, but in strong current, arms like these are an elegant and foolproof alternative.
Reef hooks are great way to help you remain stationary in a stiff current. The hook's sturdy cord attaches to an anchor point on the BC, and then the hook is lodged into a part of the reef, leaving the diver to wave like a pennant in the breeze. On most sites, there's plenty of coral rubble or barren rock to support the tip of a blunt reef hook without damage. Using a reef hook, the diver has two hands free to view and manipulate camera controls.
With divers anchored in place, photo subjects like sharks get acclimated to the presence of divers. The elusive predators approach stationary divers more closely than free-swimming divers. Since we can't outswim them, we have to make them trust us or ignore us. Being one with the reef is a good strategy.
Often, reef hooks are used at the mouth of a current or along a deep ledge close to the open ocean. The incoming tide concentrates nutrients and clear water in one small area, enhancing photo opp0rtunities. Divers stay hooked to the reef as long as their bottom time, air or film remains; then they'll release their hooks, blow off the reef, and complete their offgas time in a blue-water drift.
Finding a lee--ducking behind an obstruction--is another good way to deal with a current. Shipwrecks like the Duane and Spiegel Grove off Key Largo had to be sunk in about 120 feet of water to avoid becoming hazards to navigation. Depending on wind, tides and other meteorological variables, the same Gulf Stream current that provides crystal-clear visibility can create difficult dive conditions. Divers may have to struggle, pulling hand-over-hand down the mooring line, but once they get on the ship, they can find plenty of places to hide from the current. Tucked into a lee, they can relax, control their air consumption and get their shots.
How do you get back to the same mooring line so you--and your camera--can make it safely to the boat? Some dive operators drop their divers off on the bow line, letting them drift the length of the ship and then pick them up on the stern. This takes some planning by the dive crew--and proper execution by the diver--but it lets a stiff current work to your advantage.
Shipwrecks aren't the only sites where you can use this technique. Finding a coral crevice to tuck into off Cocos Island or the Galapagos is a good way to get close to hammerheads. Not only will it provide a lee from the current and prolong bottom time by reducing the amount of energy you have to expend, it also helps you control your breathing and minimize motion, which are the best ways (short of a rebreather) to get close to these beautiful but shy animals.
While the first two techniques are ways to reasonably resist current, the Zen approach is even easier: Drifting along with the current, capturing subjects as they pass. Depending on the speed of the current, this can be fun and productive. Take a dive like the Wax Cay Cut in the Exumas. Here, gorgeous turquoise water pushes through a pass in the reef on the incoming tide. As the water compresses through the nozzle, velocity dramatically increases. Divers fly past fish and pristine coral reef, inspiring and frustrating photographers.
The best strategy here is to plan ahead. Too often, by the time you conceive the photo and aim the strobe, you'll blow by the set-up with no way to get back. Visualize your shots well in advance, use the current to edge closer to the subject, and be ready to nail the shot quickly.
You may find some rubble to anchor yourself briefly, but resistance is often futile and counterproductive. After all, there are no doubt more beautiful subjects just a bit farther down-current. Go with the flow, and enjoy.
When diving in areas known to have strong currents, take these precautions for your safety.
EQUIP YOURSELF Before entering the water, have a safety sausage and know how to use it. If you're separated from your boat, the inflated orange tube will show up above any surface chop and significantly enhance your visibility.
LISTEN UP Pay special attention to the predive briefing. Any given dive site has a fixed topography, and therefore only a limited bag of tricks. An experienced local diver who knows the weather and the state of the tide can predict pretty accurately what currents you'll find there.