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If you know me at all, you probably know I recently returned from a phenomenal trip to Indonesia. What I want to do with this post is go backwards in time and tell about the few days leading up to that trip.
The Friday I was to fly out, I had a sick feeling all day. I was genuinely worried. I made sure my will was in order. I was facing four flights, most to unknown places and traveling alone, something that is still relatively new to me. Plus I could not miss any of the flights or risk missing the boat. I was to be on a 12-day trip with an unknown roommate, which meant if I didn’t like her or anyone else on board it would be a long and miserable journey. Worried a lot that Friday, I did. It also happened to be my mom’s birthday, so we talked on the phone at the airport before I headed out on the first of four flights, the long way over the planet to Indonesia. Arriving at the boarding gate helped reduce some of the anxiety — I felt much better once I arrived to SeaTac with all my bags and got them checked.
The night before, that Thursday after work, I braved insanely bad traffic to go north to Edmonds where my two photos were showing at the gallery. My friend Sheri also made the trip. The weekend prior, I was in attendance at a life celebration for Sheri’s mother, and events took an unexpected turn when Sheri proposed to her partner Alison. Everyone was laughing and crying and riding all sorts of emotional waves. Earlier, that morning I had gone diving at Mukilteo with John to test my fisheye lens and port for the second time prior to leaving for Indonesia. My first dive with it the preceding Wednesday I discovered a flaw in the port design and so was testing my fix at Mukilteo. I was moderately but not fully successful.
The next morning, Sunday, I drove to Tacoma for a two-tank boat dive — my last chance to learn more about the fisheye before the big trip. I dived with a brand new buddy and incredible animal spotter. Jonathan found every single cool thing we saw on the first dive.
Our dives were at Tacoma Narrows and Sunrise, both of which were incredibly colorful sites. Amazing enough in Puget Sound, but even more so for being in the south sound. Afterwards I sped home, showered, and headed back out straightaway to see Priscilla Queen of the Desert with my friend Jo. It turned out to be the very last night of the North American tour. And afterwards there were a few speeches and some fun on stage, and it was topped off by one of the main stars proposing to the choreographer, who had flown into town from New York for the show’s closing. I didn’t even know these guys but was so swept up in all of it I was crying for them.
Witnessing two marriage proposals in one weekend! Not to mention the most outstanding, amazing, mind-blowing Broadway production I have ever seen, period. And three excellent dives.
My trip to Indonesia was perfect. I cannot say enough good things about it. Plus, none of my planes crashed. And the days leading up to that trip were pretty fantastic too.
I did not get a chance to peek at my Tacoma dive photos until I was already underway and splashing on the WAOW. Now I am back home and it looks like once I get the backscatter under control, I might have some real fun with this lens.
I just got two photos accepted for a gallery showing.
Woo hoo! I don’t know that this is a huge deal as galleries go, but I’ll take it. Plus, it has forced me to move forward on a few things.
Edmonds Gallery North. The show is “Northwest Water Views.” Artist reception (opening) is Sunday, November 3, 1-4 pm. If you live in the area, I’d sure love to see you there. The show runs through November. I’ll also try to be there on the evening of the 21st for the Edmonds Art Walk, but I leave the next day for 2-plus weeks, so we’ll see about that. Regardless, do stop in if you get a chance.
This is my blog, so time for honesty. I’m so scared. Last night I ordered a ton of 8×10 and 11×14 prints from a site I have never used before. No idea what the results will look like. I also ordered a bunch of cello resealable bags. And foam core backing. And I designed a new business card and ordered 500 (because they were cheaper in bulk). Tonight I ordered more prints from a different online site to be safe. I don’t even like these photos the more I look at them! Ack! Yeah, I’m nervous. But I’m keeping moving.
Here are the two photos. Come see them in person in November!
I have nemesis invertebrates. Until recently, I was only consciously aware of having nemesis jellies. But it’s bigger than that. I also have nemesis hooded nudibranchs.
By nemesis, I mean they kick my butt without even trying. No matter what I do, how hard I try, how much skip-breathing, bottom dragging, tank draining, muck stirring, upside-down vertical diving I do, I cannot seem to get the “perfect” photo of one.
Define perfect. Well, I can see it in my head. It looks a lot like photos I have seen before from other photographers. No, this is not about artistic originality. This is simply about being able to do something I think I should be able to do. For if it has been done before, it should be reproducible. It is not that I lack imagination – I will use that later on, once I can get the photo that should be the industry standard excellent hooded nudibranch photo.
Every time I see a fried-egg jelly or a lion’s mane, I go into attack mode: check my gauge, lower my mask on serious brow, aim the strobes like guns. Shot after shot after shot. To no avail. Either they have massive amounts of backscatter, are not crisp, or they are perfect but floating half-way out the frame. My assault on hooded nudibranchs is just a little bit different. It involves lots of praying and pleading and sometimes cursing at my camera for not firing at the perfect moment. It often involves aquatic gymnastics. If I have the luxury of being unhurried, it may involve 20 frames or more.
And I can recall, I think, every dive I have ever seen a hooded nudibranch on. My first was in British Columbia during one of my trips with the Vancouver Aquarists. Something went wrong with my film camera and I got no photos. So, yeah, rule #1: make sure camera is in working order.
Characteristics of a good nemesis
Now. What is it that makes a good nemesis? A good nemesis invertebrate has fine, intricate detail, much like laser etched glass.
A good nemesis invert is also a complex creature – not simple like a flatfish. I love flatfish as much as anyone, but flatfish are not my nemeses.
Other characteristics for a good nemesis invert? They are not sessile, not stationary where they live. Hooded nudibranchs are generally either found free-swimming or swooshing back and forth in the water while barely attached to kelp or eelgrass. They move, they sway, they expand and contract. It’s like they’re made of water or something. And if they are on kelp or eelgrass, the kelp and eelgrass also move and sway and can make a hooded nudibranch disappear faster than it takes to check your air pressure.
There’s more, and this one is critical. The other thing that makes a good nemesis invert is my own excitement level upon finding a specimen. I never tire at encountering my nemesis animals, mock me though they do. I feel great joy at encountering these animals every single time I see one, even if I happen to come upon a breeding many.
What factors have contributed to my difficulty in obtaining the guidebook-level photo?
- Crap in the water (backscatter)
- Poor visibility (now you see it, now you don’t)
- Surge (every photo is out of focus because of the constant motion)
- And the #1 challenge to capturing nemesis photos is my own self. It correlates in part to the #1 rule, making sure camera is prepared. But it goes beyond that. I can go to a dive site when I am virtually guaranteed to see hooded nudibranchs (because I was just there two days prior and there were hundreds but I ran out of batteries in my strobe and I had tinkered poorly with my camera settings, and so I went back two days later) and inexplicably then decide to test out weighting for a pony rig where I’m also then virtually guaranteed to either be under- or over-weighted and thereby exacerbate the other challenges.
Post Script: a [semi-]Chronology
Below are many of the hooded nudibranch photos I’ve taken over the past few years on my hero’s journey…
The Prize, unexpected
Sitting in the trash pile of bad photos, I made an unexpected discovery.
Before I started this new blog, I already had several octopus experiences I wanted to write about. And since I started, I’ve got several more. Which means I have an octopus backlog. And two of the dives started kinda similarly.
At the North Wall of Sund Rock down in Hood canal a few weeks ago, I had one of the best dives I have ever had. My buddy and I walked in the water and started to swim to a buoy we were going to drop down. But before I swam six kicks I spotted a lion’s mane jelly in the water. I dropped down to about 4 feet to shoot photos because, you see, I have a never-ending quest to get the perfect photo of a lion’s mane jelly. And the quest is never ending because it might not be possible (at least not with my camera gear). And yet I remain persistent. So after taking photos for a few minutes, I surfaced so I could descend with Stacey.
And what followed was one underwater phenomenon after another. At the bottom of the buoy line I found a sailfin sculpin under the first rock I looked under. And then another swam in. Then another! Sailfins are one of my favorite fish. These guys never came out for good photos, but still – three sailfin sculpins together was a sight I had never beheld.
I moved off and dropped down a few more feet, and a young adult wolf eel was staring me in the face. He/she was beautiful – old enough to be gray, but young enough to still have spots and not yet have the old-man grizzled mug.
The dive continued like this – one awesome animal after another, sights neither of us had seen. We encountered five or six wolf eels, including the largest one I have ever seen (and maybe the largest one on the planet – it is possible). He was gargantuan and his head appeared completely stuck between rocks. He was so jammed into a crevice it looked like the wolf eel mafia had got to him to give him a warning.
I had just found another wolf eel and was about to start taking photos when I saw Stacey’s dive light out of the corner of my eye, and it was going nuts – frantic motion of the light that just got more and more frantic and pleading. I knew I had to abandon the wolfie to see what I was missing. And it was a good call. A free-swimming Giant Pacific Octopus. What a beast. I am not set up for wide angle photography, but I gave it my best. Only problem was it kept swimming up and up, so eventually I had to let it go on without me.
We found a field of a nudibranch species called Flabellina that looked like they were all about to spawn. There were no eggs, but there were hundreds of these little nudi’s on tiny little stalks sticking up from the bottom. It looked like a bizarre scene out of Willie Wanka – an acre of Flabellina lollipops. We also encountered a couple Dendronotids – HUGE nudibranchs, maybe 10 inches long…
Before heading up, I wanted to swim deeper to look for the sea whips I knew were out there. And we found them. As with much on this dive, a completely new thing for both of us. These things were huge, too – surprisingly so. Maybe 3 feet tall. Viz at depth was excellent. I did not want to leave.
Sometimes it is really, really hard to leave. So hard the only thing that gets me topside is knowing there is actually zero choice in the matter.
As most anyone who knows me knows, I like the little things underwater. Oddly, we call them “macro.” I’m a macro diver or, more gently, a critter diver. Whatever the word, it is the small stuff. The animals most people overlook.
Why do I favor them? Because they seem more special, like rare finds, little treasures, yet they are plentiful, varied, beautiful, fun, fascinating, cute, and everything the big animals are, they are just more often overlooked.
The truth is, I like all underwater life. All of it. In my underwater world, the megafauna share the spotlight with the little animals. But lately it seems the octopus don’t want to share. Instead, they keep showing up to make story after story after story.
I am currently in the middle of octopus tales on my alter ego blog site, DivEncounters. But because the Alliance vessels are not in Puget Sound or other cold places I love to dive, I can’t really talk volumes about my local diving on the Sea Pen. And sometimes there are good stories to tell. Like that little red octo I saw at Redondo a couple weeks ago with John. I mentioned it on the Sea Pen, but now — here — I get to share photos! And more of the story.
So here is the whole story. It was a quiet dive overall, but viz was terrific. I was scanning large pieces of kelp in case there were any little baby Spiny Lumpsuckers still around. And while scanning kelp, something red caught my eye. Now, red octopus don’t have to be red. And bright red typically signifies they are unhappy. But this one was hanging out red. I moved the kelp and this is what I saw:
Notice in that first photo the octo is a light red (not fire-engine red), and its little mantle (the head part) appears pretty relaxed. It almost looks like it was snoozing. And I disturbed its sleep.
So snoozy little octo here realizes he (could be a she; don’t know) is now exposed. Turns a brighter red and tries to move along to hide again. Like this (see that grumpy yet determined look in its eye?):
Problem was, I kept moving the kelp it was hiding under.
It was not happy. How do I know? Note the red points on its head. Mad little octo.
But then it seemed to change tactics (anger wasn’t working). Change tactics by changing colors…
See the light color areas behind its eyes? And…notice the barnacles nearby? Color/shape coincidence? I don’t think so.
It changed shape, too. Its mantle became quite round.
See those rocks? In fact, look at the little nubs on its head — a lot like the bits of gunk and silt on the rocks.
And finally, notice the catlike movements? Okay, hard to see in a still photo I know. But this is when he was creeping along, very slowly. Like a cartoon character. He was acting like a rock! Blows my mind.
Lo and behold. He found cover (that I for once did not move). I thought he deserved to be left alone to hide.
But, um, does it seem like the white spots (a bryozoan) on the kelp look a little bit like Giant Pacific Octopus suckers…?