The Only Sure Thing is Whale Sharks
Twenty-one underwater photographers from Optical Ocean Sales boarded the Solmar V dive boat in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico on June 23rd expecting to steam the next 25 hours 250 miles offshore to the Revillagigedo Islands, aka "The Socorros". Alas, "Amanda" had other ideas.
Having built up to a category 4 hurricane, Amanda was an early and violent storm a few hundred miles south of Socorro Island and heading straight for the area we were to dive. Needless to say, we had to make a big change and head north into the Sea of Cortez. This is an area I had taken several trips to ten years ago, but hadn't enjoyed the long runs on the day boats to the dive sites. It would be great to re-explore it from the comfort of a large liveaboard.
The good news was that the diving there is pretty good and we could be diving the next morning in Cabo Pulmo.
After a checkout dive, we dropped on the wreck of an old tuna boat right through about nine large bull sharks, which quickly scattered before I could get my camera into operation. Enjoying large schools of grunts and larger snappers, we explored what was left of the old boat, seeing the large sharks circling in and out amongst our group in somewhat murky conditions.
Continuing north towards La Paz, we dove La Reina and Swanee Rock, both teaming with life. Diving in the Sea of Cortez is very "fishy" with huge schools of grunts, snappers, goatfish and others on nearly every site. Friendly endemic green morays also greet you from almost every hole. Corals are mostly hard and not all that colorful, so the aquatic fish life is what you go for. Yellowtail sturgeon fish, pufferfish of every variety, colorful hawkfish, grouper abound on nearly every site.
However, with a boat load of photographers looking for large animals, we decided to take some chances. Whale Sharks are found in La Paz bay in the spring; but there had been no reports so far. Would we spend a half-day to cruise the bay and most likely find nothing? A multi-cultural debate raged that evening over dinner, as the european contingent felt the whale sharks weren’t guaranteed, but they were finally out voted.
Good thing too, as the next morning we arrived at the bay and no less than five whale sharks were waiting for us to free dive with! We broke into the pangas and with Geronimo acting as a drill instructor – “Swim!! You guys want to see whale sharks, you have to swim faster! Over there…, swim!” We all had a lot of laughs and got run over by these 25’ gentle giants while taking photos. Using available light and wide angle lenses it was “gun and go” - no time to compose, just shoot shutter priority and hope for the best. But we all got a lot of great shots and had a fun time in the beautiful bay that morning.
Continuing north, we finished the day on the wreck of the “Fang Ming”, an old freighter that had been confiscated by the government and sunk many years ago. A large turtle swam into the wreck and endemic Cortez Angelfish were playing along the sides. Visibility was poor, but I was able to shoot some video and some interiors.
The next morning we traveled north to the EL Bajo sea mount, did a couple of deeper dives to try to spot some hammerheads to no avail, so we came back to the small islands of Los Isolotes. They are home to a large sea lion rookery, as well as swim throughs, and another shallower seamount called El Bajalito. The next morning we had sunny skies and many dives with the very playful sea lions. The young ones love to play with divers and snorkelers and make great photo subjects, hamming it up for the cameras - but watch out for the bulls!
After a day and a half there, we again went south to La Paz to try for more whale sharks, as they were a “sure-thing” then, succeeding with a few, and wore ourselves out again swimming with these huge fish. We then repaired to Swanee Rock for shallow dives on the reef teaming with life. Huge schools of spot tail grunts swarmed over the divers and followed us around. “Can someone get the fish out of the way? I can’t see the reef…” Some divers also found a few sea lions to play with.
On the way back to Cabo the next day, we hit Cabo Pulmo for another morning’s dives on the tuna boat wreck, but the sharks were even more shy. Arriving back in to port, we all had a nice week in the Sea of Cortez, and even though Amanda had had her way with us, we rolled the dice and rolled a winner!
We’ve rescheduled our Socorros trip for March 10-18, 2015 on the new 140’ Nautilus Belle Amie during humpback whale season - come join us! (link - http://www.opticaloceansales.com/photo-expeditions-and-travel/socorros-nautilus-belle-amie-liveaboard-photo-expedition.html
Mirrorless in Mexico
On this trip I left behind my trusty, but large, D800 Nauticam rig and decided to try a new mirrorless camera: The Sony a7 full-frame camera in a NA-A7 Nauticam housing.
It was much smaller to pack and handle and the results were better than I hoped for. The Sony a7 with an old Nikonos 15mm FE amphibious film lens shot remarkably well, sharp and was quite small to handle compared with large domes normally used for a full-frame rig.
The Sony a7 (and a7r) are very impressive; the first full-frame camera in a mirrorless body! With it being much smaller and lighter than the D800, it was easy to carry around. Performance was very good, the camera is very comfortable and solid to shoot. The controls to change ISO as well as other features are right under your fingertips on the Nauticam housing. One big advantage of the Sony over the Nikon is that you can program several function buttons and use them on the housing to bring up other screens providing convenient access to various functions that otherwise are buried down in the menus.
Besides the Nikonos 15mm FE, I shot the a7 with the kit Sony 28-70mm lens. This lens works pretty well as a moderate mid-range lens, fairly sharp for it’s modest cost, with good imaging characteristics. In low light at deeper depths, I was still able to catch focus and it shot fish portrait type shots quite well.
The legendary Nikonos 15mm FE film lens, mounted in an adapter, lived up to it’s reputation. It delivered stunning wide angle, even though it has manual aperture and focus controls. By setting it to f/9-f/11, I had a large depth of field for focus and only changed it when changing from long distance to close focus wide angle. It was also easy to use Sony’s focus peaking feature to “fire when you see the red of their eyes” and know you had the shot nailed. I used both the large, sharp rear view screen and the electronic viewfinder with an external Nauticam viewfinder to good result with a wide range of displays offered in both. A nice feature of the electronic viewfinder was that you could turn the image lighter or darker, something you can’t do with the optical viewfinder of the D800.
One area where the Sony a7 was a standout is shooting at high ISOs in dark environments. I shot the very dimly lit holds inside of the Fang Ming at ISO 3200 and got good results, even with the older Nikonos 15mm lens. Not much noticeable grain, and I’d say it was better at that ISO than my D800 was at ISO 2000. Dynamic range was pretty good, comparable to the Nikon.
I shot it with two electronically synced Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobes in manual. TTL is not currently available, although Nauticam has come out with a new optical sync trigger that simplifies things quite a bit.
The D800 has many more lenses available and with the new D810 coming out with even better low-ISOs and other features, I’d probably give it the edge. but it is a much larger, heavier system to use, and the Sony a7 was easier to swim with than my D800, certainly for free diving. I think the Sony a7 will come into it’s own as new Zeiss and other third-party lenses come out, and it certainly sets a precedent for smaller, lighter professional level cameras to come.
Thanks to Jack Connick from Optical Ocean Sales for sharing this trip report. The original is published on Jack's blog, here.