July 25, 2011 - Summer Diving Heats Up!

July 25, 2011  •  Leave a Comment
To all those who are new to my blog to get the gist of it please read "Welcome Aboard"  from the May 1, 2011 posting and peruse a few of my other Dive Blog Reports. Visit www.evolutionunderwater.com to see video shorts from the 2011 season at Olympus Dive Center and click here for more info about myself.

Photo of the Week.  A large school of Atlantic Spade Fish cooperating
for the camera on the wreck of the USS Schurz. (New)
Up until this past weekend we were having top notch weather and dive conditions on the wrecks of the Graveyard of the Atlantic on board the boat I captain, the Midnight Express at Olympus Dive Center.  Unfortunately, we have had a few heavy blow days the last couple of days canceling some charters but, I'm not going to dwell on the negatives and will report only the great dives we had since last Tuesday, July 19th.

After coming down from a high of having one of my personal top ten North Carolina dives on Monday July 18 (See last weeks Dive Blog Report "The Year of the Shark"), we headed back offshore with a new group of divers from various locations with the award for the furthest travelled going to Lazlo and Dorothya from Hungary.  This couple however did not get dive together. The first day, Lazlo joined us and in conversation it was revealed that he was from Hungary. The second day, Dorothya dived with us and I asked "where are you from" where she answered, "Hungary", once again.  I quickly said, "wow, we just had someone on board yesterday from Hungary, what a coincidence", where she then educated me that it was her husband that I met. She explained that they have children at home and were taking turns diving while the other watched the children. I was impressed by their commitment and ingenuity that allowed them to continue to dive even with little ones at home and also flattered that they would travel from so far and take the time to discover the great diving the Outer Banks has to offer.  I hope we see the two of you again with many of your friends. PS: I know plenty of baby sitters I could put you in touch with.
Lazlo all the way from Hungary, watches the sharks while his
wife, Dorothya watches the kids.  Don't worry ladies she got
her chance to swim with the fishes the next day.
The USS Schurz.
Anyway, back to the dives. With the weather cooperating and the offshore dive conditions excellent I headed the 'Midnight" due south to the WWI wreck of the USS Schurz for dive number one of the day.  The ride out was uneventful in a good way.  After my mate secured us to the wreck he radioed up to me from 110 feet that there was little to no current, water in the mid to upper seventies and visibility better than 50 feet on the bottom with clearer 'viz' higher up in the water column.  It sounded like the recipe for a good dive.  Without delay all of the divers geared up and headed down to the wreck for a dip.  As they returned I began to get positive reports from the divers. "Beautiful", seemed to be the word most often used and that doesn't surprise me for the Schurz is a stunning wreck.  She went down in 1917 and has been exposed to all the environmental elements nature has to throw at her the last 94 years on the ocean floor.  There is not much left, without a trained eye and a steep imagination, to indicate that the Schurz was the hansom fighting ship of her day. However, she has been transformed in to something all together different but still hansom.  She is a stunning and prolific marine ecosystem that has dismayed many a diver over the years who have been fortunate to have dived on her. For example, it is not unusual for the bait fish to be so thick that it reduces the 'viz' to a mere few feet. Divers would have to ascend 10-20 feet and hover over the wreck to be able to find their way again. Majestic Giant Southern Stingrays with hapless Cobia following behind like court jesters are spotted here regularly as well.  Shark species are no stranger to this wreck either.  Sand Bars, Bulls, Reefs and Sand Tiger Sharks are spotted from time to time and the list goes on and on.
A spearhead of Atlantic Spade Fish.  Shot while hovering over the wreck
of the USS Schurz. (New)

On this day my first mate, John Thompson returned from his dive with his camera housing in hand and indicated that there was a large and well formed school of Atlantic Spade Fish swimming in mid water that had caught his cameras eye. Some would say "when you've seen one Spade Fish you've seen them all". Not quite, I say.  When you see hundreds of Spade Fish huddled together in formation, sometimes chaotic and sometimes balletic it is rousing or even poetry in motion.  Confused and bewildered Spades are even comical in a Keystone Cops kind of way.  Regardless, they can be very entertaining depending on how you perceive them. I stowed the visual that John gave me in the back of my head while we finished collecting all the divers. With everyone back on board, I loaded my camera housing with my Nikon D300 and 12-24mm lens and jumped over the side with it and headed down to the Schurz. Sure enough the first thing that caught my attention was the school of Spade Fish. Without even making it to the bottom I went to work on this school of fish shooting with vengeance. I snapped shots of these fish by the dozen.  Some with strobes, some without, some from the side and some from the bottom.  In the end I think I had about 125 shots in total at times firing 3 frames per second.

More Spade Fish on the 'Schurz'. (New)
A famous underwater photographer, Jim Church, once said in not these exact words "throw enough mud on the wall and some of it will stick". And so it is with photography. The more images you take the better the chances for success. Following the school around in mid water upside down most of the time started to make me dizzy so I had to take a break and finally headed down to the wreck. As I swam halfway down the length of the wreck I saw a school of fish neatly hovering under an arch which was once one of the lifeboat davits on the Schurz deck.  The curved shape made for a nice backdrop for the school so I fired off a few shots while alleviating the vertigo I got from the Spade Fish.  Once finished and my wits returning and not feeling like I nailed the shot, I went back to the Spade Fish and interrogated them with my strobes some more.  This time the entire school of fish surrounded and absorbed me within them with some bumping into my dome port. I fired off a few dozen more shots not even looking at the display. Pretty soon with my head spinning again it was time to ascend. In the end I was pretty happy with the results but never really feeling like I got what I wanted.  But then again, this is how I feel most of the time which inspires me to go back and do it again and to do it better the next time or the next.
One of the lifeboat davits on the USS Schurz. (New)
Once the hook was pulled from the Schurz it was time to mosey over to the USCG Cutter Spar for dive two but, not before dropping my mate, Mike Phillips, on to a rock ledge to have his try at spearing a healthy grouper for his birthday.  Some people send cards or gifts while I have different ideas for celebrating a birthday. The rock ledges are a nice diversion to the wrecks to those who dive wrecks all the time such as, the crew. Today we had two passengers who also brought their spearguns with them along with dive guide, Clint Etheridge, who in his spare time is the head of Eastern Carolina Universities (ECU) Dive Training Program.  I can't remember his exact title but I'm sure it's something cool like, "Chief of Student SCUBA Divers". Clint in the summer season when school is out can be seen around the dive shop filling in for mates or guiding dives such as today. Many of his students past and present can be seen on the Olympus dive boats during the season. Overall the quality of the divers coming out of ECU is of a high caliper and it is always a pleasure to have them on board. (No, this is not a paid advertisement).
Standing on the bow of the Midnight Express,
First Mate, John Thompson and ECU Dive Training Exec,
Clint Etheridge on the right.
Diver, Welby Lloyd and his dinner.
I pulled up to an unknown waypoint on the GPS titled 'sweetness' and figured that it must have been a good spot.  When I passed over the top the bottom contour dropped off indicating a steep ledge of about 10-15 feet in height while fish finder started showing some promise. With a yell I told all the divers to jump and head straight to the bottom. With calm seas and little current, eyeing the divers bubbles and thus keeping track of them was easy work.  On rough days there is little hope that I would conduct a dive of this sort at all. The added fact that there was a hired guide in the water set me at ease as well. After about 20 minutes the divers emerged each with a nice Grouper and one with a Tautog or what we call up north, a Blackfish. Mike was the only one who had not bagged a fish but it made no matter to him. The season was young and there would be other opportunities.  

Without further delay we would finish the second dive on the Spar. The Spar delivered another great dive for everyone with a handful of Sand Tiger Sharks adding company to the divers. The calm seas, clear skies, great viz and the fish laying on ice in the cooler made for a near perfect day. I myself was a happy camper that I got to take a few pics and get my hair wet (or what's left of it).

Diver with is Go Pro Vid camera.
Jorge knows I like happy divers.
Diver, Robert Puerifoy (no relation to Robert
Purifoy), after his dive.

On Wednesday, the weather continued to hold out very nicely so we headed straight for the W.E. Hutton; aka Papoose to revisit the scene of July 18th's dive with the Caribbean Reef Sharks (check out the video HERE). Sure enough most of the divers on this dive saw at least one if not numerous Reef Sharks on the Papoose not to mention a few Sand Tiger Sharks to boot.  Judging by the buzz on the dive deck after the dive I would conclude that it was a successful dive for most everyone. Dive number two on the wreck of the Aeolus would also prove to be a great dive with yet another detour to a rock ledge for some spearfishing where more fish were landed. The week just keeps getting better! Sadly (insert frown face here), I would not go diving today since I felt the effects of a nasty cold coming on and did not want to make it worse by stressing my body out by diving. I learned my lesson years ago when I was younger and dumber (oh those wonderful days) when I used to guide dives when I could not stop hacking in to my regulator while toting a 100+ degree fever. The colds would last three times as long and were probably twice as bad because I didn't slow down.  Today, I would only be able to hear the cool dive stories from the passengers (insert another frown face here).

Anne Slough and her dive buddy Annette.
When Thursday morning rolled around I was once again very pleased by the weather report and excited to get to work.  Showing people a good time when the seas are flat and the dive conditions excellent is a breeze. It's when it is rough and dirty where it gets challenging but, I said earlier I wasn't going to dwell on the negatives. Today, I would have a small group of passengers along with my friend Anne Slough joining us. She was very happy when a last minute furlough was issued by her children that allowed her to sneak in one day of diving at Olympus. One day and only one day before returning to Super Mom status. My girlfriend Annette would join her for a fun dive on her day off and take a break from posing in front of my lens. The long short of this day was that it went off without a hitch. 
Nate prepped for the jump.

Conditions continued to please divers, the seas were still fairly calm and there may have been a rainbow with synchronized jumping dolphins beneath it. The only problem was I was sicker than the day before (yet another frown face here).  If I had known I was going to feel this crummy I would have sure as hell went diving on the Papoose. As soon as the boat got back, I packed my bags, hugged Anne (with face turned away) and sped home were I consumed a gallon of herbal tea, a few thousand milligrams of vitamin C and crashed out on the couch for the next 48 hours (are you feeling any pity yet?). Annette put up with my Grizzly Bear attitude while I went in to recovery and kept my eye on the NOAA web site.

Another satisfied customer.
The 'deer in headlights look'.

Ever since Thursday, the weather has held us back from diving while my health has slowly improved. As of Tuesday night the winds continue to blow and the hope that Mother Nature will grant us a reprieve from her repressive weather and allow us to head back out stays fresh in everyones mind.

I just wanted to thank all of the readers out there who have been enjoying this Dive Blog Report. I have a good time putting these together and am pleased at the positive feedback I have been getting. Keep in mind I accept and appreciate all comments if you care to leave any. I'll catch you all next week or on Facebook.

Mike's Underwater Photography Tip of the Week

This weeks blog I'm going to start something different with the "Photo Tip of the Week" for those inspiring U/W photog's. I hope that any information I give can be of help in achieving great photos.

One of the first things I teach my students, who sign up for a photo course, is to become a good listener. Wether you come across a beginner or an expert photographer in the field there is always something you can learn from that person. In other words pay attention to what anyone has to say about photography. A photographer whose images you feel are below your par may be able to show you something about Photoshop or similar post photo processes. Those who are savvy in the technological advances of the latest greatest cameras and lenses can impart some great wisdom upon you in that area. One man in particular taught me a lot about workflow and file management which has nothing to do with the quality of the photo but is extremely important all the same. Try not to dismiss someone based on there lack of notoriety as well.  Just because they are not famous or published does not mean they do not have great knowledge to pass on. Hear everyone's opinion on how to get great shots and weed out what doesn't work for you later.

When I first started shooting photography on board the Truk Aggressor II in Micronesia I had very little experience.  Being isolated on this boat with little to no internet time or even access to a phone, I soaked up whatever knowledge I could from the guests on board my boat who passed through on a weekly basis. This way I had a constant stream of data coming at me. Some of it very valuable and some of it not so much but most of it useful in adding to my formula for taking great images.

Next week I will discuss the use of external strobe units for lighting your subjects.  Until then...

Happy Diving!

Mike Gerken

See below for the shameless self promotion
section of this blog!

Please visit my web site www.evolutionunderwater.com to see video excerpts from my documentary films and a complete underwater photographic portfolio of my work and purchase fine art prints and DVD's of my films.

If you wish to dive Graveyard of the Atlantic contact Olympus Dive Center for more information.

Olympus Dive Center, Morhead City, NC.
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