Thailand - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 249 (59)

Koh Lanta

Friday 12th November

Sandy was not going to be diving this morning so it was just me that had to get up at stupid o’clock to prepare all the equipment and wait for the truck to arrive. I had already prepped the camera last night but still had to collect everything together to put into the laptop bag. I specifically wanted to take the laptop along on the dive trip today so that I could compare notes with the dive master on the quality of our underwater photography.

My left trapezius muscle was playing up again this morning and I felt every last bump and pothole that the truck passed over and through during the fifteen-minute ride to the ‘pier’ (the local term for the main town here on the island where all the boats dock). There’s probably more pits and bumps in the road than actual road so it was a very long ride and I was quite sore by the time we reached the dive resort. It didn’t help much either that the driver insisted on swerving violently all the time in a vain attempt to try to miss some of the bigger holes in the one, winding, single lane road that runs the length of the island. He also seemed hell bent on always being in front of every other road user (I use the term ‘road’ here very lightly) and never once passed up the opportunity to overtake with excessive vigour. I was the first to be collected today and had the dubious honour of sitting up front with him in the cab. That’s a bloody mistake I’m never going to repeat. At the end of the ordeal, he turned and gave me a sort of satisfied grin, as if to be quite pleased with himself that we actually made it to our destination with no deaths this today. It took me a few seconds to dig my finger-nails out of the dashboard, that I was clinging to for dear life, and we all staggered into the dive centre, happy to still be breathing.

I felt much more relaxed when I got to the dive resort. They are quite well organised there and all the divers are made to feel like everything is being taken care of – which it is. The procedure to load the boat with all the divers, dive masters, food and equipment was very much as it was yesterday. There were many fewer divers today compared to yesterday and everyone that went aboard had already been diving with Blue Planet at least once before so the whole loading process was very quick and orderly.

My private dive master was gleeful when I confirmed that I would not be using the strobe today. She has a similar camera and it was quite straightforward to connect the strobe to her underwater housing. This would be the first time that she had used an external flash herself and was very appreciative of the opportunity to try out such a nice strobe. Since there was just going to be the two of us in our own little dive group, both of us would be able to concentrate much more on simply having fun with the dive than would otherwise be the case. The camera we use for underwater photography has the ability to adjust for the loss of colour whilst underwater. There are a couple of different ways to tell the camera how much to compensate for as the depth changes throughout the dive. You can make the adjustments manually but this requires judging the colours on the small viewfinder screen and this can be a hit and miss affair with the amount of light available to accurately reflect the true colours on the screen – a sort of catch-twenty-two situation. Alternatively, you can aim the camera at a white surface and allow it to compensate based on how it perceives the colour of that white surface at a given depth. The camera knows, or expects, that the surface you are aiming it is supposed to be white and adjusts the white balance based on how far from white it perceives the surface to actually be. This is one of the things about our camera that our dive master taught us yesterday and whilst at the dive shop, I bought a white slate (the sort that comes with a pencil that divers use to write things on whilst underwater) for this very purpose. So, whilst my dive master would be having fun playing with the strobe, I was going to experiment with using the camera without a flash and correcting for the loss of colour by using the white balance method instead. There are several advantages to using this colour correction method as opposed to a strobe to replaced loss of colour. It can be difficult, for example, to get very close to a subject for macro photography when there is a whopping great strobe attached to a long arm on the camera. Getting into tight places can also be difficult. It can often be simply too much bulk to allow you to get the camera physically close enough to the subject. Also, for shots at things that are farther away, using a strobe is not always the best idea. The strobe is great at illuminating objects within a meter or so (and this constitutes probably the bulk of the shots that I take) but the camera then exposes for subjects in that range and things that are farther away can often be underexposed. Indeed, the more I get into it, the more complicated the whole business of underwater photography keeps getting. Each time I learn a new trick, I then start to think of what other equipment I might want to acquire to further increase our underwater photographic capabilities. As it is, however, we are already much better equipped than the vast majority of divers and I have to remind myself of this fact whenever I start to daydream about bigger and better equipment. Above all else, it would simply be impractical for us to carry any more photographic equipment than we already have with us anyway.

I must have looked rather odd beneath the surface of the water whenever I was adjusting the white balance of the camera. The other divers must surely have thought me loopy, because to them it must have looked like I was continually photographing the same piece of white slate every five minutes or so. It does work a treat and the photos do come out very much more realistic that with the camera set on the regular settings. I did have to play around with the other camera setting quite a bit to compensate for the slow exposure time, which in turn resulted in a lot of shots being wasted because of motion blur. By the end of the first dive, I was starting to get the hang of things and I was able to get some very nice shots. At the end of the day, however, using the strobe seems like a lot less work as there is much less need to fiddle with the camera settings all the time but it was good to get to know the camera more. Each new camera technique that I learn should mean that I will be better equipped to get the right shot first on subsequent dives.

Photography aside, the dive site itself was just as spectacular as those from yesterday and the visibility was again very good, even though my dive master told me that it was not the best visibility that they often enjoy from this location. Lunch between the two dives was a Thai variety of rice and chicken curry today. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity for me to snorkel at the place the boat moored up for the lunch break this time.

The second dive was also very good and started almost immediately with a shoal of what seemed like millions of little yellow fish. I swam right through them and for a while couldn’t see much else other than these little fish surrounding me as a whole in the school opened up in front of me and then closed behind me again as I passed through them. I managed to get some good shots but there is no way the camera will ever be able to convey the huge numbers or what it was like to swim effortlessly through them. It was sheer joy. Other than some spectacular corals and some very interesting varieties of fish and other marine life, I didn’t see anything particularly thrilling such as the whale shark or octopus that were spotted on yesterday’s dive. As if to rub salt into this already gaping wound, no less than three leopard sharks were spotted on today’s dive by the some of the others. My dive master and I were separated from the rest of the group by a fair distance and we simply weren’t in the right place at the right time. At one point, we both swam through a tunnel formed by two huge pieces of reef that had joined at the top. I went through first and doubled back around to find my dive master. She had continued forwards with the current after passing through and eventually doubled back to find me a few minutes later. As if to frustrate me even more about my unfortunate timing with spotting the big beasts, she later told me that there was another leopard shark a little farther on and had I continued in that direction after passing through the tunnel, I would have swam right into it. I think I must be the unluckiest person in the sea this week.

At the tail end of the second dive, we came around to the back of a huge reef where there was the strongest current that I’ve yet experienced on a dive. It was so strong that I could barely keep still, much less make any forward motion. It was shortly after this that my air reached the threshold for terminating the dive with a three-minute, five-meter decompression safety stop before surfacing to find the boat.

Back on the boat, we both cracked open the underwater camera housings, once they were dry, and I loaded all the photos onto the laptop to review our handiwork. There were some nice shots with a few keepers but, again, it would have made the dive so much more successful had I seen those leopard sharks. I’m finding that each day out on a dive boat, we are taking between two and three hundred photos. Of those, we keep about half and put maybe thirty of forty into the ‘best of today’ folder. Of those, there are perhaps five to ten that are really decent photos worthy of being printed and shown to others with maybe one or two being absolute stunners. By the end of our trip, we should have quite a nice portfolio of really good underwater photos.

The long boat ride back to the island was otherwise uneventful. One of the dive masters was talking to another diver about Fiji, so I asked him if it was very much more expensive to dive there. His recollection was that he paid $140 for a two-tank trip on a dive boat. That’s quite a bit more expensive than the cost of diving here in Thailand and once again I’m starting to get a little concerned about the cost of our visiting Fiji for as long as we are planning to do so. It’s not the first time we’ve been told that Fiji is very expensive. On the other hand, however, we’ve met at least one backpacker that thinks Fiji is less expensive that New Zealand. I’m not sure if that means I should be less worried about Fiji or more worried about New Zealand.

I must have let myself get a little too exposed on the boat ride back to the island as I came back quite a bit redder than I left. I ordinarily try to keep a T-shirt on and when diving, a full Lycra body suit. I don’t like to put sun cream or other such chemicals onto my skin and much prefer to cover up instead. I am very slowly starting to get a bit of a tan, however, with all this exposure to the hot, burning sun.

Back at the dive resort, we all sat and watched through the rapidly prepared DVD presentation from the videographer. Once again, it was a stunning show and I’m looking forward to getting our hands on the presentation that she will prepare especially for us, with the footage she is accumulating over the three days that we are diving here.

I found Sandy back at our resort, sitting curled up with a book in one of the beach-side lounge huts and I joined her for another romantic dinner as we watched the sun slowly illuminate the streaky clouds some fantastic shades of orange before it finally disappeared over the distant horizon. It’s a fabulous show that repeats itself every single day and we’re not yet bored of watching it happen. I dare say we will watch it all over again, tomorrow.