Tag Archives: diving

The Fine Line Between Theory and Practice.

The blog has been quiet for a few weeks for a few reasons, work being the primary one. But despite the lack of updates, there have been a few things happening.

Probably the most important is that I am now PADI Open Water certified, meaning that I can scuba dive at any PADI dive centre on the planet. PADI is by far the most prolific dive school and so holding a PADI certification certainly opens up options for where I can dive although the basic certification limits me to a depth of 18 metres. Holding the PADI certification is also important for the forthcoming Iceland trip as to dive at Silfra – the only place where you can dive between tectonic plates whilst touching them – you need to hold at least the basic certification. I have also picked up dry suit diving experience – Silfra is a positively cool 2°C and a few minutes of that in a normal wet suit would see you getting first-hand experience of hypothermia.

If you recall the “grand plan” was to learn to dive so I could dive at Silfra with the camera. My direction for the web site is extreme environment photography and underwater photography from Silfra would have added some images to my portfolio. In fact the whole trip to Iceland in September was built around this premise; whilst I love Iceland I perhaps would not have returned so soon after last year’s visit. Although I didn’t go in to the details in the last update I had already worked the plan out in my mind: first get the PADI Open Water certification, then gain diving experience throughout July before taking the PADI Advanced Open Water certification and more diving experience with the underwater camera rig throughout August, then Iceland! I knew it was a tight schedule but I think most people who know me would agree that I can be doggedly determined to attain my goals. It was a clear and logical plan. But then I actually went diving.

Having 30kg of kit to carry is just one reason that you’re not going to be gliding dolphin-like through the water.  [Click to enlarge!]

Having 30kg of kit to carry is just one reason that you’re not going to be gliding dolphin-like through the water. [Click to enlarge!]

The one thing that I didn’t anticipate in all my planning was just how supremely difficult it is to both move and not move, and if that sound contradictory then bear with me for a while. I’m used to seeing divers on TV programmes and you always see some graceful display of the diver gliding in an arrow-straight line through the water, stopping occasionally to view something of interest before gliding off once again. Uh-huh. What you’re seing there is pure experience and skill. The biggest problem that I – and all new to diving have – is buoyancy. Humans tend to naturally float in water – especially salt water – they’re positively buoyant. But by the time you strap a bunch of kit to them and then add additional weights, they sink like a stone – they’re negatively buoyant. The trick, no the skill is to be neither – to be neutrally buoyant.

To attain this neutral buoyancy you have the ability to pump air into your jacket which expands adding buoyancy and, all else being equal, the trick is to put the right amount of air into the jacket to counter the weight of the kit and the additional weights. And pretty much everyone can master this in the first lesson, but two things conspire against you: First as you breathe in and out you become more and less buoyant as your lungs fill and empty and second, as you go deeper or shallower air compresses and expands by a different amount. The result is a horrible combination of factors and what most newcomers assume to be a simple act becomes a frustrating and time-consuming experience.

The other issue that I hadn’t accounted for is that currents in the water are continually moving you in various directions. Kneeling on the bottom of the pool or the lake was made more challenging by nearby divers moving and creating pressure waves that buffeted me. Being partially buoyant the pressure waves were enough to cause me to continually have to twist and counter the movement by using my arms.

By the end of the course I had become better and I will continue to do so. But, here’s the problem: Unless a miracle occurs I will not be in control and stable enough by September to be able to remain motionless at will – that can take upwards of 50 to 100 dives. And when photographing landscape – underwater or otherwise – you need a stable platform to shoot from.

I’ve been told that I have an air of confidence in this shot. It is not confidence, simply happiness from resignation that I can’t fight Newton’s First Law of Motion.

I’ve been told that I have an air of confidence in this shot. It is not confidence, simply happiness from resignation that I can’t fight Newton’s First Law of Motion.

So, at this point I have a choice: Doggedly stick to my plan to spend two days at Silfra and shooting some underwater scenes, or admit I was way too optimistic and call off the shoot.

Of course the obvious choice would be to say “Heck, I’ll do it anyway, what have I got to lose?” and, yes, that was my initial reaction, but then the second part of the whole “underwater photography” issue arises: You need a camera that can shoot underwater. It is a topic unto itself but for now suffice it to say all the options I have looked at involve a significant cash investment. Not only that, but I’ll need a lot of time to learn how to shoot underwater. In short, the “do it anyway” approach will have a high cost with a low chance of success.

What would be worse: Deciding to pull the underwater photography – the very reason for returning to Iceland so soon – or sticking to the plan, making a huge investment in kit, and ending up with images I am nowhere near happy with? It is a fine line between doggedly sticking to the plan and admitting you were too ambitious and well past your limits. One option smacks of failure whilst the other of stupidity.

But anyway, after a lot of agonising, I have made a decision: I am going to postpone the underwater photography. Yes, part of me feels like I’ve failed and yes, part of me is disappointed. But if I am to aim to do something I might as well aim to do it right. I can still dive at Silfra – a kind of recognisance mission – but I can concentrate on the dive and not the photography and probably have a far more enjoyable time in the process. Plus I have more time to explorer the surface of Iceland.

Well, as enjoyable as swimming through 2°C water allows.

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Iceland 2015: The Itinerary

In the last post I mentioned that I’m returning to Iceland as the ‘reward’ for learning to dive. Of course there’s no point in travelling to what is a photographic dream of a country and not spending a bit of time exploring, especially as I have seen so little of it, and so the past few weeks have seen me spending hours hunched over maps and making good use of Google and the Trip Advisor Iceland forum. And finally I have what I believe to be a workable outline for the 14 day trip.

The trip in 2014 concentrated on a section of the southern coast between the Reykjanes peninsula and Jokulsarlon. Despite being such a small section of the country there is an incredible amount to see – a testament to how much Iceland has to offer – and I left feeling that I had spent my time well and not regretting the decision to limit myself.

Much like the trip in 2014, for this trip I’ve picked just three bases to work from in the centre and west of the country: Thingvellir National Park, Kerlingarfjoll and Grundarfjordur.

As good as Google Maps is, I recommend that you invest in the Ferdakort 1:250,000 touring map for the area that you are visiting. They’re clear, detailed and full of highly useful information such as locations of petrol stations, camping sites, accommodation and, for those venturing onto the highland roads, where you will have to drive through rivers. For my 2015 trip I only need to take Map 2, covering the south west. They are perfect for driving but if you’re considering hiking, you may want to invest in some higher scale maps, such as the Serkort 1:50,000 maps.

A good map can make all the difference when on a self-drive or hiking trip.

A good map can make all the difference when on a self-drive or hiking trip.


Arriving on the evening of day 1, the first base is just south of Thingvellir National Park. Thingvellir is a popular tourist stop for its historical and geological significance although for me it is the latter that draws me there. Whilst the immense North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are separating along their entire length at a rate of approx. 2cm per year, only in Iceland can you see the result of this on land. In dramatic terms, Iceland is literally being torn, very slowly, in half although it would be more accurate to say that, due to the resulting magma rising up to fill the void, Iceland is very slowly getting bigger. Whilst most visitors view the geologic transformation from above, it is here that you find Silfra, a lake formed by glacial runoff filtered through volcanic rock. The resulting waters are crystal clear and said to offer some of the best diving visibility on the planet. It is also jolly cold.

Being under no illusions as to my lack of underwater skill I have allowed for two days diving, each day consisting of a morning and afternoon dive. I’ve also left a spare day just in case I need it. I’ve checked and they dive even if there is only a single participant although I hope I’m not the only one as a lot of the shots I have in my head require more people.

The remaining day – or two if a third day of diving is not needed – is spent visiting Gulfoss and Geysir and the national park itself. I’m not planning on spending too much time at these two sites as they are very touristy and anyway, you don’t go to visit Geysir but rather its little brother Strokkur – Geysir rarely erupts these days but Strokkur repeats approximately every six minutes.

The second half of day 5 has been reserved for one of the sights worth visiting although it has turned into something akin to my own Moby Dick: Bruarfoss, a picturesque waterfall with wonderfully vivid blue waters. However, the more I read about this waterfall the more I become confused as to whether it is easily accessible or not. After three evenings of reading trip reviews, blogs and going over Google Maps inch-by-inch I’ve ended up with a definite “maybe”.

The issue isn’t its location – it is on the map and I have GPS co-ordinates – the issue is how to get there. From what I have been able to piece together it is behind a summer home area with three access roads. Two of these have already had barrier access erected and the third is an unknown. The next issue that reports from those who have been there recently suggest that you then have to pass through a hole in a fence which may, or may not, still be there when I arrive. However I have a plan B that entails parking along route 35 at a safe place and hiking for about 90 minutes along the Bruar river. I’d prefer to get the car as close as possible as I’m after dusk shots and so the thought of hiking back along the river in pitch black isn’t enticing. Last time I was in a similar situation was on the Falkland Islands and the only person at Cape Pembroke. There were only three kilometres between me and any form of civilisation but it was all marshland and I discovered the hard way that hiking on boggy ground in the dark not only wasn’t fun, it bordered on dangerous. I want to avoid the same in Iceland if I can…

As pretty as Cape Pembroke was at sunset, hiking back wasn’t a fun experience. [Click to enlarge!]

As pretty as Cape Pembroke was at sunset, hiking back wasn’t a fun experience. [Click to enlarge!]

But, the main reason to be here is really the diving.

The Highlands and Kerlingarfjoll

On day six I head out from Thingvellir and head north into the highlands. I’ve left a whole day travel time to get to the hot spring at Hveravellir, in part because I know that I’ll be stopping every so often to marvel at some new landscape, but also because most of the journey is on route F35, a notorious, pothole-filled highland road. Accommodation is (hopefully) at the hot-springs although they haven’t confirmed yet. Well, they had confirmed but it went into my SPAM folder and so I only found it a week later. So I have confirmed their confirmation, but I may be too late. But if there are problems I am not really too worried as it is only for a single night and so if the worst happens I can simply sleep in the 4WD. In some ways I’m hoping they don’t confirm as it adds to the adventure. Ah, well its time to live up to my words: They don’t have a room anymore for that evening so it looks like sleeping in the 4WD is the plan! I’m pretty sure that the back seats fold down flat and I will have a sleeping mat and sleeping bag. The Alpkit sleeping bag is a serious bit of kit which I really want to try ‘in-the-field’, and throw in a couple of beers, pasta cooked the night before and I’ll not only be OK, I’ll have a ball!

Much of the day will be spent on the highland road F35 - not something you would want to attempt without a 4WD. [Click to enlarge!]

Much of the day will be spent on the highland road F35 – not something you would want to attempt without a 4WD. [Click to enlarge!]

On day seventh I have a dawn shoot planned at one of the hot springs after which I travel back down the F35 from Hveravellir about 35km to Kerlingarfjoll. This leg of the journey takes me past Gígjarfoss, a waterfall that I discovered during the original trip planning in 2013, and so I’m keen to see it this time around. To be honest the entire day is quite relaxed. Whether I spend the day at the waterfall and arrive late afternoon, or arrive early afternoon and go on a recon mission into the Kerlingarfjoll mountains I don’t know, however the main focus is to arrive at the second base at Kerlingarfjoll at some point.

Kerlingarfjoll offers some stunning landscapes; the lights hues of the rhyolite mountains sandwiched between two vast glacial caps. Peppered around the area are hot springs and fumaroles. There are a number of marked hiking paths in the area of differing lengths and difficulties and with two days to explore I’m going to get see a fair bit. The only thing to watch – as is always the case in Iceland, but particularly in the highlands – is the weather. It can turn from sun to blizzard in a very short period of time.

It is also in Kerlingarfjoll I get to try the Serkort 1:50,000 scale maps. A scale of 1:250,000 is perfect for driving – and you’d have to prise the Ferdakort out of my cold, dead, hands – but for hiking I wanted a lot more detail. Ferdakort do have higher scale maps, but not that I could find in the UK so the Serkort maps are about to get chance.

On day 10, I have a full day of travel as I travel back south along the F35 again before turning west and out to the Snaefellsnes peninsula. The original plan was to turn on to the F338 as this is what Google Maps’ directions option suggested. But while examining both the Ferdakort and Serkort maps I noticed a discrepancy: On the Ferdakort map it lists both the F35 and F338 as gravel roads, but on the Serkort it lists the F338 as a track. A small difference but one that had me asking about the F338 on the Trip Advisor Iceland forum. And, just as well I did as the F338 is apparently a power line service track and one that not only passes through several rivers but it may already be impassable in early September! So, as good as Google is, always double-check your sources!

Luckily with the entire day set aside for travel the error has not put me in a difficult situation and is another reason that travelling in Iceland is best done with plenty of ‘slack’. In this case allowing a whole day for travel had meant the new, significantly longer, path F35 – 37 – 365 – 36 – 48 – 47 not only doesn’t cause a problem it allows me to travel the coastal road around Hvalfjordur and see the fjords there. The real delay will be the innumerable stops I’ll be making.

Google Maps chose the blue line as the 'best' route between Kerlingarfjoll and Grundarfjordur, but best for whom? Reseach and local knowledge suggests the longer, but safer route in blue/white. [Click to enlarge!]

Google Maps chose the shorter blue line as the ‘best’ route between Kerlingarfjoll and Grundarfjordur, but best for whom? Research and local knowledge suggests the longer, but safer, route in blue/white. [Click to enlarge!]

Snaefellsnes Peninsula

From day 11 I’m at my final base of the trip, Grundarfjordur, a small town conveniently located halfway along the peninsula’s northern coastline where I have easy access to many of the locations I want to visit. The Snaefellsnes peninsula is often said to have some of the best landscapes Iceland has to offer including the distinctive Kirkjufell mountain and the Snaefellsjokull glacier made famous by Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Again I’m hoping that the 1:25,000 Serkort maps prove their worth as a lot of the trip here is on foot along the countless hiking paths that criss-cross the peninsula.

The day-to-day plans are much more loosely defined at this point and the only reason that I’ve been so specific for the first two-thirds of the trip is necessity – rapid changes in accommodation and trying to be in places at specific time dictating the schedule. Once on Snaefellsnes I can relax a bit more.

The trip ends on day with a leisurely drive back to Keflavik airport for a late afternoon flight. Even if I err on the side of caution and allow four hours for the journey that still leaves me half the morning to sort out any last minute shots.

Snaefellsnes may be a relatively small peninsula but it offers a wide range of landscapes to photograph. I struggled to limit myself to the dozen points of interest above. [Click to enlarge!]

Snaefellsnes may be a relatively small peninsula but it offers a wide range of landscapes to photograph. I struggled to limit myself to the dozen points of interest above. [Click to enlarge!]

Planning a photographic trip takes a lot more effort than normal – in large part because everything is so time-dependent. But after a few weeks of planning and a few major changes to the schedule I’m now happy that I have a workable itinerary. I’m confident in the time I have allowed at various places and also in knowing what to expect when travelling (no dubious power line tracks, for example). Importantly I also know where and when to stock up on food and fuel. All I need now is to turn up. Oh, and learn to dive…


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The Diving Gift Horse

Years ago I subscribed to the UK travel magazine Wanderlust for a short while. It is a magazine that styles itself as one for “adventurous” travellers, eager to go beyond tourism.

One of the first editions I received had an article on Iceland and its lead image, a full page shot, showed a diver in the crystal clear glacial waters of Silfra with arms extended. To their right they touched the vast North American continental plate; to their left the touched the equally gargantuan Eurasian plate. A lone human between trillion tonne lumps of rock.

I can’t dive, but it stuck I in my mind and a few years later in 2013 I found myself planning a trip to Iceland. I made the classic mistake of “doing Iceland” in 14 days although Iceland is in part to blame as it offers those who dare an easy round-the-country path in the form of the oval route 1. After a few weeks of planning I realised that, as someone interested in trying to capture the essence of what they see in a photographic image, this was a foolish idea. Being so close to the departure date meant that I couldn’t change accommodation and so the trip was scrapped.

In 2014 the trip was reborn as a 15 day trip covering a route along the southern coast. It was a good trip with just me and the rental car and three bases to work from. I fell I love with the solitude that Iceland offered me and left with images I felt proud of.

Like most offices across the globe in ours there are always several lines of conversation going on about peoples’ interests and hobbies and you learn to tune out one that you are not particularly interested in. One of the guys at our place is a keen diver – passionate about it – and spends as much free time as he can pursuing his dream. Maybe it was the recent return from Iceland and the remembered full-page image in Wanderlust, or his utter enthusiasm, but I began paying more attention. I put learning to dive on the 2014 list of things to achieve, but then the trip to Ethiopia suddenly appeared and sucked up a lot of time and money. By the end of 2014 I still hadn’t learnt to dive.

But the return from Ethiopia brought two things: First it was the start of a new year – the time at which I set my yearly goals. Second, Ethiopia had cemented in my mind something that had been troubling me for some time – a lack of photographic direction. After witnessing one of the more extreme environments nature has to offer I had a direction. There are many extreme environments on the planet, but the one underwater remains one of the most enigmatic.

So learning to dive is an aim for 2015, but it is nice to have a specific goal to aim for and mine is to dive at Silfra in Iceland. I’ve set an aggressive target; Aiming to get my PADI Open Water certificate in early July, then the PADI Advanced soon after, followed by diving at Silfra in early September. In between there’ll have to be plenty of practice dives too.

I’m under no illusion just how difficult this will be; diving is difficult enough but trying to photograph under water – and in temperatures of 2°C – adds a layer of complexity on top of that where even something as simple on land as standing still becomes a battle underwater. Plus trying to operate a camera with 7mm thick neoprene gloves is an acquired skill. Frankly, right now, I don’t even know how you focus a camera underwater. It is going to be a very steep learning curve and one where the chance of not being good enough to take the images I have in my head is easily 50% and likely much higher.

But if you don’t try you don’t know. If nothing else I’ll be able to learn from the mistakes making the next attempt easier. And anyway, it is a little early for me to be talking about failure. I’m very lucky. I know a passionate diver very willing to give advice and help with any questions and less than an hour’s drive away is a place where I can go and practise diving on a Tuesday evening – which is a traditionally dead evening for me. And as for the expensive underwater camera gear needed, well, I have the loan of that too. At any other point in my life, learning to dive would have a number of challenges to overcome but right now I’m being given this opportunity on a plate.

And, as the saying goes, never look a gift horse in the mouth.

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