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October 2004 Vol. 19, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Divi Tiara Resort, Cayman Brac

the Nikon School of Underwater Photography

from the October, 2004 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

On my return from Curacao last year, the Miami customs agent who opened my ReefMaster got soaked with that brown battery-innards-and-seawater mixture peculiar to flooded cameras. Being a kind spirit, he removed the waterlogged film and asked if I wanted the pictures. It was time to convert to digital, one easy to use and small enough to fit in a pocket. I bought a Nikon Coolpics 3100 (list $299) with an Ikelite housing. However, many of my shots were blue or dark, and though I enhanced them with Microsoft Digital Image Pro 9, it was time to upgrade my skills.

The digital revolution drove Nikon out of the underwater photography business. Nikon’s Nikonos guru, Frank Fennel, struck out on his own, taking over the Nikon School of Underwater Photography, which he promotes at the Divi Tiara Resort on Cayman Brac. In February, my travel agent tried to coordinate course dates with frequent flier airline tickets, but Fennell was not answering emails or phone calls. So, we rolled the dice; if I could not go to school, I’d just go diving. In March he replied by email -- major computer failure, he said -- gave me a resort reservation number to call, then disappeared again until late May, when he asked for a deposit for my August trip.

The hotel has about 70 rooms distributed between four buildings, two of which resemble mid 50’s shore-side American resorts. All the buildings, including the two one-story buildings housing the dive shop and the photo center, are painted in a range of pastel colors. Max, the General Manager, proudly told us the color scheme was inspired by stoplight parrot fish. Hmm. Two three-story timeshare buildings are being renovated -- and those will offer upscale units for an upscale price. There’s a small, but nice, swimming pool, a tennis court, and an outdoor bar (hurricane Ivan demolished it in September, but getting that bar rebuilt, I’m sure, is a number one priority). It’s on a million dollar beach with a view of ocean waves breaking on the far side of the lagoon. My “deluxe” room was modestly furnished in what I might call a yard sale ensemble, but it was certainly adequate. I stowed my clothes in the rattan dresser, and mildew perfumed them within a day. Yet, the room was kept clean, had a good air conditioner and ceiling fan, and an adequate bathroom with a tub. The door opened to the beach and an area shaded in the afternoon, with two lounge chairs and a hammock.

A new 48-foot Newton catered to the timeshare folks and a somewhat smaller, but still spacious boat that served the hotel customer. At most, 13 folks were on our boat, except one day when both groups were on the larger boat because several folks had departed. The supurb dive staff takes care of you from the moment you leave your dive gear for pick up the first day, to washing all the gear after each dive and hanging it up. If my gear is not properly cleaned and dried, my booties really stink. They were odorless all week.

I checked into the Photo Center and met Barbie, the photo pro. She suggested that my partner and I, the only students, come to the shop in the afternoon for the course’s only classroom session. The lesson was basic: shoot upwards, position your subjects in a context with the reef and highlighted by sunlit blue water; get close to your object; take lots of shots. She showed us several photographs and described how they were taken and explained settings for our cameras, flash, macro mode and light level. The next morning, we were issued Nikon Coolpics 4300 cameras in Fantasea housings, and Barbie showed us how to seal the housings and told us to cradle the cameras in life preservers under our seat. Because we already had some experience, our first assignment was to shoot smaller creatures. I have prescription lenses in my dive mask, so I had difficulty seeing the LCD image when I lowered the camera to achieve an upward angle. In the afternoon I viewed my photos; so did Barbie, who didn’t offer much advice, though the photos were blurry and deep blue, with fish bodies lacking heads or tails.

The next day she fitted the cameras with strobes and explain how to use them, but once underwater neither mine nor my partner’s worked. Barbie was on the dive and got them flashing, at least for a short time. Between dives, she changed the battery in one camera and repositioned both strobes, but they still didn’t flash properly. The afternoon photo review session showed that for the few times the strobe had flashed, the results were dramatically better. The next morning we added wide-angle lenses with instructions on how to attach the lenses underwater.I got several shots, but my partner was still hampered by strobe problems. In the afternoon review, Barbie mentioned that I got some good shots, which I suppose meant she believed that if you had nothing good to say, perhaps it was best to say little. At $100 more than the Coolpix 3100, the Coolpix 4300 ($399, 4 megapixels, 3.0 optical zoom) had several advantageous features compared with my 3100 (3.2 megapixels, 3.0 optical zoom); for example, both cameras have a sleep function to lengthen battery life, but if the 3100 is not used for three minutes, it turns off, losing all the custom settings. The 4300 simply sleeps until you use it again.

On our last day my partner again had strobe problems, but my shots improved. Barbie gave us a CD containing all our photos and asked us to enter the weekly photo contest for guests. Only one other diver entered -- he won.

In retrospect, we got little class time, not much critical evaluation, and frustrating strobes. The course would have been much better if we had instruction during the dives. But, it was an introductory course and tuition was about equal to the cost of renting the photo gear if we had done so separately. Instruction seemed more like an afterthought, so it’s a stretch to call this the Introductory Course of the Nikon School of Underwater Photography, a moniker much too inflated. In fact, Barbie is a professional and I bet we would have gotten as much help if we simply rented the gear and kissed off the school. In fact, the best I can tell with the extra dives offered beyond Divi’s normal package and the use of all that camera gear for a week, my course cost of $1199 probably saved me few bucks over Divi’s normal rate and camera rental fees. When I left, I felt okay about this, but if one had selected this course over other diving options, expecting formal and thorough instruction, one would go home dissatisfied. On the other hand, this course would be fine for folks who are curious about underwater digital photography and just want to try it, perhaps before they invest in equipment which may not suit them.

The Divi dive operation is excellent. The crew called roll before they left the dock. The boats were well-equipped, however they lacked heads, a troubling omission on the two days we motored to Little Cayman. The rules are basic; turn the dive with half a tank, find the boat at 1000 PSI, get on board with 500 PSI and do not dive below 110 feet. A dive staff member joined every dive, but they allowed us to dive on our own. On all but one shallow site, vis ranged from 80 to 100 foot and the water temperature was 85F at depth.

The Brac and Little Cayman are about corals, tropical fish, and critters. I saw several southern stingrays, three nurse sharks, a few sizable groupers, parrot fish, an eagle, and lots of turtles. We also dove the Russian destroyer -- an imposing large wreck made especially interesting by its guns, the beginnings of sponge habitation, and some penetration opportunities. It was a welcome diversion. By the end of the week, several of us were speaking longingly about memories of sharks and eagle rays in abundance at other dive destinations.

At most dive resorts, when divers aren’t talking about diving, they talk about food, which Divi serves buffet style. A good breakfast with plenty of variety started at 7:00 a.m., leaving ample time for our 9 a.m. departure. Buffet dinners included delicious soups, salads, vegetables, starches, and three lukewarm entrees often carved or grilled outside -- basically well-prepared home cooking, despite occasional premium entrees such as lobster and roast beef. Lunch was a downer: make yourself cold cut sandwiches for $9US; add a salad and the bill is $14; add a hot dish and you pay $18.75. Beers were $4.25 at the bar, so a staff member drove me to the liquor store. Pam at the front desk provided a Styrofoam cooler and told me to help myself to ice in the kitchen. That was typical of the Tiara, a friendly place where you dive and kick back.

When my partner got her credit card bill after the trip it was $1400, not the quoted $1300 (somehow it got rounded up from $1275), but Frank straightened it out. He emailed that the “instructional CD” was not done, but he would be sending it when completed. What instructional CD? And after the course? Oh well. If one is serious about studying underwater photography, there is a better choice in the Caymans.

-- G.K.

The Cathy Church School of Photography: Operates out of Sunset House on Grand Cayman, here you’ll find true week-long sessions or plenty of individual instruction. Divers who take courses here universally praise the results. Cathy, of course, is one of a handful of elite underwater photographers. Phone: 345-949- 7415, Fax: 345-949-9770. www.cathychurch.com.

Digital Imaging for the Underwater Photographer: If you want to shoot digital underwater or simply convert your underwater shots to digital, this is your book. Jack and Sue Drafahl will help you with contrasting and saturating images, reducing grain, eliminating backscatter, correcting exposure errors, modifying colors, and enhancing your images. This 224-page paperback is full of photos explaining the computer techniques for top quality images. Save 20% off the $39.95 list price by going to Undercurrent (which will lead you to Amazon.com) and our profit from this sale or any other book you purchase will go to the Coral Reef Alliance.

Divi Tiara Beach: divitiara.com/divitiara/resort.asp or call 800/801-5550 ... The Nikon School of Underwater Photography: 1-866-NIKONOS or www.nikonschool.com/underwater_prog_details.html or NikonosSchool@snet.net.

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