John Bantin has been a full-time professional diving writer and underwater photographer since 1990. He makes around 300 dives each year testing diving equipment.
VIDEO CAMERA PERSIDES VEECAM
POST-MORTEMS CAN BE USEFUL. Post-dive briefings are often less informative. I can remember often climbing back onto the boat after a club dive, comparing notes with fellow-divers and wondering if we were diving the same wreck. It was useful to have some sort of visual log of where we had been and what we had seen. When a diver went missing from a dive I was on and was later found drowned, it was the combined information from his computer, which recorded his dive profile, and his digital camera with its built-in time-code, that told us what had happened. When Dave Shaw was lost at 270m in a cave in South Africa, it was his head-mounted camera that told the world what had actually happened (the camera itself thought to have been a factor in his death). So such a device can also take on the role of an aircraft's black box, though few of us would countenance that possibility. The VeeCam has created a certain level of demand, though Persides, the manufacturer, has encountered quite a few unanticipated design problems to leave would-be owners waiting. It's been a long time since three young men enthusiastically showed me a prototype. It was originally designed for use as a surveillance device for the British Army in Iraq, an improvement over a mirror on a stick. They wanted to know if it would appeal to British divers, and I said that as tekkies were heavily into having lots of kit, why not? It seemed like a very good idea. Clip the little camera to your mask, stow the recorder in a pocket, and see what happens on the dive once all is downloaded to a PC later. At last I have been sent a production model. The main unit has an LCD screen and four rubber-covered buttons that relate to icons displayed on the screen. You can opt to record live action, or stills taken at time intervals. I used the video option. The buttons are inoperable once under water, so you have to get it running before you go in.
AS I RECEIVED THE VEECAM only the day before I set off for Egypt, and there are a lot of icons displayed, I practised with my daughter miming a rather jerky dance sequence in the garden. The hexagonal magnetically mounted camera I originally saw evidently had watertightness issues. The new bigger one was cylindrical, which presented problems with rigging it to the mask-mount. It was a matter of putting a round peg into a square hole. I jury-rigged something with numerous cable ties, but once under water there was nothing to stop the cylindrical camera rotating, and I was in danger of producing a very avant-garde recording. A rule of recording any motion pictures is to keep the camera steady. I realised that if I was moved my head about to look at things, the result would be a series of totally unwatchable images. I resorted to holding the camera in one hand and the recording unit in the other, so at least I could see what was going on. The camera is hard-wired to its cable. I switched the unit on and checked that it was recording as soon as we reached the dive site. This meant that I would have to record unwanted images of me getting into my rig in a RIB bouncing about in a heaving sea. Things work differently under water. That's why we test things that way. All seemed OK to begin with. The VeeCam records in 15-minute sections to keep file sizes manageable, so when it went into 'pause' mode, I assumed it was starting again. Not so. It stayed in Pause mode for quite a time before it started recording again. I came across a large ray. The VeeCam went into Stand-by mode, and there seemed to be nothing I could do while under water to get it going again. In disgust, I put the whole rig in my BC pocket, and later found that I had recorded a boring and seemingly endless, if intermittent, sequence! I got the camera out again but it seemed to go into Pause or Stand-by mode every time I came across anything interesting. Under the pressure of depth, it seemed to have developed a will of its own. Out of the water, I took it out to see what was what, and managed to record a lot of images of me silently mouthing expletives, combined with phrases such as: 'Now it won't 'king stop!' I found I could either continue to record or switch it to Stand-by mode but not switch it off, however often or how long or how frantically I pressed the button that related to the Stop icon. Eventually the battery went flat.
BECAUSE OF NEW CHECKED-BAGGAGE weight restrictions with ThompsonFly, I had left my laptop in the UK, and didn't have the instruction manual PDF. Back home, I discovered on page 45 of the manual that you have to lock the keys before diving by applying a keylock, and I assume this must have been why it was playing up. How was I to guess that before you take it under water you must lock the keypad, and that to switch it off after use you have to press all four buttons in a certain sequence to unlock it? I had been beaten by its over-complexity. To recharge it means using a combination of download socket to USB connection to the charger. The blanking plug that keeps the download/ recharging socket watertight was jammed in by water pressure so tightly that I had to gingerly apply pliers to remove it. You can preview what you've got with a postage-stamp size image that forms on part of the LCD. I found it very easy to delete files, though the few I had managed to make of underwater images were unduly precious at this point. The whole exercise was frustrating. One reason that I had chosen to offload the laptop is that, like everyone in publishing, I use a Mac. Alas, the VeeCam downloads only to a PC. So what was my rare bit of footage like? Back at the DIVER offices, instructions in hand, I tried to download the images to several PCs available, but with no luck. Our IT man was no luckier. We merely got the message that we had attached a device not recognised by the computer. Software updates are available to VeeCam owners over the Internet, so I eventually got to see an embarrassing set of sequences, in admittedly promising quality, of my daughter dancing, me preparing to dive, an inauspicious coral reef, the inside of my BC pocket, and endless glimpses of me swearing at the VeeCam after returning to land. Even if you are computer-savvy enough to get a VeeCam to work, don't think you'll get Blue Planet quality simply by wearing this kit! Divers, especially technical divers, have much to think about in the often-short time between arriving at a site and diving. I think the VeeCam needs to be a lot simpler to operate, or at least to provide the option of correcting matters once you're far from the surface. The fact that the buttons are inoperable under water and that the unit given to me seemed to be affected by depth and orientation did make me wonder to what extent it had been experienced at depth by its designers.
SPECS PRICE £950 DEPTH RATING 100m WEIGHT 300g LCD DISPLAY 2.4in VIDEO RECORDING CAPACITY 4-16hr, depending on bit-rate STILL IMAGE RECORDING CAPACITY 2 megapixel 8000 images (jpeg) WHITE BALANCE Six presets CONNECTIVITY PC via USB2 BATTERY Rechargeable 1.8Ah lithium BATTERY LIFE 6-9hr SOFTWARE UPDATES User-installed from Internet CONTACT www.vee-cam.com DIVER GUIDE