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I DONT MIND ADMITTING TO ARRIVING LATE AT THE DIGITAL PARTY.
For years I had been happy to leave underwater photography to the pros.
I always found the idea of taking an uninsurable five-figure film set-up under water, risking floods and having to clean, grease and reload after every dive, strangely unappealing - especially as others seemed happy to do it for me.
And when digital arrived, I saw it initially from an editors point of view - as a bit of a pain. Underwater photographers used to send in a sleeveful of slides, and I would slap them onto a lightbox and say great or forget it. But suddenly everyone was emailing in low-res digital images and expecting us to tell them whether they would work in print.
All too often they wouldnt.
The revolution was great, it seemed, for everyone but editors.
But now the pro underwater photographers are all using digital too, albeit expensive SLR set-ups, and magazines have learnt to work round the production problems. Inexpensive point-and-shoot digitals seem as much standard issue for divers as wristwatch-style computers.
We have learnt to love the ease of use of this new hardware, but when I say we, I mean you.
It was time for me to see what all the fuss was about at the non-business end. So I obtained from Digital Distribution a housed 6.3Mb Fuji FinePix F10 with Underwater Strobe Kit and set off to where the diving would be easy and the subjects, I hoped, plentiful.
Bonaire, about as far south as you can go in the Caribbean without hitting South America, was that place.
Now Bonaire is synonymous with the words diving freedom. Captain Don Stewart started it all off in the 60s when he arrived in the Dutch Antilles from the States and, through sheer force of personality, persuaded the powers that be to establish a marine reserve around the island. He is still there, 80 years old and stomping around on one of an assortment of artificial legs telling tall stories (the Captain, not his legs). And his legacy is there for all divers to enjoy.
Fly in with your buddies, rent a pick-up, buy a marine-park tag, kit up and jump in the water just about anywhere on the sheltered south coast, and youll find bountiful coral reefs to dive.

Relaxed and deluxe
But I wasnt going to be shore-diving from a 4x4 on this trip. I had been invited to Harbour Village, the most upscale resort on the island, a place run by Captain Dons former manager Nick Davies.
Here I would be diving with the Great Adventures dive crew from their 42ft boat Harbour Queen, which runs out from the dive centre three times a day.
It doesnt have to go far. The dive guides know where to find the stuff photographers crave, and the boat allows access to sites around the uninhabited island of Klein Bonaire, visible from the resort but inaccessible to shore-divers.
Harbour Village, a few miles north of Bonaires capital Kralendijk, offers unusually spacious, comfortable and well-appointed apartments, but pulls off the trick of being friendly and relaxed
as well as deluxe. The resorts focal point is the schooner-like pier, where a menagerie of iguanas, rock crabs, sandpipers, totakiris and yellow-bellies are always eager to share your breakfast.
It was November and quiet, though a few British divers were enjoying the amenities. I arrived early on a Monday, having spent the flight reading the camera manual and following perhaps a quarter of it. After a quick check-out dive in the bay, I headed out on the boat that afternoon.
All those horror stories about how a single hair in the O-ring grease could flood a camera catastrophically had been giving me sleepless nights. I solved this problem on the first dive to Witchs Hat by not taking the FinePix with me.
So imagine how thrilled I was to come across a scarlet seahorse posing provocatively on a gorgonian, and then another not a metre away.
This was the antidote for my timidity. Witchs Hat had given me a taste of the extravagant life on Bonaires reefs, with its trademark purple and yellow tube and stovepipe sponges and flourishing corals.
The boat-diving was carried out in a loose guided group, but on the second dive a guy who proclaimed himself more used to wreck-diving in New Jersey suggested we buddy up.
What he didnt tell me was that he sucked more air than a Dyson, and by the time we had made a longish swim above the sand to the Alice in Wonderland dive site (he at least 10m deeper than he needed to be), his gauge was already telling him to turn round.
I was annoyed but felt duty-bound to accompany him as he swam back at breakneck speed.
But it turned out OK. While he clambered back onto Harbour Queen,
I hung out beneath it and was able to play with the camera among attractive coral gardens for 40 minutes with no distractions.
I couldnt get the slave strobe to work (it was supposed to be triggered wirelessly by the built-in flash) but in no more than 12m I was getting results anyway and learning what the FinePix could do.
I discovered, for instance, why you see so many pictures of bigeyes - they stay in the vicinity under overhangs, so you can get a reasonable shot of something red against a dark background. Impressive! Later, having a visual record of my dives for once instead of relying on memory, I would also learn that what I had thought were all the same type of bigeye were in fact two varieties of squirrelfish and blackbar soldierfish.
As a postscript, my buddy descended again just as I and the rest of the party were climbing back on the boat. He was gone for some time - turned out he had gone off with another group under the impression that it was ours. Ah, diving freedom. We never did buddy up again.
Oddly, given that I was inspired to write this article by everyone seeming to be using cameras but me, few of my fellow-divers on the boat were so equipped. But I did feel like a photographer when one diver with a similar camera asked my advice on keeping his housing from steaming up. Silica gel, I said wisely, having just read the manual.
He, in turn, advised me to try the red-eye setting to get the external flash working. The instructions had never suggested that idea, but I tried it next day at the Halfway Step/Forest sites and, hallelujah, I was in business, flashing with the best of them.
This was our first visit to Klein Bonaire. The sea was rocking and rolling a bit that afternoon but as usual the current was mild below. A big green free-swimming moray eel was the highlight - I managed to grab a fairly colourless shot, but at least it was in frame.
By now I was concentrating increasingly on the macro setting and getting the lens as close as possible to things that couldnt get away, like Christmas tree worms. I could see on the 6.4cm, hi-definition LCD screen while still under water that with flash the results were sharper and more colourful.
That morning I had captured an octopus in its hole, although shooting a truculent triggerfish, various grouper and a solitary barracuda had proved more of a challenge.
I would still find it difficult shooting into the blue, with or without external flash, but having learnt my limitations, I was working within them.
There could be quite a lag between pressing the button and getting the shot, and of course some fish would turn their backs on me or swim out of frame in that time. But then others would surprise me by swimming into the frame, or posing in an unexpected way. Real photographers will groan, but at this early stage I quite liked the random element.

Drug-smuggling
Next stop was Bonaires celebrated Hilma Hooker, a 260ft drug-smuggling vessel sunk on its starboard side in 30m back in 1984. Several dive boats had gathered, with a few divers making the longish swim out from shore.
Its a fun wreck to dive and I grabbed lots of atmospheric - and very blue - shots of divers bubbling around the hull, and the string of big silvery tarpon that patrol above.
But the only usable results were close-ups of sponges in the shadow of the holds, where we were able to rise up into a moonpool created by 20 years worth of noxious exhaled gas.
Best of all, heading slowly back up the reef slope at about 20m we found what I had been miffed to miss on the first day - a red seahorse! And this time I had the camera, with working flash.
So my education continued, and soon the idea of diving without a camera seemed bizarre. This little point-and-shoot was no effort to carry, and equipped with a 512Mb picture
card instead of the standard 16Mb, I knew I could obtain up to 170 images at the highest setting. Who would use less than the highest setting
I felt more alert than usual, constantly seeking out new co-operative subjects - a fireworm or a snake-eel here, a spotted drum or a pufferfish there, a lobster out of its hole or a scorpionfish resting on a rock. Here in the safety of the marine park, even the more skittish creatures seemed hard to spook.
I was also mastering the idea that I could shove the camera into a hole, detect the lurking spiny lobster on the screen and capture a reasonably credible image.
On a night dive from the Harbour Village pier, we were surprised to have to work hard to beat the current out to the Something Special reef. Not much coral here, near the marina entrance, and it was harder to concentrate on photography. The several moray eels out of their holes proved a challenge, as did the big tarpon that kept appearing and disappearing, using our lights to help them hunt.
Air was getting low but we knew we could enjoy a medium-fast drift back in, so we hitched a ride back to the pier and then across the bay to the dive centre. Usually when they referred to drift dives in Bonaire the current was hard to detect, but this was the real thing.
I wasnt sure whether it was Bonaire, the imperative of finding fodder for the camera or both, but there always seemed to be some new life-form to savour, and often these rainbow reefs were just a swirling mass of activity. I had rarely enjoyed reef-diving as much.
Then came the fifth and last day of diving - what I now realise was dive 13, on the Friday.
High on my own modest photographic successes, I had grown careless. The rechargeable lithium-ion camera battery lasts for a generous 500 shots. I had topped it up at the start of the week and last time I had looked the reading had been OK.
We were at a site called Just A Nice Dive, on the near side of Klein Bonaire, and had been told to watch out for a frogfish at the start and yellow seahorses near the finish. The frogfish was there, sure enough, tucked inside a barrel sponge with a worried expression on its cartoon face, and I got some shots.

Odd couples
We started to drift gently and I noticed several pairs of coral grouper coupled with trumpetfish that shadowed their every move, making very odd couples.
I went to get a shot, and the camera flashed up battery low and shut down.
Oh no, I thought, Im going to miss the seahorses. Please dont let them find the seahorses!
What are you thinking argued the nobler half of my brain. Youre on a dive, never mind about taking pictures, just enjoy the sights, like you always did before. Too late, my mindset had been irrevocably altered. I was a photographer now.
Naturally, for the next half hour the local wildlife queued up to mock me. Speckled morays leered from their holes; three separate turtles, wearing their tags, swam past giving me the metaphorical finger; and the grouper were getting bigger and slower.
Then, of course, we found the seahorse, a big, beautiful specimen.
I briefly considered pretending to take its picture for the guides sake - it had taken a lot of effort to get here - but settled for shrugging and glaring accusingly at my now blank screen.
On the safety stop, a large tarpon paused beside me. I swear it winked.
I took the whole thing personally.
That afternoon, my last dive was supposed to be a shore dive with Nolly, one of the dive masters. The idea was to complete my Bonaire induction with an insight into what diving freedom really means.
I had a word with Leonel, who runs the efficient and friendly Great Adventures. Frankly, Ive been in a 4x4 before, and Ive shore-dived before, and I reckon I can fill in the blanks, I said. This is my last afternoon, youve got to get me back out to Just A Nice Dive!
They were great. The camera battery didnt take long to recharge. Nolly and I were run back out in the little RIB that services the adjacent marina, and dropped in at the yellow-seahorse end of the dive this time. I got my pictures and was happy.
We finned off in the direction of the frogfish, and it was fabulous - turtles galore (I never did manage to get a well-lit turtle shot, sadly, as they were always that bit too far away), grouper and barracuda in attendance.
We found the frogfish, this time out in the open, and I got plenty of shots as it slowly turned away in disgust. Then Nolly found its twin brother and I captured that one too. It felt good!
The verdict Bonaire would have been fun even without the FinePix camera, but it gave me new eyes to see, and without having to squint at life from behind a viewfinder.
Ive bought a camera now, a Finepix F11, which is a slightly revved-up F10. And next time out, I might even venture beyond autofocus!

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THE CAMERA
Fuji Finepix F10 Zoom, 6.3Mp, 3x Optical, ISO 80-1600 sensitivity range (299.99).
WP-FXF10 Waterproof Case rated to 40m (149.99).
SS-120N Digital Slave Strobe with UW-120N, 60m-rated Housing, Adjustable Arm and Bracket (159.99).
512Mb xD-Picture Card (62.99). Total:£672.96.
. Digital Distribution, 01442 230022, www.ddltd.co.uk or www.fujifilm.co.uk.


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What sort of results can a beginner expect to achieve with a lower-end digital camera on a coral reef

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Tube sponges in a hold on the Hilma Hooker wreck

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Nolly and Leonel of Great Adventures

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boarding the Harbour Queen

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Soldierfish made compliant subjects - for fish

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speckled moray eel

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spiny lobster out of its hole

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seahorse on the slope overlooking the Hilma Hooker

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scorpionfish couldnt have been more co-operative

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Bearded fireworm

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shooting turtles into the blue never quite worked out

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seahorse at Just A Nice Dive

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frogfish at the same site

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fairy basslets never seem to stop moving

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The Great Adventures dive centre at Harbour Village

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The iguanas seem to enjoy company

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Fly KLM via Amsterdam to Kralendijk.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION:
Great Adventures at Harbour Village Beach Club, www.harbourvillage.com.
WHEN TO GO:
Any time. Bonaire is well below the northern Caribbean hurricane belt and usually warm and sunny. High season is December-April and there can be slight rain March-November. Average water temperature is 26°C.
COSTS:
Harlequin Worldwide can arrange a Harbour Village Club Dive Special which includes flights, eight days in a courtyard room, breakfast, transfers, daily boat dives and unlimited shore diving for£1298 (01708 850330, www.harlequinholidays.co.uk). A marine park tag costs US $25.
MONEY:
US dollars, Dutch Antilles guilder and florin.
DECO DAY:
Hang out in Kralendijk (shopping, good bars and restaurants) or go kayaking or snorkelling in the Lac Bay Mangrove Forest, www.mangrovecenter.com. Its fun if you remember the sunblock!
FURTHER INFORMATION:
www.bonhata.org. Bonaire Marine Park, www.bmp.org