|WRECK PHOTOGRAPHY has become a minor passion of mine. In the February 2008 issue of DIVER, I detailed my first foray into the world of monochrome, and I was keen to experience more. |
But as it was winter, and storms were ravishing the UK coast, I looked for a place with more stable visibility and, of course, a good variety of wrecks.
The Grenada Tourist Board thought its island would fit the bill perfectly, being the last resting place of the Bianca C - the Caribbeans diveable Titanic - and a richly wreck-endowed island.
A trade route between Grenada and Trinidad that used pretty much anything that floated has provided a wealth of sites. Inclement weather and barely serviceable ships dont make good bedfellows.
I needed plenty of light, good vis, a flat, light-coloured seabed and wrecks that werent the size of a small island. The Bianca C was too big and too deep for decent photography under recreational circumstances, but the plethora of other rusting leviathans in Grenada looked perfect for my purposes.
In fact my requirements were met almost exactly by the King Mitch. After serving her country, this US Navy minesweeper was put out to pasture, running cargo between Grenada and Trinidad. Approaching Grenada one day, the elderly King sprang a leak just as the pumps failed. She didnt make it, and now rests on an almost flat seabed.
As the only structure that sticks up for miles, the wreck is a magnet for marine life. Eagle rays come for the cleaning station on the bow, while nurse sharks and numerous small reef fish use the wreck for shelter.
Like Neptunes sideboard, the surrounding seabed is barren, except for the odd ornamental trophy. Everything has been swept away by strong currents and the occasional hurricane or storm.
Luckily, my visit coincided with a neap tide and relatively meek winds, so the sea was fairly calm and the current little more than a gentle push.
The wreck is fully intact and lies on its starboard side, though Hurricane Ivan did swing it around. I dived it with Peter from the Aquanauts dive centre, based at the True Blue Resort.
AS WE DESCENDED, two eagle rays approached. At the bow, butterflyfish and wrasse were ready to pamper and preen oceanic visitors, though the two rays didnt stop on this occasion.
There were two nurse sharks by the bow, but they also moved away at our approach, so I sauntered off to get the bigger picture.
In the clear water much of this 60m wreck was visible, but even with a wide-angle lens, I couldnt fit it all into one shot. Looking up at the bow provided a stunning vista, however - a fallen leviathan on a stony deathbed.
Peter was dwarfed by its bulk and his torch barely lit a thing, although it provided an excellent focal point.
Trying to bring out colour here would be futile, but changing to black & white altered the entire feel.
Before March 2005, nurse sharks would pile up around the King Mitch, but the newer wreck Hema 1 gave them an alternative place to hang out. It is slightly nearer shore, and a few metres shallower.
The Hema 1 is intact except for a gaping hole where Hurricane Ivan kicked the guts out of it. But what would be a devastating injury to a ship at the surface actually helped Hema 1. Premature ageing may be bad news for supermodels, but its good for prospective diving attractions.
The more debris, the more twisted and broken metal bits, the more there is to explore. Experienced divers dont relish swimming around a boat that looks as if it was cluttering up a harbour the day before. Rip it in two, and youre talking!
Ivan also crushed the lifeboat that lies next to the wreck. I saw a couple of large nurse sharks there and, close by, a loggerhead turtle the size of a small car.
MY LAST FORAY INTO THE ATLANTIC before the weather turned was with Scubatech, to the diminutive wreck of the San Juan. This one is the nearest to shore, lying in about 26m.
Thanks to Hurricane Ivan, it is some way from its original location, and less intact. Ivan picked it up like a drunken student in a shopping trolley and dumped it in a heap several hundred metres away.
The San Juan is in two adjacent pieces, but you dont come to see the wreck so much as the marine life. This is a place for colour photography.
A large shoal of snapper, and another of Atlantic spadefish, were good draws in themselves, and the wreck usually offers a good chance of encountering nurse sharks.
We found a couple around the prop. They rest wherever they can shelter before heading out to bother crustaceans on the huge plateau south of the island.
On our way back the divers did some fish-feeding, as the result of an Atlantic as turbulent as a nightclub full of rival football fans. So for the next dive we headed round the corner of Grenada into the calm Caribbean.
The boat did nothing more than rock gently as we kitted up. We had come to dive Rum Runner, the remains of a working catamaran that sits next to a classic Caribbean reef.
The wreck comes into view just below the surface. By the time I reached it, I already had 10 shots on my memory card. But it has more photographic potential from above than at eye level, going against the grain of conventional underwater photographic technique.
Still, what matters is the final image, and a good photographer needs to break a rule or two.
Theres not much to the Rum Runner, just the twin hulls and some broken superstructure, but after some time submerged it has assembled a good collection of sponges and animals that assume it is all part of the reef.
If youre caught short, the toilet is still in place, though its one of those marine ones with the pump handle that I can never seem to use. Its in a pretty cramped place too, so I guess most of the crew just peed over the side. I would.
At 30m, even on nitrox 32, time on the wreck is fairly short. I am soon heading up the slope onto the reef-flat at 14m. With a healthier no-stop time on my computer, I can concentrate on the marine life.
With film, Id have to have change cameras to swap between black & white and colour. Now I can just lower the ISO rating and turn on my twin flashguns. Its simpler than using a marine toilet!
On the reef top are lots of sponges, sea-fans, coral and an eco-system of marine life balanced precariously on top of each other. Thats a healthy reef.
MOST DIVES OFF THE CARIBBEAN side of the island are two-tank affairs, with around an hours surface interval between the two dives. The first of my two was on the ex-cargo carrier Shakem. She was approaching Grenadas harbour carrying a full cargo of cement bags from Trinidad on 30 May, 2001.
The bags shifted and tipped precariously the vessel, which was not in the best of health anyway. The dry powder sucked up the inrushing water like a thirsty kid, and the carrier quickly sank under its weight.
Shakem sits upright and intact in 30m. Covered in benthic marine life such as gorgonian sea-fans, sponges and hard corals, it has plenty to interest the camera lens.
For me the pulley and rope system of the intact loading crane is the defining feature. Creating a new look for this iconic feature in monochrome was less difficult than I expected.
Most images show the block and nothing else. So I got into the hold and, using a wide-angle lens, captured a shot of the crane flowing into the frame, with the block the main part of the shot, to give a sense of place.
Shakems neighbour Veronica also sports a crane, but this one lies across the hull and is less photogenic. The hold is empty, too, because Veronica was a rusting hulk in the way of the new cruise-ship terminal in the main port, so was sunk intentionally
Sitting on its keel in 15m, the intact wreck makes a good subject, but the site could be called Baxters after the fish soup that forms along the current-washed side of the ship.
Damselfish, creole wrasse and juvenile snappers swirl in the current forced up by the hull. Among them swim their shepherds of death - horse-eye jacks.
Within the empty hull or on the lee side, gentler fish swim. French angelfish glide by like Victorian ladies out for a stroll, as smaller reef fish flit in and around the sponges that add much-needed colour to the drab exterior of corroding metal.
FINALLY, I VISITED A WRECK designed for beginners, but also good for photography. Quarter Wreck is so named because the other three-quarters of it lies some way off!
The stern section of a freighter, it rests in only around 10m, within a broken garden reef which is great to explore.
Its not a classic shape, but there are plenty of recognisable sections. The prop is intact, though pointing to the surface.
Extending from the hull is a section of propshaft that creates a good focal leader into the frame. A short distance away are what look like refrigeration canisters attached to superstructure - a good foreground for atmospheric diver shots.
The surrounding reef is not much to look at but has turtles, morays and lots of reef fish, including spotted snake eels.
For a wreck photographer, Grenada is a marvel. It has plenty of great places to swim around for an hour, plus more challenging sites for experienced divers. A nitrox qualification helps, as does SMB experience, but neither is essential.
The situation and intactness of the wrecks combined with the life surrounding them creates a marvellously wild aquatic studio.
THE DIGITAL DARKROOM
Composition is the dominating factor in the picture-taking process. Light falls a close second and the subject comes third. I use no flash when photographing wrecks whole(ish), because the artificial light affects the natural ambience and the subsequent images just look bluish and contrast-free.
I photograph in RAW, so can create the monochrome image in my digital darkroom - my computer. Simply selecting Black & White is not enough when creating an underwater image, because the contrast needs work, as does the level.
Often each image requires standard adjustment, followed by more refined individual work to create the right look.
Some call it cheating, but Ansell Adams, the king of monochrome photography, produced wonderful images that were delicately crafted in a darkroom.
Back home, I convert the RAW files to mono, then tweak the levels and contrast to balance the blacks, whites and greys in the pictures. Working on each picture individually gives more control over the final image.
Using a colour-balanced monitor, I sit in a darkened room to ensure that no external factor influences the result. It may sound a little Gollum-like, but photographs can vary wildly from computer to computer if screens are not calibrated.
WHAT ELSE TO SEE
Grenada is known as the Spice Island, but could as well be the Chocolate or Rum Island. I discovered this while sipping a 79% proof rum from Rivers Distillery, which still makes its firewater in the same labour-intensive way it did when it started in the 18th century. It even uses the original water-wheel.
Grenadas rainforest trees bear their fruit of cocoa beans (right), hand-picked and delivered to the factory in messy buckets. They are graded, dried and processed to create the sort of dark chocolate admired by many a European cook.
You can buy the chocolate, as you can the nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and bay leaves grown in plantations that you can visit. And besides sandy beaches and rainforest, there are waterfalls and a crater lake to explore.
|Spotted snake eel on the Quarter Wreck. |
|Rum Runners lavatory is still in place, and permanently flushed. |
|Diver swims over the mast of the Hema 1. |
|Winch gear on the Veronica. |
|Exploring the stern of the Quarter Wreck. |
|What appear to be gas cylinders strapped to superstructure on the Quarter Wreck. |
|Cocoa beans |
GETTING THERE: Gavin Parsons travelled with Excel Airways from London Gatwick. Virgin and BA also fly to Grenada. Departure tax is about 14. You can hire a car (driving is on the left) or use the many taxis and taxi-buses to get around easily
DIVING: Scubatech runs a friendly dive business from the Calabash Hotel. It has a small dive boat and offers nitrox and gear, www.scubatech-grenada.com. Gavin also dived with Aquanauts at True Blue Resort, www.aquanautsgrenada.com
ACCOMMODATION: True Blue is an eclectic hotel with rooms set along the seashore and is friendly and charming, www.truebluebay.com. Also set by the sea, the Calabash is a little more upmarket, but equally welcoming. It hosts a Gary Rhodes restaurant, one of a wide choice of good eating places on the island, www.calabashhotel.com
WHEN TO GO: The quiet period is from October to the start of December. After the New Year peak it quietens down again and conditions are excellent to April and beyond.
MONEY: Eastern Caribbean dollar.
PRICES: A £999 package is available from Barefoot Traveller, including return flights with Excel Airways, transfers, seven nights at True Blue Resort and 10 dives. This is based on departure in June, www.barefoot-traveller.com
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.grenadagrenadines.com