Friday, 29 March 2013

Friday of Interesting News: 29th March 2013

Sorry for the short break in news posts over the last couple of weeks, my life has become a bit of a rollercoaster with regards to the amount of work to do and time I have to do it in... However, we are back today with another week's worth of exciting news from the marine world. Do enjoy!

Wild Ocean Photography
It's been a busy wee week on the blog, with a new series of Dive Site guides started up and another new addition to the 'How to...' photography guide series:

The Deep Sea

Sea Beasts

Human Impacts & Sustainability

Other News

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Dive Guide: The Caves (Loch Long)

Site Summary
The Caves is a very cool little site in Loch Long which is essentially a steep slope of large boulders with the gaps between them forming 'caves' for marine life, and there are loads of big plumose anemones  and other filter feeding animals all over the rocks. There are quite a lot of fish around this area too though, which makes it a popular fishing spot so fishing line is unfortunately a danger here and carrying a knife or pair of shears is a must. 

Type: Shore dive (rocky reef)
Depth: 0m-33m
Tides: None
Suitable for: Experienced ocean divers+ Good buoyancy required.
Notable hazards: Fishing line (entanglement) / awkward entry & exit.

Getting there and getting in
From Google Maps. Click to enlarge.

There's space for 2 cars to park here, then it's a bit of a scramble down to the water's edge. 

The Caves dive site is about 2 miles south of Arrochar on the A814. There's a small parking place by the side of the road which has enough room for two cars or a minibus to park in, so space is pretty limited. It's a very popular site for sea anglers as well, and they tend to arrive early, so unless you get lucky it would be worthwhile having a Plan B just in case you can't get in here.

Site Access
From the parking place, you have two options to get down to the water's edge, but both are pretty awkward. The first option (1) is to scramble down through the culvert that runs under the road and down that way. The second (2) is to follow the little, narrow path that runs down to the shore from the other side of the bridge. Both options are steep and can be very slippery if it's been raining!

A lot of the shoreline along this part of the loch does look rather similar from the water, so it's definitely worth leaving a marker on the shore if you're not sure if you'll be able to find your way back to the right spot again to get out. The only way out is the way you went in (the rest of the shore here is too steep to climb) so you need to get back to where you started!

Approximate underwater map of The Caves dive sites.

Underwater, the site is comprised largely of a steep boulder slope leading down in steps from the surface to a flat, muddy seabed at around 30m-33m depth. It's nice all the way down though, so you can just pick your depth. If you get a day with decent visibility though, there is a stunning view from the bottom of the reef looking back up it towards the surface!

The site is relatively easy to navigate - just keep the slope on your left as you head out and down, then work your way back keeping the slope on your right.

WARNING: There is a LOT of loose fishing tangled in the rocks here so a decent torch and a pair of line cutters are absolutely essential. I know a lot of people who've got snagged here before and it can be extremely dangerous.

Recommended Equipment
Torch (essential)
Line cutters (essential)
Glow stick / flag to mark exit point

Things to See
I've not been to this site in a while, but there used to be lots of fish here, including pollock and other white fish, and it was a good site for dragonets and gurnards too. There are loads of filter-feeding animals too which take advantage of the elevation from the rocks to feed in the current including big plumose anemones, dead-mens fingers and the ubiquitous (for Loch Long!) sealochs anemone. It's also a cool place to see some different starfish like the Bloody Henry

There are a LOT of filter feeders here, making this a beautiful scenic dive site. 

Looking for more? Check out the Dive Guides page!

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

How to: Photograph Birds in Flight

A flying bird is probably one of the most challenging subjects you can try and photograph, and will require an enormous amount of patience to get good results. However, there are a few tricks and techniques that I have found make the process easier, and I hope they will be of some use to you!

Before you go:
Kittiwakes are great birds to practice on if you can find them as they will fly in a repeating figure-of-eight pattern around the back of a boat as they follow it which makes them really predictable.
  1. Research your subject: You don’t need to predict exactly what species you’ll see on your trip, but it helps to have a rough idea as this will have a bearing on the best kit to take with you - you will need to take a different approach for fast and timid woodland birds compared to ducks at the park for example! Learning as much as you can about the general habits of the bird you want to shoot (e.g. preferred habitat, what it feeds on, what time of day it is most active) will also help you predict what they will do and where they will most likely be when you do get out into the field.

    Knowing the size of the bird, and how close they are likely to come to you are also aspects worth considering when picking your equipment. You may only need a short lens to photograph gulls flying around a seaside town for example, but may require a much longer one to photograph those small finches in a forest. If you know you are only going to have a short time on-site to see some behaviour (e.g. gannets diving at Bass Rock) then spend some time watching videos of it on YouTube or similar so you will have some idea of what to expect.
  2. Set up your kit (and know how to use it!): Birds in flight obviously tend to move very quickly, and you’ll need to be able to adjust your camera settings rapidly to keep up and make sure you get the shot. Which settings you prefer to use are up to you, but I usually set my camera (an affordable and quick Canon 7D) to:
      • Manual Mode: Unless the light levels are changing rapidly, this will make your life MUCH easier as it's one less thing to worry about while you're tracking your subject, particularly if the brightness of the background is very variable.
      • Fast burst shooting: I don't advocate just holding down the shutter button whenever anything happens until your camera buffer fills up, but taking a burst of shots at the peak of the action can often be the difference between a clipped wingtip or a less-attractive posture and a really nice photo.
      • Autofocus on (central point): The central autofocus points are generally more accurate on most (non-professional) camera bodies and I stick to them to ensure a higher 'hit rate' for birds on the move.
      • Shutter speed > 1/1000s: Seriously, this makes all the difference in the world! It doesn't matter if you can hand-hold your camera and long-lens at 1/50s, the pictures WILL look fuzzier than if you get the shutter speed up. If this means you need a higher ISO then use it, but get the speed up as high as you can get it.
      • Aperture: Usually I'll leave this wide open, but I might knock it down to F8 if the autofocus is struggling or if I'm being rolled around a lot like on a boat and I want to make sure the bird's face (especially the eyes) are sharp.
Quick lenses are expensive, but the improvements in auto-focus speeds and smoothness can be worth the cost if you're looking to take your photography more seriously. For most of my wildlife photography, I use the Canon 300mm F4 IS L lens with a 1.4x converter which is absolutlely ideal for what I need. 

In the Field: 
You can use unusual lighting to great effect, but it might not always be what you're looking for! 
  1. Choose your spot: How much you can do this will obviously depend on where you are shooting, and whether you have to stay in a static public hide (as is the case in some nature reserves for example) or whether you have the freedom to move around. Wherever you are though, do make sure and consider your background (is it cluttered? Are there distracting elements?) and the lighting (do you really want your subject to be backlit? Is the target area in bright sunshine or shade?) as well as a good view of the birds you are wanting to photograph. It’s a massive disappointment to find out that you've nailed an in-flight shot, but the shot is ruined by a bit of brightly-coloured litter in the background or too much contrast.
  2. Just Watch: Unless an amazingly rare species pops up or something really unusual is happening, it’s worth spending a bit of time just watching your birds fly. Get used to watching their flight patterns and their general behaviours before you pick up your camera. Most animals display a relatively limited range of behaviours and it's usually possible to learn to predict which actions will precede a fight, take-off, diving or feeding for example. Similarly, different species will fly in very different ways - a heron has a 'lazy', slow flight style, whereas swallows are fast and far more erratic, but will congregate around specific feeding areas. A little bit of patience early on will mean you are in a much better position to predict when and where you are likely to get the shot. Shooting a couple of frames at exactly the right moment is usually better than just keeping your finger on the shutter button taking the 'spray and pray' approach!
  3. Too fast to track? Catch them at a set point: An alternative to tracking a fast bird, or one with an erratic flight path is to manually focus on a particular spot and wait for the bird to enter it. This is much easier if there is a point that the bird is repeatedly flying to (e.g. a food source) so you have something to pre-set your focus on, but with a combination of narrow aperture (for larger depth of field) and a high shutter speed you can get good results (especially if your camera has good high ISO performance!).

    If a bird is flying too fast to catch, try setting your focus manually to a target (in this case , the baby swallow or the bird feeder) and shoot the bird as it enters the frame. A tripod is very helpful to keep the point of focus in exactly the right place, but these examples were both taken handheld.
  4. Be aware of the whole scene: When you are totally focused on a bird in your viewfinder, making sure it is in the frame, in focus and looking lovely, it is very easy to forget the rest of the frame, and what is happening in the background, or to the light levels. If you shoot using one of the semi-automatic settings like aperture or shutter-priority, the camera should make allowances for any changes in the light, but you have to be aware of changes in the background that will confuse it. For example, when shooting seabirds, they quite often swoop and dive around the boats, meaning that the background is constantly changing between a dark blue sea, and a bright, (though usually grey) sky. It is very easy to get the exposure of the bird wrong as a result, and you need to be prepared to keep adjusting the exposure even as you are panning after the bird. This is one of the major reasons I prefer to use manual mode, because it involves a LOT less effort to keep the subject correctly exposed while tracking it!

    Shooting against the dark sea can throw off automatic metering when the bird flies back up and frames itself against the sky. Using manual exposure settings avoids this problem. 
  5. Finally, practice, practice, practice! This is absolutely the most important thing you can do. Once you know your camera and subject, there is nothing better than getting out and practicing with them.
Looking for more photography tips? Check out my other guides on how to compose a great wildlife photo and how to take photographs at sea.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Dive Guide: A-Frames (Loch Long)

Site Summary
This dive site is probably one of the most-used training sites on the west coast, and often becomes very busy at weekends when dive clubs or training centres descend on it from all around the country! The main attractions of the site are the 'A-frames' which are the concrete supports of an old (now very ruined) structure which provide an artificial reef habitat for quite a lot of marine life. Otherwise the site lies over a gently sloping silty, sandy seabed and is ideal for novices and diver training.

Type: Shore dive (rocky / manmade reef)
Depth: 3m-20m
Tides: None
Suitable for: All diver grades
Notable hazards: Currents can be fairly strong below 20-22m.

Getting there and getting in
From Google Maps. Click to enlarge.

There's a good big car park at the A-frames that will accommodate around 15 cars. It will fill up quickly on busy days though! 

The A-frames are found beside the Finnart Oil Terminal on the A814, about 2.5 miles north of Garelochead or 6.5 miles south of Arrochar. There's space to park several cars right beside the site entrance in a relatively large car park, which helps to keep everyone safely away from the main road!

Site Access

Access to the waters edge 

Access to the site is down a short, but narrow little path to the water's edge. It can be a little bit of a scramble though, so watch out. Since it's a single file path, it's polite to give priority to divers who are exiting the water before climbing down yourself. At high tide, the water comes all the way up to the wall, but you can expect a bit of a longer walk if it's low tide. Once you're there, just wade straight in!

Approximate map of A-Frames dive site. Click to enlarge.

Once you're in the water, finding your way around is nice and straightforward and essentially requires you to just head straight out from the shore and you'll find plenty of debris and bits of concrete to investigate, including some long concrete 'pillars' which usually have quite a lot of life living underneath them.

Despite this being the one site I've probably dived more often than any other, I think I've only actually got to see the A-Frames themselves maybe a handful of times because I'm usually teaching trainees in shallow water! Still, if you want to find the main frame, it's easiest to use a compass.

Standing at the entrance point, take a bearing towards the white lighthouse on the far shore of the loch (which should be due north). Start your dive and follow your compass, but remember to use your pilotage skills as well (i.e. 'leapfrog' between closer targets that line up on your bearing) because the amount of waste metal amongst the debris can make your compass go a bit weird! 

Keep on that heading until you reach approximately 20m and then start searching around the area if need be until you find it. It is a pretty small target (maybe 5m square) but you should be able to find it ok! I have recently been informed that there are actually four 'A-frames' at this site, so if I manage to find them I'll get you an update.

NOTES: The oil terminal itself is still in use and boats are frequently moored up here. Don't dive past the fence!

The current can be strong here at depths below approximately 20m so watch out for that if you are planning a deeper dive. 

Recommended Equipment


Things to See

There is a reasonable amount of marine life to see at the A-frames if you're able to go and look for it, though I don't think there's anything particularly rare. There are always shrimp underneath the concrete pillars, and you can also usually see the occasional plumose anemone, dead man's fingers or peacock fan worms on the more elevated parts of the structures. There are loads of crabs and starfish and plenty of 'buckie' whelks as well which you might see mating or laying eggs if you go early in the year. On the A-frames themselves you'll see a lot more encrusting filter feeders like the soft corals and fan worms and it's definitely the highlight of the dive if you can find it!

Visibility here is extremely variable, largely due to the high numbers of divers who use the site at weekends.

Buckie whelks (Buccinum undatum) laying eggs (Nov 2012)

Velvet swimmer crab (Necora puber)

A variety of organisms colonise the concrete blocks around the site, particularly tunicates.

Hermit crab (Pandalus bernhardus)

Looking for more? Check out the Dive Guides page!

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Dive Guide: Conger Alley (Loch Long)

Site Summary
Conger Alley is shore dive I've done a LOT over the years! It's made up of two rocky reefs over a gently sloping sandy seabed and there's usually a decent amount of marine life to see including conger eels if you're lucky. Situated near the north end of Loch Long, it's sheltered from a lot of bad weather by the surrounding hills and doesn't get much in the way of currents which makes it an ideal site for novices or diver training. 

Type: Shore dive (rocky reef)
Depth: 6m-30m 
Tides: None
Suitable for: All diver grades
Notable hazards: Traffic on A83

Getting there and getting in
From Google Maps. Click to enlarge.
If you don't park at the 'proper' parking place, you can fit 3-4 cars at the side of the road here in the mud. The site entrance is marked with the arrow.

Conger Alley sits right on the side of the A83, just 2.5 miles north of Arrochar. There's space to park several cars about 500m away in a large, tarmaced parking place, or if there aren't too many of you it's possible to park at the side of the road in the mud just beside the Goldberry Cottage B&B. It's a bit of a squeeze there though and you will be very close to the (very fast) main road.

WARNING! The traffic on this part of the A83 goes VERY fast as this stretch is one of the only good places to overtake for several miles. As such, cars are often travelling on the wrong side of the road so be careful! Lorries and heavy traffic are also a common feature.

Site Access
Access is very easy. The path is found directly opposite the white cottage on the side of the road.

Wherever you decide to park, there is a small pavement on the opposite side of the road where you can set up your kit and which will get you safely to the site itself. Access to the shore is via a small path directly opposite Goldberry Cottage B&B.

Photo courtesy of Charlotte Hopkins.

It's a pretty good option when the weather's awful too since the A83 is usually open at least as far as Arrochar. 

The path can be a little slippery when it's wet, but it's in pretty good condition and once you're on the beach it's an easy walk to the water. Just follow the line of boulders and wade in.


Approximate map of Conger Alley dive site. 

Once you're in the water, finding the reef is nice and straightforward. Heading out from the shore, head diagonally left away from the shore down until you get to around 10-15m water depth. At this point, don't go any deeper and continue along the slope for a few minutes until you reach the reef. It is a relatively long and boring swim over a fairly featureless sandy bottom, but as long as you're at the correct depth you will definitely reach the shallow reef.

TOP TIP: Watch out for sealochs anemones as you head towards the reef. The boulders at Conger Alley are covered in them, and you'll see them start to appear on the seabed as you get closer to the reef.

When you get to Conger Alley itself, you have the choice of two reefs to explore. I've never dived the 'deep' reef myself, but you'll find it by heading downslope from the 'shallow' reef to a depth of around 25-30m or so depending on the tide. I believe there are usually more conger eels at the deeper reef so if you're qualified and happy with the depth it might be worth a look.

Otherwise, you can carry on across the shallow reef. It's not particularly large, so it's perfectly possible to work your way across it two or three times as you gradually head shallower.

Recommended Equipment

Things to See

There is quite a lot of marine life to see at Conger Alley, including quite a few species fish (particularly ballan wrasse, conger eels and lots of leopard gobies) though you often need to get right down to the seabed and look under the rocks to see them. Sealochs anemones cover virtually every boulder surface and there are also a few sponges and the occasional plumose anemone as well as all the usual velvet swimmer, harbour, hermit and some large edible crabs. Cerianthids and green crabs are common over the sand.

Baby common starfish on a tunicate

Common starfish

Conger eels are usually spotted hiding well under the boulders. They can sometimes be coaxed a little way out by waving your torch in front of (not at) them, but keep your fingers to yourself!

Sealochs anemones are virtually everywhere! You'll start seeing them the closer you get to the reef. 

There's a lot of weed to plough through in the shallows if you miss the exit! 

Looking for more? Check out the Dive Guides page!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The glamorous life of a final year PhD student...

I'm sure by now several of you will have noticed a rapid drop-off in the number of blog posts I've been putting out over the last few weeks. The reason, quite simply, is due to a gradual build-up of PhD-related work since the new year that has been stealing my free time!

God bless Calvin & Hobbes. I wish it was this simple! 

As you'll all know already if you've been reading this blog for a while, I'm currently studying for a PhD looking at the ecology of deep-sea fish and how they make use of different types of habitat from the edge of the continental shelf at around 200m all the way down to the abyss at almost 5000m. Last year was the year when I got to do all my fieldwork which sent me out on ships to the abyss, to Scottish coral reefs, to Angolan oil rigs and even all the way to New Zealand just before Christmas!

It was a fantastic experience and I got to see some cool things, some of which I've been able to photograph and share with all of you. But now comes the hard part! I come to the end of my funding at the end of the 2013 and so the next few months will be mostly filled with spreadsheets, statistical analyses, mathematical modelling and processing A LOT of photos! Unfortunately, that means that I'll be largely tied to my desk in order to get through it all, and it also means that this blog may well see a bit of a decline in the number of updates I'm able to get out. So I'll apologise for that now and save you all wondering what is going on!

But, while I might not be heading out for much more field work, in order to stay sane I'm planning on taking the RIB out when I can and getting a bit more diving in than I have been getting over the last couple of years and will try and keep you all updated with those whenever possible. I've also got some more guides in the works and will post them too once I've had a chance to update them, so I will be keeping things moving along with this site, they just might not be as regular as usual!

If nothing else though, I AM heading back to the abyss one last time at the start of April for a bit of experimental trawl fishing, so I will certainly keep you updated on how that all goes. So, chances are the next post from me will be from the high seas! Yar!

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Porpoises on the Clyde

I read somewhere once that owning a RIB was basically the same as owning a large fibreglass hole in the ocean into which you throw money. I will add time to that as well, since our boat is pretty old and therefore in constant need of some sort of repair and because I know nothing about RIB maintenance that I haven't learned through tortuous trial-and-error. Some days, owning a RIB is an utter pain in the ass.

But then you get days like today and it all feels worthwhile.

Trail Island in the Clyde.

Today I took four experienced divers out onto the Clyde to explore around Trail Island by Little Cumbrae since it's not a site we've dived much before with the University club even though it's virtually on our doorstep. Unfortunately, issues with a dodgy neck kept me out of the water myself, but whatever - I still got to take my RIB out for a spin, so who cares!

I couldn't really ask for much more out of a Saturday afternoon! 

Anyway, I dropped the guys in for a thoroughly relaxed and uneventful dive along the cliff-face and then left them to it while I just enjoyed being back at sea (and doing a spot of high-speed driving practice because frankly if you've got a boat to yourself with a 90HP engine on the back it would be rude not to!). A short 45 minutes later, the divers came back happy but cold and with plenty of decent site information we can add to our list for the Uni club so we decided to call it a day and head back home for some lunch. And that's when it all got rather exciting.

Just as we were reached the channel between the two Cumbraes, I spotted a couple of porpoise near where we'd seen some earlier in the day and slowed down to approach them. Porpoise are usually shy and solitary creatures so I wasn't holding out much hope of getting very close, but I slowly trundled us towards the area they seemed to be congregating in anyway and stopped the boat.


Within a couple of minutes it was obvious that we hadn't just found a couple of porpoise, and even more obvious that we must have stumbled into a feeding spot because we were suddenly surrounded by about 20 of them, all swimming actively and (strangely enough for porpoise) happily circling the boat! I've worked as a wildlife guide before in one of the UK's porpoise hotspots, but I've never seen as many as there were today and never so close! By the time I remembered I'd brought my camera, they'd been with us for a good 10-15 minutes and were showing no signs of being disturbed by our presence which was just awesome. Photography was virtually impossible because the glare on water meant you couldn't see them below the surface to track when they'd appear, but I did manage to get this one shot. It doesn't do the event any justice at all, but at least you can see how close they were to us!

I reckon if every Saturday could be like this, I'd would never have anything to complain about :)