Farasan Banks Dive – December 2015

Happy New Year everyone! My first post of 2016 is actually a confession that I was too slow to sort through some pictures and videos from the end of 2015 before the year ended. At the beginning of this past December, I went for a live aboard dive trip (a dive trip where you sleep overnight on the boat) on the Farasan Banks out of Al Lith on the south-west coast of Saudi Arabia. This was a) my first live aboard trip that was not a research trip, and b) the first time that I got to dive on Red Sea coral reefs that were far away from the coastline. Getting to dive far away from land in the calm, clear water off of Saudi was such a treat for a girl who logged most of her dives in the shallow coastal waters of Southern California. With virtually none of the surge or turbidity that I normally see in the Santa Barbara Channel, I got a great view of the towering corals and beautiful reef fish. This week I finally got around to compiling some of the videos that I took on the trip, check out the video in this post for a better picture of what I saw.

While still very pretty, the reefs had a noticeable amount of coral bleaching, and like most of the reefs in Saudi, there were almost no large fishes cruising around. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, over-fishing is a huge problem in Saudi Arabia, and the results are very visible when you go for a dive. With the exception of a few small reef sharks and the school of barracuda in the video, I didn’t see any really large fish.

But between the gorgeous corals and the copious amounts of food provided to us by our really wonderful boat crew, it turned out to be a great first live aboard experience. Hopefully I will be able to get a few more weekend trips in while I am in Saudi.

Physics and Photography: Red Filter in the Red Sea

In every marine science course I’ve ever taken, my professors have stressed two important concepts: 1) Finding Nemo is full of scientific inaccuracies, and 2) red light cannot travel deep down in the water column. While the first point upset me greatly and shattered a small yet significant building block of my childhood, the second came in handy when I became a SCUBA diver. As a quick review, red wavelengths of light (the longer wavelengths in the visible light spectrum) are absorbed more readily by water, while blue and green wavelengths are scattered by water molecules and are able to penetrate more deeply into the ocean. (See the diagram from NOAA below). So the deeper you go down in the water column, the fewer red wavelengths of sunlight there are to reflect off of the objects around you. As a result, the things that you see and take pictures of appear more blue/green than they would at the surface when illuminated by white sunlight. Even things that would have a red color when exposed to white light (like red algae or fish) can look brown or dark green under meters of sea water. So when I cut my leg on a piece of coral 50 feet underwater this summer, it calmed me down to know that the green-black soup oozing out of my leg was just a bit of blood rather than an infected stream of unidentified pus, and when I got back to the surface, that stream of dark bodily fluid turned bright red and looked more like normal scrape than the start of the next zombie apocalypse outbreak.

In addition to explaining why my blood looks black under the sea, an understanding of how visible light is absorbed by water is helpful when I am trying to take pictures underwater. When I first began taking pictures underwater, the photos that I thought would end up on the cover on National Geographic ended up looking like I squirted green food coloring into the ocean before taking the shot (see below for an example).

The green tint that my diving photos get below a certain depth.

I was able to touch a few of them up using the color balance tools on Photoshop, and that definitely helped (see below for comparison). However, it takes time to edit the images and to put in more red tones, and the pictures can easily look artificial if you overcompensate and add too much red/pink color. Which is why many people have suggested that I get myself a red filter.

Two images from a dive in the Red Sea. The first one I color corrected on Photoshop, the second one I left as it was taken.

Up until recently, I never bothered buying the red piece of plastic that fits on the front of your camera lens because I’m frugal as all get out and after paying more money that I would care to part with for my camera alone, I was in no mood to pay more for additional accessories. But as I mentioned in my post about DIY GoPro accessories, I do like to put things on my camera. So before coming to Saudi Arabia for the second time, I got a red filter for my GoPro, and this week I was able to test it out on a snorkeling trip. Here’s what I learned:

Source: Kyle Carothers, NOAA-OE http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/04deepscope/background/deeplight/media/diagram3.html

PHYSICS IS EVERYTHING. After so many experiences with the green and blue images that I got on my SCUBA diving trips, I went out on the snorkeling boat with the mindset that a camera with a red filter would solve all of my problems. NOT the case. As this nifty diagram from NOAA shows, red light gets absorbed in water, but it does penetrate into the very top part of the ocean. The reef that I was snorkeling on was quite shallow, so a lot of red light was still present at that depth. Using a red filter ended up being overkill in very shallow water, and photos taken with the red filter only looked natural once I dove down several meters deeper.

I played around a little bit with taking pictures at different depths with the filter on and off, and I found that pictures below about 5 meters look nice with the red filter, while images taken near the surface look better without it. Of course this number is not something that one can apply to all parts of the ocean, as other things like water clarity/turbidity and time of day will affect the lighting when taking photos underwater. This is something that I am going to have to experiment with more, and I am happy that the red filter I bought is one that easily pops on & off. Italso has a leash that tethers it to the body of the camera, so I can swim around deciding whether I want to use it or let it dangle on the side of my camera depending on how deep I am.

A shallow photo that I took using the red filter, which turned the white sunlight at the surface purple.

So my advice for those of you planning to use a red filter for your next underwater photography adventure is to slap it on if you are SCUBA diving or doing slightly deeper free diving. But if you are splashing around within the first few meters of the surface, you probably will not need one.


DiversNight 2015

There are many global events that occur around the world with the aim of uniting people over a common idea or goal. The Olympic Games, where the world comes together to celebrate its athletes and competitive spirit. Meetings at the United Nations, where world leaders converge to solve the Earth’s most pressing humanitarian challenges. The World Cup, where fans assemble in giant stadiums to share their passion for football and their countries. And DiversNight 2015, where SCUBA divers around the world drive to the beach so that they can jump in the ocean at night and eat cake.

I learned about DiversNight, a global night of diving meant to promote diving communities around the world, from a friend 4 days before it was scheduled to happen. DiversNight happens on the first Saturday of November each year and was started by a Norwegian woman who wanted to promote the social aspect of the sport. The idea is that groups of divers in any country can register a location for a night dive on the DiversNight website (www.diversnight.com), and others can join in to share an evening of SCUBA diving and eating cake. Cake is apparently a rule of DiversNight, because, as the website states, “everybody loves cakes!!”

So when I heard about this event last week, and that some of the people who live/work at my university were planning to organize such a night dive in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, how could I refuse? Controlling my buoyancy and eating things that make that task more difficult are two of my favorite activities; I was on board. So on Saturday afternoon, I grabbed my fins and my abaya and jumped into a car heading south for Jeddah so that I could participate in my first DiversNight.

My silhouette as I swam around the reef at night (captured by one of the other divers in our group).
My silhouette as I swam around the reef at night (captured by one of the other divers in our group).

I had only been SCUBA diving a few times in the Red Sea, and never at night. In fact, this was only the third time in my life that I had been on a night dive, so I was quite excited to see some new things. The community underwater definitely changes with the daylight, and at night, things like lobsters, crinoids, and soldier fish were out in stronger numbers that during the sunny Arabian daytime. As with any of the other night dives I had been on, it was a bit eerie to be swimming through the ocean only being able to see the patch that your torch illuminates in front of you. For me, this added to the fun. I had dove on this reef before during the daytime, and seeing it at night with a new biotic community and new limitations on what I could see made it a completely different experience, both spooky and fascinating at the same time. The underwater photographers and physicists out there will also be able to appreciate the fact that warm tones of all the red and pink corals, fish, and multitude of encrusting invertebrates really popped since the light coming from our torches only had to travel a few feet to meters, and the red wavelengths didn’t have a chance to get filtered out before hitting our eyes and cameras. Despite the close-by light source, my night-time photography skills were still bad enough to make almost every picture that I took blurry.

The big nudibranch (about the size of my hand) that I saw on the dive. With the help of a few torches, I was able to capture the gorgeous red color that I normally wouldn't be able to see at that depth.
The big nudibranch (about the size of my hand) that I saw on the dive. With the help of a few torches, I was able to capture the gorgeous red color that I normally wouldn’t be able to see at that depth.
The group digging into the delicious cakes so generously provided by one of our buddies.

And true to the spirit of DiversNight, one of the other divers in our group supplied us with two cakes, both of which were delicious and made me appreciate my hobbies of eating and diving even more (see happy faces above for reference.) All in all,  a great night and a great concept for bringing people together. If you are interested in participating in DiversNight next year, check out their website (www.diversnight.com) and see what dives are going on in your area. Or if you should host your own!


Return to Saudi

Two months ago, I was fortunate enough to have the time of my life swimming and studying in the Red Sea with a short summer course/workshop at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. This week, after boarding 3 planes that broke down on the runway and added 32 hours of travel time to my journey, I made my way back to KAUST to spend another 4 months working as a research intern with the university. After my initial stay at KAUST this summer, I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to the Red Sea or the amazing research facilities they have here, so I applied for their Visiting Scholars Research Program, and am now working in an environmental engineering lab on campus.
I am going to be working on a project that studies the microbes used in wastewater treatment plants and how these microbes can be optimized to treat wastewater. Specifically, I am going to be looking at how to use one kind of biotechnology called aerobic granular sludge (basically a community of microbes that thrive in the water when you bubble air through it and eat up nutrients like carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous) to clean up wastewater more efficiently. Although it is not quite marine (I don’t think that I will be able to jump in the ocean for this project) I have always been interested in problems of water quality, especially since I began studying marine ecology. Biology, ecology, and environmental science students are taught about the long list of anthropogenic impacts that are degrading the environment, and how things like eutrophication of coastal waters are damaging our seas. I would like to be on the problem solving end of these challenges, so I am excited to start adding to the body of knowledge on how to better clean the water that we are putting back into the ocean.
Of course, I’m not planning on spending ALL of my time in the lab; the corals are still just off the coast and I’m not about to miss out on the beautiful reefs that I only just got a taste of this summer. Check out the “Saudi Arabia” tab on the top of the page if you want to see pictures from my last trip to the reefs of the Red Sea. I’ll be sharing more about my research and the photos of the coral reefs when I next get a chance, stay tuned!

Highlights from KAUST and the Red Sea

My summer course in KAUST has ended and I’m back in sunny (although not nearly as sunny as Saudi Arabia) California. I’ve had an absolutely unforgettable time in Saudi Arabia, and I’m sorry to be gone. I’ve returned much more picky about hummus and much more desperate for a good burrito, but incredibly thankful that I had this chance to go to a part of the world that I would otherwise have difficulty accessing (Saudi does not offer tourist visas, and I’d have to make come serious philosophical changes to get in via the Hajj.)

After my transatlantic flight and a VERY easy transition into weather that is not 105°F and humid, I sat down at my dining room table to go through all of my shakier-than-I’d-like GoPro videos and pick out the best shots from the trip. My suspicion that I was a major biology nerd was confirmed when I saw how many more videos I took of random tropical fish and sessile coral polyps than of the friends I went diving with. I tried to make a balanced video that captured the underwater and on-campus experiences that I had in the Kingdom, here are the highlights from my first (and hopefully not last!) Red Sea adventure.

Gliders at CMOR

As part of our short course/workshop at KAUST, we were given a tour of the Coastal and Marine Resources Core Lab (CMOR), which supports the marine science operations at KAUST. In addition to having academic departments and individual laboratories, KAUST has a series of “core labs” where scientists/researchers across disciplines and centers can go to use state-of-the-art machines and facilities. There are six core labs specializing in things like biosciences/bioengineering, nanofabrication and thin film, and supercomputing, all of which are staffed by scientists who support the research being done at the university. We had a look at CMOR to see the machinery and facilities that the marine scientists have at their disposal, which ranged from one of the largest research vessels in Saudi Arabia to a warehouse full of 3D-printers, CNC mills, lathes, and dozens of other tools to make all of the equipment and instruments that a scientist would need to carry out his/her research.

One of the things that we got a look at was a glider used for oceanographic research. These yellow torpedo-shaped instruments are deployed into the sea and glide on ocean currents, using motors on each side to stabilize themselves in the water column. They are being used on different projects and to answer various research questions, from searching for oil deposits to studying shark behavior. One of the things the gliders can do is send out acoustic waves to study the nature of the ocean floor, collecting information about things like bathymetry or the presence of oil. They are also fitted with equipment to measure pH, depth, and temperature, all of which is recorded on each dive and retrieved once the gliders reach the surface.

Two gliders in a one of the CMOR workshops
Two gliders in a one of the CMOR workshops

For a look at one of these gliders in action and in a more biological application, check out this video for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s SharkCam:

REMUS SharkCam

Something that I really like about marine science is how interdisciplinary of a field it is. The ocean is a big, complex system that poses difficult and fascinating questions. In order to learn anything about the sea, biologists, engineers, atmospheric scientists, modelers, mathematicians, and chemists (to name a few) work together to put together research projects. This is just one example of how we are using/developing new technologies to learn more about the ocean.

Red Sea SCUBA Diving

After months of diving with 7mm thick neoprene in California, I was in for a pleasant surprise on my first SCUBA dive in Saudi Arabia. A group of us KAUST summer students headed down to Obhur, an area north of Jeddah, to meet with some other KAUST students/staff for some shore diving off one of the small beach resorts there. This was the first time that I was able to see the corals up close and personal on SCUBA, and after hearing everyone else that I talked to moan about how mediocre the reef and diving conditiond were that day, I realized how spoiled I could get if I stayed here any longer.
Just like with our snorkeling trip, there were essentially no large fish on the otherwise healthy reefs, evidence of the intense fishing pressure that the Saudi coastline is under. After a trip to the Jeddah fish market (a huge daily fish market in the city south of this dive site), where everything from huge barracudas to groupers to sharks are on display for consumption, you can see why the only thing that you see around these corals are small reef fish.

Otherwise, the reefs are beautiful and full of color, here are a few shots of my first deeper glimpses of the Red Sea.