Category Archives: Caribbean/Central & South America

Underwater St. Lucia

St. Lucia Pitons

Yup, those are the Pitons. The tallest one darn near killed me…it was like climbing a ladder for two miles!

My family recently returned from a couple of weeks on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.  Known as ‘the Helen of the West Indies’ it fully lives up to the nickname.  It’s lush, volcanic and reminds me of Kauai (which I consider to be the most gorgeous place on earth).

The first week was spent with family.  We hiked an insanely steep volcanic mountain (Gros Piton), went horseback riding, zip-lined, rode ATVs and drank a substantial amount of rum.  Plus I learned how to drive on the left side of the road…and that was truly entertaining!

The second week was just my wife Anita and I.  One of the reasons we had picked St. Lucia was because of the incredible scuba diving there: we took full advantage and dove every day.

Over the past five years, I’ve struggled  to grasp the fundamentals of underwater photography…with mixed results.  But on this trip, my equipment worked perfectly (which is NEVER a sure thing).  Plus, I fell into a grove and started to get images I was really happy with.  These may not be ‘world class’ photos but just the same, I want to share them so you can appreciate the amazing, bizarre and captivating world that lays just below the ocean’s surface.

Underwater St. Lucia

This little gal was a very cooperative subject and let me fill a good part of a memory card while capturing her portrait.

Underwater St. Lucia

Anita indulging in her favorite underwater activity: Wreck Diving.

Underwater St. Lucia Underwater St. Lucia

Underwater St. Lucia

Scorpionfish: Creator of the original ghillie suit!

 

Underwater St. Lucia

Jack Elam had nothing on the Lizardfish

Underwater St. Lucia

“Don’t look up!” Banded Coral Shrimp just hanging around.

“Who…me?!” Juvenile Grouper hiding in a Strawberry Vase Sponge

Underwater St. Lucia

♫You Poor unfortunate soul♪ Vocal stylings by the Goldentail Morey Eel..

 

Underwater St. Lucia

“I have you now!” They might look like the Darth Vader of the depths but Moray Eels actually go out of their way to avoid divers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Underwater St. Lucia

“Waiting for the Starship Troopers” This Spider Crab looks like an extra in my favorite Science Fiction movie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Underwater St. Lucia

One of the earth’s most elegant creatures: a young Spotted Drum

One of the earth's most elegant creatures: a young Spotted Drum

A whole bed of garden eels. They sway back and forth in unison as the current shifts.

I know that most of you read this blog because of an interest in landscape or wildlife photography, but I hope you don’t mind this little side-trip into another fascinating part of our incredible earth.

Jeff

 

PS:  If you go diving in St. Lucia, Anita and I highly recommend Scuba Steve’s.  Steve and Shirley have one of the most personable dive operations we’ve experienced anywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Underwater St. Lucia

 

 

 

Also posted in Underwater Photography Tagged , , |

Just published: Old San Juan Gallery

Hi folks,

I’ve added a gallery of photographs featuring Old San Juan to the ‘Cityscape Album’ on my website.  Old San Juan is one of the historical treasures of the New World and certainly one of the most photogenic as well.  Don’t forget to check out my article detailing Old Jan Juan’s Top 10 Photo Locations and Tips as well!

Jeff

Old San Juan Photo Gallery

Raices Fountain…one of the many treasures in Old San Juan

 

 

 

 

Also posted in Buildings/Ruins, Historical, Photo Tips and Guides Tagged , , |

Bonaire 2016 Photo Contest

This is a quick post aimed at any of you who have visited the Caribbean island of Bonaire in the last couple of years.

The Bonaire Tourism sponsors a yearly photo contest for pros and amateurs in which you can win a free stay on the island.  Unlike most contests, there is no fee to enter, so you really have nothing to loose by trying!  Here’s a link.

I’m not big on contests as a rule, I’d rather be photographing stuff than submitting applications.  But the applicant pool for this contest isn’t really deep…this isn’t like you are entering a National Geographic contest and there are thousands of applicants…and I won the contest last year…which proves that ANYONE could win!

Anyway, they gave me a great free trip last year and I’d feel bad if I didn’t at least give them a bit of publicity:)

1st Place Bonaire Photo Contest

My winning shots from 2015. This year it could be you!

Jeff

Tagged , |

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

The colors of the restored buildings are simply amazing.

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips  

I don’t do a lot of street photography.  As a rule, I prefer to spend my time outdoors and do my best to avoid cities.  There are some exceptions, towns like Savannah, Charlestown and St. Augustine have a charm I certainly wouldn’t deny and I have spent many an enjoyable day photographing them.  Today, I’m adding another location to that list:  Old San Juan.

I’ve visited Old San Juan a half dozen or so times over the years, usually at the start or end of a cruise (over a million tourists cruise out of San Juan harbor yearly).  I had taken a couple quick tours and hit the highlights but that was about it.  However, earlier this month, a lovely young woman we’ve known for years had her wedding there and I found myself with nearly three days to explore and photograph the city.

 

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

The projecting Garitas (Sentry Boxes) are an image that has become synonymous with Old San Juan

First of all, an overview.  Old San Juan is known as La Ciudad Amurallada “the walled city”…understandable for a town surrounded by a 3.4 mile long wall that is up to 20 foot thick.  It was founded in 1521, by Spanish colonists who called it Ciudad de Puerto Rico (“Rich Port City”) and is considered the second oldest town in the New World. The city occupies the western side of a small island at the entrance of San Juan Harbor.  Thanks to decades of good zoning laws, you will rarely see a modern structure, in fact, as you walk the narrow streets and look up at the 400 exuberantly painted and carefully restored San Juan Map16th and 17th-century Spanish colonial buildings, it would be easy to think you had slipped thru a time rift and had been carried back a couple centuries. The city is pretty small (about 7 square blocks).  You can walk to nearly any spot in the city in 30 minutes.

As soon as I booked my flight, I started searching on-line for ‘photo tips’ and ‘photo locations.’   However, I was surprised by the lack of info available, so I’m writing this blog to help out future photographers who visit this exceptional city.

Top 10 Photo Locations in Old San Juan:

Sure, this Top 10 list is just my humble opinion and some might quibble over a couple of the selections but it will give you a great starting point for your exploration.  So, here’s my top 10 list (in no particular order):

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations

  1. Paseo Del Morro (see location #1 on my map)
    Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

    Take a early morning stroll along the Paseo. There isn’t another like it in the world!

    • This is an incredible walkway that snakes along the water’s edge between el Morro (see #2) and the southern part of the island.  It is wide, paved and nicely landscaped.  Photo ops abound and include the Raices Fountain (see #6 below) the old red city gate and wonderful views of the city wall with its projecting Garitas (sentry boxes).  The trail ends at el Morro.  Great sunset views.
  2. Castillo San Felipe Del Morro (#2 on map)
    Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

    HDR is mandatory for this type of shot

    • Commonly known as El Morro, this is an impressive, 6 storied, 16th-century citadel with walls that soar 140 above the amazing turquoise Caribbean.  Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & TipsAlthough smaller than Castillo de san Cristobal (#9), it is much more photogenic because of its location at the tip of the island…the views of San Juan Bay from El Morro are spectacular.  The fortresses and the walls, together with La Fortaleza, are recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site, one of only 23 such locations in the United States.

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & TipsEl Morro is part of the National Park system and entry is only $5.

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

El Morro’s lighthouse

That fee will also get you into Castillo de san Cristobal and your pass is good for a full week.

There is a lot to photograph here.  Cannons, flags, tunnels, a Victorian lighthouse…plenty to easily keep you busy for a couple hours.

 

3. Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery (#3 on map)

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

This would be the kind of view that couldn’t get old even if you had an eternity…

  • Frankly, I’m usually not very enthusiastic about photographing cemeteries, but this is an exception.  Santa Maria Magdalena must be one of the most picturesque burial sites in the world.  It is only a short walk from El Morro.  Early morning photos here are enchanting.

4. City View of La Fortaleza (#4 on map)

La Foraleza

Great spot during the blue hour after sunset

  • This spot provides a dramatic view of the city wall and La Foraleza (the Governor’s mansion).  From the La Rogativa statue (#5), just walk a short distance along the city wall northwest (toward el Morro) until you reach the Casa Rosa (Rosada), also known as the Pink House.  Part of the wall in front of this building curves out toward the bay, giving you a wonderful view of the illuminated city wall, the red city gate and the Governor’s house (La Fortaleza)…at night, this is a beautiful, world class vista.
  • Note:  Be careful entering the sentry boxes (Garitas) at night…unfortunately, they seem to be used as bathrooms by some folks.
Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

La Rogativa

5. La Rogativa Plaza (Plaza of Religious Procession…#5 on map)

  • Statues of generals and assorted statesmen can be found across the city.  Most of them look like those you can see anywhere.  Not this one.  It is different, modern and depicts a cherished moment in San Juan’s history:
  • In 1797 an English blockade threatened to starve the city into submission.  Outnumbered and desperate, a large group of women and children lit torches at night and walked toward the city as part of a rogativa, or divine entreaty, to ask the saints to save them.  The English, mistakenly thinking the long column was Spanish reinforcements, abandoned their blockade and fled.
  • The best natural light is in mid morning.  Also, the sculpture very photogenic at night (see photo above).

6. Raices Fountain (#6 on map)Raices Fountain

  • Located where Paseo del Morro meets Paseo de la Princesa, this large and uplifting statue is front lit in mid morning.  Also makes a killer sunset shot.

7. Cathedral of San Juan Bautista (#7 on map)

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

One of the many fascinating nooks at the cathedral

Second oldest cathedral in the New World and also the resting place the island’s first governor: Juan Ponce de León.  It may not be the largest or most impressive cathedral you’ll ever see, but there are some beautiful niches and stained glass.  Visitors can explore the cathedral from 8:30am to 4pm daily.

8. Street Art with Puerto Rican Flag (#8 on map)Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

  • This is simply the side of a decrepit building that has been imaginatively painted with the Puerto Rican flag on the front door and images of famous residents on its walls.  Judging by the number of photos of this spot on the internet, it seemed to be to one of city’s iconic locations but I couldn’t find directions.  On my last day I happened to turn a corner and there it was!
  • You can find it about 300 feet south of Calle san Sebastian on Calle de San Jose.
  • It is best to photograph this spot early in the day.  There can be some harsh light and shadows here in late afternoon.

9. Castillo de San Cristobal (#9 on map)Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

  • This fort is located on the eastern edge of the old town and is only a bit more of a mile walk from el Morro (which is on the western end of Old San Juan).  A stroll between the forts will take you only about 20 minutes (or you can just use the free trolley that runs between them).
  • Castillo de San Cristobal is actually larger than el Morro and covers 27 acres of ground (110,000 square meters).  In fact, it was the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World.
  • Personally, I didn’t find San Cristobal to be as photogenic as el Morro.  Perhaps I was just so enamored by el Morro that I didn’t give it a fair chance.  Good location for sunrise shots with the sun rising behind the fort.

10. Esplanade in front of el Morro (#10 on map)2016 Old San Juan-217-Pano_1

This is a huge field on the landward side of el Morro.  Originally left open so defenders could have clear fields of fire against attackers this expansive space is unique in Old San Juan.  On weekends, the skies over the field are filled with kites as the locals enjoy picnic lunches.  You can buy kites from vendors there and try it yourself!

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

This view of the walkway to el Morro gives you a sense of the size of the Esplanada

 

11. And even more…

Okay, okay, I know I promised just 10 locations, but there are many more wonderful photography subjects in Old San Juan…my advice is to just start walking and looking.  For example, a life-sized statue of famed Salsa composer Tite Curet Alonso makes a memorable shot (you can find him in the Plaza de Armas…it was actually his favorite bench!)

My granddaughter and son-in-law share a moment with Tite Curet Alonso

My granddaughter and son-in-law share a moment with Tite Curet Alonso

Even the streets themselves are interesting and subtlely beautiful.   They are paved with cobbles of adoquine, a blue stone cast from furnace slag.

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

Yup….the bricks are blue…

As you wander around photographing the  colored buildings you will also find iguanas, street performers, dozens of feral cats and a cornucopia of other subjects for your camera!

 

Tips for Photographers:

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

Which way to the palace?

1. Stay in the old city  If you will be there more than one night, find a room in the old city…NOT the modern part of San Juan.  Although the distance between the two is not significant, traffic can make it a long commute. Besides, you really get a chance to soak up the atmosphere if you stay in the old city.  My wife rented an apartment on a quiet street with a killer view on Airbnb for less than the cost of a ‘traditional’ hotel.  Seriously, find a place in the old city…you won’t regret it.

2. Don’t rent a car.  The city is full of narrow, one way streets and finding a parking spot can be impossible.  Besides, since the city is small, a reasonably fit person can cover it easily on foot…plus you just see so much more detail when you walk, if you were driving you would miss a lot of photo ops.

  • Taxis are also available, but can be hard to find.
  • There is a great hop-on, hop-off  free trolley service which you can use to cover ground quickly. It runs every day Monday through Friday from 7am until 6 pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 9am until 7pm every 15 minutes.  Click on this link for a map of the routes.

3. Hat, Sunscreen, Water, Walking Shoes  This is the tropics and the summers can be very hot.  Plus, the sun can be merciless.  My wife, for example, never gets sunburned, well, at least she never had until this visit to Old San Juan;)

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

4. Camera Gear

  • A wide angle lens is a must.  I had a 28mm on my full frame camera (about 18mm on a crop sensor APS-C camera) and it worked out well, but I wish I had brought my 14mm for some shots.
  • A regular lens in the 50-70mm range will come in handy for most of the other shots you will need.  I really didn’t find much need for a telephoto lens.
  • Travel tripod.  I used mine quite a bit, even during the day.  The buildings are tall and shots often have both shadows and brightly sunlit areas.  I often had to take bracketing shots so I could later process them in HDR to capture the full dynamic range.
  • Polarizer.  The skies over San Juan can make for a wonderful backdrop for your shots.  A polarizer will really make the blue ‘pop’ in your shots.

4. Time of Day to shoot

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

Little scenes like this abound in Old San Juan

This is one location that you truly can photograph 24 hours a day.  Seriously.

  • Early mornings have wonderful, soft light and is the least crowded time of the day.  Sunrise shots at the San Cristobal castle can be wonderful.  Then walk down to the Magdalena Cemetery (#3) for shots of El Morro castle with the sun at your back.
  • Mid-Day  This is the time to walk the streets and photograph the colorful buildings and the even more colorful people!  When you are photographing the quaint old buildings, I think they look best when the sun is high enough to get some light on them, so late morning thru early afternoon is prime-time.  Keep in mind that one side of a street might get great late morning light while the other side will be best with afternoon light…so you might need to cover the same street during different parts of the day in order to get shots of the buildings on both side of the road.
  • Sunset  The Raices Fountain (#6) is a wonderful spot for sunset shots.  Then you can easily head down the El Morro Trail (#1) for a series of great photo ops as the sun drops into the Atlantic.2016 Old San Juan-508 crop
  • Night  San Juan doesn’t ever sleep.  You will find folks on the streets all night. My favorite night locations were:
    • The La Rogativa statue (#5 on map) and
    • The city wall at Casa Rosada (#4 on map).  Position yourself at the city wall and shoot back toward the governor’s mansion (La Fortaleza).
    • Although there is a significant amount of crime in new San Juan, most of the old town is heavily patrolled by police.  I never felt uncomfortable at night but then again, I avoided dark, deserted areas.  Just use common sense like you would in any city.
      • One area to definitely avoid at night is the La Perla neighborhood. This is on the northern side of the city between el Morro and Castillo de San Cristobal (see this map).

2016 Old San Juan-294

I hope you and your camera get a chance to explore Old San Juan soon.  Even if you are like me and your first love is landscape or wildlife photography, you won’t be disappointed!
Jeff

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

I never miss the chance for an Iganua shot.

 

Old San Juan Top 10 Photo Locations & Tips

Also posted in Buildings/Ruins, Historical, Night Photography Tagged , , |

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver’s Paradise

When I first began my career in photography, I was drawn to the icons…Yosemite, Yellowstone, Arches (you know the list).  The internet and libraries are filled with info about “Photographing the Southwest,”  “How to photograph the Grand Canyon” and “Fifty Places to Photograph Before you Die.”  These icons are famous for a reason…great photographs can be taken there and as an aspiring photographer it only made sense to  ‘fish where the fish are.’

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Bonaire Bound

But there is a downside too…and that is that it is unlikely that your shots are really going to stand out.  Yes, they still might be impressive, beautiful and inspiring….but honestly, it is pretty difficult to take a unique photograph of Half Dome from Yosemite’s Tunnel View when 43 trillion other photos have been taken from the same spot.

One solution is find a new way to photograph an old icon: a different angle, a creative perspective, something…anything new and different!  You will find this piece of advice in nearly every photography article ever written.  It’s good advice, and I certainly strive to dream up new ways capture these legendary vistas.

But there is another way to take a unique photo.  Find a place that isn’t already well known to every photographer on the planet.

I can’t honestly say that this is the reason my wife and I spent a week on the island of Bonaire earlier this fall.   To be honest, we were there because we are divers and Bonaire is well known as a “Diver’s Paradise.”  I hoped there might be something else to photograph, so I searched the internet.  But even Google failed to give me much except lots and lots of underwater shots.  But I’m an optimist, so I packed my cameras, tripods, lenses and another 80 pounds of photo gear…just in case.

I’m glad I did!

It turns out that there is a lot more to photograph in Bonaire than just fish.  A lot more…

First a bit about the island.  Bonaire lies about 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela and is the least well-known of the “ABC” islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao).   Cruise ships don’t visit often and with less than 17,000 natives it is quiet and uncrowded.   It’s a Dutch island and people are friendly but respectful (you don’t get mobbed by people yelling “hey pretty lady, buy my t-shirts!”  Surprisingly, the island is very dry…looking more like the desert Southwest than the typical lush tropical rainforest you might expect.

First of all, there is some fascinating wildlife to keep your camera busy.  Yes, they have iguanas (which I simply love….running around like half-baked dinosaurs)!

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Iguana Rex

And then there were the birds…wow!  Bonaire has over 210 species of birds.

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Barika-Hel

For me, a highlight had to be the Flamingos.  Bonaire is host to the one of the few places in the world that has breeding grounds of the Caribbean Flamingo.  Heck, I’d never seen a flamingo except in a zoo….and in Bonaire I saw thousands.  They don’t like noise or movement, so you need a long telephoto and some stalking skills, but where else can you get shots like this?Barika-Hel

As you know, I adore hummingbirds, so I was delighted to see hummers swarming the flowering bushes and trees around our resort even before we got to our room!

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Ruby Topaz (Chrysolampis mosquitus)

The Ruby-Topaz hummingbird and the well named Emerald hummingbird  are both gorgeous and much different from the Ruby-Throated hummers we have back at home in Florida.

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Emerald Hummingbird (Chlorostilbon mellisugus)

For the entire week, after our morning dives, you would often find me with my 70-200mm staked out by the flowers near our room.  Other tourists would be walking to their rooms, spot me, take a wary look at the guy creeping around with a camera… but then they would see the hummers and their faces would light up and they would start whispering and pointing.

Oh yeah, they had parrots too! (at least I thought they were parrots).  Right outside our room..often roosting in the same trees as the hummers were what the locals called ‘Loras.’   They looked like a huge parakeets on steroids, which it kinda turns out they are.  Meet the Caribbean Parakeet (Aratinga pertinax, subspecies xanthogenius) .  They certainly had no fear of people and posed patiently while I burned thru some memory cards.

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

The Schwarzenegger of Parakeets!

There aren’t many big critters on the island.

Spotted Trunkfish

Meet Larry, Curley and Moe

The most interesting are the donkeys. Apparently the early Dutch imported a lot of donkeys for use as pack animals.  When cars and trucks became available, the donkeys were let loose to roam the island and fend for themselves.  Since they aren’t native, life was challenging for the newly emancipated burros, but in 1993,  Marina Melis and her husband Ed Koopman, established a donkey sanctuary on Bonaire for sick, wounded and orphaned donkeys.  Now over 400 donkeys call the Donkey Sanctuary home.  For a small donation you can drive thru the compound.  If you ever wanted the opportunity to get a close-up photo of a donkey, here is your chance.  Hey, it’s not photographing Grizzly’s catching spawning Salmon, but it makes for an entertaining photo op!

Spotted Trunkfish

“Hey Pretty Lady, are you going to finish that carrot?”

How about landscapes?  Well, to be honest, we never even made it to the northern part of the island which is the home of Washington Slagbaai National Park.   This park covers 1/5 of the total island and locals told me it had the most potential for landscape photography on Bonaire.  Unfortunately, I really only explored the southern coast and  central part of the island around our resort (near Kralendijk, the Capital).

The salt flats on the southern end of the island are pretty dramatic.  The water in the flats is actually pink…well maybe mauve…well, it changes, depending on how the sunlight hits it.  The huge mountains of salt in the background can make some fascinating images when contrasted with the salt ponds and if you happen to find a couple flamingos necking in a salt pond in the foreground, you might actually get one of those unique images we were talking about:)

Spotted Trunkfish

“Caribbean Fantasy”

Also on the isolated and unpopulated southern coast were the remains of the slave huts and ship markers that are a fascinating but disturbing reminder of a past when slaves worked under harsh conditions harvesting sea salt from the nearby salt flats.  The huts are minuscule and must have been like ovens with whole families crowded into them.

Spotted Trunkfish

The obelisks were built in 1837 as markers directing ships to the correct beach where the salt would be loaded.

Since there isn’t much light pollution on Bonaire and nothing but ocean to the south, I hoped this might be a good spot for Milky Way photography.  I was right!   It might have been a bit spooky but it made for some wonderful and unusual photography.

Spotted Trunkfish

Cursed Obelisk

After my wife and I returned home, I got a note from one of the folks I had met on Bonaire telling me about a Photo Contest the island’s tourism bureau was conducting.  The top prize was a week of lodging for two along with food, rental car and free diving.  I’m not much on contests, I’d rather be out taking photos than filling out forms but my wife encouraged me to enter.  I find it is usually a good idea to listen to her advice….and guess what?

Spotted Trunkfish

I should always listen to my wife!

Looks like we will be going back to Bonaire in 2016!

Jeff

PS:  I have a long way to go with my Underwater photography before I ever see the end of my learning curve.  But I love a challenge,  Plus the underwater world is alien, colorful and visually stunning. My UW shots didn’t win any prizes, but I’d like to share a few of them with you anyway:

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Spotted Eel

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Caribbean Reef Squid

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

My wife loves these little guys. They are just plain funny looking. We call them Cowfish but I’ve been told it is actually a Spotted Trunkfish

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

 

 

Also posted in Hummingbirds, Milky Way Photography, Underwater Photography, Wildlife Tagged , , , , , |

Busting the Turtle Jinx: Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

Photographing sea turtles underwater has been a challenge that has long taunted me.  Over the years I’ve had a few opportunities but they just never seemed to pan out.

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

Honu breaking the surface off the Big Island

Sure…I’ve gotten some decent above-water shots…like this “Honu” on Kona’s famous black sand beach at Punalu’u …but whenever I slipped below the waves, I seemed to be jinxed.

That streak of bad luck seemed to continue right through last week.  My wife, Anita, and I had done some research and learned that scuba divers often saw turtles at Buck Island National Wildlife Refuge near St. Thomas in the American Virgin islands.  That sounded great to us…so we planned a vacation with the goal of diving at Buck Island.

Last month, we were in St Thomas and it was finally time to go!  It was early morning when we made our way to the port, dragged our gear down to the dock and climbed aboard the dive boat ready for our adventure!

..And then the Captain informed us that he was cancelling our dive because one of his engines had just failed.  I shook my head.   We were only going to be on St Thomas until nightfall so it wasn’t like we could just book a dive with another company the following day. The jinx was still alive and well.

Some folks would have just figured that the gods were against them and headed to a bar to find comfort in a large quantity of tall, cold and wickedly alcoholic drinks crowded with little umbrellas.  Actually, I considered this option for a second or two…but I knew it was impossible.  Because I know my wife.  Anita had her heart set on turtles and I knew she wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer.  As we feared, all the other scuba tours were booked for the day but within ten minutes she had found a snorkeling tour and we were climbing onto a catamaran by the name of “Virgin Breeze”.  No, it wasn’t what we had planned…but at least the day wouldn’t be a total bust.  Then things started looking up when the crew told us that they were heading to ‘Turtle Cove” on Buck Island…the exact same spot our scuba tour had been going to dive at!  That sounded promising but we were determined not to jinx things by getting our expectations up.  But that determination crumbled when we spotted a turtle surfacing for air just as we entered Turtle Cove.

As soon as we anchored, Anita and I hit the water and immediately spotted two turtles about 25 feet below.  That’s a difficult depth to reach without weights and I watched a few folks try…but none of them even got close.   Fortunately, my camera weighs a ton (well it probably tops out at 15 lbs or so…but it feels like a ton when I’m lugging it around all day).  I took a deep breath and let my ‘Nikon Anchor’ pull me down.  I dropped like a rock and within seconds I was face to face with this Big Kahuna:

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

“How did you get down here Buddy?!”

I think he was kinda surprised that one of those silly humans flopping around on the surface had actually gotten to the bottom.  He stopped eating, slowly raised off the sand and turned his head to take a good look .  I was able to get a few portraits before I had to head back to the surface…dragging that dead-weight camera the whole way.

I dove a number of times but the turtles were already bored of the guy with the big camera.  They just kept eating the grass and totally ignored me…which meant no eye contact (and boring photos).

There was a small reef nearby with lots of colorful tropical fish which attracted a lot of the snorkelers but I stayed with the turtles as was rewarded with a few more solid images:

"Turtle Planet"

“Turtle Planet”

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

“Dive! Dive! Dive!

I had hoped to photograph turtles near the surface but other than the one we had seen when we first arrived, they all seemed pretty happy staying on the bottom (I later learned that they can hold their breath for 4-7 hours  while they sleep although they breathe more often while awake).  I was starting to think that the tour would be over before a turtle would need air…but then this one headed up:

2015 Scuba 16 March 11727

As it surfaced, I was able to squeeze off a number of shots that captured Anita and the turtle in the same frame.

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

In my opinion, these are two incredibly beautiful aquatic creatures

Before I knew it, the crew was blowing the whistle to get us all back on the boat.  Like usual, I was the last one out of the water (a fact my wife never fails to note).  As we dried off, Anita and I caught ourselves grinning like a couple of kids.  It had taken a long time, but we finally had broken the jinx and got our chance to get up close and personal with sea turtles.

The next day, we were in St Kitts diving on the wreck of the M.V. River Taw (we were on a cruise vacation so we scheduled dives at every island the ship docked at).  We were running low on air and about to finish the dive when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.  I turned and…you guessed it…another turtle!  Clearly the jinx was totally busted.  This green sea turtle was skimming over the wreck in about 40 feet of water. Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

It was headed in my direction and I  got off a flurry of frames before it saw me and curved away.

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

Green Sea Turtles grow to over 5 feet in length and this one looked every inch of that to me!

Luckily, Anita had spotted the turtle before I had and quickly positioned herself in the background for this shot.

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

Anita has learned how to be an underwater model much faster than I’ve learned how to be an underwater photographer!

Within seconds the turtle gracefully glided over the wreck and faded into the deep blue.

Although we dove another five times over the next week, this turned out to be the last turtle we would see….but we weren’t going to complain.  Years of ‘near misses’ and missed opportunities had been put behind us after two unexpected and thrilling encounters in less than 24 hours.

Photography is like that.  You can plan things to the Nth degree but sometimes they just don’t go the way you anticipated…you just have to go with the flow.  I guess life is like that too.  Funny the things you learn as you grow older…

Jeff

 

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

We have this print in our home. It makes us smile every time we walk by it!

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

 

 

Also posted in Underwater Photography, Wildlife Tagged |

And now for something completely different…

Ever since I can remember, folks have told my wife (Anita) and I that we “don’t act our age.”

I haven't changed a bit in the last 30 years...right?!

I haven’t changed a bit in the last 30 years…right?!

I’ve always taken that as a compliment even though I’m pretty sure that’s not how it was always intended!

I mention this because last month, Anita suggested we get  SCUBA licenses.  A lot of folks get SCUBA certified, so that’s not that unusual…but Anita and I aren’t kids anymore.  In fact, we had already had gotten certified a while ago (okay, it was three decades ago) before kids and careers had engulfed our lives.  In fact, I found it pretty funny that our new SCUBA instructor hadn’t even been born when I earned my first SCUBA certification in 1985.

Anyway, Anita and I just got back from a cruise to the Caribbean and we went diving every time the ship hit a new port.   Not only did we get to indulge our new SCUBA hobby in some wonderfully exotic locations, but I got to do some underwater photography that I’d like to share with you.

There were certainly some strange critters  to see.

2014 Cruise 20 November 08418 crop

 And the colors…wow, all you need is a strobe…and then some of the colors you see are just unworldly:

2014 Cruise 17 November 08084

There was drama:

"Looking for Lunch"

“Looking for Lunch”

Underwater caves:

2014 Cruise 20 November 08468

Not exactly Bryce Canyon…but pretty cool just the same!

Sponges and fans:

2014 Cruise 17 November 081142014 Cruise 17 November 08055

And all kinds of colorful, vibrant and beautiful fish:

2014 Cruise 18 November 08315 crop2014 Cruise 17 November 08020 croppsd2014 Cruise 18 November 08247 crop2014 Cruise 17 November 08118

One of the things I love about photography is that it just never gets old.  I mean there is just so much beauty in the world, in so many different places and much of it requires that you learn new techniques or master new equipment.   For example, although I’ve done quite a bit of photography while snorkeling,  I found that underwater photography while scuba diving to be much different.  Now I’m excited to have a whole new world to explore!

Not all of my photos from this trip were taken underwater…

2014 2014 Cruise 22 November 08752

Tugboat heading out of Tampa Harbor

2014 2014 Cruise 20 November 08723

“Prepare to be Boarded!”

And one last photo…  Anita and I were grabbing some lunch in Grand Cayman when we noticed a rooster running down the sidewalk.  It started heading toward a KFC.  Anita and I looked at each other and without a word she herded the beast toward the sign while I snapped off this shot:2014 2014 Cruise 20 November 08705

Life should have good smile in it at least once a day!
Take care,

Jeff

 

 

Also posted in Underwater Photography Tagged |

Xcaret Photo Tips & Guide: Cancun & Cozumel’s Best Photo Op

If you are a photographer who happens to have a cruise or trip to Cancun / Cozumel in your future, then read on for my guide and photo tips for a great photo op I recently found there: Xcaret.

Xcaret is a ‘target rich environment’ for any photographer…if you enjoy wildlife, architecture, native culture or even underwater photography, then Xcaret  will keep you busy!  Even better, if you happen to be traveling with kids and/or a spouse/friend who isn’t a photo nut, they will find plenty to do here.  Check out the link to the Xcaret website  for a full listing of all their activities and I think you be able to convince your traveling companions that this park will interest them as well (while you go off on your own for a full day of wide-ranging photography).

Parrots at Xcaret, NexicoOverview

  1. Xcaret is a huge (200 acre) Disney quality park located on the coast near Cozumel and Cancun.
  2. Just about everyone speaks English, the place is clean and organized.
  3.  There was plenty of security on site and I was never got concerned or uncomfortable about my safety.
  4. If you are on a cruise, they usually have this park listed as one of their shore excursions with a cost of about $110 for adults and $60 for kids.  If you are at the port of Cozumel, the tour takes a 45 minute ferry to Playa del Carmen and then a 20 minute bus ride to the park.
  5. The cruise shore excursion was a full day…about seven hours. I could have spent twice as much time there and still had lots more to photograph.
  6. If you aren’t on a cruise, it is about an hour from Cancun by Taxi (approx. $80-$100) and entrance tickets are around $79 (you can pick them up for $71 on their website) . However Xcaret recently starting offering a bus service from Cancun for $125 (includes admission) which seems like a great deal. This link will give you details.
  7. Lots of restaurants and drink stands.  Prices are reasonable.
  8. Lockers are available
  9. Some of the things available for non-photographers include an underground “Lazy River” (pretty cool),  horse shows, shopping, swimming with dolphins (there is an extra fee for this activity), beach area for sunbathing, and lots more.
  10. Google Map link:
  11. For more info, I recommend you check out the Tripadvisor Site…don’t just take my word for it!

Tips for Non-Photographers:

  1. Pick up a map of the park when you enter, it will help you plan your day and find yourself around.

    "Native" canoes in the lagoon at Xcaret Park Mexico

    “Native” canoes in the lagoon at Xcaret Park Mexico

  2. The underground river is neat, so bring a pair of trunks and a towel.  If you want to hit the beach, these will come in handy also.
  3. Wear comfortable shoes…this place is BIG and the walkways are concrete.
  4. There are a lot of trees, but Mexico is hot, so a hat and cool clothes will be nice to have.

Hints and Suggestions for my fellow Photographers:

  1. You will want a long lens (at least 300mm) for the wildlife and a wide angle lens for the architecture and landscapes
  2. If you want to try and get some photos of the underground river (I didn’t get a chance) a waterproof camera would be good to have (if you go on the river, you can lock up your equipment in lockers…but do so at your own risk).
  3. For non-wildlife shots, a polarizing filter will help ensure those rich blue skies in your shots.
  4. I didn’t see the need for a tripod.   If you are going to be there in the evening or if it is a cloudy day it might be a different story, but it was a bright beautiful day during my visit.
  5. Don’t overload yourself.  You will walk a lot and the extra weight will punish you.
  6. There are a number of ‘shows’ during the day.  Get a schedule when you first enter the park so you can plan to be at the events that interest you.

Specific subjects and venues I found to have Photographic interest:

  • Jaguars!  The Jaguar and Pumaexhibit was the highlight of my day.  It is a modern-style enclosure surrounded by a moat with no cages.  They had two jaguars (one was all black!) and a puma whichwas located on an adjacent but separateexhibit.
    • The first thing you want to do when you get to the park is ask an employee near this exhibit when they are going to feed the cats!  As you might know, big cats sleep most the day which can result in some boring shots, but if you are there when they toss scraps of meat to the Jaguars, you can get shots like this:

      Jaguar at Xcaret Park in Cozumel Cancun Mexico

      Is this jaguar giving me the Evil Eye or what?

    • When I first got there, the Jaguars were dozing in the shade…they seemed to be determined not to be interesting photo subjects.  Then I noticed a couple of the park’s employees holding some zip-locked bags of meat heading toward the other side of the Jaguar enclosure.  Well I darn near knocked over some other tourists as I hustled over to get closer.  Sure enough, the employees starting tossing scraps of meat over the moat to the now very awake and active big cats!  The distance is less than 70′ and with a 300mm lens, you will be able to get some great shots.
    • One last hint…try to position yourself RIGHT NEXT to the guys throwing the scraps.  The Jaguars stare intently at the food as it flies toward them and if you are close to the spot where the food is launched, your photos will appear as if the cats are looking right at you.  I only figured this out at the end of their meal, but the shot above was the result.  It was a gas!

Jaguar at Xcaret Park in Cozumel Cancun MexicoJaguar at Xcaret Park in Cozumel Cancun MexicoJaguar at Xcaret Park in Cozumel Cancun MexicoJaguar at Xcaret Park in Cozumel Cancun Mexico

  • There are a number of other animal exhibits that have good photographic potential, including:  monkeys, tapirs, deer, flamingos, a HUGE butterfly pavilion, scarlet macaws, etc .  Trust me, if you love to photograph wildlife, you will be happily busy all day.

Flamingo at Xcaret Park in Cozumel Cancun MexicoButterflies at Xcaret Park in Cozumel Cancun MexicoMonkey at Xcaret Park in Cozumel Cancun Mexico

  • There is some non-caged wildlife as well!  This is Mexico and you will certainly see iguanas.  I don’t know why I like photographing these mini-dinosaurs so much, but I do!
  • Iguana at Xcaret Park Mexico

    The Iguanas are not skittish around people. This guy let me set up a flash on the rock two feet from him so I could get good fill flash!

  • The park also has a recreation of a Mayan ball court and a pyramid.  You will also find full sized reproductions of Mayan sculpture.  Granted, this isn’t as cool as photographing the real thing at Tulum or Lamani, but it is fun nonetheless!

  • Xcaret also has a full sized recreation of a Mexican Hacienda, a primitive Catholic church, Mayan village and a wild Mexican graveyard.

  • There is a full orchid greenhouse as well as a botanical garden if photographing flowers is one of your interests.
  • One last thing, if you’ve never seen Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) ,  it is worth your time.  Unfortunately, I got to the show late and my view was pretty limited so I only got a few shots.  Show times are listed on the flyer you get when you enter the park.  Seating is limited, so get there early for a good spot.

    Danza de_los Voladore,s Dance of the Flyers, Pole Dance at Xcaret Park Mexico Xcaret Photo Tips & Guide: Cancun and Cozumel's Best Photo Opportunity

    Danza de_los Voladore is an exciting ancient Meso-American ceremony

I’ve been to Cozumel/Cancun a number of times and there is nothing else I’ve seen there that has the intense, varied Danza de_los Voladore,s Dance of the Flyers, Pole Dance at Xcaret Park Mexico and consolidated photographic potential as Xcaret.  Of course, if you have more than a day, then you might be able to find similar subjects, but it would probably take you the full week to do so.  Plus, the rest of the family can have a fun day while you get to indulge your hobby!

Have fun!
Jeff

 

The shore at Xcaret

View of the Gulf from the park.

 

Xcaret Photo Tips & Guide: Cancun and Cozumel’s Best Photo Op

 

Also posted in Buildings/Ruins, Wildlife Tagged , , , , |

Mayan Ruins at Lamanai, Belize: Photo Tips and Guide

My wife loves to cruise.  I love my wife.  So I go on a fair number of cruises:)

Tourists climbing the High Temple at Lamani Belize

High Temple at Lamani

But, as a photographer, I find cruising can be a bit frustrating.  I mean, you get to travel to some beautiful, exotic and incredibly photogenic locations, BUT…you rarely have much time in port, you miss the best light (arrive after sunrise, depart before sunset) and the standard shore excursions are rarely oriented toward the photographer. To make things even more challenging, there is precious little info available to help you plan how to make most of the limited photographic potential you do have.  For example, go ahead and Google:  “Yosemite Photo Tips”.    Instantly you are rewarded with PAGES of hits that can help you plan a photo trip.  However, when you Google: “Jamaica photo tips”, or “Cozumel photo guide” or “Mayan Ruins at Lamanai photo hints” you won’t find a lot of help out there….

So if you happen to be a photographer on a cruise boat that is going to stop in Belize City, then I hope you will find this article to helpful.  Your ship will likely have a shore excursion to the Mayan Ruins at Lamanai.  Now you could go on a city tour, snorkel, zip-line or drive ATVs…but you can do those things at any of the other stops.  As a photographer, trust me, you want to book the Lamanai tour.  Even if you aren’t a photographer, the Lamanai ruins are unique because you are actually allowed to climb them…which hasn’t been the case at any of the other ruins I’ve visited over the years.  C’mon…this is one of those “bucket list” memories that you really need to experience!

History and Location

 

HDR of the Jaguar Temple

Tour Overview & Helpful Hints:

  1. The cost for a cruise-line sponsored tour (in March 2013 on Norwegian Cruise Lines) was $109 per person…you can get a similar non-cruise line sponsored tour for about $75 (keep in mind, however, if you are on a non cruise-line sponsored tour and it is late getting back to the dock, the ship will leave without you.  If you book your tour thru the cruise line, they guarantee that the boat will wait for you…easily worth $35 to me!)
  2. From start to finish, the tour takes about 6 hours.
    • The trip to the ruins takes about two hours (split between an hour on a bus and an hour on a river taxi).
      • The bus ride is pretty boring and the landscape is not photogenic.  The guide will talk for about 45 minutes and share details about Belize…it was interesting, but bring a book, he doesn’t talk much on the way back and you will get bored.
      • You won’t need your book on the New River water taxi.  There is 26 miles of wildlife…crocs, bats, howler monkeys, iguana, herons, etc.
        • You even pass by John McAfee’s compound and a Mennonite community.
  3. You get only about one hour actually atLamanai.
    • Our guide was very knowledgeable and maintained a running monologue about the Maya.  In fact, he had been one of the laborers employed by  Dr. Pendergast during the excavations back in the 1970s!
    • The guide takes you to three separate temples:  The Jaguar Temple (N10-9 Complex), the High Temple (N10-43)  and the Mask  Temple (Structure N9-56)
    • You also pass thru an excavated Mayan Ball Court between the Jaguar and High Temple.
    • None of the Temples are more than a five minute hike from each other.
  4. The High Temple is the one the guides usuallyencourage you to climb.  It is the tallest of the three (99′ tall) and there is a rope installed down the center of the stairs to give the tourists something to hold on to.  The view from the top is mesmerizing.  Nothing but green jungle as far as the eye can see and a killer view of the New River to the east.
    • WARNING:  This is not something you want to do if you are not fit.
      • Let me be clear:  You are not in the States…OSHA would totally freak out at this place.
        • There are no handrails, no safety equipment of any kind.
      • The steps are tall and they are STEEP.  Really steep!  It is more like climbing a ladder than stairs.
      • This isn’t for the faint of heart. I’ve done acrobatics in warbirds, ran class 5 rapids, scuba’d around sharks…but this climb (and the trek back DOWN), really got my heart pumping.      Know your limits.

        View from atop the High Temple at Lemanai Belize Photo tips and photo guide

        This is your vista if you make it to the top! 180° three frame panorama merged in Photoshop.

  5. Bring some snacks…we didn’t get lunch until about 2pm, you will be hungry long before then
  6. Bring some water.  They do have drinks available, but not when you are actually at Lamanai.
  7. This is the tropics…
    • It is hot, even during the winter.  I’m a Florida boy…I’m used to heat, but Belize was a good 20 degrees warmer than Orlando during March when I visited! You will want a hat and cool clothes.
    • Wear hiking boots.  You will be walking over uneven terrain covered with roots and rocks.  I saw one lady trip and bang up her head.  This isn’t Disney.
    • If you come during the rainy season (June thru October) you should expect a shower in the afternoon, so bring raingear.
    • The rainy season also breeds mosquitos and other annoying pests, so pack your bugspray (get the good stuff with a high percentage of DEET).

Tips specifically for my fellow photographers:

  1. You will want a long zoom lens for wildlife.  300mm minimum.
  2. A wide angle lens is very helpful for the temples.
  3. I regretted that I didn’t bring a fisheye.  I think you could have fun with one here.
  4. Bring your polarizer filter.  It will allow you to maximize the rich blue sky…which will help give you contrast against the jungle and the temples.
  5. Once your water taxi gets to Lamanai and the guide leads your tour to the first temple, you need to break away from your group.  Everyone else will be staying within ten feet of the guide to hear his monologue…if you do the same you are going to severely limit the variety and quality of your shots.  Just keep them in sight as you work around the area.  It is also a good idea to tell the guide ahead of time what you are going to do and find out exactly when they plan to get back on the boat.  If you somehow loose track of your tour group, just make sure to make your way back to the boat on time.
  6. Make an effort to include people in some of your shots.  They can really add scale to the scene.
  7. Actually, the real problem is getting a shot without mobs of people around the pyramids.
    • The best way to accomplish this is to stay well in front of your group.  This way you get to the next temple before your tour does and hopefully just after the previous one has moved on.  If you talk to your guide ahead of time, he will gladly share with you details of the route he will take so you can anticipate their movements.
  8. I found a tripod to be critical.  Straight on shots of the temple are pretty unexciting.  My best shots were ones in which I positioned myself on the edge of the treeline and incorporated some of the native flora in the foreground.  To keep everything in focus, you need to use a really small aperture…which is going torequire a long shutter speed and that’s where the tripod will come in handy.
    • If you want to shoot a panorama from the top of a temple, then your tripod must be light and equipped with a strap that allows you to carry it on your back without throwing you off-balance.
    • Unlike Mexico, Belize has no restrictions about having a tripod at the ruins.
  9. If you do shoot from the edge of the jungle, the dynamic range will likely be too much for your sensor.  Try HDR to get the full dynamic range (you will thank yourself again for having  your tripod).
  10. Jaguar Temple
    • There is a wide, treeless field between this temple and the ball court.  You can get some dramatic shots by climbing the entrance to the ball court and getting a shot of the temple across the lawn
    • Try some shots from the jungle’s edge framing the temple with trees.
    • There are some spectacularly carved stelae (stone pillars) near the Jaguar Temple.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know about them until I got home and was doing research for this article.  They are located near the base of the temple.
  11. Ball Court
    • I didn’t find the ball court to be very impressive or photogenic.  If you find an angle, perspective or technique that results in an impressive image, let me know so I can try it next time!
  12. The High Temple
    • If you climb this, then a panorama from the top is a must (see shot earlier in the article)
      • I didn’t take my tripod to the top of the temple…now I wish I had.  I had to hand hold my camera and the quality of the resulting panorama suffered as a result.
    • Take some photos of folks climbing the steps…this is impressive from both ground level and from the top.
    • Tourists climbing steps of the High Temple at Lamanai

      This gives you a perspective of how tall and steep these steps are!

  13. Mask Temple
    • My favorite.  This structure is flanked by two huge 12′ tall sculpted ‘Olmec’ heads!
    • Shoot from an angle to capture some side-lighting which will highlight the features
    • The head on the left (east) is damaged (the end of the nose is missing).  The one on the left is perfect (see below)
    • Of course, have someone snap a shot of you next to the head for your “I’ve been there” wall.Olmec Head detail on Mask Temple at Lamanai Belize
    • Incredible

Final Thoughts

Even if you don’t have a fascination with photography, archaeology or history, I’ll bet that a trip to Lamanai will be one that you remember long after you’ve forgotten those other typical shore excursions.  I found something haunting and deeply stirring as I strode about this site.  I think you will too.

 

Jeff

 Mayan Ruins at Lamanai, Belize: Photo Tips and Guide
Also posted in Buildings/Ruins, Historical Tagged , , , , , , , |