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February 20, 2007

Another trip: testing cameras and some bad news

Tomorrow I'll be going on the first dive trip this year. Northern Florida again, visiting some of the same places I did my NAUI Advanced Diver classes and certification dives in last Fall. There will be some more training, but the primary purpose is to give four more underwater cameras a serious workout. I really look forward to this as the cameras are so different. They essentially cover the whole range from the bare minimum to innovative technology to a serious underwater rig. Each will appeal to a different potential user, and it should be interesting to see how they perform.

We'll be testing Casio's ultra-slim 5-megapixel S500, the more utilitarian Casio Z700, the brand-new Olympus 770 SW, and the Olympus Evolt digital SLR. Each has an interesting aspect. The tiny, sexy S500 doesn't even have an underwater shooting mode and it's definitely not a camera that looks like it should ever see water, but a deepwater case is available for it and so we'll see what the little thing can do. The Casio Z700 does have an underwater mode. It's a very capable 7.1 megapixel camera for which you can also get a deepwater case. So this is an example of a setup that would appeal to many tourists and recreational divers. It's small and handy, yet quite powerful, AND you can go diving with it. The third camera is nothing less than stunning. I was already impressed with the Olympus 720 SW 7.1 megapixel camera that was waterproof down to ten feet (we also tested it with its optional deepwater housing). Well, Olympus now released its successor, the 770 SW, and it can handle depths of 33 feet without housing! The final camera in the foursome, the Olympus Evolt 330 digital SLR, is an entirely different beast. It's a competent, economical single lens reflex camera with a live view LCD and an external flash. Put the camera and the flash into their respective housings, link them with the frames and brackets, and you have one huge humdinger of a rig. I can't wait to see how it handles underwater and what sort of pictures it will take.

I also came across something I didn't necessarily need to see the day before this trip. A young Texan diver died at Catfish Sink at Manatee Springs State Park, the very place I'll be going to again. The February 20, 2007 report at gainesville.com indicates that the 19-year-old got separated from his dive buddies, ran out of air, and likely drowned. His name was Bobby Rothel and he had a recent PADI Adventure Diver certification. A representative from the Sheriff's office said the three were not cave diving, "but they were diving in an area that would fall under the category of cavern diving -- where an overhead obstruction does not allow direct access to the surface." Now I've been down there. The water is crystal clear and the only way you can get separated and trapped is if you leave the sink and enter the Manatee Cave System that goes both upstream and downstream from the sink. You can't see the cave entrances either; they are to the left and right of a cavern overhang where it gets dark. Since the spring current is pretty strong it's advisable to stay clear of the syphon that can potentially suck you into the downstream cave. In order to prevent divers from venturing too far into the cavern/overhang, the park strictly forbids open water divers from taking lights with them. That would be too big of a temptation.

So what can happen? A diver without cave or cavern training and without the proper respect for potentially dangerous situations might decide to go poke around a bit deeper into the overhang. It's then pretty easy to get grabbed and swept away by the current. Without a light you'd then find yourself in pitchblack water. Panic sets in and the diver might struggle to swim against the current, thus exerting him/herself and quickly using up the air supply. Even if someone remains calm, negotiating the fairly short 500-foot cave to the basin on the other side could be deadly without light. It's not just a tube; sometimes, despite the current, you may have to grope and find the proper passage. If you don't, panic might set in and you're done. Experienced cave divers and instructors shudder at the thought of losing beginners and untrained divers that way. They know the proper procedure (don't exert yourself swimming, go to the bottom or side, grab hold of rocks and outcroppings, and pull yourself out). As is, I am glad Catfish Sink remains open, though I am sure park management at times wonder whether it's better to clearly alert to the danger or simply keep open water divers from taking lights. One could argue that a light represents a good safety device in case something happens, but the risk of it being abused for unwise exploration is likely greater.

Posted by conradb212 at February 20, 2007 11:08 PM