Tuesday Jan 26, 2010

Vacation: scuba, friends, family, and... OpenGazer

[An admittedly odd collection of topics for a single blog post...]

Over the end-of-year break, I took my first significant vacation in years: a wonderful 3 weeks away from work, and in fact away from most e-mail and quite a bit of time away from all "screens" except the one on my camera. Most significantly, during those weeks I spent ~10 days in Hawaii - one of the favorite places for my wife and me to visit (and the site of my last significant vacation).

My wife, step-son Paul, and I went first to Oahu for a few days. We visited a high school friend of mine and his family (and also his parents, who were in town). We were staying in Waikiki (with a beautiful view from our room) - at the same time as President Obama! We didn't managed to run into him, but heard the sirens of his motorcade in the distance a couple of times.

We had a great time snorkeling in Hanauma Bay, and as before, I took my camera underwater. Anneli and Paul joined in the snorkeling fun. The water wasn't very deep, and sometimes you even had to climb over the rocks rather than swim. The view over the water was somewhat similar to under the water. There were nice fish near the surface, and also in and amongst the rocks. There were plenty of pencil urchins. Also some very strange fish (I think that one was a Panneliul fish).

In addition to snorkeling, we also drove around the island. We stopped briefly across from "Chinaman's Hat Island", and were awed by the steep mountains dividing the North Shore from South. We also did some shopping - making our pilgrimage to the Ala Moana Shopping Center and the "right out of Tokyo" Shirokiya store (they have the best mochi). Finally, we had a couple of great meals. Dim Sum at Legend Seafood in Chinatown, and a lovely Thai food dinner at the small and friendly Bangkok Chef (run by relatives of the high school friend we were visiting).

Then we flew to Kona where we stayed at the SuGAR cottage in Captain Cook. After unloading our car, Paul and I went for a dive with Gary, cottage co-owner and a dive master. The dive was right off Miloli'i pier, in and around the bay. Perhaps the most striking thing I saw was a blue starfish - something I'd only seen in aquariums. Most of this first dive was spent getting re-acquainted with my underwater camera gear (which I talked about in my previous blog about diving, though it was now upgraded with a second HID light). We surfaced to a beautiful sunset - a wonderful first day on the Big Island.

Paul and I did another pair of dives the next day with Torpedo Tours out of Kona (Anneli wasn't feeling well, and so spent the day re-familiarizing herself with the town). We went to "Kaiwi Point" and "Freeze Face" (so named because of the cold spring flowing out of a small cavern). There were small fish and fish that wanted to pose for me and fish that were hiding in plain sight. Away in the distance there was even a shark. Then our divemaster offered an octopus to Paul. Then I took my favorite photo of the trip: the octopus close-up! On the boat with us was a teacher-student pair getting their re-breather certification. Diving with them was a woman doing macro photography. And with that, the delightful day of diving came to an end.

We took a few days' break from diving. We went to visit Volcanoes National Park. It's amazing to be walking on Earth that is younger than you are! We walked out to the viewing point - crossing over cooled lava that looked like tree roots. Once we arrived, we shared the space with other photographers setting up for sunset photos. Folks who paid a lot of money could get closer - by helicopter or later by boat. As the sun set, I took a series of fiery photos.

The next day we went to Hilo, and visited Akaka Falls. After that, it was off to Puna, and a visit to Ahalanui Beach Park - where we did a bit more snorkeling, though this time without camera. They warn you about the dangers of the park, and unfortunately Paul failed to heed them. We drove Paul to the airport the next day, hung out in Kona that afternoon, and then went to the Sheraton Hotel in Keauhou Bay to watch another sunset and see the boats gathering for the manta ray night dive. We'd hoped to do the manta ray night dive ourselves, but the night we were scheduled go to it was canceled due to heavy surge, and we didn't manage to make it another night.

We did manage another day of diving though! Anneli and I had a wonderful pair of dives with Sandwich Isle Divers. We had been saddened by the closure of Dive Tek (who we loved last time in Hawaii), and are thrilled to have a good replacement in Sandwich Isle Divers! Having managed to "dial in my camera" during the previous dives, I had much better luck with lighting for these dives. At the first site - "No Conger Eeel" - I found that with proper light, things are colorful! Like the colorful cornet fish (alongside the Hawaiian cleaner wrasse). Or a fish posing for me. Or a fish hiding from me. Or a fish nicely framed against the blue. Other delights on this dive included a leaf fish, a crown of thorns starfish, and a colorful nudibranch.

At the second site - "Pine Trees" - I began by photographing a "retro diver" who liked to use "vintage gear". Then once I oriented myself on the bottom, I spotted a tiny pair of harlequin shrimp hiding in amongst the coral. Then came a beautiful moorish idol, followed by a second one. Then a passel of butterfly fish. One swimming nearer to the surface, then another with striking colors, followed quickly by a third. One swimming to the left, then one swimming to the right, and finally two swimming together! Sometimes a fish was hiding from me, while other times it was it was a school of fish in the distance. To prove that this wasn't the earlier dive site, I saw a conger eel who didn't like it when I got too close. In addition to the earlier nudibranch, this dive yielded a spanish dancer. Finally, this dive wasn't all about sea creatures. We also had fun with some large swim-throughs.

With diving done for the trip, we spent our last full day in the Southern part of the Big Island. We visited South Point, which is one of the windiest places on the Island. Here's another view of a windswept tree. In fact, it's so windy they have windmills there. You can see them from the coastline that looks like Mendocino. Here they are a bit closer up. Speaking of the coast, I loved watching the translucent waves as the crashed along the shore. In some places, the waves were busy creating green sand. South Point was a "working" region, and even now, folks were hauling up fish caught from boats down below. They tried to make a road to a pier, but they weren't too successful and the pier washed away. It was a spare and beautiful landscape, and I'm very glad I went there.

Near South Point is the town of Naalehu, where my aunt, uncle, and cousin live. Aunt and cousin were away, but it was really nice to spend some time with my uncle Louis. The brother of my father who passed away in 2001, he's the last link I have to that side of my ancestry, and this might be the last time I get to see him in person. We talked for hours, and among other things I learned some details of how my grandmother died. She had a stroke in March of 1985, and we at first thought she was in a "vegetatiave state", and after a short time on life support Louis had her disconnected so she could die peacefully. But she didn't - she took a gasp and kept on living. While others couldn't see it - especially at first - Louis believed she was conscious, and that she was able to communicate with him. After a month of therapy, she was able to move her eyes and her tongue. More physiotherapy later, and she was able to move her arms somewhat, and even stand. Unfortunately she didn't recover further, and she died in August of that year.

I'm sharing this story of my grandmother because of how this history connects with some of my present work. One facet of the AEGIS project that I'm the Technical Manager of is an incredible technology called Opengazer. Opengazer is being developed by Emli-Mari Nell and her colleagues at the Inference Group of the University of Cambridge. It is a multi-year research project to provide eye-tracking using commodity web-cams. As we demonstrated last November to the AEGIS review board in Brussels, as an interim step, Opengazer is now a functioning gesture switch. Emli-Mari has a video of it in action (assuming you have installed the open source VLC player or can otherwise play things in open source Ogg video format). Such technology would have made a huge difference to my grandmother's final months of life, as well as the lives of her caregivers. They could have had rich conversations, utilizing other technologies like Dasher or the GNOME Onscreen Keyboard hooked up to Opengazer. And while solutions exist today that they might have used such as the Tobii Eye Tracker for augmentative communication, these products are very expensive - potentially challenging to justify their many thousands of dollars cost, particularly if at first the doctors don't believe the patient is capable of communication. But with open source solutions like Dasher, GOK, the GNOME desktop, and where we are going with Opengazer, you could put together a powerful communication system for the < $300 it costs for a used laptop with built-in webcam.

But I digress...

I had a tremendous and very full vacation, and am now back at work, preparing for the excitement to come.

Monday Apr 14, 2008

Underwater photography in the Channel Islands

Just before this year's CSUN conference (blog trip report to come), I went diving with my "friend in the news" Mark Epstein for two days with Truth Aquatics in the Channel Islands off of Santa Barbara. I brought my new Canon G9 camera (bought in part because I thought it'd make a great underwater housed camera), and a new underwater lighting rig: the Brightstar Darkbuster diving torch mounted on their camera arm set.

You can see the photos at this slideshow of my Truth Aquatics dive trip.

The typical underwater digital camera is a housed camera with a flash and perhaps a focusing light (as is shown in this photo of Mark with my old rig + his HID light). The best underwater photos these days are taken with SLR cameras in special custom housings with multiple large flashes. Such a setup can cost more than $10,000! This gets you something like a Canon 5D, a housing for it, and then strobes and arms (ideally 2 strobes!).

For this dive trip, I tried to put together an effective setup at 1/10th the cost. I went with the Canon G9 in order to have something small, but with a bright 3" LCD screen and pretty fast focusing. And then the big experiment: going with the new and incredibly bright 24W HID light from Darkbuster in "video light" configuration (plus diffuser) in the place of a flash. Going this route allowed me to save on buying a bright and expensive flash (the cheapest good underwater flash is more expensive than the Darkbuster!), and meant that I didn't need an electrical sync cord (which requires a more expensive housing and significantly increases your chances of getting a leak) or a fiber optic flash trigger cord (which I haven't found to work that well and getting the right amount of light is always more of a challenge).

I'm pretty pleased with the results, especially for macro photography (check out all of the nudibranch photos). So long as I took the time to adjust the light, and made sure to zoom in a tad so that all of the photo was within the cone of light from the Darkbuster, I got pretty good results. If I do a lot more of this, I'll probably get a second Darkbuster in order to achieve more even lighting results (and use my makeshift "lens cap" - PVC pipe end fitted over the light with holes drilled in for water cooling - to cover one for more dramatic side-lighting - like in this shot). The biggest challenge will still be dealing with surge underwater, which combined with even 1/10th of a second of shutter delay means a high percentage of slightly-out-of-focus photos. My old housed film camera never had this problem...

Wednesday Jul 04, 2007

Vacation!

For the first time in far too long, I took a vacation. My wife and I went to Hawaii. We went diving in Kona with Dive Tek Adventures, snorkeling in Hanauma Bay on Oahu, and we explored the results of Pele's wrath in Puna on the Big island. Here is a brief travelogue, with lots of photos!

We dove with Dive Tek for two days. They were incredibly accommodating, moving their normal 7:30am departure time to to 9am so that we could drive in from Naalehu without having to get up at 0-dark-30 in the morning. They also got us special steel tanks - 116cuft for my wife, and 92cuft for me (as opposed to the normal sized aluminum-80s). This meant our typical dive lasted over an hour (being in 78-82 degree F water, with 3mm full wetsuits helped too).

On our first day of diving with Dive Tek we went to "Hoovers", a site named John P. Hoover, author Hawaii's Sea Creatures and Hawaii's Fishes and a number of other great books. Our dive started with a Eagle Ray encounter, followed by a pair of dolphin sightings. We saw an incredible school of fish. We saw them coming, we saw them up close, and then we saw them swiming away. This was followed by a large cornet fish. In addition to the fish, there was a lot of neat stuff on the sea floor. A careful scan turned up this sea star. While we didn't see any nudibranchs on this dive, we came across the most amazing egg rose of a Spanish dancer. If you look closely you can see the individual eggs. Also among the rocks were eels. We saw both a white mouth eel (here is another photo, up close), and a moray eel. And while we didn't see any whales, we did see what one had left behind...

On our second day with Dive Tek, we started our day with a dive in Octopus Garden Cove. At about 80' depth, you see off in the blue a garden of eels, waving in the water. If you are still and wait long enough lying on the bottom, the closer ones will start to come out of their holes. Just incredible! On this dive we saw a bunch of Crown of thorns starfish. They would grasp a rock like some giant, spiked hand. In fact, their thorns/spikes are quite long and pointy! I love this fish photo, with our dive guide Jeanine in the background. Jeanine warned us that some of the sea slugs would spew a sticky mucus if disturbed. Unlike the previous day, on this dive we saw some amazing nudibranchs, including this divided flatworm. In this cool series of pictures we see another nudibranch that is rapidly heading down a rock. He was reaching toward this pencil urchin. Also hiding in crevices in the rocks was this moray eel. As I got close, the eel backed away from me. One of the other folks diving with us shined his HID light on this frogfish - an amazing end to a fabulous dive!

On our final dive with Dive Tek, we went to a spot called High Rock (which is an underwater pinnacle just 40' below the surface). There isn't a lot of soft corals in Hawaii, but I came across this neat white soft coral at the start of the dive. Soon after, this Butterfly fish appeared. One great thing about diving with Jeanie, she would point out neat stuff to us throughout the dive. Moray eels are common in Hawaii, and High Top was no exception. I had trouble with the flash on my camera (the external Sea and Sea YS-90DX that I use with my Canon PowerShot S50 in it's WP-DC300 underwater housing decided it didn't want to turn on). But I managed to use the built-in flash on the camera, through the housing, to get some light on the eel. Unfortunately the built-in flash isn't adjustable, so the lighting wasn't even. That same uneven lighting effect can be seen here, lighting the rocks that this soft coral was growing from (it is truly amazing just how much red is present, but not visible underwater without a bright light). On this dive my wife found a nudibranch, and you can tell that the rock it is traveling on is quite red (assuming you have a flash...). This dive also ended on a high point, as another diver called us over to see an octopus hiding in the rocks. And with that, we made our way to the stairs that Dive Tek kindly put out for us.

I also took a bunch of photos during our day of snorkeling at Hanauma Bay. Being nor more than 10' under water, there was plenty of sunlight penetrating the water. Unlike diving, however, as a snorkeler, I was much less a natural part of the environment, and fish would commonly swim away from me when I dove down to take their picture. Sometimes I would get lucky from a distance. And then there was this fellow who got all curious about me. He kept close to me, and hung around me for much of my snorkeling trip. In the middle-outer bay, I came across a cleaning station (the small blue & white fish is cleaning the others, who are all hanging out waiting their turn). I mentioned that a lot of light penetrates at this shallow depth, as is evident from the colors on this fine fish. As I started heading back in to the beach, I saw another colorful guy, but he was bashful and didn't want his picture taken. He was briefly joined by his smaller, colorful friend. But it was getting late, and so we headed in hoping to make it to Legend Seafood for Dim Sum. Unfortunately, the fabulous fish had been too tempting, and we missed our lunch...

Of course, there is more to see in Hawaii than what is under water. While we didn't get to see flowing lava on this trip, we did spend time in Puna on the Big Island, where there is a lot of amazing "new land" to check out. Here in this forest of trees and other things we came upon a lava tree. During a lava flow some time back, the lava surrounded a still-standing tree, which then died from within, leaving a hollow lava tree shell. Elsewhere in Puna, we could see coconut impressions left in the cooling lava. We went to Kalapana where a lava flow in 1990 wiped out the town and the beach. While only 17 years old, this new land is already sprouting life. Walking through the black moonscape of the lava field, we would frequently come upon ferns growing in the cracks of the brittle, glass-like lava. As we approached the Ocean's edge, we saw a field of newly planted coconut trees in the distance, behind a small thicket of ficus. Incredibly, in this thicket of ficus we found a gecko and a salamander (the green gecko is barely visible, hiding along the horizontal branch toward the left side of the photo).

Our trip to Hawaii was amazing, if too short. I hope we manage to return soon...

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Peter Korn

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