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A Day With The Honu

Posted by Tom Benedict on 19/04/2011

I took my KAP gear and the Push N8 KAP gear to Kiholo Bay last Saturday.  As with most places there are a couple of ways to hike in there.  Most people prefer to park somewhere along the bay and hike in along the coast.  Personally, I prefer to park at the highway and hike in across the lava.  The flow is about 150 years old, so relatively fresh in geologic terms.  It’s barren, it’s harsh, but it’s beautiful to me.  I love it.

The end of the hike is the lagoon at Kiholo Bay, an equally beautiful spot.  Unlike an anchialine pond the lagoon has a surface connection to the sea, but it’s so shallow it’s almost cut off from tidal flow.  The water is extremely still, and is fed both from the ocean and from freshwater springs.  The result is a body of water whose salinity is highly stratified.  At the surface the water is remarkably clear with relatively low salinity.  The deeper you go, the higher the salinity in the water.  Below a certain depth the water is saturated with saline favoring organisms that color the water a beautiful aquamarine similar to the color of a moraine lake near a glacier.  The only environments I’ve found similar to the one at Kiholo Bay are salt ponds such as the ones at the south end of San Francisco Bay.

Pacific Green Sea Turtles, or honu, can be found at most beaches in Hawaii, but because the lagoon at Kiholo Bay is free of sharks, their main predator in the open ocean, it’s a favorite of theirs.  I have yet to do a photo session at the lagoon where I didn’t see dozens of turtles swimming, eating, or sunning on the rocks.  Photographer heaven!

A little over a year ago a friend and I developed a technique for photographing honu from a KAP rig.  It involves letting out line fast enough so the KAP rig glides out over the surface of the water.  When the rig  reaches the honu, the line is stopped and the rig slowly drifts into the sky.  Meanwhile the photographer trips the shutter.  It worked well with my A650IS rig.  I was eager to try it with the Nokia N8 hardware!

The Nokia gear worked, but I had trouble using the technique.  No fault of the hardware.  It was just too light, the kite was too big, and the wind was too strong.  Even letting out line as fast as I could, the rig went up instead of out, so I never got the low altitudes I needed.  Eventually I packed the Nokia gear away and pulled out my A650 rig to give it a go.

When we first used this technique, there were two of us.  I ran the kite and winder, and he ran the rig and camera.  I stood upwind of the honu, and he stood about 90 degrees to the kite line.  I let out line and jockeyed it side-to-side so I kept the rig in line with the honu, and he called “Stop!” since he could see when it was directly overhead.  This time there was just me.  I was curious if I could do it single-handed.

After a fashion, I could.  But there were some lessons learned:

I could judge distance out to about 20-30′.  Past that I couldn’t tell when the rig was directly over the honu.  This limits how useful the technique is, but at Kiholo Bay it can still be used.  At mid to low tide the drop-off is quite sharp, and the turtles are only ten feet or so from shore when feeding.  This also brings the technique within reach of a 25′ pole, so I may go this route in the future.  (Sorry, KAP purists…  I’m after the vantage point rather than a particular technique.  If the pole gets me what I need, I’ll use it.)

Older turtles turn white.  I don’t know if this is because of the organisms living in the water at Kiholo Bay, or if there’s some other mechanism behind it.  Regardless, pure white turtles are a lot less photogenic than you might think.  Younger turtles have more texture and color.

There are three distinct bands of background for turtles at Kiholo Bay.  Close in, you get turtles sunning themselves on the rocky shore.  The rocks are dark lava rock.  This can skew exposure readings on the camera.  Worse yet, white turtles on a black background can easily overcome the dynamic range of the camera.  Further out, you get submerged lava rocks.  These are still black.  Wet, they’re even darker than the ones on shore.  The dynamic range and metering problems only get worse in this zone.  Even further out, the water is deep enough for the organisms in the saline-rich waters to color the background a lovely aquamarine.  Young turtles photographed over this wash of color really work.

Noon is the wrong time to do photography over water, pointed straight down.  The reflections off the water kill you.  Some time after 3pm is probably better. Likewise, doing photography straight down into the water during the golden hour around sunset also doesn’t work well because the light doesn’t penetrate the water deep enough to light the subject.  My guess is 4pm-5pm is the ideal time for this technique.

Polarizing filters really work for this application, but this brings up my final lesson learned from this trip:  My A650 is noisy.

Ok, to be fair I didn’t learn this on this trip alone.  I know my A650 is noisy, though for a compact camera its noise characteristics are actually quite good.  The problem is that kite aerial photography already starves cameras of light because of the requirement of fast shutter speeds.  Start throwing filters in front of the lens, or doing your photography under overcast skies or at sunset, and the situation only gets worse.  By the time you add up all the conditions I was operating under at Kiholo Bay, I simply didn’t have enough light left.  The photographs were too noisy to use.

One more reason why I’m moving to the T2i for KAP.  And one more reason why I’m interested in trying this technique from a pole the next time I’m at Kiholo Bay.

– Tom

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