About the dive
Warbla Cave is a scientific reference cave located on the Nullarbor in Western Australia which is closed to general access. With pure white walls and interesting formations, not to mention the colonies of bacteria found in protected areas, it was a dream cave for photography. A scientific permit is required for entry, along with excellent fitness to transport our dive gear through the cavernous dry cave area. Ducking under a low ledge towards the end of this huge space, we negotiated a steep slope of dried bat guano to get to the water.
This scientific trip was set up to replicate and measure some of the variables that had been studied in 2000. Our goals included setting up survey points at key bacterial colonies, photographing and mapping these, and using Ken Smith’s fabulous pingers to pinpoint mapped underwater locations to the surface. The cave is a relatively complex multi-level affair, with the huge tunnels common to the Nullarbor Plains caves on the upper level and a flatter lower level.
The two levels are joined by an area known as the Bathtub, where divers descend to a lower tunnel that turns back underneath the path that we’d just swum along. This lower level has a flat roof that collects little pools of bubbles, and a distinctive look to the floor, as you can see from the second photo here.
As we entered the Bathtub, I knew I wanted to shoot the divers descending. I moved across into a small, dead-ended hollow in the wall opposite that (combined with the 14mm lens) gave me enough distance to get the entrance to each level in one shot. Having found my sweet spot, I stuck my arm out to wave my very obedient models slowly past.
About the shot
Forrest Wilson (designer of the cave diver’s line arrow) led the charge into the lower level, although relying on the inbuilt optical sensor on his handheld inon Z240 hasn’t worked on this occasion. The orange Ikelite substrobe visible between Dad’s tanks also hasn’t fired, but the white walls have meant the single on camera strobe and top two hand held diver strobes that have gone off have given enough light to frame the scene. In particular, the back strobe is well positioned for projecting light back into the upper tunnel.
I like this shot because of the sense of movement, and for the position and eye lines of the leading two divers. As well as being a nice section of cave, the diver and lighting arrangement has given a good depth to the shot. Moving myself slightly further back would have allowed the whole of the opening to the lower level to sit in the frame, but would also have put me right against the wall behind me, likely creating a silty cloud and making photography difficult.
This particular dive was one of the most frustrating I have done. I had chosen to use only one on camera strobe to allow more off-camera light and flexibility. Unfortunately, this strobe began to behave unreliably in the first ten minutes of the dive. Without an on camera strobe, there was nothing to trigger the other four on the dive, and a lot of black shots came out of it. I had achieved a dive in a great cave with very co-operative models, only to discover the second-worst kind of camera equipment failure. Following this trip, I upgraded to some new strobes and cables to avoid this happening in future.