Beneath the Surface…

Every year we travel to Roatan for a week of SCUBA diving at CoCoView Diving Resort.  Rustic and simple, you couldn’t ask for a better dive setup.  The dive boat captains are on top of your every need, and the resort is mapped out for simplicity.  Accessed only by boat, it is also a quiet place to hang out.  There are no phones, and no television.  All the entertainment is beneath the surface of the ocean that is right at your doorstep.

I became SCUBA certified in 1992 when we lived in New Orleans.  We went to Mexico where I did my certification dive, and I had the opportunity to marvel at the amazing coral and sea life that was Palancar Reef.  Six months later, my husband and I obtained our advanced SCUBA certification where the check out dives were done off the coast of Florida.  This was my first experience with sea sickness, as well as the night dive that not only heralded SCUBA divers, but spear fishing participants.  Following a day of semi unconsciousness from the effects of dramamine, there was a dip in a naturally fed spring where the temperature was 53 degrees and we were required to stay down for 45 minutes.  So far, my perceived value of obtaining an advanced certification was roughly nil.

Shortly after, we moved to Virginia where I promptly gave birth to three adorable little boys in eleven months, and the wonderful memories of Palancar reef and the amazing sea life were relegated to the distant past.  Then in 2001 my husband was introduced to a gentleman that taught SCUBA diving as well as organized SCUBA trips, and suddenly life beneath the surface became forefront for us again.  It was another two years before we took another trip to SCUBA dive, this time to Roatan to dive with the group from Holladay SCUBA.

It wasn’t love at first sight with me.  My biggest complaint then is still my biggest complaint now.  The water around Roatan, and CoCoView Resort are fairly rough, and it’s a struggle for me to enjoy getting on a boat because of this.  I’ve tried every seasick remedy known to man, finally settling on Scope Patches.  They aren’t perfect, but the best resource for me.  This first trip after a hiatus of roughly 10 years was like starting all over, and I didn’t enjoy it.  For some reason, we saw little sea life, I was uncomfortable, and I left not only wondering what I had ever enjoyed about it to begin with, but also thinking it wasn’t something I wanted to do again.

Then a curious thing happened.  Our oldest, when he was 14, expressed an interested in SCUBA diving.  He took lessons, and my husband took him to Roatan.  I secretly thought is would be a disaster, because of my recollection that there just wasn’t a lot to see there.  But when they returned, they had pictures from a simple point and shoot underwater camera that my husband had invested in that showed a variety of sea life I simply couldn’t believe.  Eventually, his twin brothers became certified, and we’ve taken all of them to Bonaire and to Roatan.  The oldest accompanied my husband to Indonesia for ten days on a live aboard (seeing that I don’t do boats very well), which turned out to be the trip of a lifetime.

I enjoyed Bonaire the most, simply because of the water factor.  Smooth and easy, I did every dive and never got sick.  The downside is, it’s fairly expensive, whereas Roatan is more reasonable.  There is one dive site in Roatan that provides a fairly smooth ride and that is French Cay Cut.  Located  between the reef and shore, this is a muck dive; the boat drops divers in a sandy muck bottom–teeming with micro life, but little else.  You can make your way however, through the cut and along the wall of the reef for an excellent exploration of larger sea life–even a turtle or two, but be prepared for fairly large surge on top of the coral.

So I made my return to SCUBA diving in 2010.  Only this time my hobby of photography coalesced with SCUBA diving, and an entirely new horizon opened up before me.  A horizon of maddening moments, sheer frustration, and epic failure that only hardened my resolve to prove to myself that I wasn’t really as stupid as I felt with a camera in my hand below the surface.  In my extremely humble opinion, underwater photography is not only the most difficult photography to practice, but it seems to contradict so many rules of land based photography.  It is it’s own world.

So without going on too much longer, here are the first of three years of underwater photos that I’ve felt halfway decent about.  If you would like to see some of the top photographers in this realm, check out these links:  Todd Winner or Scott Geitler.  You won’t be disappointed.

News on the Homefront…

Well, I’ve been absent for quite sometime, and I have been missing my blogging friends and world.  I’ve got one child who will be leaving for college come fall, and the other two will follow next year.  I’ve been very busy with photography and it has blossomed into something resembling a job.  Last spring I began shooting cross country and track and field meets for Milestat.com.  It’s a different kind of photography, fast paced and fairly exciting.  Plus, I get to watch my boys run when it is one of their meets.

This has led me to explore the option of launching a photography business.  I’ve flirted with sights like 500px and pixoto, trying to decide exactly what I wanted to do.  I also shot two weddings this past year, and hung some fine art in my husbands office. Last week I attended a photography conference, and after giving it much thought, I am going to give it a go.  I am in the process of designing a website, which I confess has given me fits.  Hopefully, it will be up and running by the end of the month.  Once it is, I will be migrating this blog to that website, or perhaps I will just link this blog to it.

I will, however, be picking back up my blogging habits in the near future.

Thank you everyone for hanging with me, and visiting my blog while I’ve been away.  I’m looking forward to 2014, and wish everyone a wonderful year to come!

In the meantime, I will leave you with a photo from the edge of Culloden field just outside of Inverness, Scotland:

On the Edge of Culloden Field

On the Edge of Culloden Field

© Vonne Arnel Gonce Photography, All Rights Reserved

Windows are the Eyes…

I’ve been going through photos from last fall, specifically of our trip to Paris.  I had forgotten that I have a small habit (o.k. big habit) of taking pictures through windows to the outside.  Some people like doors.  My mother is one of these.  I also take pictures of cool doors when I go places just for her.  But windows from the inside are what mesmerize me.  And there were some grand ones in Paris and especially in Versailles.

I don’t know what others think of windows, but for me they are the soul of the house.  A glimpse in to another life, a way to watch the life outside.  A two dimensional portal that is beautiful, wonderful and often hides mysteries beyond.  I’m drawn to what goes on outside and inside those glass dimensions.  I found myself wondering what Marie Antoinette thought as she no doubt looked upon the vast fortune that lay before her at Versailles.  Did she compare it to Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna that was her childhood home?  Both are magnificent, but I found it interesting that she spent a great deal of her time in the Queens Hamlet that she created for herself on the property of the Palace in Versailles.  It was here she doffed the clothing of a royal in favor of more casual attire, and here where she could relax and be more down to earth.  According to the tour, this was one of her favorite places to be, where when she looked out the window she saw sprawling gardens, chickens, pigs, cows, small ponds and creeks.  A huge contrast to the formal gardens closer to the palace.

Whatever her likes or dislikes, the windows of the palace are some of the most beautiful pieces of architecture around.  Windows that hide not only wealth a lavishness, but also must have served to conceal a great deal of human emotion and drama during one of the most turbulent times in French history.

Kenai Fjords

Yesterday we took a Kenai Fjords tour to see the wildlife and Glaciers characteristic of the Alaskan Wilderness.  I was a little disappointed in the pictures that we took as the conditions were very challenging.  In photography, light exposure comes from balancing three things:  f/stop, shutter speed, and ISO.  If you have low light conditions, you can open the aperture by choosing a lower numbered f stop, you can choose a slower shutter speed, or you can increase your ISO making the sensor more sensitive to light.  There are tradeoffs however to doing any of these.  If you choose a larger aperture, you sacrifice depth of field so that not all of your subject will be in focus.  If you shoot at a lower shutter speed, you will have motion blur, and if you increase ISO you introduce grain, or noise into your image which can be removed post processing, but you end up with a softer focus.

Add in the fact that the longer the lens, the less light you have to begin with, and the slower your lens or f/stop.  Yesterday on the tour, we had dark skies, a lot of rain, and the motion of the boat, which created really challenging conditions.  It was hard to be on the boat and look around thinking that if the sun had been shining it would have been without a doubt the most spectacular scenery on this planet.  As it was, peaks and mountains were shrouded in mist, fog and clouds which have their own intrigue, but make photography nearly impossible.

So, it was an exercise in mastering bad conditions to the best of my ability, which is probably not a bad thing, except that I felt like this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and not one that I wanted to be tested on.  Still, I did the best I could, the results of which I will include in this post.  We saw whales, puffins, a variety of other birds including an eagle, otters, sea lions, dolphins and seals.

The tour left the dock at 8:00, and returned at 5, and it was a very long day.  We were told that the ocean swells in the gulf of Alaska were reported to be a very good day at only 6 feet.  I slapped on a scope patch, a sea band, and prayed.  I have a tendency to succumb to seasickness and was slightly worried that I’d be stuck on a rolling boat in heavy seas for 8 hours with no help for it.  As it turns out, there was only one really bad section that lasted 30 minutes or so, and they handed out ginger candy, which helped.  We ate lunch in front of the Glacier, where it rained like mad, and looked way less impressive than I had expected.  The trouble with Alaska is, you lose all perspective when it comes to size.  When you look at something, you think it looks big, when really it is gargantuan.  Take for example a crevice that was at K2.  When we asked the guide how deep it was, we guessed around 10 feet from out viewpoint.  He said it was likely greater than 50 feet deep.  The same holds true for Glaciers.  Unless you have something to put next to it for perspective, there is no way to appreciate how big it truly is.

Back to the camera problem of light, Since we did not own a long lens, I rented one to take with me.  At 400mm, I thought that would most likely be fine.  Turns out for a Fjord tour, probably 500mm would have been better.  The only problem with 500mm is the smallest f/stop you can get (for a reasonable price anyway) is 6.3, which does not let in enough light, especially for the conditions we encountered.   The other caveat of a long lens is, handheld you would have to have a fast shutter speed such as 1/500 of a sec. which also means a higher ISO.  Then your image is so full of noise, you might as well put the camera down and just forget it.  So, many of my images, well, most of them, have been severely cropped.

So without talking too much more about it, I will start with the wildlife pictures:

Here are a few of the scenery pictures I was able to capture.

The glacier pictures I’ve saved for last.  If you look at the first one, on the left side towards the bottom, you’ll notice an arch in the ice.  These occur from the melting of the ice.  The hole is big enough for a boat to enter, even though it doesn’t look it.  Right as we pulled in, there was a cracking sound and the glacier calved a chunk of ice from the topmost left side.  The piece that came off was the size of a large home.  The water was estimated to be 40 degrees, and we frequently encountered ice in the water everywhere we went.  The guide estimated the height of this glacier at about 400 feet.  He also said that over the years it has receded, and that where we parked the boat 20 years ago was the front face of the ice.  The third picture my oldest son took with the boat in it to give perspective.  The ice reflects it’s true blue color on cloudy days, and in fact only appears white in bright sunlight.

K2

Of all the places on earth, Alaska  holds the most intrigue for me.  I’m not alone, either.  The tourism industry in Alaska provides for roughly 40,000 jobs or roughly 14% of all employment there.  In 2010, 1.5 million people visited Alaska.  It’s beauty in the natural resources of glaciers, and wildlife are a draw for so many outdoor enthusiasts and cruise goers.

I have ties to Alaska as well.  My paternal grandfather homesteaded there well before my parents were even married.  My father spent his summers in Alaska, an avid outdoor fisherman.  My maternal grandfather spent his youth there, well before my paternal grandfather even thought of going there, working in the industry of road building by cutting roads through the mountains with high pressure water hoses.

I never seemed to make it there however.  So when the boys expressed a desire to go to Denali, we decided the time was right to see the beauty of Alaska.  It’s not an easy trip to plan.  The wilderness is vast, covering some 6,075,029 acres in Denali alone, the total square mileage count including all of the wilderness that is Alaska at 586,400.  So planning such an adventure was a daunting task.

My boys, lovers of the outdoors wanted to fish, so cruising was probably not the best choice.  We spoke to people who said Denali is crowded and wildlife hides during the summer.  What’s a mom to do?  We visited triple A and searched google.  After months of talking to people we cobbled out a rough plan that actually did not get finalized until a few days before we came.  And it was a tremendous learning experience, but we ended up with a week in Alaska with a couple of days of fishing for salmon, a flight tour of Mt. McKinley, and a Kenai Fjords tour, and a tentative scenic float trip down the Kenai river.

The Flight tour of Mt. McKinley was fantastic and amazing. We were very lucky to go on a day where the actual top of K2 was visible.  This is rarely the case, so to get to see it was a treat.  We used a company called FlyK2 and they were very professional, and organized.  The guide was knowledgeable about ice flows, glaciers and the mountains and their climbers.  My only complaint was that when you sign up for  a tour, you don’t necessarily get that tour.  Changing conditions dictate where and how they fly above the glaciers.  I get that, but feel they should really tell you when you aren’t getting the tour you think you are.  In spite of that, it was an excellent flight, and very educational.  I would highly recommend a flight tour when visiting Alaska.

The scenery is breathtaking, and landing on a glacier is an add on that we were glad we did.  It’s thrilling to touchdown on the glaciers, and get out to walk around and shoot some pictures.  The flight lasted about an hour and 45 minutes and we felt better educated about the aspects of glaciers and how they form and flow.  One of the most surprising facts we were told was that even in summer when much of the snow is melted, the ice layer is still 600 feet thick.  It can be very unsafe and unstable however because the melting results in crevices that are dangerous and hidden out of sight on a thin layer of ice and snow.

This was an amazing experience that I would do again in a heartbeat.

Ancient Rome

In April we took the boys to Italy for spring break, thinking that they would have a marvelous time exploring all that history.  Seeing that history is their favorite subject, mixed with historical politics we also though ancient Rome would be a favorite spot.  When we got there, we were surprised to see bored faces, and unimpressed looks.

It seems we have Hollywood to blame for this.  When we made our way to the coliseum (and realizing we were losing our audience) we thought we’d wow them with the ancient structure.  Turns out, they were expecting a rebuilt version of it’s former glory, something akin to what they saw in Gladiator.  I guess we should have taken them on a formal tour to pike their interest.

In the end, they thought it was impressive.  But their favorite tour turned out to be Villa Adriana and Villa Deste, better known as Tivoli Gardens. Who knew?

Musée de l’Armée

The L’Hôtel national des Invalides is a group of buildings in Paris, France that house museums and monuments that relate to the military history of France.  The museums there are the Musée de’Histoire Contemporaine, Musée des Plans-Reliefs, and Musée de l’Armée.

The L’Hotel was opened originally by Louis IV to shelter and care for 7000 of the aged or informed soldiers, the building being constructed between 1671 and 1676.  There are a number of important tombs in the chapel, most notably Napoleon’s tomb.  Nine hearts are concealed in the vaults while their bodies have been put to rest in other places, a curious but not uncommon medieval practice.

It was quite and amazing complex, and when we entered, we didn’t know what we were getting into with respect to size.  It is massive, and in the end, we ended up missing some of it because we just couldn’t go on any longer.  It starts with weaponry of the middle ages, and goes through the second world war.  It is truly an astounding place to visit and see the progression of weapons over the history of civilization.