You may not be able to document 450 species like Neville Coleman, the granddaddy of ocean explorers, but with the right equipment, you’ll get some amazing shots, writes Solveig Walkling. Even a first time diver can get good underwater shots. Know what you’re looking for and what best to avoid and you’ll bring home crystal clear images of turtles, myriads of fish and silver air bubbles.

Julian Rocks off Byron Bay is one of the top ten dive spots in Sydney and the perfect setting for the annual Underwater Festival. Shootouts are not only limited to experienced divers and photographers. Even relative novices frequently resurface with stunning pics. Check out the winning images and underwater video at http://www.2008.underwaterfestival.org/.

For my dives, I tested a Sealife Reefmaster Mini and an Olympus Mju Tough 800. Both are excellent beginner’s cameras, small and relatively easy to handle.

The rubberised and ruggedised Sealife Reefmaster Mini looks much hardier than the sleek silver top of the line Olympus camera. But don’t let the flimsy exterior of the Mju Tough 800 fool you, it packs a mighty punch. Waterproof to a depth of 10m, shockproof to a height of 2m and crushproof to 100kg, you can drop or sit on this camera without a problem. It also means the compact camera is an ideal travelling companion. No problem if it falls of a bedside table or gets forgotten in your suitcase and handled roughly.

But is it a serious underwater camera? The answer is yes and no. It has four different underwater settings which will be the first to appear when you switch the camera on, making it relatively easy to change from pool setting to wide angle action shot to macro and wide angle landscape. But its tiny buttons are unsuitable for gloved hands. In warm waters this doesn’t matter too much. But bigger (and less) buttons would make it much easier to handle the camera in an underwater situation, even if trying to control your buoyancy, swimming after fish, focussing and selecting a setting becomes easy after a little practice.

The Sealife camera was much simpler to use with a simple big button to push in. I did, however, find focussing much harder with the Reefmaster Mini than the Mju. A lot of my pictures taken on the Sealife camera were out of focus, fuzzy and had a red tinge to it, when taken closer to the surface. (The camera regulates for a lack of reds in deep water but the Olympus didn’t have any issues with varying depth.) If you want to get close-ups, the Sealife camera seems to provide better results, getting sharp results at up to 3cm. The Macro setting on my Olympus slowed down the shutter speed so much, it was impossible to get frozen shots of moving objects like fish.

Both cameras proved valid beginner’s versions. The real downside of the Olympus camera is that you won’t be able to use regular memory cards. Olympus uses their own version, making it difficult, if you run out of space and there’s no camera store nearby. (You can’t just swap from another camera or borrow a card.) I also found the Olympus camera’s batteries a bit shortlived. While diving that may not matter too much, as your underwater time is limited by your oxygen supply anyway. But take it on a day trip and you might run out of juice when that money shot is waiting for you. (You can make the battery last longer with clever usage but extensive shooters will run into trouble quickly.)

The Sealife camera uses standard AA batteries which may be bad for the environment but is a heavensent for anyone travelling in places with limited power supplies. (Or those that like to forget the charger at home.) Be careful what kind of memory card you use, however. During the Underwater Photography Festival my camera and a Sealife DC 800 locked underwater due to some issues with their cards. You can alleviate the problem by taking out the batteries and inserting them again – but try doing that underwater.

The Olympus screen was bigger, clearer and overall better so see but it looked as if water had entered into it by the time I finished my dive, even though I stayed within the depth limits. The Sealife camera will go to 40D, not restricting your movements once you become a more experienced diver.

Your choice of camera depends on what matters to you. The Olympus Mju Tough 800 may be a better beginner’s version, especially since it’s slightly less expensive than the Sealife entry model; Olympus retails at $399 and Sealife at $545. But if you want a camera that you can take to the outback (where there might be no power points or memory cards readily available) and deeper underwater as you become a more experienced diver, Sealife Reefmaster Mini or the DC 800 (one level up) are the go.

Olympus Mju Tough 800 really impressed me and is a great choice if you want a camera that does a lot of the work for you – provided you select the right setting. It won’t go much deeper than the pool and few first dives, but your images will be impressive.

For more info and best online prices check out www.testfreaks.com. The Olympus Mju Touch 800 could be found for abou 50 bucks off when we went online.

We also have a special offer for our readers. The folks from the Byron Bay Underwater Festival (www.2008.underwaterfestival.org) are offering three Sealife Reefmaster Minis for only $375 each. That’s a whopping $170 off! (The cameras were used at the festival for a week and are all in great shape.) E-mail Tim at tim@underwater.com.au or check out their website for other special offers www.underwater.com.au.

Read about my first dive below.

Before I have even so much as dipped a toe in the waters off Byron Bay, I am informed that nearby Julian Rocks is one of Australia’s top ten dive sites. I’m here for the annual Underwater Festival a week-long celebration of all things aquatic.

On the day of my first ever dive, the sun is out and visibility – or viz, as divers call it – is good. Upon arrival at Byron Bay Dive Centre (www.byronbaydivecentre.com.au), I have to sign a form that basically releases the operators from any liability in the event of mishaps leading to my sudden death underwater. It’s standard procedure and I decide to ignore the resurfacing memories of horror stories I have heard about people drowning while diving. As pretty much everywhere, there sharks to content with in Byron Bay, as one of the other divers happily tells me. Apparently, someone got bitten in half by a shark with a mouth the size of a barn door. In quite a few of the other stories I remember from media reports, the danger actually came from fellow divers not sharks. Lucky, I’m not going down with my diving enthusiast former husband then.

Before we enter the pool for the first lesson in the water, an instructional video informs us how to avoid bringing certain misfortune upon ourselves. Controlling your buoyancy is not too hard when we make our first tank-laden steps in the shallow end of the baby pool. I manage to almost land myself face first in the ascending pool floor several times and have trouble avoiding my only fellow new diver in the confined pool space but it’s not too bad for a first. It’s a feeling of weightlessness and lessened maneuverability with the heavy oxygen tank on my back. My biggest fear – even bigger than sharks – is taken away right here in the shallow water, when I learn how to empty my mask of any water that may sneak in. Even though I later realise this is only really a problem when you snorkel; the pressure at 10m underwater is enough to push the mask firmly into your face, giving you a nice headache if you tighten it too much in anticipation of it slipping.

Ready to enter the water, there’s a moment of uncontrollable fear just before I am about to be pushed overboard from the boat for my first ever dive. Will I float? But there’s no time to check back with our instructor as I splash into the water. I take out my mouth piece, as I all of a sudden have a thousand questions to ask Matt. Surely, I’m not just about to descend ten metres down along a rope with my only oxygen supply the heavy tank on my back? But there is no time to dawdle. Things happen fast as our group of three divers and two instructors approaches the rope.

Trying to hold on to my buoyancy control device with my left, pulling myself down with my right, I cannot figure out how to pinch my nose to equalise the building pressure in my ears. Matt comes and floats in front of me, looking at me questioningly when I stop. He motions down. I nod. Yes, I want to go down. But I lack a few arms to pull myself down, motion at him, control the bgd and equalise. Something has to give. I let go of the rope, trying to motion back that I have trouble equalising and at the same time pinching my nose. He grabs my arm as I start floating back to the surface. Places it back on the rope. I think he got the picture but there really is no telling and I rack my brain how to use my two hands to do four things. I decide to try and lose buoyancy quickly so I can pull myself down. Letting go of the bcd, I start descending fast. The pressure in my ears mounts. I stop. Try to equalise. Now, I am not even scared at all anymore. Pain can be wonderful sometimes. Matt comes down to me and pulls his whiteboard out to write on. (Earlier I had joked about just what he would use it for, now it’s painfully clear…) He writes "go back up to where it’s okay. slowly back down". I nod. I can’t even remember the divers’ sign for ok anymore. I let go of the rope and start floating up. Someone grabs me. It’s the other instructor, he motions towards the rope. Holding onto it for dear life, worried about my ears but equally anxious to get down amongst the fish (and other divers) down below, I start my second descent.

The instant I get to the bottom of the ocean, I am at peace. Myriads of little baby fish with yellow streaks, rainbow coloured fish, yellow ones with black stripes and plain grey ones are everywhere. Controlling my buoyancy and swimming is child’s play down here. There is less of a current to content with and, if in doubt about whether to let air in or out, I can just sink to the ocean floor. (Which I do quite a few times in a very inelegant face first or sideways style.) Hovering over red starfish, green coral that looks like someone’s brain and mini dinosaur like Wobegong sharks lying amongst rocks and surrounded by tini fish, I feel as if I’ve discovered a hidden world. The other divers have all disappeared in the time it took me to get down the rope. John and me are the only to beings from the world above water. Thankfully, he can be counted on not to lose me, as I shoot off after any fish I see without thinking about the direction I am going in or whether my oxygen levels are getting down to the "red zone". Several hundred fish and a handful of turtles later, it is time to get back to the boat.

Check out www.2008.underwaterfestival.org for more information on the event and this year’s winning images. Now in its third year, the festival attracted record numbers of entrants. In 2010, organisers are planning to take the event to Christmas Island. Registrations for the next festival will open soon, so check back with their site.

For this online article, Solveig Walkling travelled courtesy of REX Airlines (www.rex.com.au) and Byron Bay Dive Centre (www.byronbaydivecentre.com.au). Prices for the one-day introductory dive start at $150, for more information call 1800 243 483.