The Dalmatian coast, which makes up the middle part of Croatia’s 1,000-mile-long coastline, is well known for its beautiful scenery, pleasant Mediterranean climate and hundreds of dazzling islands.
Truly, the best way to experience this Croatian paradise is to set sail by liveaboard to discover the underwater highlights.
Exploring Croatia the Liveaboard Way
Setting sail from the town of Zadar, the Vranjak is an almost brand-new 90-foot steel liveaboard that brings divers to discover the highlights of the Adriatic Sea. The trip is a refreshingly different experience: Not only do you get to dive the best spots like those in the Kornati Islands National Park, the liveaboard also stays overnight in picturesque little villages, giving you the chance to sample the local culture and cuisine.
The dive plan on the liveaboard includes two dives a day, which may sound a little disappointing at first. Don’t worry! The diving is often a little on the deep side, and the crew is careful that no one gets injured. Plus, you’ll have more time to explore the topside highlights in the afternoons and evenings.
For the hard-core, I-just-want-to-dive-and-shoot-millions-of-pictures kind of diver, this might not be the right trip, but for the relaxed underwater photographer wanting more than just diving experiences, it is absolutely perfect.
A Wide-Angle Heaven
Croatia is most of all known for excellent wide-angle opportunities. The visibility (often up to 100 feet) gives great opportunity to shoot reefscapes, and the lack of particles in the water mostly makes positioning strobes a relatively easy task.
The reefs are rocky and mostly covered in gray-green algae until you reach about 60 feet, and it is below this depth you will begin to find the really good, colorful wide-angle stuff. Most dive sites have a drop-off and a steep wall going down to 120 feet, so watch your depth and time.
Orange gorgonians can be found from around 60 feet and below, and even deeper, magnificent purple gorgonians grow in dense, bushy aggregations. The color is incredibly vivid, and the deep blue color of the water at this depth makes wide-angle photography a true feast.
You will not have much bottom time, so get your exposure and composition right from the beginning, or you will spend your safety stop in disappointment. After a dive or two most people get the hang of it and can take full advantage of the opportunities. Explore overhangs and openings of small caves and crevices, as these are often covered with yellow tubastrea coral and may harbor interesting marine life within.
After the initial excitement gives way to a more calculated and planned approach, you will have time to start looking for more unusual subject matter and not just fill every frame with gorgonian treasure.
Bright red scorpionfish are abundant in some locations, and deeper down the gorgonians were full of shark eggs. Colorful sponges are everywhere, and curious wrasse will often come close to investigate your strobes and dome port. With a little patience you might be able to get the fish in frame with both gorgonians and your dive buddy.
Great silhouettes of divers can easily be accomplished under overhangs, and black and white shots can create dramatic effects in the shallows.
Don’t Forget Half’n’halfs
After going deep to fill your memory card with colorful gorgonians, it is always a good idea to do a bit of extra time in the shallows. Being safe with a longer-than-required safety stop also pays of photographically. You will often see beds of posidonia seaweed, and rock formations, sunlight and wave action can create interesting shots if you have a little creativity and skill.
In-between dives, being on a liveaboard in Croatia is just as good as anywhere else in the world. You sleep, read, sunbathe, listen to music and just generally relax. This is also a good time to go snorkeling or freediving to get some interesting half’n’half shots. If you get your buddy in the water too, you can easily shoot some stunning material.
Surprisingly Good Macro
Croatia offers a surprisingly diverse and colorful macro life. I had my macro lens for several dives, although it sometimes was a difficult choice. You have to ask, “How good are the gorgonians on this site, compared to the critters?” Agonizing over this is the underwater photographer’s dilemma. Having two cameras more and more often seems like a good idea….
Macro life is abundant on the walls and in-between the gorgonians, but time is also well spent in the shallows: Plenty of nudibranchs like the orange-eyed Cratena peregrina, octopus, hermit crabs, little algae umbrellas, and curious blennies and triplefins.
The octopuses are especially a joy to photography. Hiding cautiously in their burrows, lined with mussel shells and carefully arranged rocks, they would often come out to investigate a carefully placed hand or even the camera gear, giving me some great close-up opportunities.
Please don’t forget that octopus don’t really love having their eyes blasted with underwater strobes, so think ahead and get your shots in as few takes as possible; or move on to another eight-legged mollusk if your first date doesn’t work out. There are plenty of them!
What to Bring
Being primarily a wide-angle destination, Croatia demands a choice of at least two wide-angle lenses. I prefer a 10.5mm f/2.8 fisheye and a Sigma and 10–20mm f/4-5.6 rectilinear zoom. If you’re worried about luggage weight and want to bring just one lens, the Tokina 10–17mm fisheye zoom is a great choice.
Bringing one macro lens should be sufficient, either a 105mm or a 60mm depending on your personal preference. Apart from your camera, housing, dome port and macro ports, bringing the following gear will most likely ensure a successful photo trip to Croatia.
For Nikon shooters a Nikkor 10.5mm fisheye and a Tokina 10–17mm or Sigma 10–20mm
For Nikon shooters a Nikkor 105mm (a 60mm could be considered)
18–300mm or other favorite telezoom for land photography. There will be much to see, experience and photograph, so seize the opportunity to come home with more than underwater shots for once.
Also make sure you have your chargers, your focus light and enough spare batteries to last you a day. Electric power might not be available round the clock on the liveaboard, so charge when you can and keep spares readily available.
Wide-angle photo opportunities:
- Gorgonian coral fans, orange and purple
- Rock formations
- Light and shadow in the shallows
- Posidonia seaweed beds
- Half’n’half shots of divers and the dive boat
- Lots of nudibranchs
- Fish portraits (blennies, triplefins)
- Scorpionfish and wrasse
- Sharks eggs
Where: Croatia lies on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea.
Language: Croatian, but almost everyone speaks good English.
Currency: Croatian Kuna, expected to be replaced by Euro in two or three years after Croatia joins the EU on July 1, 2013.
Water temperature: The temperature ranges from 60–75 degrees depending on the time of year, so anything from a light drysuit to a 5–7mm wetsuit will be appropriate.
Diving experience level: Intermediate because of depth, not much current or waves.
Photography experience level: Excellent for beginners, especially on wide angle. Macro demands a little more experience finding subjects.
Who: The liveaboard Vranjak offers good food and a spectacular journey along one of the most beautiful parts of the Croatian coast. Vranjak departs from and returns to the city of Zadar.
Flight: Zadar is frequented by several European airlines. Pay attention to their sometimes ridiculously strict baggage rules and enjoy their low fares.
I totally love the Croatian way of liveaboarding, and found the diving surprisingly good. Photo opportunities were great, both in terms of wide-angle and macro. I was impressed with the colorful gorgonians, the clear blue water and the majestic rock formations. I also loved all the land-based opportunities such as spa, sightseeing in the old villages along the coast and sampling the local cuisine and wine.
The trip was very inspiring, and left me with a feeling that I had experienced much more than I would have on a “conventional” liveaboard. Croatia really has a lot to offer, and impressed me in almost every way—even though I had high expectations after hearing many good things about the country and the diving beforehand.
About the Author: Christian Skauge is a former Nordic Champion of underwater photography and has won several international photo contests. He writes articles about diving and underwater photography and is published regularly in magazines around the world. He also runs underwater photo and marine biology workshops. Check out his website for more info: www.scubapixel.com
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