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ISO in Photography. How it works

ISO settings in menu of a DSLR

What is ISO in Photography?

What exactly is ISO? How does the ISO control on your camera work? How does changing ISO affect your photography? When learning the basics of photography, we learn about focus and we learn about exposure; and we also learn that exposure is controlled, at its most basic level, by three variables: shutter speed, aperture size and ISO. We also learn of the relationship between the three variables, the concepts of STOPS, and how to change the exposure by changing any one of these variable. (If these concepts are unfamiliar to you, I will be producing a blog these basic principles soon, and will add a link here). Now shutter speed and aperture size are fairly intuitive concepts to grasp. If we slow down the shutter speed from 1/100th of a second to 1/50th of a second, so that the image sensor is exposed to light for twice as long, then we can understand how this will double the amount of light hitting the sensor, increasing the exposure by ONE STOP. Similarly, if we open up the aperture from f16 to f8, again doubling the amount of light hitting the sensor, this again will increase the exposure by one stop. (I know, it’s a little counter-intuitive that the higher f value is the smaller aperture; there is a reason for this I’ll explain in a future blog). But ISO? What physically is changing? How does changing ISO change exposure? Is the amount of light hitting the sensor changing somehow? (Spoiler, no it’s not).

ISO settings within the menu of a DSLR (Nikon D610)

What does ISO mean?

Okay, so what exactly is ISO? ISO is the title for the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO was decided on as the initials would be different depending on the language used). But that doesn’t really tell us anything about what it is, or does, in relation to cameras. The name dates back to film cameras, and was originally called ASA, an acronym for American Standards Association, if the film was from the USA (e.g. Kodak film) or DIN, the Deutsches Institut fur Normung, if the film was from Germany (e.g. Agfa film). These were simply national standards associations that standardised a great many things, from computer programming languages to thread sizes on machine bolts. DIN and ASA film speed standards became shortened to DIN and ASA on the labels on camera film. There was also a Soviet standards system known as GOST (Gosudarstvennyy Standart) which was also used for film in Soviet and some asian countries. When these standards were amalgamated into the ISO system so the film speed standards were changed to ISO. For example ASA 100, and DIN 21, became ISO 100/21; ASA 200 and DIN 24 became ISO 200/24 (often the logarithmic DIN part was omitted e.g. the 21 or 24 in these examples). Similarly GOST 90 became ISO 100, GOST 180 became ISO 200. So that explains where the name came from, but not what ISO actually is.

Film carton Fuji Provia 100
Fuji Provia 100 Film box. The 100 indicates this is 100 ISO film

ISO speed in Film

As explained above, the term ISO (or ISO speed) originated in camera film, so lets start there. Unlike shutter speed and aperture size, ISO works rather differently in film and in digital photography. Those of you old enough to have used film cameras may remember we used to talk about ‘fast film’ and ‘slow film’. This referred to how much light was required to correctly expose the film. Fast film required relatively little light (and so could be exposed at faster shutter speeds, all other things being equal) while slow film required more light.

Fuji Provia ISO 100/21
Fuji Provia ISO 100/21. The 100 indicates the arithmetic scale (same as ASA) the 21 indicates the logarithmic scale (the same as the older DIN system)

Film has light-reactive silver halide grains embedded in one or more layers of gelatin. Fast film has larger grains, slow film has smaller. As photons of light hit each grain it changes state, producing what is known as a latent image, across the film frame. But, and this is the crucial part, it takes roughly the same number of photons to change the state on a larger grain as it does on a smaller one. As the larger grains present more surface area, and there are fewer of them packed across the film frame, so fewer photons of light need to hit the exposed frame of larger grained film than fine grained film to produce the same exposure level. The downside of this was that fast film produced a ‘grainy’ look in the final image. This could look pretty cool in black and white photographs, not so much in colour (at least that’s my personal opinion). Now the thing about ISO in the days of film, it was fixed – more or less. By that I mean you bought a roll of film of a set ISO value, determined by the average size of the silver halide grains embedded in the film. So that could be Kodak 64, or maybe Fiju Velvia 100, both slow, fine grained films of set ISO values 64 and 100 respectively. And once loaded into your camera that was it. You set the ISO on the camera (normally a calibrated wheel on the top of the camera body) to the ISO value of the film, and exposed each shot based on that value. Well almost set. You could, if really necessary, ‘push’ the film. That is you could expose the film as if the ISO was one or two stops faster, then adjust the film processing times (extending the times in chemical baths) to account for this. I say ‘if really necessary’ because it did tend to shift the colours and contrast somewhat.

ISO speed in Digital Cameras

Okay, so that’s how ISO works in film cameras, but there is no film in digital cameras, and no silver halide grains, so what happens there? In digital cameras things work rather differently. The amount light hitting the sensor (as opposed to the film frame) is still governed by by the size of the aperture and the duration the shutter is open. However, the sensor itself does not become more or less sensitive to light as the ISO changes. Instead the process is one of changing the output voltage or charge on amplifier circuits, rather like changing the volume on an audio amplifier.

Although ISO speed changes are achieved in fundamentally different ways in film cameras and digital cameras the effect on exposure is almost the same. For example, changing the ISO from 100 to 200 changes the exposure, for the same amount of light reaching the film or sensor, by the same amount in either system. So changing from 100 to 200, or 200 to 400, changes the exposure by one full stop (i.e. the equivalent of doubling of the amount of light lighting the sensor or film). There is of course one crucial difference. As explained earlier, in film the ISO is set, it is a physical feature of the composition of the film. You want to change the ISO you need to load new film, which of course means using all the film currently in the camera first. But with digital cameras the ISO can be varied simply by pressing a button or turning a dial.

Film grain
Even though this was slow film (Fuji ISO 100) grain can still be seen in the detail of this older film image I took several decades ago of the Small Isles from the Ardnamurchan peninsula, Scottish Highlands.

High ISO. Image grain and image noise

There is another difference also nowadays. With film, slow, fine detailed, ISO is between 50 and about 200. Fast, grainy ISO is between 800 and 3200, 3200 being pretty specialist film. In the early days of widely available digital cameras (early 2000s) ISO 800 was considered pretty fast for digital cameras also. With the Nikon D200, for example (introduced in 2005) the ISO could be ramped up all the way to 1600. But it came at a price. Where analogue film produced grainy images from high ISO film, digital cameras produced ‘noisy’ images at high ISOs. What exactly are ‘noisy’ images? Noise in images is similar to the distortion in an audio system when the amplifier is turned up too high. How this amplification is achieved in in digital cameras depends on the type of sensor used (CCD or CMOS) and on the manufacturer and model.

Noise in digital image
Noise in a modern digital image. This is a crop of an image blown up to 200%. The image was taken at ISO 4000 to illustrate noise.

But fundamentally the light hitting the sensor is converted in to a voltage or charge. This voltage of charge is then amplified. At this stage it is still analogue, so any unwanted artifacts present are also amplified. This can manifest itself as random flecks of colour or brightness in the final image. For this reason the rule used to be to take a photograph at the lowest practical ISO in order to have as little noise as possible in the final image. However, the processing of images within digital cameras has advanced so much in recent years that (at the time of writing) ISOs of 6400 or even 12800 are possible with only minimal amounts of noise in the final image. This allows sharp, detailed images of fast moving objects to be taken in low light conditions that would not have been possible only a few years ago. In point of fact, I would argue that improvements in high ISO image quality have been the more meaningful developments in digital cameras over that past 15 years. I still own a very old DSLR from around 2006 (a Nikon D200 as it happens). It is an excellent camera that still serves my purposes perfectly well – most of the time. The one area it falls down on is in low light conditions where I need to use high ISO.

Fine Art Landscape and Wildlife Prints

If you enjoyed this story why not check out my other blogs. I write about travel, the environment, marine biology, diving and wildlife. You may also want to check out my photographic prints. These can be viewed on my main site www.colinmunrophotography.com and include landscapes from around the World, people of the World, marine life and other wildlife. The prints are only available through my website, each one individually processed and made to order. This includes fine art giclee prints, limited edition prints and canvas wraps. I use only the best, carefully selected print houses employing the finest papers and printing processes to ensure image fidelity and longevity.

fine art wildlife and landscape prints for sale. Colin Munro Photography www.colinmunrophotography.com
A sample of my fine art prints for sale

Pig-tailed Macaques of Thailand

Pig-tailed Macaques of Thailand
A northern pig-tailed macaque, Macaca leonina, thoughtfully inspects the back of its hand while grooming its fur.
A northern pig-tailed macaque thoughtfully inspects the back of its hand while grooming its fur.

Caught in shafts of light on the edge of the forest, a pig-tailed macaque is wholly absorbed as it inspects the fur on the back of its hand. The behaviour and pose are strikingly human, and reminded me of how much we have in common with our primate cousins.

This is an adult male northern pig-tailed macaque. Until quite recently pig-tailed macaques were considered one species, Macaca nemestrina, with the northern pig-tailed classed as a sub-species. However studies conducted in the early 2000s (e.g. Gippoliti, 2001) looking more closely at anatomical and behavioural differences, determined that the differences were so significant that they should be considered two distinct species. The southern pig-tailed macaque retained the original scientific name (M. nemestrina) while the northern pig-tailed macaque (previously the sub-species M. nemestrina leonina) was elevated to full species level and given the new scientific name Macaca leonina. However this change remained scientifically controversial until quite recently, and only in the past few years has it become fully accepted. The most recent (at time of writing) research on speciation of pig-tailed macaques in South East Asia, using analysis of differences in mitochondrial DNA proteins to determine molecular clock timelines, suggests that northern pig-tailed macaques separated from their southern brethren around 1.7 million years ago, and from the Siberut macaque of Western Indonesia only just over one million years ago (Abdul-Latiff and Md-Zain, 2021). Both northern and southern pig-tailed macaques occur in Thailand, with the boundary between ranges of the two species believed to lie in the Krabi region of Southern Thailand. I photographed this guy on the island of Phuket, which is very close to this boundary. The lighter colour fur, white flashes above the eyes and a thin red line running from the corner of the eye towards the ear, mark him out as distinctly a northern pig-tailed.

A northern pig-tailed macaque (Macaca leonina) looks straight ahead as it emerges from the shadows of the forest.
A northern pig-tailed macaque caught in sunlight with background in deep shadow. It can clearly be identified as a northern pig-tailed by the conspicuous white flashes above its eyes and the deep red lines running from the corner of each eye towards the ears. Phuket, Thailand.

Pig-tailed macaques are denizens of lowland and hill rainforest through much of South-East Asia. However in many locations their natural habitat is disappearing rapidly as rainforest are cleared to make way for palm oil and rubber plantations, rice paddy fields and urban development. Because of this northern pig-tailed macaques are classed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN. They are primarily fruit eating, but will also take leaves, birds eggs, insects and caterpillars, and are not averse to raiding palm oil and fruit tree plantations. Along with their relatives the crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) pig-tailed macaques have learned to live alongside humans. In Phuket the inhabit the forests and mangroves (in the case of crab-eating macaques) fringing towns and villages, especially along the eastern shores, and will often congregate in tourist areas drawn to handouts of bananas. The habituation to humans brings numerous problems. The monkeys develop a taste for the easy pickings of tourist handouts and the risks of infection and injury due to bites or scratches from fearless monkeys is significant. But for me it is the similarities between us that are the most fascinating; the strong social bonding, the way a youngster will play with a leaf or a discarded plastic drink bottle just like a small child, or the way an adult will stare at the back of his hand as if in deep introspection, and for all we know maybe he is.

References

Gippoliti S. 2001. on the taxonomy of Macaca nemestrina
leonina Blyth, 1863 (Primates: Cercopithecidae). Hystrix It J Mamm 12: 51–54. doi:10.4404/hystrix-12.1-4171.

Muhammad Abu Bakar Abdul-Latiff, Badrul Munir Md-Zain. 2021. Taxonomy, Evolutionary and Dispersal Events of Pig-Tailed Macaque, Macaca nemestrina (Linnaeus, 1766) in Southeast Asia with Description of a New Subspecies, Macaca nemestrina perakensis in Malaysia. Zool Stud. 2021; 60: e50. Published online 2021 Oct 8. doi: 10.6620/ZS.2021.60-50PMCID: PMC8685347

About these images

I took these shots late afternoon, on the edge of some forest on the eastern side of Phuket Island, Southern Thailand. The macaque had just climbed down from a tree and was perfectly lit by the low-angled sun, while the forest behind was in deep shade. The images were taken with a Nikon full-frame DSLR; the full size image is around 80 megapixels.

Fine Art Landscape and Wildlife Prints

If you enjoyed this story why not check out my other blogs. I write about travel, the environment, marine biology, diving and wildlife. You may also want to check out my photographic prints. These can be viewed on my main site www.colinmunrophotography.com and include landscapes from around the World, people of the World, marine life and other wildlife. The prints are only available through my website, each one individually processed and made to order. This includes fine art giclee prints, limited edition prints and canvas wraps. I use only the best, carefully selected print houses employing the finest papers and printing processes to ensure image fidelity and longevity.

Encounter with a scorpionfish

Encounter with a scorpionfish
A scorpionfish,Scorpaenidae, sits camouflaged on a rock. Andaman Sea, Thailand. @ Colin Munro Photography www.colinmunrophotography.com
Scorpionfish sitting camouflaged on rocks.

My encounter with this guy almost ended badly. I was snorkelling around a rocky reef off Kata Noi beach, on the Andaman Sea coast of Phuket yesterday. Specifically I was trying to photograph fish swimming and feeding in the breaking waves. This is a little tricky in that one needs to get close enough to get decent images in water full of bubbles and suspended bits of detritus, without actually ending up on the rocks themselves. My technique was to float as close as possible, then duck-dive down and grab on to a suitable bit of rock to stabilise and secure myself as the waves swept passed me (note: this was shallow, algae covered rock, not coral). The rocks in the shallows were large and smooth, so finding a handhold was not always easy. On this occasion, as I dived down, I noticed a small rounded protuberance on the flat rock below me. Not a great handhold but it would probably give me just enough purchase. As I reach out, a fraction of a second before my fingers closed around it, the ‘protuberance’ swam off down the slope. I knew immediately what it was, and realised how lucky I had just been. Though not at all aggressive, scorpionfish are among the most venomous species in the ocean. A series of sharp spines occur within their dorsal fin. These normally lie flat along their backs, but when the fish is alarmed they become erect. The spines have grooves along them that connect to venom glands. When the spines puncture the skin of an unlucky swimmer or diver this causes the sheath protecting the spines to tear, allowing venom is pumped into the tissue. When staid scientific papers describe the first symptoms as excruciating pain then you know it’s gonna hurt. Many years before I had the unfortunate experience of stepping, bare-footed, on a stonefish while I was erecting a tide gauge in shallow water (stonefish are related to scorpionfish but with a generally more potent venom). The pain I experienced over the subsequent six hours is something I never want to repeat. The initial effects (apart from pain) are usually pronounced edema as the toxins cause a major inflammatory response. More severe problems can include heart arrythmia, tissue necrosis and lung damage. The toxins are extremely complex and we are still only just starting to the underlying mechanisms.

A scorpionfish stares directly at the camera. www.colinmunrophotography.com
Relying on its camouflage, the scorpionfish stares stares straight at my camera.

Fortunately I avoided all this and was able to watch as the scorpionfish swam down into deeper watch. Once it had settled I dived down to get some photographs. Scorpionfish are not at all aggressive, and generally rely on their impressive camouflage to protect them. So if you approach slowly and carefully one can get quite close without disturbing them. Several scorpionfish species occur in the Andaman Sea, and identifying to species level live individuals is extremely difficult as often relies on small physical differences that are almost impossible to spot underwater. So this guy will remain Scoraenodes sp.

Fine Art Landscape and Wildlife Prints

If you enjoyed this story why not check out my other blogs. I write about travel, the environment, marine biology, diving and wildlife. You may also want to check out my photographic prints. These can be viewed on my main site www.colinmunrophotography.com and include landscapes from around the World, people of the World, marine life and other wildlife. The prints are only available through my website, each one individual processed and made to order. This includes fine art giclee prints, limited edition prints and canvas wraps. I use only the best, carefully selected print houses employing the finest papers and printing processes to ensure image fidelity and longevity.

fine art wildlife and landscape prints for sale. Colin Munro Photography www.colinmunrophotography.com
A sample of my fine art prints for sale

Baboons ate my passport

Baboons ate my passport

I’ve recounted this story to friends a few times over the years, so I thought I’d get around to writing it up. This is from way back in 1982, pre-dating my time as a photographer by many years, and before I trained as marine biologist. I was 25 years old at the time, and had just quit my job as a salvage diver in Mombasa. I had a small amount of money saved, and a couple of months before I was due to start university in Newcastle, England, so I packed a tent and sleeping bag into my rucksack and set off to explore a little of Northern Kenya. From Mombasa I hitched to Nairobi, some 300 miles northwest. I found a cheap hotel for a couple of nights and pondered my next move. I had initially been keen to visit Meru Reserve, as I knew of its long association with Joy and George Adamson; indeed, that was where both Elsa, the lioness of Born Free, was buried and the ashes of Joy Adamson scattered. However, at that time Meru was plagued by gangs of poachers and there had been a spate of attacks on tourists by armed groups; AK47s being all too common amongst poachers and Shifta (a term used interchangeably for both bandits and Somali resistance fighters) due to decades of conflict between Kenyan Government forces and ethnic Somalis in the Northern Frontier District, as it was known. George Adamson himself would be shot dead by such a group some seven years later. I considered trying to get to Kora, where I knew George worked the Tony Fitzjohn at that time, but Kora was not open to the general public and without one’s own transport there was no easy way to get there. Simply walking in was not an option. After some deliberation I decided to head further north to Samburu National Park. Samburu was mostly semi-arid and within it was found animals I had never seen before, in particular Grevy’s zebra and gerenuk, the strange long-necked gazelle. My plans were quite hazy, but I hoped I could get transport close enough to walk in, then hitch a ride around inside the reserve on one of the tourist vehicles. I headed to Machakos Bus Station in central Nairobi, where buses heading to all parts of the country could be found. Machakos Bus Station, at that time, was a cauldron of mayhem. Large numbers of buses parked chaotically, surrounded by shouting, jostling crowds, street vendors, ticket touts, con artists and pickpockets. Impossible amounts of luggage were hurled on to bus roofs, whilst people boarded. Carrying my rucksack in front to me so I could keep the side pockets in view as I squeezed through the crowd, I eventually found my bus, purchased my ticket and boarded. I was off to Isiolo, some 9 hours’ bus ride to the north, and the end of the line for buses.

Isiolo, back then, had something of a frontier town feel about it. One wide, dirt road of ran through it. Originating in Nairobi, it ran all the way to Moyale on the Ethiopian border. Archers Post, a Samburu village, lay 22 miles further on up the road. From there I reckoned I could walk the 14 miles to the game lodge and tent campsite. However, getting to Archers Post was not simply a question of jumping on a bus or hitching a ride. North of Isiolo, up to the Ethiopian border, was considered bandit country. A combination of drought, food insecurity, overspill from conflicts in Ethiopia and Somalia, simmering bitterness from the Shifta Wars a decade earlier, centuries old tribal conflicts and cattle rustling, coupled with the easy availability of guns, made for a dangerous mix. Consequently, no buses operated north of Isiolo, the only scheduled transport was truck convoys with military escorts. These passed through early morning every three or four days, so my only option was to wait. My hotel room was hot and airless; a concrete cube with a small window looking out onto the main street and a broken down bed I inspected carefully for unwelcome invertebrate cohabitants. Out back there was a small courtyard where beer was served until the small hours. There wasn’t a great deal to do in Isiolo. I wandered the main street, peering in shops full of dusty tins with faded labels. Fresh fruit or vegetables seemed a rarity. I washed down bread and margarine, or chapatis and boiled eggs, with black Nescafe coffee. I watched local girls of school age passing carrying sacks of charcoal on their heads. Unlike near the coast I had not seen any significant charcoal burning fires when travelling to Isiolo, and trees were stunted and sparse, so God knows how far an area had to be scavenged to collect the wood to fill these sacks.  Charcoal was the main fuel for cooking, and selling charcoal often the last resort of the destitute.  That it is damaging to the environment is a poor argument to someone for whom it is the only way to ward off starvation.

Isiolo, Kenya. 1980s. two girls carry sacks of charcoal to sell. www.colinmunrophotography.com
Young Samburu girls carrying sacks of charcoal on their heads, Isiolo,

I was befriended by a young local man who offered to show me around, telling me there was a camel market happening in town.  I was keen to see the market but wary of being scammed or suddenly hit for a large ‘guides fee’, my experiences of such approaches in Nairobi and Mombasa having made me cautious and cynical.   The camel market, down a few alleyways which opened up to some large pens, was the first time I had ever seen camels close up, so definitely worth it.  My cynicism proved completely unfounded, my guide refusing all payment afterwards, leaving me feeling quite ashamed.  The young man (who’s name I confess I have forgotten) was a local teacher who simply wanted to be helpful whilst have an opportunity to practice his English. Mzungus (white people) were not common in Isiolo then (I seemed to be the only one around at that time) and so he approached me.

The convoy arrived before dawn, which meant being packed and waiting on the street outside my hotel around 5.30am.  The convoy, around ten heavily laden Mitsubishi-Fuso trucks, rolled up just before 6am, grinding to a halt in the middle of the road.  I picked up my rucksack and joined the dozen or so others hoping grab a lift.  In the darkness we shouted up to those already on top, and they shouted down to us.  I took off my rucksack and held it high; hands reaching down to grab it.  I then climbed up onto the roof of the cab, and from there onto the back of the truck, joining the eight or nine fellow travellers already up there.  The main cargo, whatever it was, lay under a steel frame supported tarpaulin that projected some five to six feet above the height of the cab; the tarp secured by ropes.  On top of this various items, my rucksack, the belongings of my fellow travellers plus a spare wheel, were held rather precariously either squeezed under the securing ropes or tied on to them with whatever bits or rope or cord was available.  Directly behind the cab, about four foot above it, was a small platform, no more than three foot wide. This was where we travellers all sat.  I squeezed in beside my new companions, sitting with my knees drawn up under my chin. With one hand I found a bit of rope to hang on to.  The soldiers escorting us finished stretching their legs and climbed back into their trucks. As the dawn broke the engines roared into life, gears crashed and our convoy headed north.

The road north of Isiolo was simply hard packed dirt surrounded by a sea of sand and rocks.  Up on top we swayed from side to side like sailors in rigging, at times I was prevented from falling more by the pressure of bodies either side of me than by my grip on the rope. Drifting sand would partially obscure the road at times. At one point our driver lost concentration and we veered off the road, lurching violently as he tried to avoid rocks, trees and termite hills.  There were points at which both wheels on the right hand side went airborne, and I was convinced the truck was about to end up on its side. After about 80 metres of rodeo ride we regained the relative security of the road.  The road stretched arrow straight in front of us, with Ololokwe mountain dominating the horizon, rising out of the surrounding flatlands. Either side stretched sand with occasional acacias. Nothing moved except the occasional camel herd. Very quickly my position became pretty uncomfortable. There was only one other place to sit. Directly in front was a metal crate, bolted to the front of the trailer headboard directly above the cab.  This contained a few plastic bags and 5 gallon drums of oil, all loosely tied together.  Sitting alone on top of these was a young lad, maybe 13 or 14 years old.  The crate rattled like hell, and there was no side protection to prevent you falling, but at least there was room to move.  I inched my way forward to join him.  Mohammed, his name I learned, was shy and quiet.  Questions were answered with one word replies.  He was travelling alone, and did not seem entirely sure where he was going.  I hoped there would be someone meeting him.  We arrived at Archers Post in under an hour.  This was one street of wooden buildings with corrugated iron roofs. There was also a sign pointing the way to Samburu lodge. I untied my rucksack, climbed down and waived to my goodbye to my temporary companions.  Shouldering the pack I set off.

travelling on a truck roof from Isiolo to samburu 1982
Mohammed, my young travelling companion, on the roof of our truck on route to Archer’s Post.

The road to Samburu Lodge was pretty clear.  A few huts lined the road on the outskirts of Archers Post, and as I passed one or two Samburu women or children would watch with mild curiosity.  Some would call out or respond to greetings ‘hello’ or ‘jambo’ or sometimes ‘kejua’.  I paid a few shillings to take a photograph of one girl carry a young child, who was dressed in particularly fine looking traditional costume.

Samburu girl with child 1982
A Samburu girl with a young child, just outside Archer’s Post

As I trudged on the huts petered out, and soon I was alone. The sun climbed higher and the air shimmered in the heat.  The only sound was my boots scuffing though the dirt.  My pack felt like it had doubled in weight. After maybe a couple of hours I heard a vehicle in the distance. I turned to see a Land Rover heading towards me, a trail of dust billowing like smoke behind it. It was my lucky day!  As it drew level it slowed and skidded to a halt.  The driver wore a priest’s dog collar and cassock; the passengers were four or five nuns. The driver leaned across the passenger seat to talk to me.  In my head I thought If he’s going to ask where I’m headed that’s pretty damn obvious. But no, instead, in a strong Italian accent he half shouted “You cannot walk here. There are lions. It is dangerous!’  With that unhelpful warning he rammed the Land Rover into gear and left me standing dumbfound in a cloud of dust.  I stared at the back of the slowly disappearing Land Rover, and the nuns in the back returned my gaze expressionlessly.  It took me a minute to fully comprehend what had just happened. A priest had just stopped to warn me that I was in danger by walking, and then had just driven away leaving me to walk.  Was he expecting me to call a taxi? I wasn’t particularly concerned about lions (maybe youthful bravado) but I was very hot and tired and had a long way still to walk.  The Catholic Church had established missions throughout Northern Kenya. Archers Post Catholic Mission had had been established in the early 1960s by Italian Consolata Fathers, and continued to be run by Consolata priests and Franciscan nuns.  Strong evangelists, they built schools, medical centres and installed water pumps …and of course they brought Catholicism to the pastoralists and nomads, Samburu, Turkana and Gabra, partially displacing there traditional religions. 

Convoy of trucks arriving Archers Post 1982
Our convoy arrives at Archer’s Post.

I trudged on and, fortuitously, was not eaten by lions. I was however, very hot, tired and dehydrated when I finally reached Samburu Lodge late afternoon. I walked past the lodge to the small clearing designated as a camping site and pitched my tent.  After a quick wash and drinking a lot of water I cooked some food, crawled on top of my sleeping bag and fell fast asleep.

The following morning I awoke around dawn, gritty eyed and parched.  The heat of the sun very quickly makes lying inside a small tent intolerable. The campsite had maybe seven or eight tents in it. Needless to say my little A frame tent was much smaller than anything else there.  People were up and about, finishing breakfast and packing gear away into campervans.  As I walked to the toilet block I passed an American girl carrying a loaf of bread towards her van.  I saw a large shape barrelling towards her on the periphery of my vision.  I turned in time to hear a loud shriek.  A big male olive baboon ripped the loaf out of her grasp as he rushed past.  The girl was shocked, but unhurt.  That should have been a pretty clear warning to me; I wasn’t paying attention.   I knew I needed to try and find some transport around the park fairly soon, but walking past the lodge the previous day I had spotted a swimming pool.  I had time for one quick, 30 second dip first, I told myself.  Grabbing a towel and shorts I walked around to the pool, changed, had a quick shower and dived into gloriously cool water. One lap became two, two laps became three, three became four.  Finally I forced myself out of the pool and as I did so the smell of fresh, real coffee hit me.  It was being served right at the pools edge.  After existing on tinned Nescafe powder for days my willpower weakened.  Almost an hour later I returned to the campsite.  The other tents were gone, as were all the minibuses and campervans.  Of course! Everyone headed off early morning for the best sightings of game.  I looked around  – where was my tent? Just then a baboon ran past me waving a kikoi like a flag.  One of my kikois.  The contents of my tent were strewn over half the campsite and around twenty baboons were running around the campsite, greatly excited, some carrying trophies from their pillaging.  Anger rose in me and I picked a handful of small stones and started hurling them at the baboons, walking towards them shouting expletives.  The baboons appeared remarkably good at knowing exactly how far I could throw a stone with any accuracy, and from just outside that radius they glared back, forming a rough semi-circle around me.  At that point I started to calm down. I realised there was no-one else around and that getting into a confrontation with a large group of baboons armed only with a handful of pebbles and a coarse vocabulary was probably not a smart move.  Keeping a watchful eye on the baboons I walked back to where my tent had been pitched. The tent itself was flattened. A long gash in the cotton material had exposed everything inside.  My ex-army down sleeping bag had also been ripped open. Feathers lay everywhere. The little food I had: a small loaf of sliced bread, margarine and some cheese, had been devoured.  Even the carton of tea bags. Almost every individual teabag had been ripped open, spilling tea leaves around the tent to mingle with the feather down.  My passport, that I had carefully hidden inside my sleeping bag, lay exposed on the top of the sleeping bag. I picked it up.  Clearly some baboon had decided it was probably some exotic fruit I had brought. The blue outer cover had been picked away at and peeled back in numerous strips, exposing the card beneath, and the edges chewed.  The front cover appeared as it had several passes through a farm threshing machine. Incredibly, all the inside pages remained intact.   My tent had a gash along the side around three feet across. My sleeping also had one large hole through which down feathers were spilling.  Clearly I couldn’t camp with a tent and sleeping bag in this condition, apart from the fact I no longer had any food.  I packed my belongings back in to my rucksack and walked back to the lodge.  I needed to get back to Isiolo, but I couldn’t simply walk back to Archers Post then wait for a truck, that could be days.  Fortunately I found someone in the lodge who was driving to Isiolo that afternoon, who kindly offered me a lift.

Olive baboon destroy my tent
Baboons rummage through the remains of my tent

By the time I was dropped off in Isiolo I was in a despondent mood. I checked in at my old hotel, to find that my previous room was not available. I was offered what looked like a small prison cell bordering the courtyard at the back. Still feeling fairly dispirited after my plans had gone so spectacularly wrong, I decided I was going to go back to Nairobi. From there I would rethink my plans about where to head. 

Nowadays Isiolo has a impressively titled ‘International Airport’, with a brand new terminal building and tarmac runway. At the time of writing it doesn’t tend to get much international traffic. In fact no scheduled commercial flights arrive there. Costing a reputed three billion Kenyan shillings, it has, so far, turned out to be one of the many grand, but ill-conceived, projects that Africa so often falls prey to. Nothing like this existed back in 1982. There was, however, a small airfield a little under a kilometre from where I was staying, and I’d heard that a few times a week flights left from there to Nairobi, early in the morning.  The flights were supposedly carrying miraa to Nairobi from farms nearby.  Miraa, known in other parts of East Africa as khat or qat is a stimulant widely consumed throughout Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia.  The shoots or leaves are chewed, producing a feeling of mild euphoria, increased alertness and suppressing appetite.  Matatu and truck drivers, often working crazy long hours, can frequently be seen with a bundle of shoots or leaves, chewing continuously.  The problem for both the consumer and the supplier is that the psychoactive effect of the plant fades rapidly once it is harvested, so it needs to be delivered to market fast.  Pickup trucks could often be seen driving at breakneck speeds loaded with large bundles of leaves and stems, wrapped in banana leaves, as they head to Nairobi or other population centres.  Whilst banned in the USA, UK and much of the West, miraa is legally grown and consumed by millions throughout East Africa. That being said the organisations that control its supply are often described as ‘mafia-like cartels’. Now the idea of turning up and hitching a lift on an airplane may seem rather bizarre in the highly regulated, bureaucratic world we live in today, but back then, in parts of Africa, it was not that uncommon.   So I took a walk to the airfield just before sunset.  There was the plane, a small, single-engined Cessna 172 or similar, parked on the runway, with a couple of crew nearby.  Yes, this plane was leaving at 6am tomorrow morning. A lift? Why not?  Just be here 20 minutes beforehand.  Elated at my good fortune I walked back to the hotel.  I searched out the night duty manager and told him I needed an early morning call at 5am sharp.  I stressed this was very important. ‘No problem’ I was informed with a big smile. I then retired to my airless, gloomy room, dug a needle and bobbin of cotton thread out of a rucksack pocket, and began the chore of repairing my tent and sleeping bag.  Around 9pm the task was completed and I settled down for an early night.  There were a few tables and chairs in the small courtyard outside my room, and some locals (I assume) were having a beer or three. As the evening progressed, and more beer was consumed, more people turned up and the revelry became louder, and louder.  At some time after midnight the large wooden gates of the courtyard were opened, and a Land Rover drove in, occupying about 50% of the total courtyard area.  The Land Rover arrived, lights blazing, with more beer and a ‘boombox’ cassette tape player blasting out benga and Afro-Cuban rumba tunes over the clatter of the vehicle’s engine.  The party hit overdrive. I eventually drifted off to sleep around 3am, with the music still playing, albeit at a lower volume. 

I awoke with a start.  Switching my torch on I glanced at my watch. Five forty am. Shit! I leaped out of bed, dressed in under a minute, grabbed my rucksack and headed out through the courtyard, passing the now silent Land Rover and tables strewn with empty beer bottles.  As the approaching dawn began to lighten the sky in the East I alternately ran and marched towards the airfield.  As I got closer I could clearly here the sound of an engine warming up.  I ran as fast as I could with a pack across uneven ground.  Around 300 metres from the airfield then engine tone changed and increased in intensity.  I watched in the semi-darkness as the plane sped across the runway, lifted off, and turned south towards Nairobi.  I trudged slowly back to my hotel, tired and angry.  Once back I dropped my pack in my room and went straight to the duty manager’s office.  Hammering loudly on the door I demanded to know what had happened to my early morning call.  No response came from behind the locked door, just an almost imperceptible giggle.  I considered the futility and ridiculousness of my rage and returned to my room to sleep. After a couple of hours rest I woke feeling a bit better about the World.  So, I had lost a day repairing my tent and sleeping bag, and lost a bit of food.  It wasn’t catastrophic.  Heading back to Nairobi was perhaps an overreaction, especially now it would involve a long bus ride.  At the same time walking back into Samburu didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.  Maybe there were other alternatives.

Fine Art Landscape and Wildlife Prints

If you enjoyed this story why not check out my other blogs. I write about travel, the environment, marine biology, diving and wildlife. You may also want to check out my photographic prints. These can be viewed on my main site www.colinmunrophotography.com and include landscapes from around the World, people of the World, marine life and other wildlife. The prints are only available through my website, each one individual processed and made to order. This includes fine art giclee prints, limited edition prints and canvas wraps. I use only the best, carefully selected print houses employing the finest papers and printing processes to ensure image fidelity and longevity.

fine art wildlife and landscape prints for sale. Colin Munro Photography www.colinmunrophotography.com
A sample of my fine art prints for sale

Limited Edition Prints

Limited Edition Prints

Andaman Sea sunset limited edition

I’ve finally bitten the bullet and made some of my photographic images available as limited edition prints. Okay, that’s not quite true. To be more precise I’ve actually made one of my photographic images available as a limited edition print. But … the intention is that more will follow, and all working out there will be a series of limited edition prints. I am making this image available in two sizes: 96 x 66cm and 50 x 34cm. Only 75 of each size will be produced.

Andaman Sea sunset. A limited edition print. Limited edition photographic print by Colin Munro Photography. An image of a sunset over the Andaman Sea taken from Phuket, Thailand. Limited edition prints. @Colin Munro Photography www.colinmunrophotography.com
Andaman Sea Sunset. My first limited edition print
(signature not across actual print, of course).

And there it is, my first limited edition print, Andaman Sea sunset. I took this from a beach on the west coast of Phuket, Thailand, in late 2020, looking out over the Andaman Sea (sometimes known as the Burma Sea). One of the advantages of photographing sunsets along the Thailand coastline is that they are often spectacularly beautiful. One of the disadvantages is that I frequently end up standing in ankle deep water, as far from human habitation as possible, when most sensible folks are having their sundowner beer (or rum and coke, or whatever your tipple happens to be). I took this particular shot on a pretty low tide so I could get far out among the rocks and pools exposed at low water. As darkness descended the sea had already begun to return, and my feet and the bottom of the legs of my camera tripod had already disappeared underwater. Part of me kept saying ‘just one more shot before the light disappears completely‘ whilst the more sensible part of my brain kept reminding me ‘you do know you’ve got about 300 metres of rocks to clamber over in darkness, with two tripods, three cameras and rucksack full of lenses, before you reach dry sand?‘.

All my limited edition prints come with a signed, embossed label detailing the image, the number that image is in the edition (e.g. no. 5 of 75) and a unique, traceable ID code. They also come with a Certificate of Authenticity. This contains the same information as the label, plus a thumbnail image of the photograph, a little bio about me and about the printing process.

You can purchase these limited editions only through me via my website. Currently I’m offering free delivery within the UK (outside the UK please contact me for delivery options and costs). Each print and frame is made to order. You can view them here www.colinmunrophotography.com and just click the Limited Editions tab in the top menu.

Fine Art Landscape and Wildlife Prints

If you enjoyed this story why not check out my other blogs. I write about travel, the environment, marine biology, diving and wildlife. You may also want to check out my photographic prints. These can be viewed on my main site www.colinmunrophotography.com and include landscapes from around the World, people of the World, marine life and other wildlife. The prints are only available through my website, each one individual processed and made to order. This includes fine art giclee prints, limited edition prints and canvas wraps. I use only the best, carefully selected print houses employing the finest papers and printing processes to ensure image fidelity and longevity.

fine art wildlife and landscape prints for sale. Colin Munro Photography www.colinmunrophotography.com
A sample of my fine art prints for sale

Moon Jellies

Deanse swarm of moon jellies, Tobermory Bay, by Colin Munro Photography www.colinmunrophotography.com

Moon jellies (Aurelia aurita) are probably familiar to anyone in Northern Europe or Northeast America who has spent time at the seashore. They are also known in British waters as common jellies, for very good reason. Moon jellies occasionally occur in dense aggregations, such as here, partly due to successful reproductive years and partly due to them being simply pushed together by wind and tide. Although they do have some control over their direction of travel, by pulsing movements of their bell, they are largely at the mercy of wind and tide. This can result in large numbers of them being pushed up against the shoreline, especially in embayments such as here, in Tobermory Bay, Isle of Mull, Scotland.

A swarm of moon jellies, Aurelia aurita, Tobermory Bay, Isle of Mull. @colinmunro

Moon jellies do sting, but the stinging cells (known as nematocysts) within their tentacles have barbs that cannot penetrate human skin. Consequently we can’t feel their stings. Moon jellies feed on a wide range of planktonic animals that can be immobilised and captured by their stinging tentacles. I’m writing this in mid-September. At this time of the year moon jellies are approaching their maximum size, commonly around 10 centimetres across, though some grow much larger. In another month or two (in UK waters) they will begin to reproduce. Moon jellies reproduce both sexually and asexually, at different stages of their life cycle. The medusa stage (that’s the jellies that we see floating around) reporduces sexually; the polyp stage (read on to find out about that) reproduces asexually by a process known as strobilating (I’ll explain) and simply budding to produce more polyps. let’s start with the medusa stage we’re familiar with. The male jellies release strings of sperm which are ingested by the females. The fertilised eggs then hatch as tiny larvae, which are brooded by the femalein their oral arms (underneath the bell). These planulae larvae fall to the seabed, where they attach and form tiny polyps (looking rather like tiny sea anemones, to which jellies are related). These polyps grow into long cylinder shapes, which then start to divide horizontally (and begin to look like a stack of plates). These ‘plates’ or ephyra as they are scientifically known, then swim off, one at a time, each one becoming a tiny new jelly – and this is what’s known as strobilating. If it survives long enough the tiny ephyra will grow to become a full size moon jelly in less than one year and repeat the process. Of course only a few will do so. Many of us will be aware that leatherback turtles each jellies, but leatherbacks are generally pretty rare. A much more common predator of moon jellies is – another jellyfish. The lions mane jelly is a pretty voracious predator of moon jellies. You can read about it in my marine biology blog here. https://www.marine-bio-images.com/blog/marine-wildlife/the-extraordinary-life-cycle-of-the-lions-mane-jellyfish/

Photography and prints

You can see more of my photographs, underwater, wildlife and landscapes, on my main site www.colinmunrophotography.com. You can also purchase prints of my photographs. These are available, some in a range of sizes, as fine art giclee prints and some as canvas wraps. Each print is made to order, I have carefully chosen what I consider some of the best quality fine art print houses around. You cannot buy these on the high street, or from large online outlets, they are available only directly from me through my website. I personally process all images and oversee all orders.

Whakaari White Island; how we approach risk

Whakaari White Island; how we approach risk
A tour helicopter flies close to the steam plume emanating from the crater lake, White Island andesite stratovolcano, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand North Island, 2017.
A tour helicopter flies close to the steam plume emanating from the crater fumaroles, White Island andesite stratovolcano, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand North Island, 2017.

It’s just over a year now since the eruption on Whakaari White Island. At the time I chose not to upload images of the island, out of respect for those who died, and those who were injured. Stepping ashore on White Island (or Wharaaki, to give it its Maori name) inevitably involved a degree or risk. How much risk, and how aware were those stepping ashore as tourists (or tour guides) of the risks, are questions that cannot easily be answered. A more general question, and one very relevant to our current situation, is how much risk are we willing to accept. Scientists estimate there is about a 75% chance San Francisco will experience a major earthquake in the next 30 years. That doesn’t stop people moving there. In many ways the past year has revolved around our perception of risk; what, and how much, risk is acceptable in our lives. What has caused much heated debate is that, with the outbreak of a novel virus, this is no longer seen as a matter of individual choice; one person’s acceptable of risk can be viewed as placing others at risk, and so conflict has arisen in determining the balance between protecting all of society and regard for individual freedoms. Hopefully what may arise out of this is a better informed debate on risk, and how we manage it.

Fumaroles, White Island (Whakaari) New Zealand
Fumaroles, White Island (Whakaari) New Zealand

My personal take (excluding issues such as pandemics, where communal decisions are required) is that risk is a very much personal thing. The climber Alex Honnold takes risks that most of us would never do, but few would characterise his meticulous and methodical approach as stupid, he simply has a significantly higher acceptance of risk than we do. With mosts things, I try to assess the risks of any given action, and mitigate as much as possible, then decide whether the remaining – uncontrollable – risks are worth taking. Diving can be seen as being risky, and sometimes it is, but understanding of the risks, good planning and preparation controls much of the risk. Away from the extreme edges (e.g. deep, mixed gas diving) most diving accidents involve human error: carelessness, panic or sometimes stupidity. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from my stupidity in my younger years without, in most cases, serious consequences.

Risk assessment and risk management has been a core part of my work for much of my professional life, as a diving contractor, an environmental consultant and as a tour guide. When guiding tourists, advising clients or otherwise acting in a professional capacity the level of acceptable risk must always be far lower than they would be at a personal level. The bar must be set to the lowest possible, whilst explaining (as best as possible) exactly what the risk is. As always in the real world, whether this be visiting a volcano, supervising a diving operation, or planning logistics in a remote area, this is not a perfect science and the World is never completely risk free. So the aim must be to both reduce the level of risk to the absolute minimum, and also to inform the client (or employee) exactly what the known risks are. Structured risk assessments have become a required tool for identifying, quantifying and mitigating risk in many industries over the past three decades. There is no doubt they have real benefits, but they also introduce problems. There is a real danger that these become overly bureaucratic operations that distracts from real world assessment. At worst they can become a box-ticking excercise which leads to a false sense of security ‘I’ve addressed all the listed issues therefore everything must be safe’. I can think of more than one operation I have been involved in the past, where tunnel-visioned focus on ticking all the ‘risk’ boxes on a form has lead to very obvious, and sometimes catastrophic, risks being missed. Equally, overly presciptive rules can paralyse operations needlessly by prohibiting operating because a particular parameter is exceeded, when experience shows that the overall conditions are safe (an example of this can be setting a hard upper limit of wind speed for operating small boats, when in reality a number of factors, of which wind speed is only one, will determine sea conditions and whether the operation is safe). Whilst risk assessment documents and policies are essential in the modern world, they are never a substitute for experience. As individuals on the ground it can be very easy to accept the advice of those in higher authority that something is safe, but if they are remote from the situation – not observing conditions in real time – that is where experience can give the confidence to override those decisions. Whilst we all accept that, when operating in a professional and commercial environment, the acceptable risk must always be lower than acceptable on personal and private ventures, commercial considerations to continue can sometimes lead to unacceptable risks being taken, especially when snap decisions are taken under pressure. Perhaps one of the best known such incidents being the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, when commercial climbing expeditions lead a number of relatively inexperienced climbers to the summit. In all 8 climbers, from three expedition teams, died between 10-11 May. Many factors were involved, but the decision to ignore the 2pm agreed turn-around time is one that can, perhaps, be directly linked to commercial pressures. Commercial pressures should never influence decisions of safety, but in reality they can be relentless. In the 2018-19 season there were 11 deaths on Everest, and many of us will have seen the images of climbers standing in line queuing to reach the summit. The delays at high altitude, causing some to run out of supplemental oxygen, were blamed as instrumental in some deaths. Sherpas also spoke of inexperienced client climbers not knowing how to fit crampons.

Golden Cap, Lyme Bay, SW England
Golden Cap, Lyme Bay, SW England

Lack of experience can be a problem on both sides. In 1993, in Lyme Bay, Southwest England, four schoolchildren died in a sea kayaking trip. The trip was lead by two inexperienced and minimally qualified instructors. The group got into difficulties very early in the trip. The schoolchildren appeared to lack the canoeing experience necessary for such a trip. The instructors carried no radios or flares and had, it appeared, little understanding of weather conditions at sea, in particular offshore winds. The resulting court case lead to the jailing of the owner of the activity centre but also the establishment of the UK’s Adventure Activities Licensing Authority, which regulates commercial caving, climbing, trekking and water-sports activities in the UK. Looking further back in time, a similar situation occurred in 1971, when five schoolchildren and one of their group leaders died of exposure on a winter trekking trip in the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland. This lead to the requirement of a Mountain Leadership Certificate being required for leaders of educational trips. It is an unfortunate reality that it often takes a tragedy to occur for proper regulation of activities to occur.

White Island stratovolcano crater lake, New Zealand
White Island stratovolcano crater lake, New Zealand, late November 2019

To return to the topic of White Island. I took the top photograph in early 2017; in it you can see a tour helicopter completing a pass close to the crater fumaroles, from which the steam cloud was rising. If you look very closely you may be able to make out some tiny figures of people standing at the edge of the crater. When I visited the crater, it was filled with a moderately sized lake. The lake is actually a relatively recent and highly dynamic development. It first formed (as far as we know) in the year 2000, as volcanic activity was abating. Since then its level has risen and fallen dramatically. In 2005 it almost overtopped the rim before falling 25 metres during the following year. It disappeared completely in 2012 after further volcanic activity, reappearing the following year. In 2016, eruptions excavated 13-15 metres of the lake basin. A new lake began to form in late 2017.

Despite having visited the island a number of times over the years, it was not until November 2019 that I was able to walk to the crater lake. Although the surroundings were like visions of hell : steaming sulphurous fumaroles belching noxious gases and hot air laden with gritty, acrid smoke that seared the lungs, the lake itself appeared quite placid. As we stood at it’s edge it appeared almost tempting to dip one’s toe. At over 60 degrees C and with a pH close to that of battery acid, that would have been very unwise indeed. Two weeks later the lake exploded, with tragic results. White Island erupted because the magma (molten rock) is relatively close to the surface. This supra-heats water trapped in pores just beneath the surface, creating a delicately balanced, highly pressurised system. A minor disturbance can upset this balance – with explosive results. This is known as a phreatic eruption – superheated water rises at supersonic speed, expanding up to 1,700 times as it changes to steam. When White Island erupted in 2019 this steam, sulphur dioxide and ash sent up a plume over three kilometres high, with temperatures in the plume over 700 degrees C. Scientists warn that these types of eruptions are notoriously difficult to predict, even when sites are as well monitored as White Island, and that the warning time from observed changes may be only minutes. White Island is one of New Zealand’s most active volcanos; it was particularly active between 1976 and 2000 when many eruptions occurred, some larger than the fatal eruption of December 2019.

Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing. However, if we care to look back there were warnings given. In 2012, vulcanologist Professor Eric Klemetti wrote an article for Wired magazine. In it he wrote:

I was in New Zealand in 2009 and considered taking the White Island tour. However, the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me that these tours, although offering warning to tourists of the potential dangers, are potentially the perfect cocktail for a Galeras-like tragedy.

He continued: By making the visits to the White Island crater seem routine, it can lull the tour operators and tourists into a false sense of security, much like what happened with Stanley Williams and the other volcanologists who visited the crater of Galeras in January 1993.but if even a small phreatic (steam-driven) explosion were to happen when a group was in the crater, the consequences could be catastrophic. Will it take a half dozen deaths at White Island to change the culture, or is that merely the cost of being adventurous? It is hard to say.

In 2019 it was not half a dozen, but 22 people that died, from a phreatic explosion exactly as feared by Professor Klemetti. Again I emphasize, it’s easy to be wise after the event, and for all activities that involve hard to define risk, we rely on advice of experts in that field. The fact that tragic events happened does not necessarily mean that the experts were in any way deficient; it may be that it really was a hugely unlucky event that could not be predicted, and I am not remotely qualified to express an opinion on that. There are also a number of prosecutions ongoing by Worksafe, New Zealand’s health and safety organisation, so for that reason also, comment would be unwise. It is however, worth noting that a similar phreatic eruption occurred on White Island three and a half years previously, in April 2016. This eruption was powerful enough to eject the entire crater lake’s water and underlying sediment many metres deep, along with considerable amounts of ash. No-one died in that eruption, only because it happened at around 9.30 in the evening, so no-one was on the Island. Should this have set off alarm bells? Again I am not qualified to say.

I guess it’s highly unlikely I will ever set foot on the island again and maybe no-one else, other than a few scientists, in my lifetime. But the ramifications of White Island are likely to extend far beyond the island itself. Tours of thermal vents are popular in many parts of New Zealand, and other areas of the World. This tragic event will most certainly influence the way they are approached, and maybe lead to more careful scrutiny of the risks and how they are managed. There is always a danger also of an overreaction, the pendulum never swings to the centre, as the saying goes. It has to be hoped that New Zealand, with its long history in successfuly managing adventurous outdoor activities will find the right balance.

Video footage of the crater lake here.

Selected sources.

Maralal to Marsabit and the Great Green Wall of Africa

A truck carrying food aid to Marsabit and Turkana, 1980s, breaks down. www.colinmunrophotography.com

I spent quite a bit of time in Kenya in the early 1980s. I first travelled there in 1979; my first time outside of Europe. I instantly fell in love with the country, and still feel the same way. This is Northern Kenya, circa 1986, Samburu District, near Maralal. I had spent a couple of days in Maralal, and it was time to move on. Drought, and conflict in neighbouring Ethiopia, was causing famine in parts Northern Kenya at the time, and food aid was being distributed by truck. This was also one of the simplest ways to get around. Battered, dusty L-series Mercedes trucks laden to breaking point with gunny sacks gathering outside the police station, while sleek, shiny Landcruisers sporting United Nations logos would occasionally arrive with important looking officials. Finding one truck that was heading west and leaving shortly, I climbed on top, joining a bunch of locals already there. We sat on the sacks of mealie maize flour as the truck bounced and swayed over the deeply rutted and washboarded latertite soil. Like most of the trucks carrying food aid, ours wash ancient; the product of years of jury-rigged repairs that somehow kept it running, sharply contrasting with the brand new, air conditioned Land Cruisers transporting UN staff and Government officials. To no-one’s great surprise, it broke down and shuddered to a stop after about 50 miles.

A truck carrying food aid to Marsabit and Turkana, 1980s, breaks down. www.colinmunrophotography.com
Our broken down truck transporting food aid and people, near Maralal, Samburu district, Northern Kenya.

With the unflappable patience that so many rural kenyans display, my travel companions settled back on the hessian sacks to wait, while our driver tinkered under the truck’s bonnet and I climbed down to take some photographs. Losai region is described as semi desert, and it was fiercely hot and dry. Nothing moved amongst the scrub and termite mounts that stretched to the horizon. I don’t remember much about my travelling companions, but I do remember there was a young couple with two small children, maybe 6 or 7 years ol, sitting next to me. They were calm and silent, but I had noticed they had not eaten or drunk anything since we had left. Fresh fruit and vegetables were pretty hard to come by then, but I had a small bag of passionfruit that I had bought some days earlier, in the top of my rucksack. I dug two out, cut them in half with my pocket knife, and offered them to the kids. They were extremely shy, and looked to their parents for guidance as to what they should do. Their father smiled and indicated they should accept. This was clearly the first time they had ever eaten passionfruit. I can still remember the wide-eyed look of amazement and pleasure as they bit into tangy pulp. After a couple of hours the engine of our truck coughed and spluttered back to life, and we continued on our way. A few years prior to this I was involved in the salvage of a much larger (and disastrous) food aid delivery to East Africa, but that can wait for another blog.

Drought and famine has blighted Northern Kenya, and all of the Sahel*, for half a century. They first came to the attention of the wider, western public in the early-1980s, when BBC newsreel images and Michael Buerk’s powerful narrative from Korem, Ethiopia, was shown around the World. These shocking images gave birth to Live Aid benefit concerts at Wembley and JFK stadiums a year later. Whilst famine is not new to this part of the World, they do appear to have increased both in frequency and in costs to human live since the 1970s. The factors behind this are complex, and the relative importance of each is still a subject of debate. Warming of the Indian Ocean due to climate change has been implicated in reduced seasonal rains (although it seems this can also have the opposite effect and create severe flooding at times). Deforestation is also believed to be a major factor; Kenya is estimated to have lost around 40% of its forests since independence in 1963. Collecting wood for charcoal has been a means of survival for poor families, but the combined effects of unsustainable charcoal production and overgrazing which further denueds the land and prevents recovery of logged areas, has contributed to catastrophic famines.

Isiolo, Kenya. 1980s. two girls carry sacks of charcoal to sell. www.colinmunrophotography.com
Young Samburu girls carrying sacks of charcoal on their heads, Isiolo, Northern Kenya. Over 85% of kenyans rely on charcoal as their main source of fuel, between 1980 and 2000, as the country’s population grew, charcoal production increased by 200%. This creates problems of increasing desertification, particularly in the semi-arid lands of the North (within which Isiolo lies). By removing the trees that act as natural carbon dioxide sinks and increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere charcoal burning exacerbates the problems of global warming that are likely to lead to greater desertification in parts of Africa. However, for many kenyans there is little alternative.

Things are far from all bad however. For one thing, understanding of the problems is far greater now, and there are multiple initiatives to mitigate and reverse these environmental problems. Building walls has a very negative image at the moment, whether it be Trump’s attempts to build a border wall between the USA and Mexico, or Israel’s wall surround the Palestinian West Bank, but there’s one wall we should all applaud. The Great Green Wall. This is a project to build a wall of trees, nearly 5000 miles in length, across the Sahel. From Senegal on the west, to Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, this massive project was conceived in 2007. Driven by the African Union, this concept has now evolved into a more complex programme of land restoration and ecosystem management. Planting trees is one thing, getting planted trees to survive in semi-arid land is another. results so far have been mixed, some areas doing better than others. Other initiatives, such as restricting cattle grazing and allowing natural grasslands to return have had significant success in some Sahelian countries (e.g. Niger). So no one single initiative will solve the problem and reverse the trend of drought and land degradation, but the hope is that multiple smart solutions just might.

  • The Sahel is defined as the semi-arid band spanning the African continent, with the Sahara to the north and savanna grasslands (the Sudanian savanna) to the south. It runs from Senegal and Mauritania to the west, across to Ethiopia, Somalia and Northern Kenya to the east. It includes many countries in between as well as areas of countries to the north and south.

New Year on Dartmoor

New Year on Dartmoor

For most of us, our travel plans for 2020 pretty much all crashed and burned. With varying degrees of restrictions and lockdowns, even travel within one country became tricky to plan. At the start of 2020, my work schedule for the coming December and early January had me working in the western Indian Ocean. Alas covid-19 changed all that and, like so many others, my year was very different to that planned. Planning a short winter holiday break with my son Calum, and hoping to combine this with some good photographic opportunities, we planned to head up to northwest Scotland and fit in a few days walking and camping. Alas stricter travel restrictions imposed on the UK in December meant that plan was no longer possible. So instead we looked locally and decided that a couple of days camping on the moors of Dartmoor, Devon, would be the best option.

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A friend dropped us off in the middle of the National Park around 11.30 in the morning, New Year’s Eve, and would pick us up again mid-afternoon two days later. Our packs were pretty large as, apart from camping and camera equipment, we carried three days food supplies, and once the temperature slips below zero we can both eat a lot!  The route two our chosen campsite, at the top of a waterfall, took us around five hours to hike, including the rather chilly fording of a river.  The slipperiness of the rocks underfoot, combined with the numbing effect on our feet and the sheer weight of our packs – threatening to topple us sideways with every stumble – made for a highly entertaining crossing, but not one we were keen to repeat.

Calum makes it across the river

Hiking over steep, boggy ground covered in thigh-high tussock grass, topped off with a layer of snow was an interesting experience, and we both lost count of the number of times one foot would disappear into a deep, cold pool, sending us sprawling sideways.

Stomping through snow covered bog became hard work. Photo by Calum Munro

The sun had already set and the temperature was dropping sharply when we arrived.  Despite numb fingers our tent went up in record time and we were cooking beef curry over the camping stove 30 minutes later. I was grateful I’d brought butane/propane mix gas cylinders rather than the standard (and cheaper) butane camping gas. (Butane is fine in summer, but has a boiling point of -1 degree Celcius (30 deg F). This matters, as it is of course the gas, not the liquid that burns. The gas is liquid under pressure (in the cylinder) but needs to boil and become a gas when it is released in order for it to produce a flame. Propane, by contrast, has a boiling point of -42 degrees Celcius (-44 deg F) so no worries there about it turning to a gas. Propane has the disadvantage that the vapour pressure – the pressure it exerts against the cylinder walls – is considerably greater and so stronger cylinders are required. As few of us require to cook at -42 degrees C a compromise is a butane/propane mix. Okay, probably too much chemistry already!)

As the day progressed the weather deteriorated

Having arrived at 4.30pm, by 6pm we had both consumed a mountain of rice and curry and were already in our sleeping bags. I had been given a bottle of Mackinlay’s Shackleton whisky (inspired by the 25 cases of Mackinlays that Ernest Shackleton had taken with him on the Nimrod Expedition to Antarctica in 1907, three cases of which were rediscovered – frozen in the ice – in 2007) and a small amount of this has stowed away in my rucksack. So it only seemed fitting to toast in the New Year with a swig or two.

Curry simmering nicely next to my frozen boots

New Year’s morning arrived cold and grey. Low cloud blanketed the sky and the sun was little more than a faint glow in the southern sky.

New Year’s morning

I eventually crawled out of my sleeping bag when the desire for coffee and breakfast became greater than the desire to remain in my sleeping bag. Pulling on my boots, not the easiest of tasks as they were frozen stiff with large amounts of ice adhering to them, I forced myself out of the tent and made my way down to the river to fill our kettle. The previous day’s snow had turned to ice in many places, so this a process of skidding and sliding down the bank, being careful not to end up in the river.

Breakfast, New Year’s Day

Calum’s boots were considerably worse than mine. Having absorbed a considerable amount of water during the yesterday’s hike, they were now both saturated and frozen solid as rock, so they had to be gradually thawed and dried as much as possible. This put paid to any idea of hiking anywhere that day had we felt inclined to do so. Too many decades of carrying heavy packs and diving cylinders has reduced the intervertebral discs of my spine from thick spongy cushions to something more akin to sheets of rice paper, so I for one was quite content to spend the day relaxing in the proximity of the tent and leave our packs off for 24 hours.

The sun was barely a glow in the southern sky on New Year’s day.

During the afternoon I went back down to the river with my camera, and spent some time balancing on the rocks just beneath the waterfall. Continually splashing water had created the most wonderful patterns of icicle curtains fringing the rocks, but as the water was too deep to stand in and the mid-river boulders were coated in a thin sheen of ice, every photograph was a careful cost-benefit analysis of how much I wanted the picture against what were the chances both I and the camera would end up in the river.

Icicles hung from the boulders scattered across the river

Days are short at the beginning of January, and so cooking dinner began at around 3pm. Hot soup, followed by chicken curry and then sticky toffee pudding left us just enough time to wash up and clear away our cooking utensils before the sun set. Five thirty pm and the sky was dark. However, despite the cloud cover, an almost full moon reflecting off the snow-covered land produced an eerie glow – sufficient to see quite some distance across the moor. By six pm were were in our sleeping bags, ready for sleep. The following morning we would pack up and begin our hike back .

When you’re all packed up, leave no signs other than melted snow.

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Becoming a ‘professional’ diver: a light-hearted look.

Becoming a ‘professional’ diver: a light-hearted look.
A Royl Engineer Diver using a rock drill, Marchwood Diver Training centre, 1979. www.colinmunrophotography.com
Using a rock drill underwater against a vertical face was back-breaking work.

In these times of volunteer projects to conserve reefs around the World, the boundaries between ‘professional’ and recreational divers has become somewhat blurred. The use of tools underwater, be it Broco cutting gear, bolt guns or high pressure water lances, is one measure of being a ‘proper’ diver rather than a ‘Scuby-doo’, at least on a psychological level.  Maybe for this reason, as much as any other, the use of underwater tools was a fundamental part of my army diver training many decades ago.  At first both tools and tasks were kept very simple lest we do too much damage, either to ourselves or to the lump of metal or concrete we were tasked to modify. As virtually all of our diving was conducted in zero visibility, the risk – of either unintended amputation of body parts or trashing some vital structural component – was not inconsiderable.  My first encounter with underwater tools is a good example of this.  It happened right at the very beginning of my diving career; following my application to train as a Royal Engineers Diver. I was required to undergo several days ‘aptitude test’ to assess whether I was suitable material to join this elite group, before the army wasted significant amounts of money on training me.  This took place in Kiel, North Germany, along the Baltic coast.  In January.  In summer the Baltic coast is beautiful, in the depths of winter, not so much. In Glaswegian parlance, the phrase ‘Jeez it’s Baltic oot there’, can be taken as a warning to put on your warmest coat before venturing outside.

After a 300 kilometre drive huddled in the open back of a Land Rover, we arrived at the British Army diving facility in Kiel, shook the ice off our uniforms and headed to the warmth of the barracks. The following morning, we were introduced to our diving equipment.

The diving suits we were given were (for the non-divers reading this) of the type known as drysuits. Unlike wetsuits these have enclosed boots and tight seals at the wrist and neck to (in theory) exclude water.  Under these we wore old fashioned woollen vest and long johns, and what was essentially a thin corduroy onesie.  Combined, they had thermal insulating properties of a wet tea towel.  The drysuits themselves were rather different to modern diving dry suits, where one enters through a zip across the shoulders or diagonal length of the body.  With these there was no zip, and one entered through the neck of the suit.  The process resembled birth in reverse, and was something of an art, requiring an assistant, dexterity, brute strength and – above all – timing! Once inside, a thick aluminium collar was placed inside the neck of the suit (so resting painfully on your collar bones) and a latex neck seal placed on top.  This join was then sealed by a brass ring firmly clamping all three together: there was now no unaided escape.  The diving suits were made by Avon Rubber Company, from the same material as car tyre inner tubes.  Presumably as a joke they termed them ‘dry suits’ for in reality they had more holes than Emmentaler cheese and leaked like sieves, as we were about to find out.  Thus, attired, we plodded on down to the wooden, snow-covered jetty, pushing a small cart containing our lead weight-belts, diving cylinders, full-face diving regulator and lead diving boots.  At the end of the jetty a jolly corporal, wearing what looked to me like an extremely warm fur lined parka, instructed me on how to put the equipment on.  Once lead boots, weight belt, twin diving cylinders and ancillary equipment were on I warmed up considerably; largely because the equipment weighted around 60 kilos, and I was expending a not-insignificant amount of energy on simply remaining upright. My mask was then firmly clamped on to my face, the ‘spider’ of rubber retaining straps pulled tight to ensure no leaks, and my air turned on.  My first underwater tools were then ceremoniously presented to me.  They consisted of a large lump hammer and a cold chisel. My allotted task was to cut through the links of some old mooring chain I would find at the bottom of the metal ladder that descended from the jetty to the murky water below.  Through the slowly fogging mask I looked at the thin layer of ice covering the sea below the jetty and began to wonder if this was such a good idea after all. To make the task a little more interesting, the clear Perspex of my full-face mask was completely taped over with black insulating tape, rendering me completely encased and in total darkness. I was then guided across the snow covered jetty to the edge of the metal ladder at the end of the wooden jetty, and I proceeded – gingerly – to climb down the slippery metal rungs to the freezing water below.  As I descended beneath the surface I felt the chill of icy water slowly trickling into the suit, down my chest and back.  In a few minutes I had reached the soft mud seabed and by feel located the length of chain. Each link was about eight inches long, composed of metal about two inches thick. By touch I tried to determine which end of the chisel was which.  One end felt marginally less blunt than the other, so I placed it carefully against the metal of the nearest link and I proceeded to pound the other end with all my might for the next twenty-five minutes or so.  Occasionally I would stop for a few seconds to catch my breath and to check with my fingers how deep a gouge I had dug into the link.  This was always bitterly disappointing as the chisel – virtually flat at either end – was making not the slightest dent in the chain.  After about twenty-five minutes I felt a sharp tug on my lifeline. I responded and was signalled to ascend.  No chain was damaged during this exercise, but that was not the point.  The point was firstly to check that I would not suffer a panic attack in the zero visibility of the blacked out mask, and possibly more importantly I was dumb enough to undertake completely pointless, physically exhausting tasks when told to, and to continue until told to stop.  The latter at least, I passed with flying colours.

Fast forward several months and I was at Marchwood Diver Training Centre, near Southampton, England. My diver training had begun in earnest. Although the totally pointless, physically exhausting tasks continued unabated (in fact they increased in severity and duration) I was finally introduced to ‘proper’ power tools.  These included pneumatic rock drills.  These are essentially the same ‘road-breaker’s’ one sees workmen using to break up the tarmac at roadworks. Powered off a trailer low pressure generator, they are connected to the generator by long, thick rubber hoses.  In order to give us something solid to work on, a large concrete block had been lowered onto the black primordial ooze that constitutes the seabed at Marchwood Docks. This was a cube, each side a little over a metre long, resembling a giant sugar cube sitting on the mud. Or at least I imagined it as such, for once again, the visibility underwater was non-existent; you could literally press the luminous face of your watch against your mask and still see nothing.  Divers were deployed on this task in pairs. Connected to the surface by individual rope lifelines, each diver descended on opposite sides of the cube, following the hose of the rock drill that had been lowered to the seabed close to the cube. Now operating a pneumatic road breaker drill underwater is not an easy task.  For one thing, the pressure differential between the compressed air (powering the drill) and the surrounding water lessens as one descends.  This made the drills temperamental underwater. They tended to stop frequently; the drill bit then had to be banged hard against the side of the concrete cube to restart it.  Once started the heavy drill had to be supported and pressed hard against the vertical side of the cube, all the time pulses of compressed air expelled from the drill were hammering your head and shoulders. This meant adopting semi-crouching position, cradling the drill and leaning forward pushing as hard as possible.  Again lead boots were worn, otherwise the diver would simply be ‘blown away’ by the air pressure from the drill.  Now the obvious, much easier way to conduct this operation was to climb on top of the cube and operate the drill downwards, in a similar fashion to navvies at work on roads.  But that was a risky manoeuvre.  To climb up required putting your hands on top of the cube and heaving until you could slide your belly and then one knee on to the upper surface.  The problem was, you could hear the thunderous hammering of your fellow diver’s drill very near you, and you assumed he was working away on the opposite side of the cube. But there was also the possibility that he had had reached exactly the same conclusion as you, and was already standing on top of the cube, drilling downwards.   In the total darkness, the possibility of having a rock drill remove all your fingers, or modify the shape of your cranium, was very real and singularly unappealing. An alternative strategy was called for.  We developed what I like to think of as the ‘ten pin bowling strategy’.  Picking up my drill and cradling it in my arms, I would step backwards, counting my steps. One, two, three, four … at ten steps I would halt. Breathing deeply, I would relax, then summoning all my energy, start to run.  I say run, this was underwater, in lead boots, through soft mud, carrying a heavy drill, in pitch darkness, so it probably more resembled waddling through treacle. Six, seven, eight, nine… and then leap!  If you timed it right your leading boot would land atop the concrete cube. In one mighty bound you were there.  Secure on the desired location where your task became much easier.  And if that spot was already occupied?  This is where the ten pin analogy applies, for if your compatriot was already occupying that space you would smack into him without warning in the darkness, like an invisible bowling ball, sending him crashing to the mud below.  And this became our routine.  Ten or fifteen minutes of bone jarring drilling, then suddenly an apparent sledge hammer from nowhere would send you flying of the top of the block and leave you face down in the mud below, where you either accepted your demotion and worked the vertical face, or gathered your wits and breath, and plotted revenge. 

Whether our instructors were aware this was happening I really don’t know.  If they had I doubt they would have cared that much.  The point of most of the training was not to refine your technique with the equipment at hand, nor to reshape our concrete or steel media for any particular purpose.  The function of almost all tasks was to learn rudimentary skills and endurance, to work with, but compete against your fellow trainees … and still more endurance.  So viewed from that perspective, our creative adaptation fitted perfectly. Our instructors would probably have approved.

Marine biologist Colin Munro using an underwater pneumatic drill to create piton holes for an underwater monitoring station, following the Sea Empress oil spill. www.marine-bio-images.com www.colinmunrophotography.com
Myself using a pneumatic rock drill to create piton holes (creating underwater monitoring stations) in Milford Haven (1996) following the Sea Empress oil spill. Photo by Sue Burton.

As it transpired, many years passed before I used pneumatic rock drills in earnest underwater. I had long since left the army and was now a working marine biologist. The drills has shrunk in size somewhat , but the task remained as energy-demanding and strength sapping as ever, though I assumed at the time, with rather more purpose to them. We were creating a series of underwater monitoring stations following a major oil spill. As is often the way however, the funding for subsequent monitoring never materialised, so maybe no more purpose after all.