February 1, 2016: Winds were gusting to 27 mph and we had a high of 81 degrees F. Marie and I were aboard the MV Nautilus Explorer and motoring to the Revillagigedo Islands, about 600 km from the tip of Baja, Mexico. Divers call this Socorro (commonly mispronounced Socorros) but that is but one of the four volcanic islands out there in the middle of nowhere. We had an ill-fated trip there 16 years earlier aboard the private yacht, Ambar III, of Mike and Sherry, where we were chased back to the mainland by a tropical storm. Some years later, Sherry had a shallow water blackout while free diving and came as close to drowning as a person can (and still talk clearly about it). That is another story.
The motor out to Socorro was long and not particularly interesting, but the other divers were. In no particular order, the incomplete list included Steven, a psychiatrist from Pennsylvania. He was a rotund, bristle-haired, prognathic man with a booming rattle of a voice, accentuated with what sounded like air hungry awake snores. He was highly animated, damaged and the first self-identified Trump supporter I’d ever met. Being Jewish and a psychiatrist, I thought he was just being ironic or provocative, but it turns out that he was an actual Trump supporter! He was traveling with his teenage son, “Moose”. While Moose was a new and somewhat fearful diver, Steven (on at least one occasion I know of) tempted fate by plummeting to a potentially fatal depth “to see a hammerhead shark”. We were all diving with Oxygen enriched air, called Nitrox. Beyond certain depths, oxygen toxicity can cause a potentially fatal underwater seizure. I saw him disappear into the darkness and knew that I could not and would not be saving him. The dive master was too far ahead of me to alert, so I swam on, visually enjoying the hammerhead shark just ahead, at my safe depth. After the dive, I mentioned this to the dive-master. To my shock and admiration, he said “Yeah…(I) saw him down there. Had my eye on him the whole time. Already talked to him”. These guys really do have eyes in the back of their heads. It bares mentioning that a severe diving accident or death may make for an “interesting story”, but would ruin a trip for everyone, not to mention for Moose.
Donnie is a tattooed roughneck from Los Angeles. I don’t mean rough or uncouth, he is an actual oil rig worker. We knew him from a previous trip to Indonesia. He is a sweet and generous friend. That said, you definitely do not want Donnie for an enemy. This cat has more lives than most. When fog and rain closes down the oil rig for safety reasons, Donnie gets a “snow day”. On his off days, he deploys his Mercedes as an Uber driver.
Tammy is a focus puller for the Hollywood movie industry. If you have every wondered during the rolling movie credits what a Key Grip is, well, as i understood it, this is her boss. She is of the general opinion that directors should just sit in their chairs with their megaphones off, and let the camera team do their magic. I have no first-hand knowledge of this but she spoke with such authority.
Jeremy is a lithe, bearded diver from Cozumel, Mexico. He is Jewish (what?) and runs a dive outfit there. Marie and I dove “Coz”, as it is called, many years ago. It left an impression, just not a good one. Coz is where Texans go to kick, flap and flail under water until the air runs out. They are generally sunburnt, obese and perpetually recovering from the beer shits from the previous evening’s romp at Señor Frogs or some other place.
The currents run strong in Coz, so there is little need to propel yourself with fins. One diver in our group was a consummate chain smoker. He threw his butt out as he put the regulator in his mouth and demanded as he surfaced that a lit cigarette be shoved into his already pursed mouth. He was married to a woman we named the “bicyclist” for her style of propulsion underwater: upright, legs pumping and arms flailing.
So, a Jew in Coz? Really? Jeremy told us that every Sabbath, flocks of black-robed Hasidic Jews go to temple, only to return to the international diamond trade come Sunday morning. We are planning an eventual return trip to Coz for a better dive experience with Jeremy.
Mikhail was a Russian scientist. He traveled with the DJI Osmo camera and a heavy duty underwater video rig. In the lounge, Mikhail was a prince. He was soft spoken, interesting and showed us videos of festivals around the world. Underwater, it was total cold war. Mikhail had a video rig equipped with massive (nuclear powered) headlights. He chased every photogenic manta ray in view. The first half of every dive included a manta ray with what looked like a VW beetle with blaring headlamps behind it. As luck would have it, after about 20 minutes, Mikhail would get a tremendous headache from the exertion and end his dive prematurely, leaving the rest of us about 20 minutes of unmolested diving.
Mikhail chasing a 16′ Manta Ray, Roca Partida Mexico and no that is not a sun ball to the right
Francisco was from Mexico City. He was a tall, dark, European-featured man with a Quadcopter Drone. I was in awe! Marie and I travel with about 7 bags of equipment, totaling 200-some pounds of gear. I could not fathom adding a drone quadcopter to this burden! That said, many years ago, I could not fathom traveling with these 7 bags. Francisco became the center of attention when he ascended to the top deck to launch his drone.
I was relaxing in a lounge chair when I heard the commotion. It was Francisco and his new entourage, headed by Tammy. We were all degassing from a strenuous dive at Roca Partida. Calling it an island is generous. It is a tall, small, volcanic dual spire with no vegetation. It is covered with nesting seabirds The spires are frosted white with guano and the ammonia smell permeates. Underwater is another story, full of drama, with schools of fish, patrolling sharks and curious manta rays. The light rays were glorious and the animals were either curious or indifferent. Up towards the surface, violent wave breaks, eddy currents, and backwash could take a diver apart (think being in a washing machine). Less than an hour before, I ascended into this zone to shoot these very eddy currents and backwash. Through the drone’s camera’s eye, we were now able to birds-eye view this awesome phenomenon. Seeing Fernando’s video, I knew a drone was in my future. That settled, I now had to convince Marie. It was February and my birthday wasn’t until September 29th; plenty of time.
Roca Partida backwash from underwater
DJI Phantom Quadcopter 3 video of Roca Partida by Francisco Dorador
Just to complete the Francisco drone story, I have to tell you that his DJI Phantom 3 drone quadcopter was lost just a few days later. It met a stiff headwind on attempting to return to the boat from Socorro Island and ran out of battery. He knew the Phantom 4 was already out, had longer battery life, and an upgraded camera. Fernando has a wife in Mexico City. Yes, Fernando is a clever boy!
A few months passed and we ran into Tom and Teri Evons at a museum opening. Tom, knowing of our passion for photography, wondered if I might want to buy a tripod he purchased in Germany decades earlier. He said it was aluminum and large. I told him we used only carbon fiber and portable tripods. Tom went on to explain that his expanded to 20’ or so. This got my attention! While not the heights a drone could achieve, I could use my land camera, which can be controlled remotely by iPhone. I could use this on road trips and get unique vantage shots compared to other photographers, handicapped by regular sized, carbon tripods! Marie shot me a look which said “No! You will never use it! It will stay in the garage! No!”. I pretended not to see her “look” and was wondering where the roof rack for our Audi Q5 was stored. Marie saw my rusty wheels turning and repeated “No!”
Still intrigued, I asked why he had this freakishly tall tripod. Tom had been in real estate and found it useful for shooting houses in a more flattering manner. He went on to tell me about his tethered blimp with camera in tow. I was impressed by his ingenuity and fortitude, but couldn’t see myself with a blimp.
As my birthday approached, Marie told me that the successor to her camera was coming out, the Fuji XT-2. I knew this was not simple small talk, but a request for acquiescence. Just to be annoying, I asked her if she thought I should order one for myself. She responded: “Well, my camera is getting pretty old and you upgraded just last year…”. I’m thinking my drone just might be coming. Just be patient; I’ll preorder her camera and revisit the 20’ tripod idea once more, before placing the order.
It’s now mid-August. Marie is packing for a 10-day trip to Berlin as I prepare for a guy’s trip (me) to the Four Corners area near our Sedona home. I’m driving, so have plenty of space for the tripod.
“What if you got me a drone for my birthday? I could bring that? What do you think?” I ask.
Marie: “If that’s what you want, sure. It’s a lot more practical than that tripod, don’t you think?” I told her she had a good point. Within 10 minutes, I had a DJI Phantom 4 ordered from B&H Photo Video in NYC.
I had to become a drone pilot fast, so immediately downloaded a drone simulator app on my iPhone. I opted for QuadcopterFX. With it, I could pilot from the stern my virtual pleasure yacht, over open water, back and forth to various other moving boats. My yacht came with a cute girl with an athletic build in a red tank, crop pants, and red sneakers. I called her Jody. She was wearing headphones and probably had some tats and piercings that my avatar would love to explore. Unfortunately, if Jody was any less interested in me or what I was doing, she would be in a coma. Was it me? For god sakes, I’ve got a yacht, time off, and skills! I’m a drone pilot! I landed the drone on her head a few times and still no reaction. I performed drone acrobatics. Nothing! I considered motoring back to port to exchange her for a more attentive character, but for .99¢, that was not an option.
QuadcopterFX play screen for iPhone pictured here with my girl Jody
I found myself frustrated, bored and completely unprepared for drone piloting in the real world.
Next, I google searched and found that I had to register with the FAA. For five dollars, with minimal preparation and no test, I had my FAA number or as I like to call it, my drone pilot’s license. With that under my belt, it was time to buy accessories. I purchased two extra lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries (the ones you’ve heard about that can spontaneously catch fire and bring a plane down), extra propeller blades and lens filters for different light conditions. I thought about a flight jacket, but thought this might seem a bit pretentious. I finished off my shopping list with a light hood for the controller, lipo bags in case the spare batteries decided to explode and a multi-battery charger. As you can tell, I’m all about safety. Now all I needed was the drone itself.
T minus 1 day from my road trip and still no drone. This perfectly matched my lack of knowledge and piloting skills. I spent that evening watching the YouTube videos that I mentioned earlier.