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Aqaba Hosts Inaugural International Underwater Photo Competition


Aqaba goes global
Aqaba goes global

Photography as credited

Aqaba in Jordan played host to its first-ever International Underwater Photo Competition in June. Aqaba, which sits on the northernmost tip of the Red Sea, is a diving mecca, and for lovers of wreck diving, it has several prime dive spots that are great for underwater photographers. Because of this, Visit Aqaba and Movida Entertainment organized this event in collaboration with Deep Blue Dive Centre and Diverse Divers to showcase the great wreck diving in Aqaba to the rest of the world.

Seventeen participants from 13 nations competed in the competition. The prize money was substantial, with first place winning $7,000, second place taking $5,000, and third place $3,000. The organizers covered all hotel costs.

Divers and their models were provided lunch on the boats, along with staff to assist them. The participants could also take advantage of two hosted trips in Jordan to the Dead Sea, and Petra and Wadi Rum.

Although the event began on 13 June, many competitors decided to come a few days early to familiarize themselves with the sites. The dive sites chosen for the event included the Cedar Pride shipwreck, the unique Underwater Military Museum, and the Tristar Plane.

The official day of practice was on 12 June. Each group visited each of the three sites to take practice shots before the official beginning of the competition the next day. The judges were all renowned wreck photographers and included Alex Dawson (Sweden), Tobias Fredrich

(Germany) and Renee Capozzola (USA). All the jury had won awards around the world for their stunning photography. During the competition, the photographers dived on one site in the morning and the evening.

The photographers took turns with their models and had to exit the water with at least 50 bar remaining in their tank. Each day, they rotated the dive site among the three groups of divers aboard one of the dive boats hosted by Deep Blue Dive Centre, Diverse Divers, or Seaguard Aqaba.

The awards ceremony took place on the evening of 16 June at the beautiful Al Manara Hotel in Aqaba. After a few opening remarks by the judges and local officials, the top ten photos were presented.

The winners

The first place winning photographer was Martin Broen from the United States. Martin is a technical diver and underwater photographer who enjoys capturing the beauty of underwater caves, landscapes, wildlife, and astrophotography, along with other genres.

This was his first underwater competition. He was thrilled to be invited because he had wanted to dive these wrecks for some time. Martin’s model was his best friend of 45 years, Andres Rustan.

“Before travelling to Jordan, I had an idea of what I wanted to shoot, but during the practice day I realized that most of the things I planned would not work as there was far too much light, and I needed to shoot in times of the day outside the competition hours. That’s the issue of being a cave photographer!

I had the winning photo in my mind before the competition, but when diving the Military Museum for the practice run, I realized that there was an ambulance right in front of the tanks I liked and exactly where I needed to be placed to shoot that perspective.

Therefore, the winning shot is a stitched shot from five photos that recreated the virtual place where I needed to be. It was a very symmetric panorama with just enough of details to break the force of symmetry, like the buoy on the left, to make it look natural.

Very much inspired by the style of the film director Wes Anderson, and I went to the awards ceremony dressed as Captain Steve Zissou, the main character of Anderson’s The Life Aquatic film.”

Martin Broen
Martin Broen

Second place went to Alvaro Herrero Lopez from Spain. Alvaro currently lives in Tulum, Mexico and works for Protec Divers as their professional in-house photographer. He first started experimenting with photography when he was eight years old using his father’s old camera.

He started swimming in the sea at the age of five and fell in love with it. He became a professional diver 13 years ago and has worked as a diving instructor, commercial diver, boat skipper, underwater photographer and trained as a technical diver.

Although he has won many awards, he was most recently awarded the 2023 Best Underwater Photographer of Marine Conservation for his stunning photo of a humpback whale that was dying because its tail was tangled in ropes and buoys.

Wreck diving in Aqaba was a new experience for him and his model, Taryn ‘Taz’ Schulz.

Mekan’s winning photo was taken in the Underwater Military Museum at one of the Cobra helicopters. “I’d like to say that the photo is the result of teamwork. Especially in this photograph where getting the reflection of the mask was a challenge.

Taz said, “Getting the shot was challenging to some degree, we had a short amount of time to execute the shot and stay within our diving limits. Hovering in a nice position, breathing steady, and looking in the precise angle for the mask reflection was a juggle, especially when you need to look away from the camera and towards the light for the mask to reflect. We needed to have clear buddy communication and planning; this was really the key to achieving the shot.”

Mekan’s winning photo was taken in the Underwater Military Museum at one of the Cobra helicopters

The third-place winner was Carolina Wells, who is also originally from Spain. Carolina started diving in 2016. She spent four years in Malta as a dive instructor and it was here, she developed her passion for tech diving, underwater photography, and wreck diving. She currently resides in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and spends much of her time in the cenotes doing cave diving.

Alvaro Herrero Lopez
Alvaro Herrero Lopez

“The Aqaba International Underwater Photo Competition marked my first photography competition since I began this artistic journey. I had longed for the unique experience of traveling to Jordan, a country with a distinct culture, and exploring its seas teeming with new marine life, reefs, and wrecks. Ever since I started photography in Malta, I have been captivated by wrecks, so when I received the invitation, I didn’t hesitate to accept it,” she said.

Tristar wreck
Tristar wreck

On the last day, when we were scheduled to dive the Tristar wreck, my model fell ill. However, Andres Rustan, who had already dived with Martin Broen, generously offered his assistance to help me achieve the image I had envisioned. And it was his help that I captured the photograph that ultimately won third place.”

Aqaba 1
Carolina Wells

Special Mention

Maxime Cheminade was awarded Special Mention for his photo of the Cedar Pride shipwreck. Maxime is originally from France but currently resides in Thailand. He is a filmmaker, photographer, and video editor. Max specializes in water-based storytelling to give a voice to the ocean and the people who live near it.

He said: “When I got invited to the competition in Aqaba, I did not really know what to expect. I had participated in underwater photo competitions online, but never in person. This whole experience was an eye opener for me.

That photo awarded with amazing comments
That photo awarded with amazing comments

“One of my photos taken of the Cedar Pride was given special mention during the closing ceremony. The judges gave amazing comments and tips on how the photo could have been awarded higher. I came with no expectation, and left with new friends, learned a lot, and shared an amazing experience in one of the most unique places to dive on earth. One thing for sure, I will be back next year!”

Aqaba’s wreck history

The royal family of Jordan has had a long-standing interest in diving and have masterminded many of the scuttles in collaboration with the Aqaba diving community and ASEZA. Most of the wrecks near Aqaba were deliberately sunk as artificial reefs. In 1985, the late King Abdullah personally gave the order to sink the Cedar Pride ship.

It’s a beloved and popular destination for tourists who come to Aqaba to dive. This wreck is 70 metres long and lies at a depth of 10 27m. It has become famous due to the beautiful fully intact crow’s nest that is covered with colourful soft and hard corals.

The Tank, an old M42 Duster, was scuttled in 1999 and is a favourite spot for divers and snorkellers as it sits at a depth of 6-8m. It is covered with corals and marine life.

The next in line to be scuttled was the C130 Hercules plane in 2017. This plane used to be in one piece until a freak storm hit Aqaba and ripped the cockpit off from the body. It is still interesting to see but is now a real wreck.

The newest sites are the Underwater Military Museum and the Tristar plane. These two sites required extensive planning and took years of preparation.

The museum has 19 antique military vehicles and equipment, including two Cobra helicopters, cannons, tanks, an ambulance, British ferrets, and jeeps. They are impressively lined up in battle formation and a great dive site for history buffs and wreck diving lovers.

The last scuttle is the Tristar Lockheed Martin L1011 400-seater plane. It was purposely sunk in an area that was mostly void of sea life and corals to attract more life and take some of the burden off the other dive sites.

It is only reachable by boat and sits at a depth of 15-28m so is mostly suitable for advanced divers. Divers can explore the inside of the plane easily as the aisle seats on both sides were removed.

It most recently became famous around the world by an underwater video made by Deep Blue Dive Center as many Asians mistook this plane to be the missing MH370 Malaysian Airline – it was reported by many news agencies, including Reuters. The sponsors of the Aqaba International Underwater Photo Competition plan to make this a yearly event.

Maxime Cheminade
Maxime Cheminade

Catherine and Brett Hoelzer

Catherine Hoelzer, Divemaster and underwater photographer, has been living in Aqaba for six years with her husband, Brett ‘Bubba’ Hoelzer. They currently work with Deep Blue Dive Centre as photographers.

This article was originally published in Scuba Diver UK #77

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