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Not Another Fish Story—Hobby Becomes Valuable Research Tool for NASA and NOAA
Mike Weiss gets a shot of a large grouper.> View larger image
Mike Weiss gets a shot of a large grouper. Photo property of Mike Weiss.
Mike Weiss, former Deputy Program Manager for the Hubble Space Telescope and current Exploration Systems Projects Project Manager, has always been interested in photography. His interest in underwater photography started in 1982 while working with the astronauts at the Johnson Space Center on the Solar Maximum Repair Mission. While designing NASA’s first Shuttle-based satellite repair mission, Goddard’s engineering team realized that there was a compelling need to integrate spacecraft experts with astronauts and Shuttle experts. Since the astronauts trained underwater to simulate the zero-gravity effects of spacewalking, some of the spacecraft experts—including Weiss—became SCUBA-certified to be able to go into the tanks with the astronauts.

According to Weiss, “Thus began a beautiful partnership between Goddard and Johnson combining human and robotics expertise. This capability eventually blossomed into the Hubble repair legacy.” Shortly thereafter, Weiss began open water diving, or SCUBA diving in the ocean. He also enjoys other types of diving including drift diving, night diving, cavern diving, and wreck diving. According to Weiss, diving “is not just jumping into the ocean.” It is a very enjoyable activity, but requires a lot of training and a lot of experience. He began combining his love of photography and diving by entering the word of underwater photography. He now takes digital stills while open water diving five or six times a year and spends three or four weeks a year on the ocean floor. Weiss often dives with fellow Goddard employees Russ Harrison, who shoots video, and Oren Sheinman, his brother-in-law, who acts as their dive buddy and spotter. The group dives “basically any place that has marine life, coral reefs, and allows divers.” They’ve been to South Florida, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Maui, Roatan, and Belize.

Flamingo tongue, taken in La Parguera, Puerto Rico> View larger image
Flamingo tongue, taken in La Parguera, Puerto Rico. Credit: Mike Weiss
Weiss shares his striking underwater photographs with friends and family. In addition, he provides them to Dive Master, a part-time researcher for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who uses Weiss’ photographs to document coral conditions to help understand the impact of people and the environment on the reefs. He has also written for a few dive magazines that have incorporated his photographs as well. In so doing, he has evolved from a hobbyist to a semi-professional underwater photographer assisting with research.

Weiss, who is largely self-taught through trial and error, uses a digital single lens reflex (SLR) camera equipped with special underwater housing and two external strobes or flashes. Waterproofing a camera costs more than the actual camera. Weiss explains, “Underwater photography has a huge learning curve. Every photo you take is a learning experience. In photographing a subject, you learn a lot about that subject and its environment.”

Underwater photography presents many unique challenges. “Unfortunately, fish don’t pose.” The photographer is also moving. There are also lighting and exposure issues. “You lose reds underwater at very shallow depths. Between 30 and 40 feet, you lose everything but blues and greens. Strobes give you the light and color back,” says Weiss. The background offers additional problems. “There is usually a lot of stuff in the water. It’s the equivalent of photographing a subject in a roomful of dust.” This effect, known as backscatter lighting, can be reduced by using strategically positioned strobes.

Weiss processes his own digital photographs. Normally he only adjusts the white balance, which is how the camera interprets the light. Weiss does not change the color, but adjusting the white balance improves the overall color.

“It’s a beautiful world underwater, but to enjoy and appreciate the beauty you really have to pay attention to what you’re doing,” warns Weiss, “Safety first, always, and absolutely. No exceptions.” In addition to being mindful of possible equipment failures, “you have to be aware of the marine life, their habits, and their environments. You have to know the animals. Some sharks are aggressive and some are not.” Danger can be well camouflaged. “You’re not supposed to touch the coral, but if you do, a rock could actually be a fish with a poisonous spine.” Although Weiss has never been hurt, he has had several close calls, “You have to be able to handle emergencies.” He has a wireless, air-integrated dive computer, which provides real-time monitoring of vital air and tissue-loading data that tells him how much longer he can be underwater. Most of all, Weiss cautions, always dive with a buddy.

Weiss’ son Brian, who just became a certified open-water diver, and recently graduated with a degree in media arts and design, is eager to continue the family tradition. To see more of Weiss’ remarkable underwater photography, visit the Goddard Dive Club Web site at:

Elizabeth M. Jarrell