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by Michael Menduno and Amanda White
Since its launch in September 2017, the diminutive Cuban cigar shaped Paralenz HD video camera—an underwater camera made for divers, by divers—has captured the attention of the tech and freediving marketplaces. Rated to 820 ft/250 m, the camera offers a plethora of diver-friendly features, such as integrated depth and temperature recording, automatic depth-based color correction, depth-triggered controls and the ability to easily upload and store video and data via your smartphone. The camera is arguably to GoPro what tech diving is to recreational diving.
We caught up with some of the leadership team at Paralenz, which is based in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the recent Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) tradeshow in Las Vegas to get their story. Here is what they had to say.
InDepth: What was your original motivation to develop the Paralenz camera?
Jacob Dalhoff Steensen (JDS), Chief Marketing Officer, Paralenz:
The company started in 2000, and we had been doing engineering and design work developing products for companies in a variety of industries.
But then in 2015, Martin, one of our founders who is big in diving, said we should do a diving camera. We saw that there was a huge hole in the market. Underwater cameras were complicated and you could either get something cheap or something very expensive. But there was nothing made specifically for diving that really worked well. So that was our starting point.
Obviously, GoPro was around. Did any of you say, “GoPro has already got a camera for that”?
Michael Trøst (MT), co-founder and Chief Information Officer: The GoPro is not actually built for diving. It requires compromises to bring it underwater. You need a housing and have to push buttons.
JDS: The water is very cold in Denmark and divers wear thick gloves. You try and fiddle with a GoPro with gloves. You maybe do it a couple of times and then you say, “Okay, it’s not really worth it.” So our starting point was making something that actually worked easily for divers.
MT: It’s also the conditions we face in diving, the wear and tear on the equipment. Divers need rugged equipment. In addition, we wanted our camera to have specific features that were relevant to divers: depth and temperature recording, depth-activated controls, color correction, and make it easy to maintain. These things are specific to the diving industry, which needs a [purpose-built] product. You can’t easily do things like change filters or adjust the white balance with a camera in a housing. We also wanted to make it as easy as possible for a diver to record and share their dive.
How did you go about developing the camera?
JDS: Typically, we seek out the knowledge we need to make the right product. For Paralenz, we went on a lot of dive forums and made calls asking people, “If you were to buy a dive camera, what would be the most important features to base your choice on?” And they said, ease of use, simplicity, durability, battery life, photo quality. They listed out their priorities. We made our design choices accordingly.
Then we made prototypes, and talked to dive shops and divers as well and then went on Kickstarter with it. We invited people to become part of a team of testers who would basically buy into being part of the camera’s development.
We had more than 250 divers from 38 countries sign up, and we put them all in a Facebook group. So, every time we did something, we showed our testing group what we were doing and asked them what they thought.
Credit: Aron Angrimson.
How different did the camera turn out as a result of the testing group?
MT: Interestingly, all of the menus and stuff ended up being completely different from what we originally had planned. Our testers helped us with a lot of our design choices on items like sensor sizes, lenses, and stuff like that.
All together we made about 30 changes from the original production units that we sent out to the testers, to the final unit. A very simple thing was the threading width; the first thing that the testers mentioned was that the threading was extremely thin. So that’s a very tangible example of how we listened to our testers. Even the auto-record function was something that a spear fisherman mentioned to us. He asked, “Is there a way to avoid the surface recordings so it will only start recording once I am underwater?” So you can now use a pressure sensor to turn on the camera at a pre-specified depth.
JDS: We tested our first production runs as well. We built over 100 cameras and gave them to half of the testers and they used them and gave us feedback. We then made changes they suggested and built a second batch for the remaining testers.
So how long did all that take?
MT: It took us about eight or nine months of developing, testing, and feedback. That was 2016. We started production in February 2017, and opened up our webshop in September of that year.
Our approach also had other benefits. We focused on the diving community, and in return they gave us loyalty. Our users know, okay, these guys only care about scuba diving and freediving just like we do. So, we share a love for diving from both ends. In contrast, other manufacturers, specifically the camera manufacturers if we’re talking bigger cameras, don’t really care that much about diving. That’s more the housing manufacturers. And if you’re talking smaller cameras, they’re building all-purpose cameras, so they aren’t dedicated solely to diving and therefore don’t create much loyalty. That’s one of the main things that’s really helped us.
That’s likely one of the reasons that Paralenz has such a strong buzz in the market. Was there any thinking about divers gathering underwater video data to support a bigger environmental mission?
MT: Very much so. We are passionate about the capabilities of collecting data with this camera, and we eventually hope to utilize all of our citizen scientists. In the current version [of the camera], the location is user dependent; the user has to enter it into the app. But in future versions, the camera will have a GPS in it and will log the diver’s position when they go down and again when they surface. With that we’ll be able to build a database with prescient live depth and temperature recordings from all over the world, and then generate a heat map with a depth scrollbar and basically be able to see the temperature movement and changes over time and at depth.
That’s very exciting. If you could get detailed underwater temperature data from all these places, that would be powerful.
JDS: We actually have the first prototype ready, along with the website that we’re going to launch. Divers will be able to upload the data directly from the app. It will upload the dive, save it, and export all the data to a database that’s roughly the equivalent of Google Earth, but with dive logs. That also means divers will be able to tag their logs, search for text, or search for images. For example, you could search for images of sharks at different times of the year and at various locations. You will be able to access a lot of information. In the not too distant future we might apply AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning to search for occurences of individual species and or identify patterns.
Organizations might be able to use your database and the content created by your users for research.
JDS: Absolutely. The Paralenz app definitely opens up opportunities for community engagement. Not now, but in the future, an ocean conservation organization such as [GUE’s] Project Baseline or any organization that needs information about the conditions of a certain part of say, a reef, will be able to reach out to the community through push notifications.
Let’s say an organization wants to survey the northern Great Barrier Reef. They could send a notification to any Paralenz users in that area and say, for example, “For the next month we are interested in getting footage from this area and temperature readings.” And then they will be able to gauge if it’s necessary to actually go out and do a full survey. They won’t have to engage that whole system before they actually know what the conditions are.
Currently, we are talking to Greenland shark researchers about creating a bottom camera with a trigger to capture video of the sharks feeding at 656 ft/200 m. They have very, very little video of Greenland sharks.
What will your focus be for the coming year? What are your goals?
JDS: Right now, it’s making everything streamlined and getting to market, getting into dive shops, and getting the business going.
MT: We’ll be working on firmware updates and the app, and also start working on our online platform, Paralenz World! We will keep developing that. There is also a macro lens that will be coming out this year. We’re not quite sure when this will be launched, but we are also talking about a battery pack to extend the battery time.
We are also hoping to engage teaching organizations and offering research courses; for example, a course where you actually learn how to film properly, where to film, how to package it, how to upload it to the relevant database, and stuff like this.
Have you looked at photogrammetry applications? That’s one of the areas that GUE has been focusing on for collecting data on shipwrecks and the like.
JDS: There’s a number of people helping us from the GUE community. For example, John Kendall and Richard Walker have been extremely helpful as we look at applications in 3D photogrammetry and how to help develop cameras for that. We are also looking at 360-degree camera mounts.
MT: We are very, very passionate about exploration, conservation, and education, which of course are part of GUE’s core values, as well as making great stuff!
Making great stuff for passionate people?
MT: That’s our mantra.
This is not a paid promotion for Paralenz. As a community, GUE/InDepth likes to support innovations in diving that help to improve our ability to explore and conserve the aquatic world.
Getting Back in the Water with Caveman Phil Short
With local diving slowly opening in the wake of the pandemic, InDepth caught up with British cave explorer and educator Phil Short to see how he navigated his post lockdown re-submergence. And what about those 14, 15, 16 month old oxygen sensors?
by Michael Menduno
Header photo by Michael Thomas. Phil Short swims under Wookey Chamber 14.
With diving just beginning to resume in various parts of the world after what felt like an interminable shutdown, we thought it would be interesting to check in with some of our friends to see how they were approaching their return to the underwater world after such a long hiatus.
Ironically, it’s been the longest that 51-year old British cave explorer, scientific diving officer, exosuit pilot, educator and film consultant Phil Short, principal of Dark Water Explorations Ltd. has been out of the water in his entire 30-year diving career. How did one of tech diving’s indefatigable pioneers plot his re-submergence, and what would he offer up to colleagues about to take the plunge?
We chatted up Short just as he was booking his first dive project trip abroad; this is what the ardent caveman said.
InDepth: Maybe we can start with you explaining a little about the circumstances in the UK. I know you were on lock down as far as diving was concerned, and they are now in the process of opening up.
Phil Short: Basically, when the COVID-19 crisis began, the country went into lockdown for all nonessential activities. So obviously, any type of sport and recreation was included in that. And then, after about two months, they slowly started to reduce the restrictions, certainly for more normal activities and allowed certain sports to take place again. There was a lot of controversy over diving, because COVID-19 is a respiratory or lung-borne disease. So there was concern that it could create additional potential hazards with lung expansion injuries and embolisms.
In the UK, we have a group called the British Diving Safety Group, which is made up of various organizations including diving training agencies: the British equivalent of the Coast Guard, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which is our version of OSHA and the diving industry trade organization, and SITA (Scuba Industries Trade Association). I am a member, and we met to determine what the safest and most prudent, most expedited means were to get people back in the water. We consulted with the hyperbaric medical community, COVID-19 related medical experts, the agencies with the authorities that control charter boat operations, and with the HSE.
The first permissions were for small groups. Basically, you and one buddy could do shore dives. We adopted recommendations by the NSS-CDS as to how gas sharing should take place, and safety or S-drills so you are not breathing from each other’s equipment.
So when did you go diving?
As a member of the BDSG committee, I was very diligent not to go in the water until the evening we announced that it was permissible to go beach or shore diving. The next morning, 28May 2020, I left my house at 4 AM to go and do a beach dive on a landing craft from the second world war, a genuine World War II wreck. I descended at 6:23 AM and it was just heaven because I had been out of the water for 86 days because of the restrictions. And it was just great to get back in.
Where did you make your last pre-COVID-19 dive?
My previous dive had been on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands off of West Africa teaching a trimix rebreather class. It was a 93m/303 ft dive. I got on the plane, flew home, and the lockdown started almost immediately. And then 86 days later, I was doing a 12m/39 ft dive off the beach in the UK. It was my longest break in diving in the 30 years I’ve been in the industry.
Let me ask you, did you have a conscious strategy or approach to getting back in the water? You didn’t start back in at 90 meters.
Yes, it was conscious. Certainly rebreathers, it’s not just like riding a bike. You do need to keep current. I recommend to my students to be doing at least one skill dive on the rebreather per month, minimum, to maintain currency.
So I decided that for the first dive, once the permissions had been given, to go make the beach dive on doubles. I’ve got a nice little twin 8.5L set that’s small enough for walking over the beach. It still had the redundancy, but it was simple scuba and a simple depth of just 12m/39ft. Basically, the first thing I did when I got in the water was descend just a few feet and made sure that I was proficient with doing a shutdown and isolation drill on the doubles.
Then I went for the dive on a good nitrox with a long no-decompression time and surfaced way before I was getting anywhere near decompression. I took it gently. First time back in 86 days, I took it gently, and then over the last six or seven weeks, I’ve started to build up from there.
I know you’ve talked and probably compared notes with colleagues and other divers. Do you think people there are approaching getting back in the water sanely or is it a bit of a madhouse? How would you characterize things in the UK?
I would say, as often happens, it’s mixed. So, based on recommendations of the agencies and their instructors, the majority of people are getting back into it gradually like I did myself. But there’ll always be those who say, “Oh, I’m a good diver. I don’t need to do that. I’ve not been allowed to dive for two or three months. I want to go do what I want to do.” And they go straight out and do a 50 or 60m dive, which I think is just foolish.
Even ignoring the COVID-19 situation, if you were out of diving because of having a kid, or experiencing a job change or anything like that, or after a big layoff, I think it would be prudent to get back in gently and then slowly build up. So, my first dive was shallow with open circuit doubles. My next dive was a very limited penetration, shallow cave dive on open circuit, side mount, again with redundancy. A no-decompression dive but back in my natural environment of caves for a little swim around.
Gradually over the weeks, because I had better access to caves than I did to the sea, I did more and more cave dives and slowly built up in duration and distance, but still on open circuit. I then got permission from the owner to access one of the inland lakes, and we did some pre-official opening work for the owners of the site. I got back in on the rebreather but again, no-decompression, relatively shallow, no more than 30m/100 ft. Next, I integrated stages and my DPV (diver propulsion vehicle).
My first teaching was a Level one, Mod One rebreather course that I team-taught with a fellow UK instructor. It was a perfect way to get back in gently because we were running 10 hours over 8 to 10 dives of constant skills for the students. So that was a real refresher. And then finally last weekend, a group of us that had all been doing that type of gradual build up got out on a boat off the south coast of the UK, on a 33 m/108 ft deep wreck on Saturday. On Sunday, we dived a very well-known wreck, the SS Salsette, in 45 m/147 ft of water in beautiful conditions. Calm sea, good visibility, and a real wreck. So I had made a gradual buildup over seven or eight weeks to get to that point, rather than jumping straight back in.
Sweet. You mentioned rebreathers (CCR). Currently, there is a global shortage of oxygen sensors underway as a result of the pandemic. Oxygen sensors are being diverted to the medical industry, which is under siege right now from COVID-19. Any concerns or worries that people will go diving with out-of-date cells? Do you think that’s an issue?
It definitely concerns me. I’ve been a CCR instructor at all the levels, almost exclusively for the last 15 years, and I’ve seen people go out and happily spend five, six, seven, 10,000 pounds on a brand new rebreather and the training and then go out and be cheap on a £16 fill of Sofnolime or a £16 fill of oxygen. And you’re like, what are you doing? You paid £10,000 for this equipment and you’re risking your life on a £16 refill of consumables? People are so desperate right now to get back to their hobby; they feel like it’s been taken away from them, that I worry they may not always act sensibly.
It’s been a battle over the last five or six years to get people to really wake up and pay attention to the fact that these sensors are your life support. There was a very high-profile accident that was caused by overrun sensors a few years back with a quite-well-known person in the industry. He effectively died on the bottom, was rescued by his buddy, then was helicoptered to the hospital where he was put into an induced coma. He came out of it several days later and he was very, very lucky to survive. And very, very lucky to come back to actual diving again. But that was all caused by old, overbaked sensors.
So what do you see happening?
I think what’s going to happen, you know, is that some people ran out of fresh sensors a couple of months ago so now it’s 14 months, 15 months, 16 months. And some may be thinking, “It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay. They’re reading fine, they’re working fine.” Some people might be doing linearity checks, doing oxygen flushes at 6 m/20 ft to check if they read high when appropriate.
But really, the companies like AP Diving, JJ-CCR, Vobster Marine Systems, and others have put a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of money into researching and independently testing these life-support machines for functionality, with certain parameters. Much like car manufacturers do so you can drive your family and your kids in a safe car. [Hammerhead CCR developer] Kevin Jurgenson summed it up once brilliantly when he put out a statement saying, ”Okay, people are questioning the duration that a sensor can last. Some people would say 12 months. Others would say 52 weeks. Some would say 365 days.” And he carried on to include hours, minutes etc. Basically saying, a year is a year. Whichever way you try to stretch it, it’s a year. No more.
Personally, I would not violate that because those three simple galvanic fuel cells that represent probably somewhere between $200 and $300 depending on the manufacturer and the unit, representing a tiny percentage of the expense that I’ve outlaid to become a rebreather diver, is not worth my life.
As I mentioned, I am now back on my rebreather after starting on open circuit, and if my sensors eventually pass their 12-month date, I’m very happy to return to open circuit for as long as I have to while I wait to buy some new cells.
I have always believed in my educational career of thirty years in the diving industry to lead by example. Those are my feelings. I know from experience when you make comments like that, and it’s effectively the same as raising your head above the trench in a warfare situation. People are going to take shots; but bring it on. If you’ve got a sensible, scientific argument for extending your cells past 12 months, then I’m happy to discuss it. But I don’t think there is one.
So the moral is, if you have sensors that are past either one year, 12 months, 365 days, 8760 hours, 525,000 minutes, or 31.5 million seconds, then you need to go back to open circuit, or not dive until you can get some new ones?
I believe so. The manufacturers whose rebreathers I have dived and taught on over the last 10 years are people that were passionate about rebreather safety. And much like [Sheck] Exley, who focused on improving cave training and cave safety by writing Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival, these manufacturers—people like Martin Parker at AP Diving and Jan Petersen at JJ CCR have gone the extra mile to improve safety.
You know full well from the aquaCORPS days, if you look at the safety record of CCR diving now, versus 15 years ago, we made a difference. It has become safer. Why ruin it, because of impatience and a short-term, relatively short-term, restriction on availability of consumables?
Right. In fact, I have talked to Nicky Finn at AP and also Jakub Sláma at Divesoft who have been in touch with sensor manufacturers regarding shortages, and it seems that the situation may be stabilizing and or easing up, assuming we don’t have a second wave of COVID-19 infections. So hopefully, the situation will improve.
Actually, I’ve heard that from several manufacturers, and I think it will improve quicker than was first anticipated. And that’s even more of a reason for not doing anything foolish and being a little bit patient with this to be safe.
Last question: What’s next for you? Got any big projects coming up?
I just booked my first flight to travel out of the UK again. This time to Croatia. I’m going to be designing and building a water dredge system for recovering and capturing sediment on an archaeological site for a project that we are going to do in October. This is a follow-up project from one we did in 2017 to recover a US World War II pilot from a wrecked B24 bomber that ditched in the Adriatic Sea. We’re going back to do another recovery on a different wreck.
The dredge system will be designed to work at the appropriate depth level so that we can basically recover the sediment without losing anything. Specifically, we’re not going to miss any of the crew that are found through that dredging. So, I’ve got a 10-day trip to build that system, test it in the same depth of water, and have it ready for the project.
When I come back from that, I’m flying out to Switzerland to train on the Divesoft Liberty sidemount with a good friend and former student of mine, Nadir Quarta. It will be my first sidemount rebreather. I’ve got no intention of moving away from my JJ as my primary rebreather, but I’ve got quite a few cave projects that require a side mount that I can’t do in my back-mount JJ. They don’t offer a sidemount, and because of distance and depth, I can’t do it on open circuit. I put a lot of thought into which unit to use, and am very impressed with Divesoft’s engineering and build. They’re also very courteous and professional to deal with. I like working with people like that.
After training, I plan to attend a Swiss technical dive conference, Dive TEC! in Morges as a speaker, where I will be talking on my 30-year journey as a cave diver and explorer.
Fun times ahead! Thank you, Phil. I look forward to talking to you again soon.
Michael Menduno is InDepth’s executive editor and, an award-winning reporter and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for 30 years. He coined the term “technical diving.” His magazine “aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving”(1990-1996), helped usher tech diving into mainstream sports diving. He also produced the first Tek, EUROTek, and ASIATek conferences, and organized Rebreather Forums 1.0 and 2.0. Michael received the OZTEKMedia Excellence Award in 2011, the EUROTek Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 and the TEKDive USA Media Award in 2018.
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