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.
Hal Watts: Plan Your Dive
Known for his deep air diving exploits back in the day, 86-year-old Hal Watts, aka “Mr. Scuba,” is one of the pioneers of early scuba and credited with coining the motto, “Plan Your Dive. Dive Your Plan.” He founded the Professional Scuba Instructors Association International (PSAI) in 1962, which eventually embraced tech diving, but never relinquished its deep air “Narcosis Management” training. Italian explorer and instructor Andrea Murdock Alpini caught up with Watts and teased out a few stories from the training graybeard.
Interview by Andrea Murdock Alpini
English text by Vincenza Croce
“Plan your dive, dive your plan,” is a common refrain in diving, but it’s easy to forget the meaning of this phrase has changed over time.
The underwater explorers of the early days learned to plan their dives with watches, depth gauges, and US Navy tables. Back then, decompression tables were the Bible for divers—something miraculous, halfway between alchemy and physiology. Those trail-blazing divers defined what it meant to “plan” a dive.
But, at the time, the term “technical diving” did not exist; divers breathed air on the bottom as well as during decompression. Only after many years was oxygen added, followed by the famous jump into the hyperbaric chamber.
Later came new innovations after a few decades of experiments: hyperoxygenated binary mixtures, the NOAA tables, Heli-air (i.e. the addition of helium in tanks loaded with air), the change in the speed of ascent, new molecules to be studied, new physiological and narcotic effects, and their consequent impacts on humans and their psyches.
In a very short time, diving traditions underwent a metamorphosis. The spool and the coral tank became a proper reel, the ascent bin and the plastic bag disappeared in favor of the buoyancy control device (BCD), the surface marker buoy appeared—and then, even later on, wrists were adorned with underwater computers instead of decompression slates.
Divers later renewed and revolutionized a niche discipline, transforming it into a sporting phenomenon and a vocation. Faced with imminent change, there is often nothing that can be done when an anomalous wave arrives; you cannot stop its irresistible force with the wave of a hand. And thus was the American revolution of underwater technique, where the means of exploration—read mixed gas and scooters—have become the end.
The self-proclaimed originator of the “plan your dive, dive your plan” motto was 86-year old Hal Watts, the founder of American didactic Professional Scuba Association International (PSAI) and a diving pioneer who once held the Guinness Book of World records for deep diving. Though the use of trimix grew in popularity, Hal continued to believe in deep air, in the ancient technique of coral fishermen. He supported wreck and cave diving—with decompressive mixtures and new configurations through PSAI; but, above all, he believed (and continues to believe) that deep air, if properly practiced, is a discipline with unique logistics, hidden dangers, and irresistible charms that can take you to a parallel world.
First of all, Hal, what was the dive that changed your way of seeing scuba diving? I mean, a dive that was like an epiphany, a dive which changed your point of view on a technical matter?
Hal Watts: Wow, you sure are really trying to test my old man memory. Now I’ll have to review some of my old logbook entries.
The first scuba dive that really got my attention as to just how serious and dangerous scuba diving can be was on December 2, 1962. I was diving with Bob Brown, co-owner of Florida State Skindiving School in Orlando, Florida. I was a member of a dive club in Orlando known as Orlando Sport Diving Club. Bob and I had heard of a sinkhole in Ocala known locally as Zuber Sink as well as Blue Sink. Years later, I later leased the property and renamed it as Hal Watts’s 40 Fathom Grotto, and I eventually purchased the Grotto in mid-1979.
We had never talked to anyone about the sinkhole; therefore, we had no idea about the visibility or the depth. Up to this point, I had constructed my favorite BCD, using a large white Clorox plastic jug, which we tied to our twin tank system. We put air into the BCD from our “Safe Second Stage” mouthpieces.
Bob and I tied our safety line to a tree on the bank of the sink and reviewed our dive plan. I am reminded of the motto I came up with, many moons ago—Plan your dive, dive your plan.
We all know that motto. I didn’t realize that it was you who coined it.
It was back in the 1960s when I was writing course manuals for NASDS [National Association of Scuba Diving Schools] and opened up my Mr. Scuba dive shop.
But back to the dive at Zuber. I’ve failed to mention the fact that neither of us had been doing any dives below 30 m/100 ft. We followed the cave line down slowly, not paying enough attention to our depth. Before we realized it, we had hit the bottom, stirred it up, and had no clear water.
Lucky for us, I kept the cave diving reel in my hand, and Bob kept his hand on the line. I couldn’t see; however, I could feel Bob’s hand, squeeze his fingers tight on the line, grab his thumb, and give it the “thumbs up” signal. I don’t know how we managed it, but we were both able to use our NASDS safe second stages and add air into the Clorox “BCDs.” We were actually fated to begin an uncontrolled, too-rapid ascent. All of a sudden, we hit an overhead wall, which stopped our ascent at a depth of 9 m/30 ft.
We looked at each other, and gave the OK hand signal. While decompressing, following the old Scubapro SOS mechanical computer, I started to pull up the loose line until the dive reel appeared. Wow, we sure had an awful lot of loose line floating around us. Were we extremely lucky? Of course, we were. Our problem was that we never planned our dive, and consequently, were unable to dive a plan.
After that dive, I worked with Scuba Pro and Sportsways to create the “Octopus,” or “safe second.” A while later, the octopus appeared for the first time in Scuba Pro catalogs. I was also the first to add a pressure gauge along with the Octopus.
Ah yes, the “Safe Second.” That’s what NASDS called backup second stages, right? Sheck Exley (1949-1994), the legendary cave explorer with whom you were friends, was also credited with fitting a redundant second stage reg with a necklace. I want to ask you more about Exley, but first, I want to know: What are the best wrecks you ever dived?
This is really very hard to answer. I’ll have to list four, in the order that I dived them: the USS Monitor, Andrea Doria, Japanese wrecks located in Truk Lagoon, and the Lusitania in Ireland.
The most important would have to be the USS Monitor, a submarine used during the Civil War. A group of well-known USA divers applied to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for a permit to dive the Monitor, as she was located in protected waters. In addition to myself, the group consisted of: Gary Gentile, attorney Peter Hess, and several other well-known expert divers. At first, NOAA refused. Then, Peter Hess filed proper papers asking that we get the NOAA permit. To that end, we presented my Deep Air training material to the concerned NOAA group. I appeared as an expert witness and provided NOAA staff and their legal representatives with my internationally accepted training material and my record of training several world record deep air divers. Our deep air training has been accepted worldwide with zero diving deaths. After that, we received the permit.
Other than the Monitor, my favorite deep wreck dive would be the Lusitania, which is a very personal and proud story for me. The main reason is because venture capitalist Gregg Bemis owned the diving rights to the Lucey at the time. Gregg had contacted me requesting that I train him on PSAI Narcosis Management Level V, on air—which is 73 m/240 ft—and then train him on trimix so he and I could dive to 91 m/300 ft on the Lusitania lying off the coast of Ireland.
When word got out that I had enrolled Gregg in my Narcosis Management Course, a well-known international course director (a personal friend of mine) called and told me, “Hal, do not teach Gregg deep diving.”
He told me that he had been training Gregg at his facility, and that he was a “train wreck.” “He is from a very well-off family in Texas, and if you cause him any injuries, you will be sued and put out of business,” my friend said. Well, guess what? Gregg completed the 240 Level V Deep Air course, then our PSAI Trimix course. My wife, Jan Watts, Gregg, and I went to Ireland to dive the Lusitania. He and I made an awesome 91 m/300 ft trimix dive to the deck.
Diving on the Andrea Doria with Tom Mount, Peter Hess, and several great wreck divers was also an awesome dive. Last but not least was a great trip to Truk to dive on some of the Japanese wrecks.
Please tell us about Sheck. What was your relationship with him like?
Sheck and I became friends and made several dives together, and one of my favorites happened when Sheck, his Mary Ellen, my wife Jan, and I were diving at 40 Fathoms. Sheck wanted to practice gas switches during descents. Sheck was practicing, getting ready for a planned very deep dive (I think in Mexico with Jim Bowden). The four of us swam to the east side of The Grotto, slowly following the wall during our controlled descent, watching Sheck practice gas switching.
After reaching our planned depth of 73 m/240 ft, we began our controlled ascent up to our first planned deco stop. During our last deco stop on our 4.5 m/15 ft platforms, I noticed that Sheck had a funny look on his face and was messing with his drysuit between his legs. I remembered then that he had told me that he had an attachment installed in the drysuit that would allow him to pee underwater. He was clearly in a bit of discomfort and Mary Ellen, Jan and I just floated nearby and watched.
I’ve heard that Sheck later used diapers, or just cut it loose in one of his old neoprene drysuits on his big dives, so evidently he didn’t get that early p-valve to work. What about your friendship and job collaboration with Gary Taylor, your brother-in-arms and a co-owner of PSAI?
Andrea, get comfortable, since this question will take some time to properly answer.
I first met Gary in Miami, which is where we became friends when I was staying in his home and taking Tom Mount’s nitrox course. I have a photo of Tom, Gary, and me gas blending on the floor of Tom’s garage. During the course, Tom was still using his worn-out hand written paper flip charts as his notes.
Gary was impressed with my deep air program and offered to put together an updated slideshow presentation for me to teach with. PSAI still uses an updated version of this system to date. Gary stayed with Tom until Tom thought he had sold IANTD [International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers] to another individual. After that sale came about, Gary contacted me wanting to get more involved with PSAI. Being smarter than folks thought I was, I jumped at the chance to have Gary on the PSAI Team. Tom’s deal fell through, but Gary was totally involved with PSAI, and now is a partner and president of our agency. Thanks to Gary and Tom.
Many, many years ago I was still taking some type of classes—I think regarding mixed gasses, maybe with Rebreathers—at Tom’s house. In fact, I was one of Tom’s instructors who did the final proofreading of one of Kevin Gurr’s manuals. Too far back to recall much about this mixed gas stuff—remember my reputation for being a deep air diver.
Speaking of the people with whom you’ve dived, was the aim of The Forty Fathom Scubapros Club?
Before I invested in a sinkhole in the Ocala, Florida, area—which was locally referred to as Blue Sink or Zuber Sink, and is now referred to as 40 Fathom Grotto—several diving buddies whom I had dived with and trained for extreme deep air diving—as well as cave exploring—got together and planned to dive The Grotto at least one Friday night per month. Within a short period of time, several other buddies joined our group, which eventually became known as The 40 Fathom Scubapro’s dive club. Each diver had to meet my requirements of training.
Eventually, our group set specific personal requirements—being a good person, supporting our club safety rules, and making at least one 40 Fathom Grotto dive per month. We set a limit of 14 or 15 members. Three 40 Fathom members eventually set World Records for deep air: I was one, A. J. Muns, and Herb Johnson set ocean records, and later I set the air depth record for cave diving. Naturally, as time passed and we got older, our membership got smaller. It is notable that none of our club members have died during any scuba dive.
Finally, what led you to create the iconic motto, “Plan Your Dive. Dive Your Plan?”
I used to be a private pilot, and we used to say, “Plan your flight, fly your plan.” This was back in probably 1961 when I had just started diving and there were so many instances where all the other divers would get in the water without saying anything. I’ve seen so many incidents and fatalities that could have been avoided through proper planning.
InDEPTH: The First Helium-based Mix Dives Conducted by Pre-Tech Explorers (1967-1988) by Chris Werner
Alert Diver.Eu: Rapture of the Tech: Depth, Narcosis and Training Agencies
Professional Scuba Association International: PSAI History
Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and PSAI technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of PHY Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. He published his first book, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti (2018) and IMMERSIONI SELVAGGE, the new one is on the way, out on fall 2022.
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