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Why Are Colors Different Underwater? - Wednesday, July 27, 2016

When new divers suite up and hit the water for the first time, they always notice that thereís a distinct lack of color below the waterline.

First-timers who imagined the vibrant underwater vistas and brilliant views made famous by Jacques Cousteau documentaries are instead treated to the muted palette of the depths.

So what gives?


why colors are different underwater

Light and color are very different underwater.

As it turns out, youíre not being mislead by nature documentaries after all. Itís just that water is very good at absorbing light - so much so that 300 ft below the surface, no visible light can penetrate the water at all. Since youíll never be diving that deep underwater, though, allow us to explain how visible light appears throughout the water column.


First, letís talk about Roy G. Biv - heís not a person, but rather an acronym for the color spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet) in order of lowest to highest energy.

With the exception of indigo and violet, colors with lower energy wavelengths become less visible the deeper down you dive, while longer, more powerful wavelengths remain visible at deeper distances. For instance, the red color of a Coca-Cola can will dull and become gray after about 20 feet below the surface, and an orange Fanta will becomes gray at around 50 feet below - but a green Frisbee or a blue rubber ball wonít lose its color to a diver until she has descended about 200 feet down.

There are a few reasons why a diver should care about the effects of color underwater. Professional photographers are particularly mindful of these effects. If they didnít compensate for the loss of color in pictures with special filters, strobes and settings on cameras, all those vibrant National Geographic photos of coral reefs and marine life would appear dull green and blue. Moreover, since the water affects what we see while diving, understanding how different things will look on a dive can be crucial for safety purposes.

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Aside from missing out on the natural beauty of marine habitats, your diving equipment, air gauges and even other divers will look markedly different from how they appear at the surface. For instance, red sections of the gauges of your oxygen tank wonít appear red at all if youíre diving on a reef at a depth of 50 feet. Neither will your buddyís red flippers. For first-time divers, knowing this can be a literal life-saver, keeping you close with your diving partners and aware of when youíll need to resurface.

Fortunately, there have been tremendous improvements in diving light technology. Since modern diving lights are now smaller, brighter, longer-lasting, and more pressure resistant than ever, loss of clear visibility underwater is less of a concern. Though youíll still be unable to see color at particularly deep depths, a powerful light helps compensate for this, so keeping one handy is always a good idea. Be aware, however, that some dive sites forbid the use of diving lights, so you should always check the rules with a divemaster before bringing one.

Now that you know a little more about Roy G. Biv and how heíll mess with your vision on your dive, youíre more prepared to handle whatever you encounter during your adventure, whether itís the difference between a harmless or poisonous fish, the indicator on your air gauges telling you to surface, or simply marveling at the beautiful red corals below (even if you canít directly appreciate them with your own eyes).


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