Review: Pentax W60 Waterproof Camera Catching Whale Sharks

I had the perfect backdrop to review this Pentax W60 waterproof camera while vacationing in Hawaii last week. It's 10mp, has a 5x zoom, and does HD level video, but the only reason to buy such a point and shoot is that it's rated to 4 metres of underwater depth for two hours, and is the smallest waterproof camera of its kind. It would prove to be a fortuitous addition to my travel gear, catching some great shots of some of my first surf lessons and some rare aquatic life while other tourists fumbled with crappy disposable film cams.

The video above was shot on a generic snorkeling tourist water-bus. We took the boat out from Maui to Molokini, helmed by some hooligans who did donuts and told canned (but funny) jokes for the rich, bleached tourists, Lisa and I counted ourselves among. I suppose we were no different, as much as we'd like to think so, but I did have that camera ready to go when the captain peeled back the throttle, started shouting with excitement and pointing at something moving slowly towards us under the surface. None of us could see past the glare, but the captain's polarised sunglasses, he said, revealed a whale shark, the biggest he'd ever seen in his life on Hawaii, as big as our 30-foot boat. He urged us to jump into the water, promising that this was a rare thing to find on what was supposed to be a pedestrian look at some small, colourful reef fish. I can't say I was very comfortable with the idea of jumping over the side, despite the Museum of Natural History's tutelage so many years ago that the whale shark only ate microscopic schmeg in the water. But the captain asked twice and over I went, after putting the camera in underwater movie mode. Others soon joined with the disposable wind up cameras that the crew joked, "used to cost $15, but after the shark showed up, cost $100." The whale shark made several passes, perhaps curious about the strange hairy fish as pale as the undersides of a flounder, splashing around ineffectively and groping at its dorsal fin. After awhile, I normalised my breathing — the water almost always makes me panic a bit — and could grab enough breath to chase the fish below the surface and grab on for a few seconds. I felt safe, but we were not all lucky enough to escape unharmed. One man cut his finger on the fish's denticles, rubbing it the wrong way. I shot a photo of the man. Professional marine biologists might disagree, but I suppose that's technically the first whale shark attack to draw blood in recent history.

The W60 is the third or fourth generation waterproof camera from Pentax, and earlier ones were only safe to use to a depth of 1.5m for 30 minutes. So the W line has graduated, in the W60, from the wading pool to more earnest underwater endeavours only short of full on diving. The W60 is also rated to shrug off dust and dirt and temperatures down to -10 degrees C, but this is not nearly as rugged as the larger Olympus waterproof cameras.

The shots, above water, were solid, aided by the multiple modes for portraits (with multiple face detection), flowers (macro), etc. Shots were sometimes adequate in colour, saturation and sharpness levels, sometimes would be foiled by flat contrast or washed out colours or a droplet of water it could not focus past. There were also amazing frames that made photos look like those from little sticker picture booths in Tokyo. I didn't like how long it took to switch between these modes, but one could make due with almost anything by leaving it in auto mode. (Note: I shot everything at 3MP, which suited my needs for memory preservation and online presentation of shots.) But underwater, away from a pool and off the shallows of Hawaii, modes tended to not colour shift out enough of the blue as you can see in the shots above. This is sad, and you can only recapture so much colour in post processing.

Other gripes: The USB cable is non-standard on the mini side, and the screen was sometimes hard to see in the bright sun or underwater. Also, my unit was supposed to record sound underwater but only ticked and buzzed and you could sometimes hear the zoom motors functioning.

I tested the W10, a W60 predecessor, a few years ago, and lost it while almost being washed down the coast over some shallow reef. Pentax's press people sent along two terrific accessories, a bright orange foam float with the logo surf camera on it that looped through the wrist strap, and a rubber case. Having a camera float in the ocean is a great, great comfort. And although the rubber case needed to be taken off every time to rinse the camera after a salt water swim, the added protection made my experience in the surf even more carefree. Both are highly recommended. And the camera isn't bad, either.

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