Refraction, turbidity of the water, salinity, and pollution all contribute to the distance, size, shape, and color perception of underwater objects. Divers must understand the factors affecting underwater visual perception, and must realize that distance perception is very likely to be inaccurate.
2-6.1 Refraction. Light passing from an object bends as it passes through the diver's faceplate and the air in his mask (Figure 2-5). This phenomenon is called refraction, and occurs because light travels faster in air than in water. Although the refraction that occurs between the water and the air in the diver's face mask produces undesirable perceptual inaccuracies, air is essential for vision. When a diver loses his face mask, his eyes are immersed in water, which has about the same refractive index as the eye. Consequently, the light is not focused normally and the diver's vision is reduced to a level that would be classified as legally blind on the surface.
Refraction can make objects appear closer than they really are. A distant object will appear to be approximately three-quarters of its actual distance. At greater distances, the effects of refraction may be reversed, making objects appear farther away than they actually are. Reduced brightness and contrast combine with refraction to affect visual distance relationships.
Refraction can also affect perception of size and shape. Generally, underwater objects appear to be about 30 percent larger than they actually are. Refraction effects are greater for objects off to the side in the field of view. This distortion interferes with hand-eye coordination, and explains why grasping objects underwater is sometimes difficult for a diver. Experience and training can help a diver learn to compensate for the misinterpretation of size, distance, and shape caused by refraction.
Figure 2-5. Objects Underwater Appear Closer.
2-6.2 Turbidity of Water. Water turbidity can also profoundly influence underwater vision and distance perception. The more turbid the water, the shorter the distance at which the reversal from underestimation to overestimation occurs. For example, in highly turbid water, the distance of objects at 3 or 4 feet may be overestimated; in moderately turbid water, the change might occur at 20 to 25 feet and in very clear water, objects as far away as 50 to 70 feet might appear closer than they actually are. Generally speaking, the closer the object, the more it will appear to be too close, and the more turbid the water, the greater the tendency to see it as too far away.
2-6.3 Diffusion. Light scattering is intensified underwater. Light rays are diffused and scattered by the water molecules and particulate matter. At times diffusion is helpful because it scatters light into areas that otherwise would be in shadow or have no illumination. Normally, however, diffusion interferes with vision and underwater photography because the backscatter reduces the contrast between an object and its background. The loss of contrast is the major reason why vision underwater is so much more restricted than it is in air. Similar degrees of scattering occur in air only in unusual conditions such as heavy fog or smoke.
2-6.4 Color Visibility. Object size and distance are not the only characteristics distorted underwater. A variety of factors may combine to alter a diver's color perception. Painting objects different colors is an obvious means of changing their visibility by enhancing their contrast with the surroundings, or by camouflaging them to merge with the background. Determining the most and least visible colors is much more complicated underwater than in air.
Colors are filtered out of light as it enters the water and travels to depth. Red light is filtered out at relatively shallow depths. Orange is filtered out next, followed by yellow, green, and then blue. Water depth is not the only factor effecting the filtering of colors. Salinity, turbidity, size of the particles suspended in the water, and pollution all effect the color-filtering properties of water. Color changes vary from one body of water to another, and become more pronounced as the amount of water between the observer and the object increases.
The components of any underwater scene, such as weeds, rocks, and encrusting animals, generally appear to be the same color as the depth or viewing range increases. Objects become distinguishable only by differences in brightness and not color. Contrast becomes the most important factor in visibility; even very large objects may be undetectable if their brightness is similar to that of the background.
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