Friday, June 01, 2018 

South Pacific Dreamin': Yap & Palau Trip Report

Dropping into the warm, crystal clear water we spotted at least 3 or 4 species of sharks all in good numbers. We were on a shark dive on the remote outer reef of the Micronesian island of Yap. Grey reef sharks of moderate size, lots of smaller black tip reef sharks and quite a few larger silvertips were nosing around us looking for their afternoon snack. Good for us it was a small “chumsicle” of frozen fish, which they eagerly attacked on the bottom. For the next 45 minutes we excitedly clicked away and enjoyed the show. While the sharks were definitely curious about us, they kept their distance. Certainly, a great dive.

After many hours of flights on through the night and day, fifteen of us had arrived early in the morning the day before to this small island paradise for the first stop in our 2018 OOS South Pacific Photo Expedition.

Manta Ray Bay Resort on Yap was very well-organized and had us in our rooms quickly and up and diving by late morning the next day. The hotel is getting old now, and while it could use some updating, was spacious and comfortable. Meals were taken in their converted wooden sailboat anchored permanently on-site. They were surprisingly good, with lots of choices, even pizza!

Yap Divers had excellent facilities featuring “VIP” service where they take complete care of all your gear other than your wetsuit. There was a large camera room, and rental dive gear was available. The guides were excellent, and nitrox fills were included in our 3 dives a day package.

The diving in Yap is nearly all hard coral on fringing reefs. This mostly necessitated long boat trips out through the mangroves, and winding channels along pristine coral reefs out to the blue.

The first day was somewhat cold and raining hard to our surprise. It meant we had to go pretty far out to get away from the run-off and green water. The hard coral reefs and walls were pretty, and the geography spectacular underwater, but besides fish, there was little invertebrate life or colorful soft coral. Still the dives were fun, well run and organized which made my job as group leader easy.

The next day we ran out to see if we could find some mantas, as Yap is noted world-wide for these huge gentle fish. The mantas there are mostly “reef” mantas, and smaller than the large pelagic versions, but quite numerous. Or so we’d been told. The green water runoff to the lagoon made visibility pretty poor and the mantas stayed home.

The following day we went back and after waiting nearly 45 minutes, we were finally rewarded with a couple of mantas dancing around our heads for 10-12 minutes and we nailed a few keeper photos. Along with the shark dive that afternoon, we had a great day of it.

After more dives in clear water, and a fun tour and picnic on the Manta Bay Resort’s private beach, we were ready for the next leg of our trip to Palau.

United Airlines in their wisdom has decided that you can’t just take the old short “hopper” flight directly from Yap to Palau. You now have to return to Guam, wait most of a day, and then fly to Palau. This is a lot less than convenient, and Guam is not my favorite place to hang out. And of course, the street in front of our airporter hotel was blocked by a once-a-year marathon race and we had a heck of a time getting to it.

But all the logistics worked out, and we arrived in Palau later that evening and were met and taken to the Rock Islands Aggressor for our week’s long trip around the islands there.

This was the second OOS Aggressor Palau trip and having enjoyed a great trip 3 years ago, it seems like Palau is one of those destinations that bear repeating. I think what is most interesting from a photographers’ perspective is the shear diversity of shots and situations you encounter, from pristine walls and reefs, sandy “bommie” covered bottoms, unique dives in German Channel, the caves and caverns of Blue Hole and Siaes Tunnel and world-famous high current dives on Blue Corner, Big Drop Off and outlying walls on Peleliu.

Besides all the great reef and wall diving, there’s also a multitude of WWII wrecks and every dive has surprises; sharks everywhere, mantas, eels, huge schools of every fish imaginable, and lots of macro and invertebrate life.

Which is pretty much what we enjoyed that week on the Aggressor! These boats are huge catamarans, created as dive boats and are very comfortable. We were short a few divers, so the fifteen of us spread out a bit in the eighteen-passenger boat.

The dive deck is a bit smaller than you’d think, as all the tanks and dive gear other than your mask and wetsuit, stays on the auxiliary hard boat dive skiff. Divers just walked on board the skiff, loaded up cameras and the skiff is lowered into the water on a hydraulic lift! No death-defying leaps into inflatables, or difficult to crawl up ladders. We also could all backroll into the water in two groups, which meant that we could get our entire boat load into the water in a couple of minutes. A definite plus for bluewater, high current dives.

They’ve gotten rid of the large circular camera table that wasted a lot of space and replaced it with 3 long tables with 2 shelves which work out much better. Besides a comfortable lounge and bar (with free beer and wine), there’s also dinette tables. Meals on the Aggressor have improved from their already good service to absolutely outstanding! Our chief prepared breakfasts to order, lunches with lots of great selections like sushi, pizza, salads, soups, and mouth-watering fine dining dinners served at your table. I felt like they had really stepped up their food from the last trip.

The cabins were generally comfortable, and the a/c now well controlled (many boats don’t have good thermostats). I think the only drawback to the layout of the Palau and Rock Island Aggressors is the old-style bunk bed cabins. They’re fine for couples, with a larger double below but for singles, they are uncomfortable as older customers don’t like the climb up to the narrow upper bunks. We also had some smelly holding tank issues with the boat showing its age, but, to be fair, it was going into annual maintenance the following week.

But back to the diving. One of the problems with Palau is that it’s a bit over-loved by close-by Asian nations. These groups tend to be culturally exclusive and use their own hotels, dive operations and guides. As groups they also aren’t usually the most experienced divers. The day boats have long rides in the morning and afternoon, so the good thing is that from a liveaboard it is easy to avoid these multitudes of divers by being able to dive earlier and later in the day. Or we could get to outlying dive sites, not accessible for the day from Korror.

For divers wanting a more remote experience, it’s getting harder to find on Palau. Several times we were over-run by these eager, but inexperienced groups, or had to wait for them to leave the sites before we could dive. But we got lots of dives in and were able to do 4 dives a day, with a few night dive opportunities as well.

We had an outstanding dive on Peleliu with the clearest visibility of the trip. We lucked out and were able to experience the once-a-year mating congregations of long-finned snappers with thousands of fish moving along the bottom of the wall like a freeway, then bunching up and forming a vertical mass. We had the same luck finding a once-a-month congregation of bump-headed parrot fish with hundreds of the large fish massing together and shooting to the surface spewing eggs and sperm. It all happened so fast it was nearly impossible to take photos of, but they were a very unique experience that we all enjoyed.

Blue Corner didn’t disappoint with lots of grey reef sharks swimming by, huge schools of jacks and a very gregarious and friendly napoleon wrasse hamming it up for photos. Siaes Tunnel (really a cavern) is deep, with the entrance at about 90’ but we were surprised by a large school of jacks hiding there and the four unique small macro fish were spotted, living nowhere else on the reefs.

Jellyfish Lake is still closed as the jellies have died off, originally due to drought or overuse, but now nobody is quite sure of the issues there. However, we had a great dive on the Jake Seaplane with good visibility in the lagoon, and we finished the trip with an excellent macro dive right outside of Chandelier Caves with lots of unique finds like mandarinfish, two-spotted gobies and pajama cardinalfish posing for our lenses.

Once back to Korror, the crew on the Aggressor dropped us off to a very nice new rooms at The Cove Resort until our trips home started that night. On the way back, a few us stayed over in Honolulu and enjoyed a quick trip to the Pearl Harbor Memorial for the morning. All in all, the 2018 OOS South Pacific Photo Expedition was a very successful trip with lots of great dives and hundreds of photos to edit!

Photos taken by Jack Connick with a Nikon D850 with Nauticam NA-850 housing. View more photos here.

Thursday, April 20, 2017 

Komodo Trip Report: Biodiversity Amid Nature’s Fury

(Or Hell Hath No Fury Like a Dragon Scorned)

Komodo National Park lies near Bali, between East & West Nusa Tenggara islands in Indonesia. Our intrepid group of Optical Ocean Sales photographers managed to survive a cold wet season dive expedition there last February on the Damai 1 liveaboard boat.

Cold and wet aren’t what usually comes to mind when thinking of Komodo, which is hot and dry most of the year. But during the short winter months things reverse. The north becomes cold and the south becomes warmer. Which can be fine; the southern sites are some of the best.

Except when there’s a typhoon blowing off the south of Australia. Then the area can all be very exposed. Which is what greeted us on and off during course of the trip.

Visibility in the water suffered at times, but good diving was found amid changing conditions of wind and rain. However, we were limited to where we could go.

Denise and I managed to get colds on our layover in Bali, but the rest of the group started diving in Padar Bay. After that with a narrow weather window, we made our way south to the shelter of the south end of Rinca Island and anchored behind Pulau Kode doing multiple dives at Cannibal Rock, Torpedo Alley, Yellow Wall and Palau Pisang. We especially liked the good visibility we enjoyed at that site, pretty walls with lots of animals to photograph.

In the evening, we motored into the beach and (from the safety of the boats) we enjoyed watching the wild pigs, monkeys and Komodo Dragons. The dragons are huge, slobbering beasts, testing the air with their forked tongues as they slither across the sand. They are afraid of the pigs and it was funny to watch them run away when the pigs appeared.

As wet as it was, we were pampered by the Damai crew with amazing service, great food and comradery. The friendly crew would dress and undress us from our wetsuits, even taking the cameras from the individual rinse stations, drying them and returning them to the large camera room inside the boat. I dove with Indra, the son of a guide I had dove with in Raja Ampat on Damai II. He was just as good as his dad, and excelled in finding tiny nudibranchs, coleman shrimp and other small critters.

We had good opportunities for macro and some wide angle there. With the weather dying off a bit, we set out to the north to find some mantas at Karang Macassar. We were in luck on the first dive, with several reef mantas flying over us in hazy conditions and strong current. Motoring back to Rinca Island, we anchored the calm of Wainilu and had one of the best macro dives I can remember - spotting a wonderpus octopus, large cuttlefish, several nudibranchs, and a ghost pipefish - all on one dive.

The next morning we took a boat ride and hike on Rinca Island to see Komodo National Park. A ranger led us along muddy trails to their station where the Komodo dragons hang out to eat leftover meal scraps. Although they are lazy, they can move very quickly  – up to 40 mph! Our rangers kept a sturdy long forked stick to keep them away, but they weren’t necessary. I think the cooler weather kept them somewhat sleepy. We also set off on a cross country walk along the trail and encountered another smaller dragon along the way, yawning in the morning light.

Back on the boat, we decided to go back and try for mantas in a clearer tide the next morning, but although the filming conditions were perfect, there were no mantas to be found. A second dive in hazy conditions was very successful. Mantas love to feed and one of the challenges in shooting them can be poor visibility from the swirls of krill they love to eat.

In deteriorating conditions, we went back to Padar Bay and did a few dives around that area over the next couple of days. The area was rich with lots of fish life and several giant frogfish, schools of surgeonfish, and lots of invertebrates.

The last day we dove at a small protected island on the way back to Labuan Bajo, which was reported to have some mantas. Not seeing any, we had a long dive, but surfaced to crashing waves and high wind. Indeed, a small fishing boat had sunk and our guide Gusti had spotted the 3 poor fishermen in the water and rescued them while we were down. They were very lucky as it was a remote spot, and they were in the water 3 hours before he spotted them!
All in all, it was a good dive trip, but if I had to go back I would go in late spring when the weather is better. For an incredible diversity of life, Komodo is hard to beat.
Photo Notes:
On this trip, I shot the new Olympus E-M1 MKII camera in their PT-EP14 housing. I shot the 8mm FE Pro lens, 60mm macro and for a different look - the 12mm f2.0 lens. The new Olympus PPO-PP03 macro port worked very well with the 60mm macro lens along with SagaDive’s new TRIO switchable diopter. Switching between 3 powers of magnification on the fly made life easy when Indra found a teeny nudi to challenge me my abilities.
I also tried out the Olympus TG-4 with the new Kraken (Weefine) 1000 lumen ring light. I could then set up the larger Oly for wide angle and use the small TG-4/ringlight setup for macro. The best of both worlds!

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Friday, May 27, 2016 

Congratulations to Kona Underwater Photography Shootout Winners!

1st Place overall and 1st Place Wide AngleBo Pardau
We were happy to be a sponsor of the 1st Kona Underwater Photo Shootout along with Kona Honu Divers and other leading manufacturers! Some great photos and good fun! Congratulations to the winners!

3rd Place Wide AngleDeron Verbeck
and a $100 gift certificate from
Optical Ocean Sales.
The results of the 2016 Kona Underwater Shootout are in! A big THANK YOU to our sponsors for this year's event; SEA&SEA Underwater Imaging, Waterproof USA, Optical Ocean Sales, Light and Motion Dive, TUSA, Cressi, MARES - just add water.

Twelve contestants gathered from Oahu, California and Kona at the headquarters of Kona Honu Divers on Friday May 20th to celebrate the start of the competition. The contestants had 2 days to shoot wherever and whatever they wanted, as long as the images were uploaded by midnight on Sunday the 22nd

By the end judges, Doug Perrine and Jeff Milisen, had the difficult choice of trying to determine which images deserved top honors. With such varied subjects as models, baitballs, moray eels, blackwater critters and even minute brittlestars, the choices weren't easy to make. Nonetheless, the winning images emerged in each category and with an overall combined score the winning photographers picked their prize out of a pile of gifts ranging from wetsuits, dive computers, gift certificates, light, strobes, regulators, masks, dive bags and lots of other goodies.

Honorable Mention Macro by Tim Ewing and a $100 gift certificate from Optical Ocean Sales!

Thursday, March 31, 2016 

Egypt & The Red Sea Aggressor Photo Expedition

The last time I saw the Egyptian Pyramids was 18 years ago. A lot has changed, and a lot hasn’t, having already all ready lasted 5,000 years. One of the things that was new is the lack of tourists, mostly due to misplaced fear. Fear of different cultures, and fear of the unknown. Some is founded on media hype, and some is due to mistrust, but most of it is misplaced.

Divers, however, are a strange breed. When somebody yells “shark”, most people run away, but divers say “Where?” and jump in the water. Underwater photographers are even worse. They’re experienced divers who want to take shots of the most unusual animals and situations. They may be apprehensive and careful - that’s a good thing - but never so scared that they miss a great opportunity.

Our Optical Ocean Sales Photo Expedition was for two weeks; Feb. 22 to March 7th, 2016. Twenty people had signed up, but as usual we had a few drop out due to work conflicts or health reasons, and a few join in. Several dropped out, however, because they were afraid of the political situation or for their safety. And I’ve had several inquiries since we’ve been back  asking if we had problems or if the Egyptian people were hostile to us. We all found that the answer was quite the opposite. We had a great time. We felt quite safe. People were extremely warm and friendly, just as they were on my last trip to Egypt, 18 years ago. Some things in Egypt, like the Pyramids, don’t change. It’s all a matter of perspective.

We started out our land tour in crazy, raucous Cairo (“why use your turn signal, when you can use your horn?”). This is a terribly over crowded city, with heavy, 24/7 traffic. Cairo is the very definition of urban sprawl with 24 million people. It now surrounds the Giza plateau, which was once well out into the desert.

We toured the Egyptian Museum, Pyramids, Solar Boat and Sphinx at Giza and had a great dinner at a Thai food restaurant. Seriously, one of the best Thai dinners we have ever had was at “The Birdcage” in the Cairo Intercontinental Hotel.

Our group then flew down to Luxor, where we stayed at the Jolie Ville Hotel. It was busy and disorganized, having been mostly vacant for a while. They had an oncology conference in progress, where about half of the doctors were smoking like fiends. Public smoking is still pretty much the norm in Egypt; I guess Joe Camel lives on.

One of the highlights of our trip was the next morning when we went hot air ballooning. Taking off just before dawn, with the heat of the burners warming us, we watched a spectacular sunrise from 2,000 feet over the Nile. We looked down on farms, and the tombs of the West Bank, where we would spend the rest of the day touring. Visiting 5,000 year old tombs, with vibrant paintings as fresh as yesterday, the ancient temples of Karnak, Luxor and Medinet Habu, gave one a sense of perspective.

Many times young Egyptian school kids, practicing their English, asked politely to have their pictures taken with an American. We couldn’t have felt more welcome in their country.

But on to the diving: We left the next day on a long 5 hour bus ride to Port Ghalib, near Marsa Alam, where we met the Red Sea Aggressor liveaboard. We came across large hotels, condos and resorts without anyone in them as we drove along the coast. They were like ghost towns. All very sad, as this was high-season. Reaching the boat at dusk, we were welcomed aboard and shown our cabins on this luxurious ship.

The Red Sea Aggressor was rebuilt a couple of years ago and is very comfortable. Although our cabins were pretty small, the dive deck and various sun decks and the salon were very nice and newly appointed. The camera tables were a bit small for our large group, but we managed, with a couple of us using the cocktail tables up near the bar on an upper deck. Throughout the week we were treated to amazing service (better than the other Aggressors I’ve been on) with excellent food, served in a fine dining atmosphere. I’ve been on a lot of liveaboards, and I could see how well the crew had been trained; not just to do their jobs, but to take care of guests anyway they could.

The next morning the boat headed out of port to a couple of close dive sites to test our weighting and settle into our skills. The water was a bit brisk at 74F, but with 5mm suits and beanies on, we were pretty comfortable. The weather this time of year is pleasant, in the upper 70’s and low 80’s. Some days we had some wind, but it wasn’t too bad.

We then steamed most of the night to Daedulus Reef. It was a bit of a bumpy ride, so most of us didn’t get much sleep. However, we were up at dawn and woke up in the cool depths after a zodiac ride out to the reef.

Daedulus is a coral atoll out in the middle of the Red Sea with an old lighthouse on it, first built in 1863 and rebuilt in 1931. We were hoping to see some hammerhead sharks and other pelagics there, but were skunked, only seeing one silky shark (I am told it swimming under my feet while I surfaced on the last dive). But the walls were nice, and there were lots of great hard and soft corals of every hue, in very clear water. That afternoon, we took a break to hike up the dock to the lighthouse, where we climbed our way to the top. A few of us almost lingered too long; the keeper had us locked in!

Steaming our way further south that night, we arrived at the St John’s reef area, where we had some spectacular dives in the caves and swim-throughs located there. We then moved a little north to a great spot that had some pinnacles covered with soft coral and clouds of orange Anthias. Although the current was ripping, it meant the corals were open and the photography opportunities abundant. Also on many dives we were seeing jellyfish, and had a great time on the surface shooting them and each other. Some divers practiced their blackwater dives and got some great night shots of squid and other small squishy critters.

The next couple of days we hit a few atolls and reefs along the southern coast, then moved up to “dolphin reef” lagoon, hoping to snorkel with some dolphins. They weren’t home, so we did a couple of easy dives enjoying the scenery. After surfacing, we found that another boat had anchored next to us. Much to our dismay, a group of snorkelers were standing on the reefs, not really understanding the damage they were causing.

The last day we hit famous Elphinstone Reef for a couple of morning dives on walls and a drift dive along the reef. Schools of trevallies and sardines were amongst the soft coral, with some nice gorgonian fans, not usually seen in abundance. We then steamed back to Port Ghalib for a fun cocktail party and then off to Cairo and home the next day.

Although this was a long trip, all who came seemed to enjoy it and have many happy memories of the ancient cities and colorful reefs of Egypt and the Red Sea. My thanks to Donna at South Pacific Island Travel and the Red Sea Aggressor for providing us with an excellent experience. Cairo & Giza, Egypt Luxor
Red Sea Aggressor

Monday, February 15, 2016 

Correcting Lens Distortion in Underwater Photos

Barrel distortion makes this soft corral look bunched up and the piling curved on the original to the left.
On the right image, lens corrections were applied and a new file created in Photoshop.
Ultra-wide fisheye lenses are the preferred wide angle lens underwater due to their close focusing ability, sharp corners and wide field of view. Divers can get very close to their subjects, filling the frame, eliminating water which makes their photos lack sharpness, color and definition.

But there is a drawback to fisheye lenses when shooting the straight lines, commonly of a pier or wreck, or models or other similar subjects - optical distortion is introduced. This is usually barrel distortion, but it can manifest itself as pincushion distortion, or a mix of both. It is usually worse the closer you are to the subject. Tilting your camera up and down can help a bit and is something to be aware of as you shoot.

Barrel distortion is most common on wide lenses.
What are Common Lens Distortions?
In barrel distortion, image magnification decreases with distance from the optical axis. The apparent effect is that of an image which has been mapped around a sphere (or barrel). Fisheye lenses, which take hemispherical views, utilize this type of distortion as a way to map an infinitely wide object plane into a finite image area. This curves those lines and the closer you get, or when shot at more of an angle, can lead to a distorted view.*

There is also pincushion distortion with the center looking pinched. You’ll see this slightly in longer macro lenses and telephotos.

Droopy barrel on left, corrected on right.
Sometimes that looks very dramatic and lends diagonal lines to the image, but particularly on man-made objects, or diver-models the proportions it lends looks wrong.

Generally, with most lenses from major manufacturers (except for m4/3rds lenses), you can adjust this in Lightroom under the Develop tab using the “Lens Correction” tool menu. Basic, Profile, Color & Manual that are used to lessen lens effect distortion and correct lens color aberrations.

There are 4 tabs within it:
  • Basic: This is sort of an Overview with some auto settings.
  • Profile: Just check the box to switch the corrections or aberration removal on. Many lenses are listed from camera and lens manufacturers. Choose your manufacturer and lens (or something close to it) and the profile correction is enabled correctly. There are adjustments here for lens correction.
  • Color: Color aberration is commonly seen on macro shots where you’ll have a purple or green 1-2 pixel fringe around contrasty areas. You can enable the correction and adjust it here.
  • Manual: This allows for manual correction of many aspects of the photos. Some experimentation will show you what the adjustments do. remember you have full control of the history of all adjustments in Lightroom should you want to start over.
All this is easy to do in Lightroom. But what if you’re using an Olympus or Panasonic camera with m4/3rds lenses? They don’t show up in lens profile and their profiles "can't be found". The reason is that micro 4/3rds lenses have the profile correction build into their RAW files. Which is cool, but my experience is that auto correction is not usually enough, images still look distorted. like the gun barrel above.
Lens Corrections filter in Photoshop works on all files.

Edit in Photoshop
This is where “Edit in Photoshop” can help. It also can also be used to give more control with other lenses as well. Simply select the photo and go to “Photo” menu: Select “Edit in…” and choose “Photoshop”.  This will open a copy of the photo in full high resolution for you to edit further in Photoshop.

In Photoshop choose the “Filters” and select “Camera Correction” filter.

This opens up a large filter effects window that gives you some of the same adjustments and a lot more so that you can fine tune your photo in Photoshop. This allows m4/3rds lens users to straighten this straight lines and reduce distortion in their photos as well as make many other adjustments to improve their images.

The Camera Correction filter is pretty powerful, and you can remove and adjust many different aspects of shots, including vignette, color aberration, lens distortion and horizontal or vertical perspective, crop and more. Just go to the "Custom" tab within the filter. It's all pretty straight-forward and easy to see the results as you go. The best way to figure it out is just to play with it.

There's lots of control for correcting images, even with m4/3rds lenses.
When you like what you are seeing, just hit ok to process the effect, and your edited photo is displayed in Photoshop. You can choose “undo” and “redo” to toggle the effects if you like. If you like what you’ve edited, just “Save” it and the photo is saved and added to your Lightroom Library as a high-resolution tiff file and numbered "1 of 2", etc.

Remember Photoshop is only working on a copy - it will not effect your original. These adjustments will also effect the crop and you can try some of the other controls to adjust that problem as well. It’s all sort of a balancing act for your creative eye to judge. Don’t be afraid to try a few ideas out then you can “A-B” them in Lightroom to pick your final image.

I’ve done a few examples. One the wreck image, the deck cannon barrel was distorted where it went through the center of the frame by the Olympus 8mm FE PRO lens I was using. I removed some of the barrel distortion to straighten it.

The same was true with the yellow soft coral image above. The center was sort of “poofed out” with barrel distortion and the piling it was on had a curve to it. By adjusting the controls, I was able to lengthen the clump of soft coral and flatten it a bit, and also slightly straighten the piling, making it a more natural image.

Original on left, "corrected" image on right. This was done directly in Lightroom as my Sigma lens was supported.

The pilings were easily straightened on the above shot. I also altered the vertical and horizontal perspective to bring the soft coral more front and center and not loose the school of fish. It took some give and take not to crop too much of the image.

You don’t want to overdo the corrections, and you’ll usually not want to remove the distortion all together, as then you won’t have a very wide angle shot and it will lack some punch. Just try for a more natural look.

But don’t be afraid to straighten out those wrecks, pilings and people for a more natural presentation.
— Jack Connick
*(Source: Wikipedia)

About Jack

  • Adventurer, diver, sailor, photographer, writer and sometimes graphic designer. Proprietor of Optical Ocean Sales, LLC. Enjoy the blog, check back and please leave comments!
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