Meet Justin Carmack: Scuba Explorer, Photographer and Blogger

Justin CarmackIn 2010, Justin Carmack quit university and began wandering the world alone.  He soon discovered his true passion was scuba diving and he has turned that passion into a successful blog. He’s on a mission to explore the top 100 dive sites on earth.  Along the way he is documenting his experiences through photography and blogging on his site www.truenomads.com.  Justin joins us this week to talk about his unique niche in the world of travel blogging.

You’ve managed to build up a following and healthy blog traffic relatively quickly, starting in 2010. How has your focus on the intersection of scuba diving and travel helped set you apart?

I started traveling in 2010, but I didn’t start blogging until probably 2013. At first I was just answering people’s questions about how I managed to travel the world with so little money, as well as telling my travel stories.  But, eventually I realized I didn’t want to start in the budget travel niche as I knew I would outgrow that lifestyle one day.

A few years ago – while on my first paid press trip – I was lucky enough to meet a very successful blogger who took me under his wing and ended up mentoring me, even to this day. I told him I wanted to be the authority in scuba travel, and we set up a strategy to make that happen.

Since then we realized that diving is a completely untapped yet popular niche in the tourism industry. Once I published my top 100 mission, I immediately started getting huge interviews, live TV and features. It went nuts.

From there brands in both the scuba industry as well as tourism boards started hitting me up nonstop because I was building a very unique audience of scuba enthusiasts that no other bloggers had access to. I literally had no competition and everything skyrocketed very quickly. The companies and brands I was pitching to were completely different then the ones every travel blogger wants to work with, and I was really their only option.Justin Carmack

You have a quest of hitting the top 100 dive sites around the world. Why that goal and how far along are you?

So this goes back to that press trip years ago. Me and my new, dare I say mentor, came up with this list for the simple reason that people could follow my progress.  And once I passed the 50+ mark I would really start to become the authority in dive travel.

In reality, it’s already become huge and I’ve only crossed off 21 sites. One reason for this is that when tourism boards saw me on businessinsider.com and WGN Chicago live TV and many more, they started hitting me up with offers to come dive their locations and blog about it – their goal being to promote their dive tourism to a whole different audience than the regular travel blogger.

So I have been very busy crisscrossing the world diving nonstop, even if they aren’t on my list. The biggest advantage of this was practicing underwater photography and videography, which has helped Twitter and Instagram grow. And I really needed this practice because I am starting a weekly vlog on my new YouTube channel so that I can better show each location via videos. I start a big round the world dive trip next week, where I will also start the vlogs. So there’s a lot of things coming together.

Do you carry your own diving equipment with you? 

Yes, I do and it has been a huge challenge. I have a large scuba rolling suitcase now from Mares Diving, and had to get rid of the backpack. I also have a smaller backpack with a few DSLRs and lenses, etc. that I carry-on. When I first started this I also brought my bcd, regulator, mask, etc., but now that I never have to pay for diving or rental gear, I leave some of my gear at home which gives me more space for camera gear.

But even that is a challenge with the aluminum underwater DSLR housings and the enormous underwater video lights and strobes and the wet super macro lenses and wide angle lenses and so much more. And then there is the gear for out of water video, like tripods and monopods and hyperlapse slider rails from Benro, and more. So it’s definitely changed the way I travel. It’s not fun, but I love making dive videos and need all of this equipment to continually improve. The only thing I wish I could carry is a drone!Justin CarmackI think a lot of cynical fellow bloggers will look at the high social media follower numbers you have and automatically think something fishy is going on. How did you get there, and what advice would you give for building up a large social following?

Ha!  Well, it’s obvious when someone has bought fake followers.  It’s easy to spot. They can have 70k followers on Instagram yet maybe 100 likes on photos. Or sometimes I see 100 likes on 10 photos and then 3000 on one. That’s what I call fishy, not just simply having a big following. But to answer your question, I have a couple of strategies.

  1. Find your niche and dominate it. I went from 17k to 42k in 8 months on Instagram because I was posting underwater content regularly and using scuba hashtags so those kind of people were finding me. I also found that scuba divers and very hard core and loyal. (On top of that, they don’t have many sites or options to follow.)
  2. Invest in your brand. Besides making sure I had great equipment to get good content, I also started paying to advertise my profiles. For example, I would find blogs with high traffic and pay for a one month banner ad, promoting my Instagram. I would find huge Instagram accounts in the diving niche, and pay them to feature me, and if their followers liked my content they would follow me.

With methods like this, and doing a lot of thinking outside the box, I grew my blog and all my social media platforms. All the money I’ve ever invested, I’ve made back with all the brand deals and ambassadorships and things. I truly believe if you want to transition from a hobby blog to a professional one, you have to spend money to make it. There isn’t a single successful company in the world that didn’t invest in itself, and it shouldn’t be any different for a travel blog business.Justin Carmack

What actions and activities have had the biggest impact on your earnings the last couple years?

I guess finding my niche and voice, so that I can really narrow down my target audience, as well as concentrating on site SEO that targets divers and what they look for online. Half of my income is from affiliates because of many top search rankings. A third of the rest of my income is from brand ambassadorships. But deciding to become THE authority in diving and building a loyal army of scuba junkies, has attracted a lot of brands in the industry.

I have brand sponsors from companies like Benro tripods, Suunto dive computers, bluewaterphotostore.com and many more. I have a ton of other sponsors as well who don’t pay me, but give me their products. Like airlines and hotels and stuff like that. Most of the rest of my income is paid press trips. Like I said tourism boards and PR companies sometimes have big budgets to promote their tourism economy, and many pay a lot of money to gain access to my readership – places like Kenya, Florida, Belize, UAE and many more each year. I actually turn many offers down if I’m too busy or it doesn’t fit my brand.Justin Carmack

What’s up next on your travel schedule, above and below the water?

Well I’ve just partnered with Star Alliance and Marriott, to do a big round-the-world trip to some of my top 100 sites. The trip includes California, Hawaii, Tokyo, Seoul, Philippines, Singapore, Maldives, Malta, Ireland, Toronto, Aruba and New York. This is also the trip where I start the weekly vlogs. From New York I fly straight to Indonesia for a 2 week trip, then to Thailand where I am based for a month of rest.

Then I am partnering with another blogger, my good friend and fellow dive-master, Sarah Richard, to first do a month long dive trip in Borneo for December, and then we fly to Palau and Micronesia for a month of diving in January. My goal for all these locations is to get good at underwater videography and produce  lots of videos, because that’s my passion. But it’ll be a busy year for sure.

Justin Carmack is a PADI divemaster, underwater photographer and blogger on a mission to explore and document the top 100 best dive sites in the world. He has traveled to over 80 countries on 6 continents, with no plans to stop any time soon! You can follow his journey on Truenomads.com where he writes about his adventures as well as posts a weekly vlog series.

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