By Bob Halstead
My model was in tears. She had surfaced full of joy after her first ever dive with manta rays but back on the boat a couple of underwater photographers had growled at her. “You are a manta-chaser! Stay on the bottom next time!” Her joy turned into remorse.
It was my fault. I should have made it clear that we were going to hang around on the bottom and let the mantas come to us. I had taught Leigh how to position herself with Potato Cod, turtles, sea jellies and schools of jacks to get close and dramatic interactions, but failed to emphasise that with wild mantas in the Western Pacific it is best to stay still and let the mantas come to you.
We were diving Manchurian Pass at Eastern Fields in PNG’s Coral Sea from adventurer Craig de Wit’s famous dive boat Golden Dawn. Mantas are regularly seen on the outside of the pass where they swim along a narrow ridge at 20 m. A sandy lagoon runs one side of the ridge, and a deep wall along the other. We were diving, parallel to each other, either side of the top of the ridge and I imagined that if we encountered a manta I would be able to shoot the manta passing between us, and get Leigh and the manta in the same shot.
Caught up in the action, I did not see Craig signalling divers to stay low.
Being an Old Salt I have developed my own unique set of “Rules For Diving” that have helped me survive and prosper underwater. “Never Dive Deeper Than Your IQ (Imperial units)” is a favourite, though I do add 10 ft. depth for every 1000 dives experienced. “Treat Every Dive As A Decompression Dive” is another, and, especially in the early days when “safety stops” were unheard of, this could well be the reason I have never been bent.
But to get the best underwater images I have found that “Get To The Bottom As Quick As You Can And Ask Questions Later” has served me very well. So, on the manta dive, Leigh and I found ourselves ahead of the other divers and were the first to see the two mantas cruising towards us. I stopped – and Leigh moved along the ridge. As the mantas passed she rose up behind them, closed the gap and I got the shot.
It seems some of the other divers got some great shots of Leigh too, but I insisted that we would henceforth get in the water last. The others seemed pleased at this, and went on their way for a second dive. We followed, after a relaxed and peaceful gearing up, about 15 minutes later. Just as we reached the reef a manta came up to us for a photo call. We were alone. I decided not to tell; obviously I was on to a good thing. They are probably growling now as they read this.
Later in the trip, at Susie’s Bommie off Bootless Bay, Port Moresby, we comfortably entered last only to find all the other divers still hanging out under the boat. We dropped out of their way and within seconds had discovered a beautiful big Olive Sea Snake and started taking photos. The others saw us and raced over, pretty much taking over the hapless snake. I left it to them, and swam down the channel separating the bommie from the main reef. Here I spied a Leopard Shark sitting on the bottom.
This made me ecstatic, as we do not see Leopard Sharks often, and we could apply our modelling strategy. Exchanging signals, we gently approached either side of the shark. Since its head was facing the bommie it could not really swim forward and, as we were delicate in our approach, the shark stayed put. I started taking photos.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see the mob coming towards us. I made sure I took the shot I wanted, then signalled to Leigh to float up and out of their way. With us clear, the shark turned sharp right and swam off. I think one of the divers got a nice tail shot.
As any underwater photographer who has been elbowed off a sea fan while shooting Pygmy Seahorses knows, diving with a camera is seriously competitive. I seem to have some success – so how do I do it?
My first three rules for underwater photography are to “Get Close”. I have therefore developed stealth methods to do so. Rule four is to “Find Something Interesting” to “Get Close” to. There is an art to this; experience plays a big part, and especially “Go The Opposite Way To Everyone Else”. Robert Frost wrote about this best. He took the road less finned by, and it has made all the difference.
My eyesight might not be what it was years ago, but even so I still seem to be able to spot critters. Especially if they are the size of mantas, sea snakes and Leopard sharks. Years ago I once found a Pygmy Seahorse unaided, but searching is now unnecessary as, wherever you dive in Asia and the Western Pacific, the local guide cannot wait to show you his own miniscule Hippocampus. I like this. While the gullible are distracted and elbowing each other, I can sneak off and find something sensibly big enough to photograph. I apply my favourite rule, which is a corollary to “Get To The Bottom As Quick As You Can And Ask Questions Later” namely “Get To The Critter First”.
Speed is not always the answer but it can come in useful. I do not use those silly split fins that are perfect for people with weak knees; I use significant blades that propel me at such a rate nearby divers are tossed in my wake. Since I know all the tricks about moving against any current I can forge ahead and get to the hot spot first.
Then there are the PaparaSea skills necessary for getting your subject to pose. Of course you should never harass a critter unless it is not posing correctly for a great photo. Then it is OK to poke it as long as you poke it back to where you found it after you have finished. In practice this may not be possible because of other divers’ elbows shoving you out the way, and the tendency of critters to hide when so poked. Warning – this may be hazardous, as some divers will want to poke you on the nose when you get back on the boat.
I used to say the trick of fish photography was to “Find A Dumb Fish”, but actually a smart diver will have studied how a particular fish behaves and “End Up In Just The Right Position At Just The Right Time”. Digital photographers should take note that “One Perfect Shot Is Better Than 1,000 Deletes”. I forget which number rule that is, but I am sure you will agree that all my rules are a lot more fun than “Be Back On The Boat With At Least 50 Bar Remaining In Your Tank”.
Ace Pilot Douglas Bader thought up the best rule of all. He said “Rules Are For The Guidance Of Wise Men And The Obedience of Fools”. So just use my rules for guidance. If you get a great photo you can put it down to luck, same as I do.