UNDERWATER PHOTO EXPEDITION "FULL MOON MANTAS" WITH DR ALEX MUSTARD / MALDIVES
It’s likely that everyone has already heard of the Maldives, but few people know where and what it is. This was my first visit to this beautiful and unique place, and the reunion with Dr. Alex Mustard only made this expedition more interesting.
The Maldives is an unusual island nation in the Indian Ocean stretching in a south-north direction of India. It consists of 1192 islands grouped in a double chain of 26 atolls. Only 200 are inhabited and on 87 of them you can only find tourist resorts. The island of Maldives stretches 823km from north to south and 130 km from east to west. The islands are home to its 350 000 population and the economy is based on fishing industry and tourism. The Maldives’s capital city, Male, is situated on an 2 square kilometres large island which is a part of Kaafu Atoll, and it is the most populous island with population of about 100 000. After changing numerous flights we finally arrived to Male where we were nicely surprised. Instead of strenuous sailing towards the island of Kuredu, where we were supposed to spend a couple of days before our expedition, there was a flashy yellow and blue hidro plane waiting for us. We were delighted. Instead of travelling for 10 hours, we arrived in 40 minutes, watching the Atolls, the islands and coral reefs during the flight, which would have been impossible to see from the sea level. We were astonished to see that the pilot and the co-pilot were barefoot as well as the third member of the crew. The moment we touched the powdery sand on the island we realized we were about to walk into a new dimension of life completely different from what we had been used to. The first thing you notice is a cheerful, genuine smile of islanders while they pass you those icy, wet little towels to freshen yourself and wipe out the sweat and dust from your face. So, while we were sipping the welcome drink we were gazing about with wonder and amazement. Cocoa palms, banana and other exotic trees surround the island’s interior. There are log houses by the sea and above the water. Each one of them is luxuriously eqipped with all the necessary and not so necessary things. The bathroom door actually leads outside since the bathroom is in the external part of the house, covered with the house’s roof. Given the fact that the temperature is between 25˚ and 32˚ during the whole year, it is very pleasant to have a shower outside. Of course there are high, wooden fences around the log houses. Electricity on this one as well as on other islands is supplied by dizel generator sets, but I have no idea where they are placed, since we scoured the island and didn’t manage to hear and see them. The fresh water comes from the desalinators and it’s not potable, of course.
You can find out all this from postcards and tourist guides. But, after a few days, we realized that the question wasn’t why should you come here but whether you are the type of person for the place. There is sand everywhere, even in restaurants, meaning that your shoes are unneeded and useless. So where can you show your new pair of Italian 12 cm high heels? There are no cafes and discotheques! Who would see all the clothes you have just bought for your vacation? And there aren’t any asphalt roads and motor vehicles either. The nearest person on the beach is at least 50m far from you. Wait, does it mean that even with the binoculars nobody can see my new tattoo on the butt or the brilliant on my DG sunglasses? A few bars with quiet music closes at midnight. But the nature is remarkable, the sea is turquoise, the sand is like icing sugar, the air is unpolluted, and the sunrises and sunsets are magical...
This photo expedition was organized by Alex Mustard, one of the best and most popular underwater photographers, and a good friend of mine. There were fifteen underwater photographers of different age and profiles in the group, from England, Finnland and Serbia. Some of them were young and inexperienced while the oldest member was 75.
The huge ship saloon resembled the fair exhibition with plenty of cameras, flashes, housings, batteries, cables, chargers and other small and big pieces of equipment. Most cameras were Nikon, from D300 to D3 ( and only one Canon), flashes were Sea&Sea, Subtronic, Zenon, and the housings were Sea&Sea, Subal, Ikelite and one Chinese housing that made its owner miserable since one of its buttons failed whenever the man dived into the sea. Most of us was shooting with wide angle objective lenses while the others used macro ports. Two interesting people stood out from the crew, a cute married couple from England, Jenny and Mike. He is 70 and she is 65. The last time she had gone diving was in 1963, when the half of us weren’t even born, and his last diving was even before that. The Mike’s instructor ID has the number 30 on it. They were accompanied by a friend of theirs who is 75 and is still capable of doing the splits. Respect! Can you think of anyone his age who can ride a bycicle, let alone dive.
On dive-deck there was a special table for photo equipment where, after the dive, was crowdy like on the New Delhi streets, which made this diving trip unlike the usual ones.
We spent time on the ship called Monsoon, made of steel in 2007. It is 37m long, 7.5m wide and 9m tall above the sea level. Beside the large dining room on the main deck, on the next floor there is a spacious saloon equipped with 42“LCD TV, iPod, coffee nad juice machines and the bar, completely full. Unlike the similar Egyptian safari ships, here it is possible to get any kind of alcohol drinks, including coctails. Each cabin has two beds, TV, DVD, a safe deposit and an air-conditioner that can make this tropic destination resemble the winter vacation in Chamonix. Every night we used thick blankets and before dawn we turned off the air conditioner so that we didn’t have to put on fire when we woke up. And on the top of everything was the extreme kindness of the all 13 members of the ship crew. I felt ridiculous because they were so complaisant, and I was afraid they would even carry me to the boat, and throw me into the water at one point. All my diving life I had been used to carrying my own eqipment so I thought of it as a part of diving. However, in the beginning, three of them, probably used to serving spoilt foreigners, were trying to take the equipment out of my hands. The man in charge on the ship was Chris, a cheerful Englishman, who has been living abroad for years, and for the last five years, there, in the Maldives. Not only is he an excellent diver and the manager of the whole life on the ship, but he also made us laugh by telling hillarious jokes.
You become even more enchanted by the world around you when you dive into the warm, salt water. The ocean is abundant in tiny fish, but there is also plenty of whale sharks, manta rays, spotted rays, tuna fish, turtles, grey and white sharks (not big white ones), and those who like snooping about can also find huge groupers, eagle rays and many other species. Manta rays and whale sharks, which were the main reason of our visit, eat planktons. This area is rich in planktons, and on one hand that is very convenient because manta rays gather here in search of them, but on the other hand, there is a problem with visibility. In general, visibility isn’t bad and it’s between 10 and 25 m, with the temperature of 30˚ on the surface, and constant 27˚in the deep water. The appearance of planktons depends on the season. Between January and June, the west part of The Madives is teeming in planktons, and the situation is the same on the east part between July and November. According to the law that regulates diving, the maximum depth of a dive is 30m and the maximum time is 60minutes. As I am a member of a law-abiding nation, I was trying to leave that boudary behind me, for at least a few metres, and the time depended on the amount of air in my tank.
From the ship to the chosen position we were taken by the rubber boat. One of the guides dived into the water just to check the direction and strength of the stream, and than we were left to ourselves. Since all the divers were at the same time undrwater photographers, it was impossible to stay in a group. We were all immersed into our work, watching the underwater life from our perspectives, through our objectives, completely unaware of everything around us. The guides were checking the surroundings and the only reason for the sound signal was the appearance of an interesting sea creature. As soon as each one of us emerged from the water, the guys on the boat served the cold juice. After our throats had been dried out by the tank air, it was so pleasant to sip that sweet beverage. By the way, it is a standard procedure to dive with the 12l aluminium tanks, but if you pay an extra-fare you can get a 15l tank and nitrox.
Hanifaru is a lagoon where, at the specific time of the year, manta rays gather to eat planktons which then concentrate there and come to the surface, when it’s full moon. In those several days, there are sometimes even about 200 manta rays, swimming with their mouths opened, emerging to the surface. As our visit had been planned in advance, we reached the position right on time, the day before the full moon. There we found the scientists from Save Our Seas on a boat. They informed us that manta rays began gathering but not in so large number as they had expected. In their opinion, there weren’t enough planktons and consequently not enough food for manta rays. As I dived into the water, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if there had been enough food, because there was a plenty of them anyway. Visibility was between 5 and 7 metres, which is the least favourable situation for underwater photographers. We floated around aimlessly when, all of a sudden, THEY appeared. From all directions, just like in the movie „The Birds“. I somehow expected them to be smaller. They were enormous. I felt like I was under a plane. All around me, they were swinging their „wings“ with their mouths opened. Instinctively, I raised my hand touching them but they didn’t run away,and as if they hadn’t felt any touch, they moved along slowly at the same pace.
I will never forget the moment I first met those gentle creatures. On the other hand, blurred water and sandy ambiance aren’t one of my favourite surroundings. On the nearby coral reef we were lucky to discover something that literally took our breath away. Cleaning station is a spot where manta rays do their hygienic-cosmetics procedures. Above the rock covered with corals they float at the 20m depth while tiny fish are cleaning them from parasites. Here, the visibility is excellent. We were floating 1 metre above the seabed while they were gracefully swimming so near us that we could reach them. Gazing at them I realized how people had been mistaken watching the birds and trying to fly. Those misfortunate brothers Right were following the wrong way from the very beginning. How long did it take the mankind to invent the famous invisible bomber B2, and all along, it had been at hand, down there. I was under the impression that the idea for B2 design had been taken from mantas. Enchanted by this dance I thought of checking my airgauge. It showed the red sign. At the end we were using the last air mostly breathing through regulators placed on some weird yellow pipes. When we reached the ship, the rest of the crew were already there starving and waiting for lunch.
On most of these locations we came across some turtles, but when we dived into the water near the island of Kuredu, we were completely surrounded by them. The large ones, the small ones, the clean ones and the muddy ones, wherever we looked there were turtles. I had never seen so many of them! The flashes made them swim faster in the beginning but then they got used to them. Beside those ones, there were many of them just lying and resting on the small terraces at the 40 m depth. They looked like the goods assorted on the megamarkets’ shelves. If you don’t have a list, you can just look around, choosing the ones you prefered, the small or large ones.
Even though we spent some time under the water just having fun, we fulfilled our mision. That’s proved by many successful photos, some of which will certainly end up on the pages of the world’s most famous magazines. To the avarage reader they may seem miraculous but to anyone who has ever tried to dive with their cameras, it is also obvious how hard it is to catch those moments. You can exclusively see some of the photos as a part of this story.
I would also like to add that we weren’t very lucky when it came to Hanifaru and feeding Manta rays, which was also one of our main objectives...but this may be the reason for us to go back there.
Finally, I want to express my gratitude to Alex Mustard who generously shared his knowledge and experience with me, to my brother who was a patient underwater model in my photos, making them look perfect, and to my godfather whose support and wittiness made this travel unforgettable.