By David Loh
Anticipation was high as we started up our boat in the capital, Male, and headed to Maldives’ remote northern Baa atoll. Our destination; the geologically unique Hanifaru Bay. The bay is so small that you could walk around the island in a ten-minute stroll. Every year, hundreds of manta rays and a handful of whale sharks gather for their annual feeding frenzy of plankton in July and August.
Baa Atoll was recently declared a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and for reasons of conservation, word has it that the Maldives is likely to shut down Hanifaru Bay to divers. This season might just be the last chance to dive inside the bay. That’s where Tan Shung Sin, my colleague from the Singapore Global Pictures desk, and I ventured to capture images.
Thomas Peschak of the “Save Our Seas Foundation” made Hanifaru famous overnight when he shot the feeding frenzy in the summer of 2009 for National Geographic. Preparing for a topside news assignment is easy for me (I’ve been doing it for over 16 years with Reuters) but shooting underwater is a new ball game; and trying to make it into a multimedia project? Where do I start? How does one plan to cover an event like this?
Home, for eight days, was on a live-aboard, the chartered luxurious 41m mega yacht cruiser “MV Mosaique” or the mother ship as we called it. Daily, a dive boat or ‘dhoni’’ as it is called in the Maldives, would take us out to the various diving points.
Mario, our very experience dive master, called the shot on the dive sites and dive times. Our request was for 100 mantas and 2 whale sharks! He did not disappoint – at least on the whale shark request.
All suited up, we approached the Hanifaru Bay Corner, ready to jump in before Mario shouted, “Suits off, we are snorkelling! There are four whale sharks in the water, jump in!” I suddenly realized it would be the first time I was jumping in without my buoyancy control device (BCD). Would my underwater housing, which felt like it weighed a ton, for the Canon 5Dmii drag me down and drown me? Darn, I had forgot to check beforehand, but it was too late now.
Adrenaline was pumping and with only our dive suits on, Mario was like a flight captain commanding his parachuters “Jump in, go, go, go. That way!” as he pointed to starboard.
“Do I need flash? Do I shoot video as well or just go RAW?” All these thoughts flashed through my mind as I jumped in, holding my camera close to my chest, before I realized I forgot my scuba fins. I was immobilized in my spot.
Sheepishly, with my one free hand, I motioned to the boat crew to help me get my fins. As everyone seemed to be rushing in a chaotic dance.
In an instant, one beautiful creature some six meters in length appeared on my tiny screen, as I struggled to focus through my mask. I managed only a burst of 6 frames before the whale shark disappeared at a distance with a trail of snorkelers at its tail.
By Tan Shung Sin
I thought I’d missed her again. Looking around frantically, all that greeted me were the patters of scuba fins, a rainbow of colors flapping in front of my face.
There were more than eight diving boats around us, each holding up to 20 or more divers and snorkelers. Do the math, and you will realize how many flailing arms and fins you’d have to contend with when the call of a sighting comes.
Then I saw her. Surfacing majestically from the blue, mouth gaping wide, sucking in large amounts of the plankton she calls food. She hovered around for a moment, probably a little irked by the number of humans in assorted colors of fins chasing after her. I know I would be, if all I wanted was a quiet meal and a little sun on my face.
Fearing that she may disappear as quickly as she appeared, I finned anxiously towards her. I wanted a shot from a lower angle so I dived down a meter or so and pressed the shutter just before I ran out of breath.
She turned slightly and we had a face-off; whale shark and human. I couldn’t believe my eyes as this gentle giant headed straight at me. In one split second, our eyes met, and the magnificence of this creature truly struck me. She gave a knowing nod (well, I insist), dipped her head a little and I had the unforgettable view of this six-meter beast of a fish pass right under me, from head to tail. She was so close I could just reach down and touch her, but resisted. Wild animals must always be left untouched by human hands.
And she was gone. A mere minute with her and I was awed for life…
Over the course of 6 days of diving, we chanced upon a manta ray cleaning station. Two giant mantas with a wing span of four meters or more circled gracefully over the reef and over the divers who had positioned themselves just below the reef to view the mantas feed undisturbed. Cleaner wrasses swim in sync with the mantas, nipping at the belly of the mantas to remove parasites from their bodies. For a good 30 minutes, we had front row seats to one of the most breathtaking shows underwater. Gliding and flapping, the mantas provided a majestic lesson in grace and agility.
We were probably a little early in the season, as the currents were not bringing the plankton into Hanifaru Bay. Only a scattering of whale sharks and mantas had been spotted, just outside the bay. But that is life. When it comes to the natural world, one can never predict what or when it is going to happen. Mario suggetss if you truly want to observe the feeding frenzy, you stay for at least a month.
It’s all about timing, but for now, we were happy. We had finally seen our whale sharks.