Updated: Oct 27, 2019
I had been anticipating this trip to Manado for months. After spending a considerable amount of time and resources re-tooling my underwater camera kit, I was eager to get on the move and see how it performed. All of my preparation combined with the excitement of diving in a part of the world that promised considerably more biomass than I had ever seen before made sleeping the night before departure more than a mild chore.
Once we had made it through the 38 hour gauntlet of Austin --> Los Angeles --> Hong Kong --> Jakarta --> and finally, Manado, I remembered just how much I hated long haul flights. I equate the desire to travel abroad to getting tattoo work done. When finished with a trip you swear quietly that you'll never do it again - at least not for a while. This works in my world for just as long as it takes me to recover and go sign up for more abuse.
That particular sequence of events has managed to become a recurring theme in my life in many, many ways.
We managed to get settled eventually, and after the necessary briefings and paperwork completed, we finally hit the open water. The long trek was worth it from the first splash-in. Bunaken National Marine Park was like nothing I had ever experienced before as a diver. The sheer volume of fish, coral, and other marine life was almost overwhelming in places.
Whether it was macro life, fish, or turtles, there was literally no barren stretches on any of the roughly 20 dives that we made over the course of the week. I was immediately engrossed in everything around me, and forgot that I was diving with an additional 10 lbs. of weight (my revamped camera system).
The upside to the new camera system was that it took far superior photographs compared to systems I had used historically. The downside was the additional awkward weight caused me to bounce around like a brand new diver for a while until I could get used to factoring it in as part of my kit.
Working to photograph the macro life in and around Manado and Lembeh was a challenge, and if I could do it all over again, I would have spent a lot more time in the local dive pools getting used to my new camera rig and how it behaved. That learning point aside, the density of marine life provided me with all the opportunities I needed to practice.
On the first few dives we ran into all kinds of things, that without some fairly involved internet research, I had no idea how to identify. Case in point, I did not realize that the region was home to over a dozen different clownfish species. The most plentiful in and around Manado tended to be the Spine-Cheek Clownfish, which came in a couple of colors based on gender. The most commonly seen are the red-orange among the juveniles and males, while females are a maroon color with darker stripes that disappear as they get older. This clownfish species are monogamous, with pairs remaining together for several years and the male being the predominant caretaker of the eggs and young (Think "Finding Nemo"). There is much more to this species than can be written in a single blog post, and you can find out more about them here - https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Premnas_biaculeatus/
What came as a surprise to me was the level of aggression these fish showed when you came in close to their homes. Not content to just dig into the anemone and wait you out, a number of them would lunge out and make a concerted effort to run into your mask, camera lens, or nip at your hands to discourage you from hanging around. Those with juveniles in tow were especially adamant that we continue to move along with expedience. After a couple of dives we caught the hint, and never hung around any longer than we needed to in order to get a good photo or two.
I absolutely love night diving, and the night diving off of the house reef was amazing. From the plethora of crabs and scorpionfish, to eels and other nocturnal creatures such as octopus, there was rarely a dull moment. While night dives have a habit of being a bit chaotic with all of the divers and a myriad of light systems shining in every direction, I find them mostly peaceful and a great opportunity to focus on the small stuff directly in front of you. From hermit crabs that just spun in circles to avoid being photographed, to the Berry's Bobtail Squid pictured below that hung around in a disgruntled state long enough for me to get a decent shot of it, there was no shortage of entertainment once the sun set.
I only realized upon surfacing that one of crabs (the one pictured in this post), had managed to get me to swim in circles on the bottom trying to take his picture for what had to be over 5 minutes. I can only imagine how this looked to the other divers with me, but am fairly certain there must have been concerns over how coherent I was.
The Berry's Bobtail Squid is only between 3-5cm long fully mature, and most are smaller than a marble. They are referred to as squid, although they are more closely related to cuttlefish. One of their most unique traits is that they glow in the dark due to an internal bacteria that they have formed a symbiotic relationship with. The resulting bioluminescence is used predominantly as a form of camouflage known as counter illumination, that leverages moonlight in the water. You can dig deeper on these unique cephalopods here - https://www.siladen.com/the-glow-in-the-dark-bobtail-squid/
Coming away from several days of fantastic diving, I had the chance to reflect on what I had learned in terms of underwater photography, and working with macro subjects. The following lessons are in no particular order, and are so blindingly obvious that it causes me some emotional pain sharing them in a public forum.
1. Buoyancy and trim can be dramatically impacted by any amount of additional/new gear - This feels like something my first SCUBA instructor from years ago would slap me for forgetting, but when you get excited about a trip you tend to forget some of the basic preparations and equipment checkouts. I cannot believe I am writing this, but make sure to take the time to test new equipment you intend to dive with in controlled environments before lugging it to the other side of the planet and trying to play catch up in the open water.
2. Underwater Macro Photography is a continuous test of your diving and shooting skills - Not only do you have to get unnaturally close to your subjects when they are 5cm long, you have to manage your lights, camera settings etc., in addition to managing buoyancy and trim in what always wind up being tight spaces. This goes back to spending more time with the equipment in controlled environments until working with it becomes second nature. I saw improvement as the week wore on - but it was hard won improvement in open water environments. The reality of the situation is that I most likely cost myself some really good exposures because I failed to better prepare ahead of time.
3. Put the camera down once in a while - It is really easy to get sucked up into trying to photograph everything and forget to just breathe and enjoy the dive. I still find myself with this problem years later, and work to make sure that I shut the camera off during parts of every dive. The photos are great, and I love them as memories and as art, but they should not be the end all goal of the trip.
4. Macro Photography on the whole is a challenge - Managing depth of field with a macro lens and working with subjects that may only be a few centimeters in length can be more than a little challenging. Understanding focal length and making sure you have your focal point where you want it to be in relation to your subject are key tenets in making or breaking a shot. I recommend working into macro in an out of water setting so you can learn all the nuances prior to adding the additional complexity of being underwater.
With all of the amazing experiences and lessons through the first few days, one of the biggest highlights of the trip was running into a super-pod of what I am fairly certain were Spinner dolphins headed out of Manado Bay and into the open ocean. My daughter took the below video on her cell phone, and while it gives an idea of the size and active nature of the group, it only illustrates about 1/4 of the animals that followed the boat out towards Bunaken for over 20 minutes. My best guess after soaking in the spectacle is that the pod had between 200-300 members.
It was a very memorable way to start the day, and I am thankful that I was given the opportunity to experience it with my daughter who has managed to catch my love of photography, travel, diving and wildlife conservation. While the dolphins in Indonesia are in a far better place than they were even 10 years ago, there is still an immense amount of work to be done to ensure their safety and place in the ecosystem. The good news is that there are a lot of amazing people working tirelessly towards that end.
For the second part of this post, I will dig into our diving experiences in the Lembeh Strait mid-way through the trip, and how I went from never muck diving in my life, to wanting to make it a focal point of future adventures.
Photo Equipment Used -
Sony a6500 Camera
Sony 16-50mm Lens
Nauticam CMC-2 Macro Lens (Wet)
Nauticam NA-6500 Underwater Housing
YS-D2 Sea & Sea Strobes (Fiber-Optic Connectors)
Light and Motion Sola 2000 Video Light
F-Stop Sukha Camera Bag and X-Large ICU
Airlines, Dive Resort, and Dive Operator Used -
Cathay Pacific Airlines
Batik (Lion) Air
Tasik Ria Resort Manado
Tasik Ria Divers