One On One Encounter With A Giant — Morgan’s Ocean Images

One of the things I love most about scuba diving is the opportunity to interact with animals that show signs of intelligence and curiosity. Some special encounters leave me wondering what they are thinking, why are they reacting the way they are, what are they gaining from this social behaviour. In 2018 I had my […]

One On One Encounter With A Giant — Morgan’s Ocean Images

One On One Encounter With A Giant

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One of the things I love most about scuba diving is the opportunity to interact with animals that show signs of intelligence and curiosity. Some special encounters leave me wondering what they are thinking, why are they reacting the way they are, what are they gaining from this social behaviour.

In 2018 I had my favourite ever one to one with a colossal whale shark. A huge but harmless creature that lives a peaceful life, slowly cruising and filter feeding across the vast ocean. Ever since my dive master training in Mozambique I’ve had huge adoration for these gentle giants, seeing them regularly while on ocean safaris was a privilege. However, there is a big difference between seeing them and ‘seeing them’, having a true interaction, 2 of natures very different creations trying to comprehend the other.

Alone in the Blue

That is exactly what happened in Galapagos not so long ago. I had found myself diving solo towards the end of the dive (not recommended), it was around the 50 minute mark so I knew the group would be on the way up anyway if not already. It was common to end dives ‘in the blue’ here, meaning away from the rocks or any sign of the bottom, just water in every direction.

As I ascended to 5 metres to make a safety stop I couldn’t see a single thing in sight, just 20 metres or so visibility. I tend to have some minor concerns when I’m completely alone in the blue, on top of the typical concerns of equipment and air supply. You can’t help but feel more vulnerable, the term ‘strength in numbers’ comes to the forefront of your mind and you begin to wish you had at least a buddy in the vicinity. After all this was the Galapagos, known for an abundance of wildlife, who knows what else could be drifting through the water column at this particular moment.

To keep an eye out for anything in the water I tend to rotate in these situations, covering my back as best as possible. After a minute or 2 I just accepted I was alone and would have to surface soon. I spent a few extra seconds looking in one direction trying to make out some sort of dark shape before it seemingly disappeared from view. As I turned a few degrees in my rotation strategy, nearly completing 180 degrees, I let out a huge gasp, I’d been ambushed by a gigantic whale shark of all things. It was coming straight at me head on, showing no signs of manoeuvring around me, did it think I was a huge bit of plankton? Could it even see me? I could already make out it’s beautiful bespoke pattern of white lines and dots, such an attractive specimen, it was big too, I guessed at 10-12 metres from the size of its head.

Making Friends

It felt like being on a collision course with a train, as shocked as I was I had to remove myself from it’s chosen path, although stubbornly refusing not to swim either side of me, it was moving very slowly which allowed me to quickly fin to one side. Anyone that has dived or snorkelled with these mesmerising gargantuans will know it is difficult to view them head on as they will avoid this in most situations by changing direction. As it drew closer it slowed down completely, almost stopping dead in the water, it seemed as if time itself had stopped. In that moment I looked into it’s comparatively small eye (compare to it’s body), it moved it’s eye to focus back at me, for those few seconds it was as if we were communicating with eye contact. It was just me and the largest fish in the ocean, visibly checking each other out, wondering what the other was thinking, I remember a real sense of mutual respect, as if it was accepting me as a ocean dweller. I’m sure I took more from this moment than him/her, whale sharks have rather small brains in relation to their size, but who knows.

I was close enough to touch it and managed to get a super wide angle shot of it’s whole body. There was something about being alone with it that made it as special as it was, maybe it wouldn’t have approached a group and changed course. It believe it certainly wouldn’t have come to a halt to share a glance with me unless I was alone, it just felt as if it chose to make that interaction happen, we don’t give animals enough credit for this.

After getting a few photos it slowly continued on its journey and I watched as its huge blue dotted tale vanished into the big wide ocean. I got picked up by the boat and joined the rest of the guests. I mentioned it to a few guests but didn’t make a big deal out of it at the time, it felt like a little secret between me and my big blue friend.

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Cocos Island, Scuba Diving In Jurassic Park – Pelagic Paradise

Remember the movie ‘Jurassic Park’? Well, Cocos Island was actually the inspiration behind the fictional Jurassic counterpart ‘Isla Nublar’ If you’ve seen the movie you’ll know that this means cloud forests, a spectacular green mountainous landscape, numerous waterfalls and wonderfully blue water. While it may not have real dinosaurs (sorry to disappoint), it does have […]

One On One Encounter With A Giant — Morgan’s Ocean Images

One of the things I love most about scuba diving is the opportunity to interact with animals that show signs of intelligence and curiosity. Some special encounters leave me wondering what they are thinking, why are they reacting the way they are, what are they gaining from this social behaviour. In 2018 I had my […] […]

One On One Encounter With A Giant

One of the things I love most about scuba diving is the opportunity to interact with animals that show signs of intelligence and curiosity. Some special encounters leave me wondering what they are thinking, why are they reacting the way they are, what are they gaining from this social behaviour. In 2018 I had my […]

Manado Muck Diving – It's Not All About Lembeh

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Many divers out there may be familiar with Manado, north Sulawesi’s capital, as the gateway to the world famous Lembeh strait. While Lembeh is world renowned and often referred to as the ‘macro capital’ or the ‘mecca of muck diving’, nobody tends to talk about what’s happening on the opposite side of north Sulawesi.

A mere hour driving in the opposite direction to the strait, you will arrive at the west coast of Manado. It is actually shorter directly to the coast but I was staying at Murex Dive Resorts which is an hour south east from the airport.

Just sand?

Within half an hour of the resort you can reach an array of sites, not all muck diving, plenty of coral sites as well including the esteemed Bunaken marine park. Most of the sites were a mixture of sandy bottom and coral garden which makes them more appealing to some, personally I can glide over sand for a whole dive as long as I know there are macro critters to be found! I enjoy the searching and the feeling of finding rare or very well camouflaged creatures. However this is not for everyone, sandy bottom dives can be risky if expectations are not met, understandable of course, which makes them all the more rewarding.

Snake Eel at City Extra

What can I expect to see?

After diving these spots for some time, it became clear that some were definitely better for particular critters than others. The 3 sites that stood out as the best muck dives were City Extra, Bethlehem (or Bethelem as the guides would joke, meaning ‘better-than-lembeh’), and Circus.

Bethlehem would be great for tiny juvenile frogfish, cuttlefish, seahorses and Costasiella nudibranchs (Shaun the Sheep). This was very much like a Lembeh dive, typical sandy slope topography. I recall one dive here we must have found 6 or 7 juvenile frogfish, from the size of a half a fingernail to maybe an inch high. There was also a patch here around 20m with some seagrass where it was common to find seahorses, I remember this because usually I never made it here due to focusing too long on everything else I had found previously, a great sign for any dive.

City Extra was usually the ideal spot to nightdive, usually with many octopus moving around under the cover of darkness. Creatively named after the restaurant is sat in front of, this spot was very similar topography to Bethlehem, starting with flat seagrass at a few metres before slowly sloping off. This was one of the guides favourite spots because he would always find something new.

Circus, I believe named after all the strange findings there was a bit more of a coral garden/sand dive, which gave it a nice variation and made it acceptable to those who refused to dive in just sand. The entry point would guarantee at least a handful of blue and black sea slugs, no idea why, they were just always there traversing the sand without fail. With Circus you could go left or right (known as Circus 1 and 2) both having their unique findings. This site was excellent for various pipefish, mantis shrimps, snake eels and usually a resident giant frogfish could be seen with a little detour over some coral. It was also not uncommon to find flamboyant cuttlefish shuffling around, these were always welcomed by divers and are a much sought after find.

Shaun the Sheep with eggs at Bethlehem

So Manado is better than Lembeh?

In a word, no, it’s different, while it may not have the same concentration of critters as Lembeh, it still has a lot to offer. It is also very quiet by comparison with far fewer divers. Another benefit is the ability to combine this with Bunaken or other close by islands like Bangka to really see everything north Sulawesi has to offer.

Galapagos and Why it's a Divers Must

It wasn’t until recent years that the Galapagos Islands were really put on the map as a world class diving destination. Nowadays, thanks to the world renowned and the very popular BBC series of ‘Blue Planet’ and later ‘Galapagos‘, awareness and appreciation of this archipelago was delivered to the masses. Ever since listening to Sir […]

Manado Muck Diving – It's Not All About Lembeh

Many divers out there may be familiar with Manado, north Sulawesi’s capital, as the gateway to the world famous Lembeh strait. While Lembeh is world renowned and often referred to as the ‘macro capital’ or the ‘mecca of muck diving’, nobody tends to talk about what’s happening on the opposite side of north Sulawesi. A […]

How to snorkel with a crocodile and live to tell the tale

Okay, maybe no need for such a dramatic title but it was certainly not for the faint-hearted and something I will remember for the rest of my life. During a liveaboard in Cuba, I was able to float nose to nose with El Nino the American crocodile, something I never thought I’d do. As an […]

Intro to Blackwater diving and photography

So, you may or may not know what blackwater diving is, to many, it sounds just like a regular nightdive, it’s dark (black), and you’re in the water, right? Wrong, it is an entirely different way to dive, personally I feel it is more exciting and thrilling than any other dive. Although I had known what it was for a while, I had never actually experienced it first hand until a few months ago. Since that first time, I was desperate to try again, while the dive itself was amazing, I wasn’t happy with my images at the end. I will get into some photography tips I wish I had implemented on my introduction dive.

What exactly is Blackwater diving?

As I was staying in a resort for a number of months, I saw a lot of guests come and go. Every so often the topic would come up as people were intrigued as to what this mysteriously titled event actually entailed. After my first time I did it, I was able to shed some light on this for them. To be honest sometimes my explanation made it sound quite scary, no more giant squid jokes….

Set Up

Essentially, it involves a weighted downline from a buoy, somewhere around 20-25m, with some powerful lights attached to the bottom and top, this is what will attract the marine life. Now the part that scares people, you will be doing this over deep water, ideally 200m as a minimum and sometimes up to 1000m depending where. This is important as it’s the creatures from the depths that make up the planets biggest migration on earth, which is what we are all there to see. The buoy is attached to the boat so that the line and boat drift together. Each 5m, another light is added, this brightens up surrounding water and allows you to see everyone else, it also serves as a reference point to where you can attach yourself. Although not essential (but highly recommended). Each diver will have a leash, a small rope about 3m or 4m with a snaplock each end, one for the bcd, and one for the line. It can get annoying being tied to the line, but it is very easy to lose focus on your surroundings while chasing round tiny alien like animals. Add this to any drifting current and you may find yourself alone with just your torch light in no time at all. Due to the nature of the dive, it is best to keep to small groups, maybe 4-6 maximum.

Planning Ahead

For the best results, after everything is set up in the water, wait a while. Giving the lights a head start to attract life before getting in can save the initial waiting in some cases. I never minded the wait, for me it added to the suspense. During this time on the boat you can console fellow divers questioning what they have signed up for, make any final changes to your dive rig or camera gear, or if it’s your first time, sit in silence and pretend you aren’t a little worried about what your’e about to do… It’s going to be FUN!! One thing I learned was to use this time to plan peoples positions. Once you are under there is no way of communicating this so it’s best to have it near enough sussed before you jump in.

I would recommend splitting up the 5m depths so everyone doesn’t end up on the same level, bumping together or kicking each other gets annoying very quickly. Some may have preferred depths, others may be less conservative on air so might want to stay nearer the surface at 5m or 10m. I have heard mixed comments on the ‘best’ depth, I think it’s all a gamble, I always chose to go where you have the most room and I never regretted it. So it is much easier to think this through beforehand, everyone can pick a depth to start at, or maybe rotate to make it fair, it just saves all the confusion.

During the dive

After hearing how it works but not really knowing, you will quickly work it out after jumping in. After hooking yourself on the line at your chosen depth, you are now free to roam around and search for critters you may never have come across before.

Technique

  • Take it slow and easy, be mindful of others around you, do not chase
  • Use your torch to look beyond the illuminated areas to search for subjects , if you have a camera light, this extra torch is helpful also
  • If there is current, it is usually a good idea to be ahead of it, when you find an interesting critter you want to have as much time with it as possible, so give yourself that extra few seconds by anticipating this instead of being pulled along
  • Approach subjects very slowly, many species you come across are sensitive to water movement and will vanish or back away if they sense you rushing toward them
  • Look for small things, many first timers have their eyes set to search for larger animals, some of the blackwater critters can be very small and should not be missed

What will I see?

Imagine being in space and having alien like creatures floating all around you, this will be your environment from the moment you dive in to the moment you’re back on the boat. Unlike other dives, rather than everyone observing the same creature, queuing up to take a picture, divers should return with their own unique images and tales of their encounters.

Expect to see all manner of plankton species, jellyfish, juvenile stage species, squid, larval gastropods. It’s a bit of a lottery which for me is the draw, like all dives, some will be better than others. Appreciating all the small things will keep you hooked. Of course there is the sought after sightings like the Paper Nautilus and larval Octopus species which everyone hopes to come across. Some juvenile fish look completely different to their maturer counterparts and can be just as fascinating. The hard part can be identifying what you have seen, which is why a good picture is all the more rewarding.

Camera Settings and technique

From my own experience and what I have read I believe an optimal lens to be around 60mm. This allows for a good balance of working distance, focal length and focusing speed. You want to get as close as possible to avoid backscatter, sometimes a little is inevitable but you can limit this. I only had a 90mm lens at the time which was quite challenging, slow to focus, it didn’t yield great results my first time but it is possible, just requires more practice.

Multiple shots are usually needed to get that perfect picture, so I would recommend setting the strobe strength to no more than 2/3 depending on your recycle time. You can lift the ISO to compensate for this, some good starting setting would be something like

  • ISO 360
  • f/14 to f/16
  • Shutter Speed 1/160- 1/200
  • Strobes set to 1/2 to 2/3

Focusing

You will find that the majority of what you will find is fairly transparent and will soak up a lot of light. A modelling light with a narrow beam will help the cameras auto-focus and hopefully prevent it from locking onto particles in the water. In my case, using auto-focus with my mirrorless 90mm became so frustrating I opted for manual focus. If you have similar problems, try manually focusing to your shortest working distance using your hand or the downline. With this set you can just rock the camera back and forth using the viewfinder or LCD to press the shutter when the area you want comes into focus. This is a difficult way of doing things but can be less infuriating then letting the camera hunt for focus.

Strobe Position

Everyone has their own opinion on the optimum positions, I’m sure there is benefit to each. I found for eliminating back scatter, having strobes pointed a little inwards to avoid lighting up the background worked best. Setting them at at angle so the edge of the beam just lights the subject should yield the good results. If you only use 1 strobe then having it above and to the side of the port would work well, again ensuring the beam doesn’t light up everything in front of the port.

Only Macro?

I guess this would all depend on where you are diving and what you hope to spot. Generally Black water is all about macro and getting close, however not always. Don’t forget, you are in deep water and anything can come up and pay you a visit. The highlight of the last blackwater I did was a small group of Mobula Rays that circled the bottom of the line for a few minutes, of course I had my 90mm on but would have been a great wide angle opportunity. You could come across sharks, rays, dolphins, anything. It’s up to you if you want to take that risk for something bigger to drop by.

Diving in North Sulawesi

Welcome all to my first blog, I hope to provide some useful information and insight on any topics, experiences, or dive destinations I deem worthy. I hope it may be of use to anyone reading or at the very least an interesting read, we shall see!

For the second half of 2019 I was fortunate enough to be diving in the rich waters around the northern end of Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s bigger islands. You can fly to the Island’s capital Manado from nearby better known locations like Jakarta and Bali, taking 2 to 3 hours.

Murex Staff and Boat

I spent 5 months doing photography work for Murex Dive Resorts, one of the oldest and most established dive resorts in the area. They have three locations they offer in a package known as the ‘Passport to Paradise’, an accurate description by all means. These locations include Manado (about an hour from the airport), Bangka Island, a 20 minute boat from the very tip of Sulawesi, then there is Lembeh, the proclaimed Mecca of muck diving. Each location offering something a little different above and below sea level.

Northern part of Sulawesi and Bangka Island

Manado and Bunaken National Park

The diving in Manado was a superb mix of muck and coral diving along the coast, as well as some excellent wall diving in the Bunaken Marine Park. A sun filled half hour boat ride which can boast sighting of dolphins, whales and other large fauna. During my stay we saw pods of dolphins playing with the boat, Pilot Whales, Sperm Whales and on one occasion Orcas were spotted from the shore. The marine park charges a small fee for a pass allowing you to dive there, which aids the conservation and protection of these wonderful sites, as well as the villages in the area. I plan to go in to more detail on each location but the thing that truly stands out in Bunaken is the crazy number of turtles, some sites it is common to see 30 or more! I believe one time the dive guide counted throughout the dive and the number was somewhere in the 50s, so more a less everywhere you look.

For a full blog on Bunaken please read my dedicated blog here
Dodging Turtles

Bunaken sits near the centre of the Coral Triangle and comprises of mostly wall dives, offering something for everyone, snorkelers included. It has been a true success story for marine conservation in Indonesia, with many saying the fish numbers have largely increased and other species of fish are appearing that were not present before. The coral on the walls is amazing, with colourful sponges and seafans, while the reefs, sitting at around 5m, play home to a huge diversity of marine life and reef critters. I spent a lot of time on top of the reef, encountering Blue Fin and big eye trevally, schools of Needlefish, Anthias, Sergeant Majors, Black Snappers and many many more. As you reach the drop off it was common to see huge gatherings of Redtooth Triggerfish filling the water column. For those who like to look out into the blue for the bigger things, you may be rewarded with some big Tuna, Reef Sharks, Rays other game fish.

Manado Muck Diving

Along the coast of Manado you can find many exciting coral and muck diving sites, all within 5 to 25 minutes from the resort. For those who like to hunt there is a few true sandy bottom muck sites that can be great for tiny critters. Over the months I was able to capture many Frogfish, Cuttlefish, Octopus, Nudibranches, Shrimps, Sea Kraits and much more.

Nudibranch found at Murex House Reef