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Sailing with Sirens: Underwater Photography in the Maldives
 May 10, 2013 @ 08:00 AM (EST)

There shouldn’t be anything like this. It simply shouldn’t exist. 

The Republic of Maldives is a series of 26 atolls of unprecedented beauty.  DPG visited the area in 2011, but just a year later it was time to drop in for a return trip.

For underwater photographers, it’s often more about what you see than where you go; and in the Maldives there is plenty see.  For the fortunate underwater photographer, a trip aboard Worldwide Dive and Sail’s Maldives Siren’s Northern Itinerary will expose his or her sensor to the oddly shaped guitar shark, a bashful leopard shark, free swimming crabs, inquisitive sea turtles, cartoonish morays, and a bay full of mantas.

Diving on the Maldives Siren:

The Maldives Siren is the ultimate platform for sailing, diving, and photographing the northern Maldives.  The pihinsi style liveaboard, constructed of teak and ironwood, is both luxurious and functional.

The salon provides ample room for charging and maintaining your equipment, and the outdoor dining areas perfectly compliment the tropical climate. Eating indoors would simply be criminal while sailing this area of the Indian Ocean.

And the rooms? Just about as good as it gets for a liveaboard. They are clean, spacious, and come equipped with personal computers.  Most of your time, however, will be spent out on the dive deck. Here, tanks are arranged in a horseshoe shaped formation so it’s easy to just sit down, gear up and make your way to the dingies.

North Male Atoll:

Photographers visit a number of atolls on the trip, each with its unique set of photographic opportunities.  In the North Male Atoll, the Kurmba House Reef serves as an excellent check out dive witha range of nice photographic opportunities, including groups of batfish cruising along the gently sloping reef. 

The highlight of this area, however, is Okobe Thila.  Divers without cameras may search for hunting white tip sharks and other pelagics, but photographers will relish the chance to capture a unique group of unicorn fish that seem to find nothing to be more exciting than swimming in a diver’s bubbles.  The fish literally rush into the bubbles, writhing with apparent ecstasy as they pass through the fizzy water column.  They often get so close you can feel them brushing your head. 

Underwater life is rarely so cooperative, and these beautiful unicorn fish make a photographer’s job easy.  Shooting multiple fish massaging themselves in the bubbles makes for an artistic composition, and isolating one against a dark background with the sun behind it illustrates their subtle beauty. While unicorn fish may not sound like a thrilling highlight, it’s truly an exciting encounter. 

Keep your eyes open though, not just for sharks, which you will see plenty of in the Maldives, but for other pelagics.  A free-swimming crab makes a unique and comical addition to any underwater photographers portfolio.

Baa Atoll:

If you are an avid underwater photographer – is there anything but – by now you have probably heard of Hanifaru Bay. This relatively small bay, about the size of a few football fields, plays host to one of the greatest underwater shows on earth.

Every year around the full moons from September-November, manta rays aggregate in the bay to feed on plankton trapped by the large tidal change, sometimes numbering into the hundreds.   However, the bay has been less consistent recently, and it is really hit or miss, with zero sightings becoming all too frequent.  However, if you do catch a day when it hits, you’ll witness an event like few others, and capture images of manta trains that look more like a fantasy than real life.

The Maldivian government in association with several NGOs and Conservation Groups have realized the importance of this phenomenon and have implemented rules that they feel will protect the area for the future.   This new regulation means that diving is no longer allowed within the bay, nor is flash photography. 

This hardly hampers the ability to capture stunning images of the action.  Snorkeling actually allows you the ability to switch quickly to another spot if the action moves and means no bubbles in your shots—just the occasional fin!

Noon Atoll:

Noon Atoll, and the rest of the diving in the north, provides an opportunity to photograph even more unique wildlife.  In addition to large schools of yellow snapper that hang like clouds under the plateaus at the edges of pinnacles, you have the chance of photographing approachable leopard sharks and the bizarre guitar shark . 

These sickle-finned sharks rest on the white sand bottoms around pinnacles, covering their substantial proboscis and pectoral fins with sand.  Despite their size, they are quite challenging to spot.  But once seen, these sharks are not terribly skittish and may allow several photographers to get their shots before leisurely taking off and circling.

Underwater Photography Subjects in the Maldives


Sure, there will be plenty of reef sharks,  but they don’t really come as close as in many other places in the world, and are difficult to photograph. The same can be said for the chance hammerhead sightings in the area.

The sharks photographers should truly be excited for are the ones found in the north - the leopard and guitar sharks. Both spend much of their time resting on the sand, and are approachable.   The leopard sharks interesting pattern and the guitar sharks bizarre form make them very photogenic. Careful strobe positioning and intensity should be taken into consideration when shooting into the sandy bottom.

Manta Rays

Of course, if you are diving the northern itinerary you are here for the mantas of Hanifaru. If you can catch them, then that’s an experience you will never forget. However,  it’s not the only place to see mantas.  The southern area, near Male, is a great area for finding mantas.

The key is to not chase the 20-foot winged subjects, but to let the mantas circle you. Prepare your settings, and your strobes, and get in position. If you’re lucky, it will circle above you, and you can snap its approach and get a shot of it’s beautiful belly from underneath.

Sea Turtles

The sea turtles in the Maldives have a comical tendency to see their reflection in a photographer’s dome port and become quite inquisitive—perfect for eye-popping images.  They will swim right up to the lens, which allows for close focus wide angle shots. 

If you’re using a fisheye, take advantage of the lens’ forced perspective and get in really close, remembering to bring your strobes in tight before it gets too close.

While the sunball shot can be beautiful and is indicative of the clear Maldivian waters, an all black background can be even more stunning. Achieve this by maximizing the f-stop and shutter speed, only relying on your strobes’ artificial light.

Moray eels

While moray eels are found in almost all reef diving, the Maldives can provide compositions not easily obtained elsewhere. First, the eels are large, and the forced perspective of close-focus wide-angle with a fisheye has a really interesting effect.
Secondly, the morays here seem to share homes. An image of one moray is great, and image of two, even better.

Napoleon Wrasse

These big fellas are found throughout the tropical pacific. They tend to be shy and hard to approach close enough, but if you move gently and in non-threatening ways, the occasional Napoleon will allow for a close approach.  If you can’t get close enough for your strobes, considering silhouetting it. It’s big enough to block out the sun, and the shape is distinct enough to make a silhouette interesting. 

The Siren’s cruises end in Hanimaadhoo, a long thin island in the northern Atolls.  With idyllic beaches and unique airport that can be accessed by boat, the flight back to Male is more like a sightseeing flight than a necessary excursion.  Flying over the hundreds of atolls surrounded by more shades of blue than your camera could ever hope to capture it’s a fitting end to a journey through one of the Indian Ocean’s truly spectacular dive destinations—and yet another photographic opportunity.

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