Sailing With Sirens- Underwater Photography in the Maldives
By Daniel Norwood
The Republic Of Maldives is a nation of 1192 tropical Islands spread across 26 different atolls in the Indian Ocean. Around these many islands, cobalt blue waters beckon scuba divers from all over the world. Famed for its abundance of marine life and the chance to see some of the oceans biggest and most revered fish, the Maldives makes a fantastic destination for underwater photographers to add some unique images to their portfolio.
There is a very good chance of seeing patrolling reef sharks, whale sharks and almost certainly Manta Rays. All are excellent subjects and when combined with clear blue water and great visibility make for some wonderful wide-angle opportunities.
There are also some good wrecks throughout the region and smaller critters to be found if you search for them on the reefs. Comprising an area over 700 kilometers in length, undoubtedly the best way to see the most the country has to offer is by liveaboard .
One of the leading operators in the area and the one that covers the most of the archipelago is Worldwide Dive and Sail. Depending on the season, the company offers three different itineraries encompassing the largely unexplored areas in the north to the more famous sites in the central and southern atolls.
With over 200 mapped dive sites and many more to be found there is something for everyone in the Maldives.
Diving the Maldives with the Siren Fleet
Worldwide Dive & Sail currently operates a fleet of 6 luxury liveaboards, all of which are designed and built by the owners in Indonesia. They are traditional Phinisi sailing boats with a difference- each has been specifically custom built to make them perfect for scuba diving.
There is a large dive deck at the front of the boat that has plenty of space for kitting up for each dive. All tanks and equipment are set out around a covered cushioned area, which doubles as a good place for a post dive nap. Above this, the sundeck is not only a great place to relax, but also a nice place to stargaze on a warm night.
Up front is a clever circular dining table that makes great use of the space and also makes for a very sociable al fresco dining area. The way it is set out encourages guests to interact and is a great place to hang out during dinner and chat about the day’s wonderful diving.
The upper level of the interior is an open lounge area consisting of sofas and a large television for watching DVDs and showcasing images and video from the trip. There is a large charging station and table for camera equipment for the photographers on board and a much appreciated expresso machine so I could get my caffeine fix before diving each morning!
Before the trip began, I had joked that the cabins looked nicer than my room at home; and this wasn’t far from the truth! Each room has comfortable double or single beds, en suite bathrooms and a computer which can be used by guests to organize media and access the internet if need be. I was amazed to find that WIFI is available during most of the trip despite our remote location.
On board the Siren you are really made to feel pampered. There were more crew on this trip than guests and all were extremely attentive and helpful. From the dive guides to the chefs, each had their job to do and played a part in the smooth running of the trip. The food every day was top notch, and I felt like getting into my wetsuit on the last few days was a struggle although this might also have been due to the free beer policy.
The WWDS team knows exactly what is required to provide guests with everything needed for a wonderful week of diving and photography.
Photography on the Maldives Northern Itinerary
The itineraries of the northern atolls offer the chance to combine diving unchartered waters with some more famous sites such as Hanifaru, known worldwide for its congregation of massive numbers of Manta Rays. A 1-hour flight took me from the capital Male to Hanimadoo Airport where we would be met by the WWDS crew and taken to our departure point for the weeks diving.
The itinerary for this particular trip was to sail back to Male and dive within 7 different atolls on the way, covering an area of around 600 kilometers. The majority of the diving planned would be to hot spots of action on the corners between the channels (known locally as kandus) where many different schools of reef fish congregate. This in turn attracts the many pelagic fish that hunt on these schools such as tuna, barracuda and of course sharks.
Combine this with the constant possibility of pelagics and it easy to see why the Maldives is such a hot destination. Although there is also reef, the Maldivian Islands are not particularly know for their macro life. That being said, many of the usual suspects can be found on the reefs if you look hard enough.
Haa Hhaalu Atoll
The furthest north of the atolls on the trip, Haa Hhaalu typifies Maldivian diving. Large schools of black and yellow snapper, jackfish, sweetlips and batfish are all commonplace.
“Finely Thila” is a gentle drift dive with the reef completely covered in bright orange and pink soft corals and was possibly the most colorful reef that we dived during the trip. There are many overhangs full of large schools of glassfish, which make great images when combined with the corals and if possible a diver model.
At “Nelli Thila,” we managed to time two dives perfectly with the current and found an action packed spot at around 60 feet. A huge school of jackfish accompanied eagle rays, and the group were encouraged to settle onto the reef using hooks and wait for the action to unfold. After 10 minutes or so the grey reefs started to show up- first two, then thre, then too many to count.
They became more confident with each pass and it was amazing to witness so many sharks up close. Although I had a good dive with the grey reefs, it was difficult to get close enough to get that ‘wow’ shot using the fisheye lens. As the trip progressed, I often found this to be the case when shooting medium sized subjects such as sharks, rays and Napoleon Wrasses, as they would keep a distance just beyond the ideal range and look tiny when shot at such a wide angle.
Make sure to take a few different lenses if you want to really fill the frame with these subjects, like the 12-24mm. Good powerful strobes are also a must to provide sufficient light as you will be shooting large areas of the reef or many fish at one time. Most of the action is at depths of 60-75 feet, where natural light alone will not be enough to get nice saturated colors in your images.
A few days further south into the trip, Lhaviyana Atoll held even more opportunities for an underwater photographer or videographer. At “Shark Point,” we were again surrounded by many grey reef sharks, including a number of young and also pregnant females. I also found a beautiful Leopard Shark sleeping on a ledge oblivious to all the action going on above.
This dive was most memorable for a nasty bite I received from a very angry Moray Eel. I had been warned that they were particularly aggressive at this Atoll, and it proved so as I watched puncture holes in my thumb pour blood into the path of incoming sharks! Be careful when looking for somewhere to hook in at this site!
Vavathi Krohi is a pinnacle with three ledges from 30-90 feet, and is covered in many soft corals and thousands of anthias and fusileers, which make for wonderful colourful wide angle images. There are also lots of overhangs to investigate where resting whitetips and turtles can be found.
“Shipyard,” as the name suggests, is an old Maldivian boat that sits upright on the slope and can be seen above the water like a breaching humpback whale. This wreck provides shelter for many reef fish and because parts of the boat are so shallow, there is the oppertunity to turn off your strobes and shoot in natural light.
I could have happily spent a few days on these sites playing around with different settings and lighting conditions, as the photographic opportunities were endless.
Sailing South- Photography in the Southern Atolls
The next few days would provide very similar diving with regular sightings of all of the Maldives’ usual suspects. I continued to concentrate my photography on the many schooling fish and soft corals, while constantly having one eye out into the blue waiting for anything bigger to appear.
With no sightings of the much-desired “big boys” and some pretty awful weather providing less than ideal lighting conditions, I finally changed to my macro lens and spent a few dives looking for smaller subjects on the reef. I managed to find anemone crabs/fish, scorpionfish, mantis shrimp, leaf scorpionfish and many little gobies that I always enjoy shooting. I never felt truly comfortable on these dives however, as I fully expected a huge whale shark to come up and bump me from behind while I had on my macro lens!
Spirits were high though as we were heading towards the world famous Hanifaru-- surely we would find our desired species there.
Manta Madness! Photographing the Big Birds at Hanifaru
By now, the huge squadrons of manta rays that can sometimes be seen at Hanifaru are no longer just a ledgend. I remember first viewing pictures from here showing around 40-50 mantas and whalesharks in one image and being amazed! If I could witness a spectacle even close to the many fish tales, I would be a very happy photographer indeed.
Of course, conditions must be right for the mantas to appear in such huge numbers and now that word is out you will certainly not be alone in the bay. It is currently organized so that liveaboards rotate days with local land based operators to try to minimize the number of divers in the area, but there were still around 14 boats when we arrived.
The area is actually quite small and the water surprisingly clear, so it was easy to see on our first inspection that no mantas were inside the bay, and it was suggested that we dive outside and see what we could find there instead. Feeling a little dejected at the beginning of the dive, I was delighted to find our first Manta of the trip being attended to at a small cleaning station.
Within minutes, two more big birds (boat code for mantas) had shown up and were circling the pinnacle waiting to be serviced. This gave me a chance to really make use of my fisheye lens, but lady luck was not on my side: one of my strobes would not fire properly and I had no choice but to switch them off. I did not want to go home empty handed, and focused my efforts on getting silhouette shots, something that I might not have achieved otherwise.
We spent the rest of the afternoon searching the bay and hoping that more Mantas would show up inside; but it was not to be. I had heard that just a week before there had been many mantas and whalesharks in the area but as with anything in the wild nothing is ever guaranteed.
The next morning I set up my spare strobe and we set out early to have one last look around before moving on. Returning to the same spot as the previous day, we again found three mantas and were rewarded with an amazing 70-minute dive. The water was clear, my strobes were working and the mantas were extremely inquisitive.
They would approach slowly, making eye contact and coming so close that on a few occasions I had to back away to avoid a collision! Nothing can describe the feeling of dancing with giant mantas and I have never spent so long with another creature underwater. This gave me plenty of time to get lots of nice images and although we did not see any mantas in the bay, this dive alone made up for it due to the amazing level of interaction.
Sailing Back to Male
The last few days of the trip are spent diving in Rasdhoo Atoll. There seemed to be even more fish here than in previous areas and I also found one of my favorite critters on the reef-- the Ornate Ghostpipefish.
The area is most famous for schooling hammerheads, where at sunrise the sharks are known to rise from the depths and if you are willing to get in the water very early then it is possible to see many of them. We were unlucky and the sharks did not show up but the diving here was still the high caliber we had come to expect.
The Maldives proved to be a treasure chest for wide-angle photography subjects. You really never know what might show up out of the blue and there are many good subjects to be reliably found on nearly every dive. And sailing with Siren is a great way to see the best these islands have to offer.