It is time to worry, again. Twenty meters away, Ketut has tapped his tank with his reef pointer. Now, holding his magnifying glass in front of his face—and not taking his eyes from whatever he has found on the reef—he is beckoning me with his free hand.
Last night, his slate-board had suddenly materialized out of the gloom in front of my face, weakly illuminated in the few rays escaping between the fingers he’d curled over the lens of his dive light to protect my night vision. He’d written one question on it. “Bobtail?” It was a classically understated question. What Ketut had found in the blackness—and was asking me if I wanted to photograph—was a juvenile bobtail squid, about a fifth of an inch long.
The miniscule squid was hunting around a hydroid, seemingly picking off pixel-sized crustaceans. It was flitting around, on a jutting corner of reef, and being swirled randomly back and forth, up and down, by the eddies of a current that, in open water, was almost too strong to swim against. That Ketut even found it in the first place was impressive enough. But then he turned and led me back through the darkness and the current, and somehow relocated it.
Sometimes you just have to bang away and hope for the best: Ketut’s benighted, bobbing and weaving miniature squid
There followed 20 minutes of that cramping exertion all too familiar to underwater macro photographers when the only thing not moving is the reef itself. Ketut sidled in like a living beanbag to help brace me against the current. With legs and fins pumping, the lens locked at its closest focus to stop it hunting, trying to hold the camera steady, neck craned, squinting hard through the viewfinder hoping to find the squid, I eventually resorted to just squeezing off a frame every time something—anything—blundered into focus.
Earlier that same afternoon, I’d spent at least 10 minutes staring at a hand-sized patch of algae-fuzzed dead coral after Ketut had casually pointed into the center of it. With my face close enough to the dead coral to allow the prescription gauge reader lenses in my mask to do their job, I detected the millimetric movement of a perfectly camouflaged juvenile triplefin.
Depth of field is always a challenge with super-macro but the burrows of both these rice grain-sized coral hermit crabs were in pretty well the same plane
This shot was framed to take advantage of the anemone’s violet mantle. It took some time, but the two anemonefish eventually synchronised their fleeting appearances
And now, Ketut’s calling me over to tackle something with the unforgiving Nauticam SMC super-macro rig that even his laser-sharp eyes can see only with the aid of a magnifying glass. All this because I’d suggested that we might go look for super-macro subjects.
You have to be careful what you wish for. Ketut and the other members of the dive guide team at Wakatobi Dive Resort listen intently to their clients’ photographic aspirations. They take these aspirations seriously and work hard to help fulfill them. I’ve now worked with Ketut, Shoko, Jono, Yusef, Kaz, Muji, and Marco. (Marco Fierli is also Wakatobi’s photo pro and a talented shooter in his own right.) They all bring their own personalities and strengths to the relationship they forge with their clients. But they all have in common deep local knowledge and a systematic approach to finding subjects, either from their clients’ wish lists, or opportunistically, based on their own searches and observations.
Wire coral looping down in front of a sponge offered the prospect of a more interesting background for this Zanzibar shrimp
Using a teleconverter enables frame-filling images from slightly further away than possible with my 100mm macro on its own. While this puts more water between lens and subject, it’s still useful for shots like this, where closer intimacy will likely put the subject to flight
Taking the private guide option to tap into this catalogue of knowledge and experience does add to the cost of a Wakatobi visit, but you won’t regret it. On the regular scheduled dive boats, you’ll still go to sea with the larger groups of divers, but you’ll be dropped on your own sections of reef, with your guide, to work undisturbed. Alternatively, you can work the house reef with them at any time.
The ultimate benefit comes though with the private guide/private boat option. While this does increase your costs, it provides the most freedom and flexibility, and is well worth the investment. With the private boat you dive when you want, where you want, as frequently as you want. There’s no call to abandon a subject and move on, simply because others in the group have. There’s no-one else pressing you from behind for their turn to take a photograph. It’s the ideal way to really get to know an area in detail. It’s also ideal for building portfolios of specific species over extended periods of time. We use it for all these reasons.
It took five dives to get this shot of a pink-eye goby. I knelt on the sandy bottom, holding the camera with lens locked at closest focus distance, out-of-focus sponge framed up as a scene-setter, and waited. Eventually, and only once, one goby zipped into focus
Hand-holding a single strobe on the end of its arm, so that it could shine through a gap in the coral, produced this view of a peacock mantis shrimp surveying its domain
Photo dive guides almost never appear in the picture credits, but they are the ones that can make the difference underwater. Learning to work with them is an often-overlooked technique. They are a team of professionals, and are meant to be deployed as such. Providing them with a wish list of subject matter is just the first step. They’ll certainly go off and work hard to fill that list, but they bring a lot more than that to the table. Once we’re actively diving, I shamelessly plumb the depths of their local knowledge. They’re logging hundreds of dives a year in the area, so they are always going to know far more about any of the dive sites and the marine life on it than I ever will. They will always find more creatures than I will, but what they teach me helps me discover and interpret some of my own.
The dark crack in the sponge offered an interesting pattern, so I framed it up and was about to wait in hope that something might eventually swim into an interesting position alongside it. This yellow trumpetfish apparently wondered what all the fuss was about!
I’m equally uninhibited in sharing with them my photographic failures and successes from each dive. Helping them understand what I’m trying to achieve, showing them what seems to have worked, and what clearly did not, helps them develop strategies for our future dives. Bouncing ideas around with them also frequently generates welcome suggestions and hints for improvements in my own technique. Subsequent dives then become part-workshop as we test and refine those ideas.
One of the joys of photography is that, while there are many tried and proven techniques that will consistently deliver predictable results, there is also limitless room for adaptation. That’s one of the reasons I rank Wakatobi so highly. It’s not only the shots we miss that keep us going back into the water. It’s the endless possibilities that life on the reef puts in front of us. Spending time with the photo dive guides at Wakatobi—even when they stretch my aging eyes to the limit—is one of the most enjoyable ways of exploring those possibilities.
Ketut Suardika: Always thoughtful and focused, Ketut personifies the commitment of the Wakatobi photo dive guides. It is largely their experience and local knowledge that brings to light the diversity of marine life on these incredible reefs
About the Author: Wade Hughes is a Member of the Explorers Club and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He has dived in some 30 countries and territories around the world, and has logged more than 250 dives at Wakatobi. He and his wife Robyn make their photographs freely available to individuals and organizations involved in education, research, and not-for-profit promotion of sustainable conservation. Requests can be sent to email@example.com.