“Oh my gosh—will these dozens of darn mantas just get out of the way already?” I thought to myself in the black, night water off Hawaii’s rugged Kona coast. That’s not a phrase common to big animal underwater photographers like myself. So, let’s back up a bit. Two hours earlier on the deck of the Kona Aggressor…
I had been chomping at the bit to photograph Kona’s manta rays since I booked my trip six months before, and now setting up my camera on the spacious camera table, I couldn’t stop thinking about what was unfolding below the dark surface.
Every night since the mid-80s the shallow water off of the Hawaiian resort town of Kona is transformed into a feeding buffet for dozens of 20-foot wingspan manta rays. The “big birds” are drawn in by almost-infinite numbers of infinitesimal organisms, which are attracted to divers’ and snorkelers’ lights.
For the better part of two hours the mantas swoop and slide through the night water. For the snorkelers above, it is a spectacle to behold—but for an underwater photographer below it is arguably the most in-your-face encounter to be had with these gentle giants anywhere in the world.
Equipment for the Kona Night Dive
The Kona manta dive is one of those experiences that any underwater photographer, from novice to pro, will find rewarding as long as they have some sort of camera to take with them underwater.
For compact shooters, it’s best if you have a wide-angle wet lens attachment to screw on the front of your housing. Getting close to your subject won’t be a problem, but without a wide-angle adaptor, the whole creature won’t fit in the frame.
For DSLR shooters, this is one of those times you’ll be glad you own a fisheye. There’s no reason to equip yourself with anything more than a 10mm focal length for getting up-close shots of the big bird.
Although some video shooters and beginning underwater photographers might still get decent results by relying on the other divers’ lights, strobes are a must for eye-popping shots. If possible, mount two strobes on your setup so as to more evenly light the massive creatures as they swoop over your head.
One final piece of equipment worth mentioning is the focus light—bring the biggest bad boy you have. Simply put: The stronger your focus light, the more zooplankton attracted, the more the mantas will want to be near you.
The biggest challenge on the manta dive is one that has plagued wide-angle shooters over and over again—backscatter. And the amount of backscatter on this dive is rather impressive: There’s all the plankton that the mantas are swooping down plus the misplaced fin kicks from all the other day-trip tourist divers.
The Kona Aggressor does a great job of getting its divers in the water late enough to get all the manta action without all the tourist action, so unnecessary backscatter is somewhat limited. But your best defense against scads of particulates ending up in your frame is proper positioning.
Try to keep your strobes as widely separated as possible and angled slightly out, resulting in a “cone of darkness” in front of your port to limit backscatter. The tricky part is when the mantas come in too close and having your strobes far apart can result in an underexposed manta mouth. A few trial-and-error shots will help you refine your strobe technique.
As for exposure, I found that maxing out my shutter speed worked best to eliminate the effect of my insanely powerful i-Divesite Video Pro 4, which was great for bringing in the mantas. You will probably want to rely on a more open aperture (don’t worry, fisheye lenses have great depth of field) and higher ISO to compensate for a more moderate strobe output. Moderate strobe power will allow you to recycle the strobes quicker and further limit backscatter.
Composing Manta Shots
There are only two rules to manta diving in Kona: Stay on the bottom and don’t touch them. However, it should be noted that the mantas have no trouble touching you, so your framing of these giant creatures is all about creativity.
Getting your standard manta head-on shot is fairly simple—it’s all about timing. Just wait for the manta to come close and fire off a series of shots.
You can also go for a swooping manta shot. For the better part of two hours the mantas perform summersaults, sucking as much food up as possible from the water column. Occasionally, two mantas seemingly headed straight at each other will summersault apart at the last second, resulting in quite the dramatic image.
If you’re looking for more of a “down the throat” perspective, then it gets a bit trickier. I found the best technique—as silly as it may look—is to hold my DSLR rig right above my head, wait for the manta to come right at the light and pull it back at the last possible instant. If you’re going for this type of shot, pay special attention to strobe positioning so as to completely illuminate the manta mouth.
More than Mantas
So now back to me thinking, “Oh my gosh—will these dozens of darn mantas just get out of the way already?”
Well, on the way back to the dive platform of the Kona Aggressor after running my tank dry photographing the mantas, I ran into a surprising subject—a pair of playful bottlenose dolphins.
And there I was, at the surface trying to photograph two frisky dolphins with dozens of mantas still circling and getting in the way of my shot. But that’s how spoiled you’ll be at the end of your Kona manta experience—smiling as much as this dolphin.
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