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Dive Photo Guide


Mantas Last Dance
By Shawn Heinrichs, August 26, 2013 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

Several years ago I had an opportunity to try the manta night dive in Kona. Unfortunately no mantas showed up that night!

I had seen such great imagery from other shoots there and I knew I would be back for another try at it – I just never imagined it would be with beautiful models in the water campaigning for a conservation cause.


Photography for a Cause

Four year ago, our team brought together WildAid, Shark Savers and later Manta Trust as founding partners in a project called Manta Ray of Hope. Richard Branson then joined as our international spokesman for Manta Rays, lending a powerful and passionate voice to our cause.

The project is a joint initiative that includes top field investigators and leading scientists and researches, all working together to further the conservation of manta and mobula rays. Together we are on a mission to expose the destruction of manta and mobula rays and put an end to the slaughter.

Having come so far in the process of achieving our goal, I was struck with the realization that we had a serious obstacle to address: Most of world and likely many of the voting delegates at CITES had no idea what a Manta Ray was!

For most of the world, a manta ray looks like a giant, scary, dangerous stingray—something to be feared, not appreciated. How do you expect people to rally to conserve something they don’t care about, or worse yet, don’t even know about? We had less than 3 months to fix this and my mind went into overdrive to develop a strategy.


The Idea Behind Mantas Last Dance

We needed something that truly captured the energy, beauty and intimacy of an encounter with a Manta Ray. I worked closely with the fabulous underwater dancer/mermaid model Hannah Fraser to co-produce the unique concept for the world’s first ever Manta Ray Fashion/conservation shoot. We needed a story that would connect the general public in a very profound way to manta rays.

It was then that idea of a manta love story came to me:

“The time of the manta rays is over, lost to greed and exploitation by humans. Hannah is a wanderer, a sea gypsy, a manta ray reincarnate as person, lost to the world. Alone and searching for a time long past, she gives herself up to the sea, slowly walking into the waves and drifting into the dark abyss. In a dream-state, she awakens falling through water, bubbles and lights.

A manta glides gracefully from the darkness and approaches her, brushing close to her hand and face...and she smiles. Other mantas appear and she is united with her lost family at last. A dance begins with Hannah and the mantas emulating each other’s movements, a dance they have done a thousand times before.”


Planning the Photo Shoot

Working closely with Hannah, we story boarded the entire film, from opening, the dance and the conclusion. We had an extremely precise vision, however we were both apprehensive as to the chances of actually capturing this never before seen imagery. Nevertheless, we were resolute in our commitment to make it happen one way or another.

So many things have to be in alignment to make a shoot this challenging come together successfully: Weather, swell, water visibility, animal interaction, the model’s underwater ability, safety divers, lighting, temperature, and of course cameraman skill! The crew had so many challenges along the way, but these ocean professionals knew that when working with the ocean that you have to just flow with it.

As even a single technical failure could prove disastrous for the shoot, we partnered with Backscatter to ensure we had the right underwater camera gear and rigging equipment. Our team was outfitted with and array of Canon 1Dx and Canon 5D Mark 3 Nauticam underwater systems, plus a complex array of rigging and technical accessories.

I meticulously reviewed each detail of our shoots with Berkley White at Backscatter to make sure we had left no stones unturned. Given we were shooting both video and stills, we had to make particularly sure we had the optimal array of lens configurations.

Lighting was key to the success of the shoot, and working closely with Light & Motion, we assembled and deployed a lighting array of 16 Sola 4000s that generated almost 70,000 lumens of light underwater!

No other lighting solution could have delivered the massive amount of light we needed, with several hours of burn time and in such a compact format. Independent and portable light heads enabled us to constantly reposition lights to address swell, tidal shifts and plankton accumulation. We also avoided any manta entanglement risks that come with using surface supplied lighting.

On the ground in Hawaii, The Manta Pacific Research Foundation, Jack’s Diving Locker, and Torpedo Tours provided the critical guides and dive operations to ensure our shoots were perfectly timed and orchestrated. On several occasions we changed our dive site selection while on the water, based on operator feedback on conditions and manta activity.

Lastly, we were honored to have Oscar winning director of the Cove, Louie Psihoyos, join us for part of our shoot and offer generous support for the project from OPS!


Photographing Mantas Last Dance

Each night, we worked in the water for 3-4 hours, to well after midnight, shooting with the mantas. The water was chilly low 70s and we were all shaking in our wetsuits. Hannah on the other hand had no wetsuit and basically would tough it out until she was shaking with cold. After brief surface intervals, she headed back in for more.

Our crew consisted of eight team members including: 1 model, 2 shooters, a safety diver, a dive master and 3 lighting assists. Each of these individuals played an essential role in achieving a successful and safe production.

With our combined experience in the ocean we were able to communicate wordlessly underwater and adjust to the nuances of the changing environment at all times in synch. Hannah danced effortlessly on the ocean floor with these massive, yet incredibly graceful and gentle Manta Rays swirling around her.

Hannah was tied down 30 feet deep to the ocean floor with 50 pounds of weights on one ankle, a huge swell pushing her back and forth above the sharp encrusted boulders on the ocean floor, with viper eels occasionally wrapping around her legs, holding her breath for minutes at a time, unable to see clearly without a mask, in freezing cold water at midnight with huge wild mantas of up to 15 feet wide brushing up past her. The skill, training and courage required to achieve this extremely challenging shoot was awe-inspiring.


A Resounding Success

To achieve our goal, our images needed to be fresh, surreal, almost beyond believable, and with strong pop culture appeal. With the manta shoot coming out while the whale shark shoot was still hot in the press, the bar had been set high and we really had to stretch are creative vision to achieve something that would be perceived as inspiring and new.

Honestly I believe that as exciting as the images are, it was the video that was core to the projects success. Mantas are such gentle, intelligent and curious animals. Only video can truly capture the elegance and grace of their movements and how incredible it is interact with them.

The artistic love story provided the final piece we needed to connect people in a very intimate way with these animals and inspire compassion to conserve them. We created the video with the goal of going viral just before CITES, with the hopes of putting mantas center stage at the conference. It worked!

By alerting global audiences to the beauty and vulnerability of manta rays, and their need for protection, all in the critical week leading to CITES, this film helped set the stage for an overwhelming victory for manta rays at the conference.



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