Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Maldives Expedition!

(Click on an image to enlarge)

We have just returned from the Maldives, having shot another awesome segment for season 4. But it wasn’t the easiest segment we ever shot. It all started a couple years ago when Hanifaru Bay in the Maldives became the newest “must see” destination with the discovery of dozens of manta rays feeding in an area about the size of a football field. Because this is a fairly remote spot, the best way to visit Hanifaru Bay is by live-aboard boat. So I chartered the 20-passenger Maldives Aggressor for a trip booked around the strongest tides in September, the time at which several experts agreed that the manta action should happen.

Since Jonathan Bird's Blue World doesn’t have the budget to charter an entire boat like this ourselves, we sold the rest of the spots to diving friends who wanted to join the expedition. So Julia Cichowski (acting as both camerawoman and field producer) and I set out with 18 friends on a journey to the other end of the world. My good friend Carl Bodenstein would help out with additional underwater camera work. He has since demanded to be known as “Cameraman Carl” which has a nice ring to it. (We call him “Caaaaaaaaaarl” in our best Boston accents.)

Our flight took us from Boston to Washington DC to Doha (Qatar) and finally to Malé, the capital of the Maldives. Getting there takes a long time—over 24 hours with layovers. Once we landed in the Maldives, we boarded the Aggressor, a 115-foot vessel with ten double cabins. I roomed with my good buddy Bill Scully. We set sail in the evening for the 6 hour run up to Hanifaru Bay.

The next morning we had a look in the bay, which isn’t really a bay, but a sandy area surrounded by reefs that don’t quite touch the surface. When the tides are right, the wind is right, and a dozen other factors that we don’t really understand are right, this "lagoon" is full of plankton and it attracts dozens of manta rays to feed in a frenzy! Unfortunately, the conditions are good for mantas when there is a lot of plankton for them to eat—hence we did not expect very good visibility. In fact, at this time of the year, the Maldives are in a wet season, where it rains every day, the water is full of particles, and it’s often windy and rough. So imagine our surprise when we reached Hanifaru Bay only to discover crystal clear water, flat calm conditions, and beautiful sunny weather!

And of course there were no mantas whatsoever.

I can’t recall any other time in my life where I arrived at a tropical dive destination with perfect diving conditions, only to wish that they were much worse. There’s something wrong with that. But that’s what we needed.

We headed north for a couple days of diving at another atoll with better reefs, while we waited for the stronger tides to come, hoping that they would bring with them the plankton we needed. I had predicted, based on tides, that the best day for mantas would be Sept 25. We had a few days until then, and hoped that my calculations were right. Soon, on the 23rd, we got word from one of the manta researchers that a few mantas had started showing up, so we headed back down to Hanifaru and scoped the area. We did some dives, saw one or two mantas at a cleaning station, but nothing going on in Hanifaru Bay. (As you might recall, we did a segment on mantas at cleaning stations in Yap back in season 2, so that was not an option for a Blue World segment).

Finally, the mantas showed up…and you won’t believe it—it happened on the 25th, the exact day I had predicted. (I’m pretty sure this was a coincidence!) We got into the water with at least 50 mantas, all swimming back and forth, up and down in the water column, with their mouths wide open, scooping plankton from the water. In spite of having divers and snorkelers everywhere, the mantas didn’t seem to mind us at all.

Because we had a ten day charter and most of the dive boats work in 7-day increments, we were lucky to be alone in the bay because the other live-aboards were back down in Malé dropping off and picking up guests. We had two days with Hanifaru Bay almost to ourselves, except for a few snorkelers from a nearby luxury resort. And we had mantas! Manta after manta swam in front of my lens for two days. We had so many mantas that I was able to spend a few hours in the water with my still camera as well. The plankton made the photography challenging, but I got some good pictures. (Getting the chance to use my still camera always makes me happy!)

The next day, it was time to head back to port. Since we had most of a full day to hang around Malé before our flights home, we decided to charter a seaplane to fly around and shoot some aerials. The Maldives are absolutely beautiful from the air! The aerials will contribute well to the segment.

If you want to see more pictures from the expedition, they will be posted on a thread in uwphotochat (pictures start on page 8).