Lesson From a Master

Water visibility in the Dampier Strait has been less than perfect.  Over the past two days, the underwater film team made six dives at two different manta ray sites—Manta Ridge and Manta Sandy—but director of photography Howard Hall is getting antsy.  He has some good manta shots, but not enough A+ shots to create a dynamic sequence for the IMAX documentary we are making about the reefs of the South Pacific. 

Back at the dive lodge we call a production meeting to discuss whether we should move the Pindito and our two underwater film crews to Misool, a 7-hour sail away, in hopes of better conditions. Howard wants his crew to stay in the Dampier Strait with the hope that visibility will improve.  DJ Roller, our other underwater cinematographer, wants to move his team right away. They are both stationed on the Pindito, so we need to make a decision.

After hearing reports that visibility in Misool is 80 feet, it is decided.  DJ’s team will head to Misool while Howard’s team and I will stay and film mantas.  I have total faith in Howard’s judgment. He is one of the best underwater cinematographers in the world and has directed some of the most successful underwater films ever made.  We are spending $30,000 a day on production and don’t have much room for mistakes.  Howard’s experience is something we can rely on. 

Manta rays are one of the species we’re focusing on in the film, not only for their beauty and grace underwater, but because they are increasingly vulnerable. Mantas have been targeted to such a degree that the two main species in Raja Ampat, giant and reef mantas, are both listed as a vulnerable species, one step below endangered. The IUCN estimates their population worldwide has declined 80% over the last three generations, primarily due to overfishing. 

As we get ready to dive a third day at the Manta Sandy site, we know we need to get the shot. Howard specifically makes a point of telling us we are going to film turtles, not manta rays. We had filmed a turtle in the area the previous day, so we know they are there. As we walk down the ladder, Howard repeats it like a mantra, “We are looking for turtles, absolutely no manta rays.  We don’t want to see a single manta ray.”

I follow Howard into the skiff and we race off with our captain, Edi Frommenwiler, navigating through sections of exposed reef. When we arrive, the current is strong.  Edi dips his head into the water and peers down. The visibility looks good—a good omen.  Howard and his crew slide backwards into the water and assistant cameraman Sam Abeger hefts the 300-pound IMAX 3D camera into the water. Howard heads for the bottom with the huge beast of a camera while Peter grabs the lights and dives after him.

As I swim down I can’t believe it; the visibility is three times better than it was the last two days. Fifty-five feet down, Howard stands on the bottom near a beautiful 6-foot-high mushroom-shaped coral, with a 6-foot manta ray hovering three feet away, mouth open, cleaner wrasse inside. Peter shines the lights not on the manta but on the coral, making it pop with colors. The background is a spectacular deep blue. The manta starts gliding in circles.

As I hug the light cable to stay out of the shot, I can see how difficult it is to film with this huge camera. Howard is shooting with a 30mm fish eye lens, which gives a 180-degree view.  The light cable and divers tending it must stay directly behind the camera to avoid being in the shot. This is simple when filming stationary objects, but complex when filming unpredictable wildlife. After 45 years of experience underwater, Howard is very good at predicting the unpredictable.

I watch as he composes a shot, starting with the camera focused on the coral, then tilting the camera upward while pushing it ever so slowly up, just as the manta glides over the coral bed rock, as if on cue – a brilliant reveal. In what seems like a minute, Howard finishes the three-minute film roll and starts swimming up with the camera. Assistant cameraman Peter Kragh helps him pull it through the fast current to the surface.

While the camera is being reloaded, two more mantas approach. Incredible. I brace myself by releasing all my air and kneel on the sandy bottom. As the mantas pass just over my head, I shoot video with my Canon Mark III, copying Howard’s technique. The mantas glide around us, and for 20 minutes I am utterly torn between the amazing experience of filming them and wishing the IMAX camera was here to capture the scene. Howard is sitting on the bottom with me, waiting and watching. Peter finally dives back down with the camera reloaded and we start filming again. The mantas continue to perform as if Howard were directing them.

Back on the boat, we are elated. We have three rolls of exquisite manta ray footage—enough for an incredible sequence in the film. Howard’s ploy of looking for turtles had worked, and I had learned a valuable lesson from a master—persistence pays off.

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