As often happens, our last few days of shooting were among the best. Peter and I had planned to concentrate our last few dives on capturing more examples of symbiotic associations between fish. Generally this means fish cleaning behavior. Ironically, we observe small fish cleaning bigger fish much more often that we observe large fish eating small fish. Fish cleaning behavior happens constantly all around us on the reef. That, however, does not mean it is easy to capture the behavior with an IMAX® camera. These gentle pursuits between species are almost always disturbed by the hulking presence of two divers, a behemoth-sized camera, and blinding movie lights. What may be easy to observe from fifteen feet away may be impossible to film from six feet away. I’m not sure what tends to disturb fish cleaning behaviors more, the presence of over-fed divers and a huge camera, the noise this monster camera makes (often described as similar to a lawnmower with a bad bearing), or the brightness of our movie lights. Fish often change color to signal their willingness to be cleaned when they enter a “cleaning station.” It may be that our movie lights change the color of the host by adding warm colors that had been filtered out as sunlight from the surface passes through seawater.
We spent our morning dive in shallow water shooting fusiliers being cleaned by small blue wrasses. Instead of lights, we used a color correction filter on the lens. We managed to capture a few shots, but even without the lights, the fish seemed incapable of ignoring our massive camera or the noise it makes.
Fortunately, Pindito captain Edi Frommenwiler saved us from a second frustrating attempt at filming fish cleaning behavior. He had taken one of Pindito’s inflatable boats and scouted an island called Yellit where he discovered another massive school of anchovies and, this time, dozens of Mobulas feeding on them. We changed gears quickly.
As we followed Edi down, I could see a huge swarm of small fish covering a spire of rock that protruded from the island’s steep escarpment. Mobulas circled above the school preparing for their next attack. This looked to be exciting. Peter and I dropped down the wall and settled on the protrusion. Pindito dive masters Rafael Sauter, Amil Ihsan, and Bob Brunskill followed behind us, assisting with our light cables. Once on the pinnacle, I set the aperture and focus on the lens and then waited for the next attack by the Mobulas. About twenty minutes had passed when, suddenly, the school of anchovies began to undulate and flash as predators attacked the far side of the swarm. I switched on the camera and heard the IMAX camera motor bring the film up to proper speed. The camera had run for about twenty seconds when we heard an enormous explosion that momentarily stunned me into stupefaction. Glass rained down in front of the camera’s lens. One of our movie light bulbs had imploded. Instinctively, I then made the mistake of turning the camera off.
Most often, loud noises underwater send fish fleeing. The loud noise our camera makes when running is a perfect example. But sometimes just the reverse happens. Just as the remaining lights went out and my finger pressed the off switch on the camera, a Mobula raced directly toward us veering off just a few feet away from the lens. The ray was followed by an enormous school of large jack travalle fish. These chased the anchovies up against the pinnacle and attacked them ferociously. Within a few moments, they had kicked up so much dust that visibility dropped to only a few feet. It was one of the most dramatic predations I had ever seen underwater. And I missed the shot.
Later that day I managed to capture several good scenes of Mobulas swimming above the anchovy schools, but I never captured a good example of actual predation by the big rays. Pindito was scheduled to pull anchor that evening to begin the short voyage to Sorong with a short stop at Waia Island. There we would make one more dive to film the Catlin Seaview Survey Team as they mapped Indonesian coral reefs for Google Ocean. That evening, as the sunset flamed the western horizon, Peter loaded the IMAX Mark II camera aboard the live-aboard dive boat, Sea Wolf, and along with Greg and the other members of the IMAX camera team, departed for Cenderawasih Bay where they hope to film whale sharks and leatherback turtles. Michele and I will spend a few days in Sorong before we re-board Pindito and head back out to sea to capture digital video for our own library. I look forward to handling a small movie camera again. And I already can’t wait to get back in the water.