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An Accidental Underwater Safari


pomkiwi
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I’ve just returned from an eight day trip to the Maldives that turned into an experience that had parallels to the land based safaris more usually commented on here. I shall ask for your indulgence as I present a few of my impressions together with some attempts at underwater photography.

 

Highlights included the company and accommodation, the guided trip out to spend time swimming with manta rays, hours spent on the house reef with excellent sightings of sharks and turtles together with so much smaller detail.

 

Less exciting elements include the cost (of everything) and the attrition rate on cameras with 2 failing during the week.

 

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Manta rays and Black Tipped Shark (?)...............How exciting. I imagine it was a pretty awesome experience.

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@@wilddog The couple of hours we spent with the rays was amazing. After the initial surprise / alarm the frequent contacts with reef sharks became increasingly interesting. More about both to come.

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@@pomkiwi - I was a keen diver a few years ago and never saw a decent shark nor a manta ray in over 500 dives. I am worried that this trip report will re-ignite the diving bug........but I'll read it anyway! Looking forward to more.

 

kind regards,

 

deano.

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Manta rays, wow! This looks amazing already. Can't wait to read more and see more pictures.

 

Would you recommend the Maldives for a snorkeler?

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Great photos already! My other half has been wanting to go to the Maldives forever to surf, so I look forward to this report to see what else there is to do there for someone who doesn't surf. Of course I also don't dive! So I guess like @@xyz99 I'd be interested to know if a snorkeler would get a good experience there?

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@@xyz99 @@SafariChick @@deano Thank-you for your encouragement. I would certainly recommend the Maldives for snorkelling. It is worth checking out reviews for views on the quality and accessibilty of the house reef and snorkelling in general for any resort you are considering. Given the cost of excursions (and pretty much everything really) for most resorts it would get expensive having to rely on using them to get decent snorkelling. Also I think that one of the most productive ways to snorkel and to get to understand a little of what is happening is to spend time drifting along - I found repeated visits allowed me to observe more behaviour and interactions.

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Planning and Technical issues

 

My wife and I had planned a return to the Maldives for several years and finally got round to booking flights with Qatar around Christmas. We wanted to avoid a long journey after arriving in Male and decided that our resort needed to be within reach of a speedboat trip of the airport. This meant the North Male Atoll and I did some research looking for reviews identifying hotels with a good house reef. The Per Aquum Resort at Huvafen Fushi ticked the boxes and 8 nights were booked. I then realised that the period between December and April (the northeast monsoon) was the time that manta rays were present in the north of the Maldives and that a well recognised spot for viewing them was within 20 minutes of the resort – an objective had presented itself!

 

Cameras were a Nikon AW1 with 10-27mm lens and a well used Panasonic waterproof compact. The Nikon is a novel design being a mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses but water and weather proof. Although initial reviews were positive and I have had reasonable results in the past it is clear that the failure rate is high and mine added to this number during the week. The Panasonic has served well for several years but suffers from the usual limitations of a compact ‘point and shoot’ which essentially becomes ‘point and hope’ as it is difficult to see the image on LCD in sunlight underwater. As the units are (in theory) sealed condensation is potentially a major issue moving from the warm and very humid tropical air into the cooler water. I think that this, rather than frank leakage was the cause of the problems I experienced and could not be completely avoided even by ensuring that the cameras were only opened in air conditioned rooms.

 

Once you have your kit organised photography underwater is a rather different exercise from standard safari imaging. I am a snorkeller and as such the issues are not as pronounced as for divers. I do not claim to be an expert but a number of issues are apparent even to me and I hope will be taken into consideration when judging my photographic efforts. Firstly visibility is limited even in apparently clear water – much more so when there is visible turbidity – photographs of anything not within very close range degrade quickly – not ideal for recording shark encounters! Secondly the water tends to absorb different wavelengths of light differently – in particular red light which leads to images that appear ‘washed out’ – especially if they are not of close objects. Thirdly in the water everything is moving! Fish seem to rarely stay still and even when they are moving seem prone to sudden changes in direction and velocity. Even when they are reasonably still the observer is not and constantly being moved by currents, wind and waves. What does become apparent however is what a marvellous visual system the human possesses (even if it falls into insignificance compared with many animals and birds) – I was led to reflect on how my optical system possessed a much wider dynamic range and greater image stabilisation than the cameras I was using.

 

As such I have resorted to much more post-processing than I would normally do – I attach a couple of before and after images to illustrate. This lends a more subjective element than I would want but hopefully I can convey something of what I saw and did.

 

In the images below the top is the original and the lower of the pair after some post-processing - using Aperture on the plane and I will see if I can get much more improvement using Lightroom when I get a moment.

 

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Edited by pomkiwi
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@pomkiwi

 

Thank you for such a unique trip report - very cool (and very colorful! It must have been quite a sensation swimming with rays.

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Hi @@pomkiwi,

 

I am so glad you decided to post this trip report of your snorkeling adventure and the underwater wildlife. Your pictures are great. As a long time snorkeler who has tried her hand at underwater photography and post processing, I know how difficult it is to get the color the way you want it. You must have been very close to the manta rays and there during the daytime to get such great pictures.

 

We did a night snorkeling off the Big Island of Hawaii a few years back over deep water using dive lights pointing down with divers sitting on the bottom of the ocean shining dive lights up. We saw manta rays but the rays are far away even in cropped version of the photos.

 

I am enjoying this immensely and looking forward to more.

 

Terry

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Excellent! Thanks for posting this. Alas I have never made it to the Maldives. Hopefully someday (before they slip under the sea). It makes me so happy to see any photos of sharks and rays given how dire the situation is worldwide for these incredible creatures.

 

You did very well with these photos. Were you duck-diving below the surface for these?

 

Thanks for the review. I'm instructing a snorkeling class this weekend and it's always nice to be able to recommend places for snorkeling, I'll add this to the list!

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@@Terry Thank-you for your comments. I was happy with the pictures to some degree but just beginning to do some work with Lightroom and a combination of tone adjustment, noise reduction and the dehaze tool has cleaned up the images greatly. Once I have stopped smiling I will post some more over the weekend :-)

The rays were extremely close - they came within a few inches / centimetres of us repeatedly but never touched. An unexpected part of this trip was just how close I got to rays, turtles and even sharks on occasions.

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@@ellenhighwater Thank-you. Almost all the photos were from the surface - on occasion I was able to be close enough to the subject that this was alongside. Generally I didn't attempt much in the way of diving under the surface as I was even less able to control camera movement when I did. It is also the case that at times I preferred to remain an observer rather than actively trying to join the territory of some of the fish and reptiles I saw!

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Amazing! I would've never thought it was possible to see manta rays when snorkeling. Now I hope to be able to see them...someday :)

Do you know, was that a 1 in a million chance, or something that is a little more common there?

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@@xyz99 I understand that the Maldives is regarded as one of the most reliable places to go to to see manta rays. They tend to move between the north of the Maldibves and the south according to the monsoon season. We were told that they tend to congregate at a particular location close to our islnd between December and April. This reflects currents bringing plankton but the area they congregate is where they are met by small fish that clean thm of dead skin and parasites. While we were ther guests saw numbers of manta rays on most days but some had trips with no luck at all. Having said all of the above I have seen articles on the web suggesting manatas can be seen where we were throughout the year or that the only time they are there is in the other monsoon season between May and November.......

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The atoll and Islands

 

North male atoll is 58 km long and approximately 30km wide at its widest point. It is ringed with island making up the outer reef. Outside of this reef the sea depth is up to 2000m. The sea depth within the atoll is between 30m and 50m. The islands ringing the atoll tend to have a ocean side with breaking water directly onto the reef, their lagoon side typically has an enclosed calm water area with sandy bottom and fringed by coral reef.

 

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Islands within the atoll (including Huvafen Fushi where we stayed) do not have a surf side and tend to be more or less equally ringed by reef with shallow sandy lagoon between shore and reef, the width of the lagoon is variable around the island.

 

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Islands are low lying and generally small (Huvafen Fushi measure 350m long and 150m at it widest point). Non-marine wildlife includes a few herons and a number of fruit bats. There were a number of small lizards but as always these were fairly shy.

 

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Aplogies for the quality of the wildlife pictures but they were mainly from my point and shoot camera.

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@@pomkiwi Thanks for the manta ray info, hopefully we'll get to Maldives someday, and I'll try to plan it properly. That means, good weather and now, mantas :)

The fruit bats pics are fantastic, they look fairly big, how big were they? And I thought bats are nocturnal, but these seem to fly during the day?

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@@xyz99 February is a good month for the north of the Maldives as it is generally dry. The fruit bat is a good size - probably 18-24 inches wingspan. They are generally nocturnal - the photos were taken about an hour before sunset just as they start to get active.

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The reef

 

The reef around Huvafen Fushi completely encircles the island. Around most of the island it is only 5m – 15m offshore but on one side a lagoon is formed with the reef being 50m – 75m out. Within the lagoon there are outcrops of coral forming submerged islands. The reef itself is generally 10m to 15m wide but the islands form a much wider band extending out from the reef in parts of the lagoon.

 

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The reef is at the margin of the light blue and dark blue in the sea. ‘Islands’ of coral can be seen as dark patches in the sea just offshore.

 

2 shallow channels have been cut across the reef to allow snorkellers to access the outer wall of the reef without risk of injury to themselves or damage to the coral as the water is generally very shallow over the body of the reef itself. When I first went through one of the channels I was not prepared for the sudden drop away at the end – the seabed here is around 50m below. This feels very exposed as one instinctively feels that one is about to fall – in reality of course it makes no difference if one is in 2m of water or 50m.

 

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But it is dark down there and you can never be sure what might emerge from the depths…

 

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The coral outcrops on the lagoon side tend to be very open and branching in structure, as does the lagoon side of the main reef, sometimes with large areas of flat plate like corals. These areas provide a very sheltered habitat for smaller fish.

 

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On the seaward side of the reef the coral tended to be much more solid and rock like. Fish of all sizes came over the reef margin and swam close to the rock wall.

 

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The are openings in the coral wall where anenomes and clams can grow.

 

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The resort is making efforts to repair the reef with coral grown on steel frames in the shallows and relocated to damaged areas.

 

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In some cases however the coral appears quite ready to use any available structure as an anchor.

 

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Sharks

 

There were a few parallels between this trip and a more ‘standard’ safari. It was a long journey to get here and not a cheap break. There was a reasonably settled routine but in general reversed from the usual dawn and dusk drives – a good light is needed to see the reef in colourful detail although the fading light s supposedly best for seeing eels and emerging crustaceans. In general a guide was not necessary but on the day we went to see the manta rays we were escorted by a member of the dive team. One other similarity is the existence of popular or target species – for me rays, sharks and turtles were on my wish list.

 

Many of us of a certain age saw the film Jaws when we were young and I’m not sure if my initial anxiety on realising I was haring water with one can be blamed on that or reflects a more instinctive reaction. In any event the first shark I saw gliding past raised the pulse somewhat.

 

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As it turned out this was one of the largest sharks I saw and the one that gave me one of the clearest sightings. Over the next few days there were frequent encounters. There are two types of sharks commonly seen around the reef. One is the blacktip reef shark shown above and the other the tawny nurse shark below.

 

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Both are medium sized (blacktip up to 1.6m and tawny nurse between 2m and 3m). They are both generally timid and gave me wide berth on most occasions. One thing I had not appreciated was how well camouflaged they are and how worryingly easy it was to lose sight of one!

 

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Generally I saw only single sharks but occasionally there were two or three together for brief periods although behaviour did not appear cooperative.

 

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On my last swim one black tip shark circled me three times before it swam away leaving me wondering if my new found confidence had been misplaced!

 

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Errrrr, you mean you saw these sharks (they look really close) while snorkeling? And he circled you? And you didn't have a heart attack?

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@@xyz99 I think it's called habituation :-)

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@@xyz99 I think it's called habituation :-)

 

It sounds ok as long as both you and the shark think that :)

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Stingrays

 

The resort takes its responsibility to the reef seriously. As already mentioned they have an active coral replacement programme and they make great efforts to educate guests not to walk on or touch the coral. The only unusual exception to this is that they feed stingrays at the same location every day at 6.30 pm. Although they don’t feed sharks a few small reef sharks tend to hang around at the same time.

The rays turn up around 5.45 pm and have an interesting habit of following anyone walking along the beach, coming on to the edge of the beach.

 

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One evening I went down early hoping to get some pictures in the water with the rays. I was conscious that the tails do have a significant sting if the ray is provoked and also the an Australian wildlife TV celebrity met an untimely end when a stingray barb penetrated his chest. I was however clear that I would not be upsetting this group. It was an interesting few minutes partly because the water was very turbid due the sand flicked up by the rays but also because we were all moving around in about 18 inches of water. The rays were very curious until they realised I had no food, they would then move off and return when I moved up the beach a bit.

 

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Although this was a fun time it felt a little staged and I was very happy to spot a couple of rays ‘in the wild’ later in the week. Interestingly they were not at all curious in this situation but rather nervous – moving away with a lovely graceful movement as soon as they spotted me.

 

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As I sense a small and exclusive readership has formed for ths report I will follow up with the trip highlight, manta rays, ASAP.

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Superb experience....i did something like that in dar es salaam bongoyo island but ended up with nose choked with sea water due to faulty gear..

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