Saturday, September 4, 2010

Wrangling Rays

As part of capturing underwater 3D content of the Kona Coast of the Big Island we had chartered with Sandwich Isle Divers. The shoot was an ambitious, full day of camera installs, lava tubes, coral shots and mantas. A production schedule which usually encompasses 7-10 days when we travel to National Park units to generate 3D footage for outreach and education. Because we just come off a five day 3D shoot on the USS Arizona the crew was confident of the camera performing and carried only the essentials to the Big Island from Oahu. To us, it was traveling light, however perhaps the Hawaiian Airlines ticket agent who checked our 31 camera cases, dive gear and luggage may have thought differently. I got the felling she had never seen a $1000 in checked bags.

Photo by Naomi Blinick
Since we had been worked a long shoot the week before, with early call times to attempt to catch the “clean” water on the USS Arizona, I was hesitant to get a start at o’dark thirty. We loaded up our two SUV’s and headed to the Kaloko Marina to meet Steve, our charter captain. As we rolled into the marina two thing simultaneously happened. Our charter boat, which had looked quite spacious in photographs, was not quite. Also, our captain didn’t understand the magnitude of our previous comments about a fair bit of camera equipment to install, at least not until now as we hoisted case after case over the gunnels of the boat while still on the trailer.

After a couple hours of install the camera systems were bench tested and we launched. The plan was to hit a couple of mooring balls inside the park boundary of Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park. This National Park unit was set aside in 1978 in order to provide a center for the preservation, interpretation, and perpetuation of traditional native Hawaiian activities and culture, and to demonstrate historic land use patterns. I have worked here a couple time over the past 15 years, mainly on the documentation of the historic fish trap but have not done any diving just offshore in the lava tubes or reefs in the area. Our first dive was on some beautiful reef structure with heath small fish populations and amazing coral cover. Next we moored in the area of two of the most known lava tubes in the area. Suck’em up is a fantastic tube with a swim thought of maybe 75-100 ft with skylights in the formations above which allow ambient light to dance across the cave. We shot some 3D inside and out, then worked the surrounding reef area. Our third camera dive as on adjacent reef with a couple of small arches and healthy corals.

As the ambient light dropped behind the Kona clouds we headed back to the marina to get fresh tanks and a bite to eat before our night dive with the mantas. Our plan was to get a late start and time our arrival to the manta site around the time the hoards of sunburned tourists have departed. On any given night it is not uncommon to have 50-70 divers in the water PLUS 30-40 snorkelers overhead. Numbers so staggering I would not have believe them had I not taken part in a manta dive nearly 10 years ago. I was not interested in getting near that maylay, so our plan was to risk the mantas taking off when the tourist did.

Photo by Naomi Blinick
We arrived on site as the manta dives were winding down. A slow night by Kona manta dive standards. Only 7 dive boats and a livaboard moored up in the space of a football field. As the mooring balls cleared we tied up and made ready to splash. Our first goal was to place the lights on the bottom in hopes of enticing the mantas to stick around. The underwater lights draw in a massive collection of plankton, which in turn draw in the mantas which are a filter feeder. Namoi Blinick, the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society NPS intern was my buddy as we dropped the 45ft into the blackness – anticipating a massive manta to fly out of the blackness. Next we launched the 3D camera and settled on the bottom. I asked Naomi to hover over the lights so we could dial in the proper exposure for the shot. As she floated over the lights, blinded by the massive 12 thousand lumens pointed upward an ominous shape flew right over her, inches from her head. I slight scream could be heard and her entire mask was filled with widened eye balls as the manta slowly circled and flew around Naomi. I was calling topside to make sure we were recording the scenes unfolding but no response. The manta casually made a few more passes then was gone. Shortly thereafter I heard Maryann, a 3D imaging specialist from Woods Hole (WHOI), call down to me say we were all set. Missed it.

In a matter of minutes the rest of the divers were in place. WHOI cameraman and engineer Louis Lamar had two 4 thousand lumen LED lights strapped to him, Naomi had her Aquatica D700 camera and I was kneeling on the bottom with the large 3D camera package. There we sat, waiting – nothing. Thoughts of getting blanked on the shoot ran through my mind. We missed the only shot we were going to get. 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, waiting.

Suddenly a graceful giant approached, his mouth gaping open scooping up the plankton drawn by the lights. Then a second, then a third. As the minutes passed, the dance continued. Each ray taking its turn slowly passing over the lights, mouth open creating this amazing choreographed dance of elegance. Occasionally a ray would circle over and over just inches above the light source, mouth open devouring all the plankton drawn to the intense lights.

Photo by Naomi Blinick
It was on one of these graceful loops that one of the large, 12+ foot manta miscalculated its arc and ran head first into the milk crate which contained our lights. In a moment, the ray powered through the miscalculation and lifted the milk crate, 8lbs of lead and the LED lights off the bottom. I watched in amazement as the milk crate slowly became dislodged from the manta and sank back to the sand. The lights however, did not drift back to the bottom. Instead each light head, connected together by a lightweight bar and attached to a two foot battery canister by a 12 inch cable started swimming away. The manta had tangled the light cables between its cephalic lobes which extrude from its head and aid in the feeding process. Off swam the manta into deep water with nearly $10k of lights, us watching the entire process as the lights they got dimmer and dimmer. In a
flash, Lou started swimming after the manta but realized it was useless. Instead he held up his two lights and waved them around. The dimly silhouetted manta actually began to turn and slowly the lights begin to get brighter as the animal was miraculous swimming back towards us. Lou paused in the water column shining his lights toward the approaching manta, battery packs and light heads still attached. The giant manta approached Lou’s lights, and from a distance all I could see was a flash of light and a flurry of bubbles. When everything settled out and the bubbles cleared, the freed manta swam off into the blackness and Lou had four lights dangling off him. I have never laughed so hard underwater. It’s a good thing I was wearing a OTS Guardian full face mask, or I would have spit my regulator out of my mouth and drown I was laughing so hard!

Photo by Naomi Blinick
When everything settled down, we reestablished the lights and sure enough the mantas returned. We captured some amazing 3D of these graceful giants of the open ocean. It did not escape me however that there only appeared to be two animals after the light incident. I am convinced there was a stunned manta swimming off the Kona cost thinking a free meal in the bright lights just wasn’t worth it.

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