Monday, September 20, 2010

The Emperor is Calling

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan - After spending three hours underwater and nearly 12 on the boat the previous day, it was a bit difficult to pull out of bed this morning with a skip in my step psyched to jump back into Superior for another dive. The wind was still down, so back to the north shore we were heading to dive the stern of the Emperor.

The plan was for a “short” day, say 12 hours. One dive on the Emperor, pull a few of the mooring buoys, and head back to Windigo to start the logistical train rolling of getting off the island.

The ride up the north shore in the Lorelei (the classiest dive boat in the NPS) was picturesque. For 2 ½ hours I tried to position myself in the sun on the back deck to absorb any amount of warmth available. Nothing worse than being cold, then suiting up only to get colder underwater. With a stop back at the Amygdaloid Ranger Station to suit up (and use the prettiest outhouse on the island…again) we headed for the Emperor stern mooring ball.

When we arrived on site, the ROV was not functioning, so scratch that off the shot list. The plan was for Steve Martin (no, not that one) to do some poking into the stern cabins while I was shooting and Becky was lighting. Down the line we descent. I got my orientation on the wreck and started swimming aft. As planned, Steve worked into one cabin after another looking around. I was rolling. We rounded the fantail, or stern, at 140’ and shot the impressive anchor lashed to the railing and the three spare props that were each as big as a minivan. As we swam along the starboard side and I saw Steve looking into a cabin. I could see from his light there were bunk beds inside. The cabin looked familiar from photos I had seen. I moved in, turned the camera sideways and passed it thought the doorway. Smoothly, I panned across the room. The white painted wainscoting wall were still pristine. The metal framed bunk beds were intact with mattress springs still present. Beneath the beds on one side of the cabin the drawers were open. Laying on the floor was a pair of leather boots, resting in the sediment. This, I thought, was the fireman’s cabin. I had seen pictures of the room, but I had never been in it. I recalled that three fireman had lost their lives on Emperor. Those boots. Its always the human connection that brings these shipwrecks to life. The grand scale of the machinery, the massive ornate structure of an engine or the girth of an anchor still hanging from its chain suddenly seems far less immense. Those boots. For me, deep in the waters of Isle Royale, those boots had the most impact. Time to re-cut the highlights reel. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Great Site, Bad Light

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan - With the weather window, we decided to push as hard as possible and image all we could while the sun was up and the wind was down. From the Cumberland & Chisholm site we steamed another 1 ½ northeast to dive the Glenlyon near the Isle Royale lighthouse.

Next to the Chisholm engine dive, this has become my second favorite dive. The twisted and broken steel laid out on the reef are such a testament to the power of the lake. Also the sight is spread out over a massive linear distance of 900 feet. The steel hulled 328ft vessel which was built in 1893 came to rest astride of the shoal in November of 1924 while running for safe harbor in a storm. After the grounding the captain ordered the ship scuttled (sunk) to secure it to the reef. While light salvage operations occurred as weather allowed, by the end of November the vessel was abandoned and completely disappeared over the winter.

Previous dives on the wreck have provided some of the best “shipwreck” images I have ever shot. I produced a bookmark for Isle Royale National Park from a series of shots on the Glenlyon. Today’s dive was different though. First, after slight over 2 hours in the water already, I was a bit exhausted. Second, it was late in the and the sun was low in the west which means light penetration into the water is minimal. Over the side we went, choosing to swim to the bow section of the wreckage. As we swam toward the bow, my rebreather began showing an alarm of a high level of carbon dioxide (CO2). Usually, this is the a rebreather divers greatest concern. To put it simply, generally this occurs when the rebreather is not doing its job scrubbing out the CO2 from our exhalations and replacing it with oxygen (O2). If this is allowed to continue, the diver gets a headache (usually) then passes out from CO2 build up and dies. So, that said, a CO2 alarm on my rebreather is something to pay attention to. Fortunately, the rebreather I dive has a CO2 sensor (the only units in the world with them thanks to VR Technologies) which allows me to monitor the CO2. Basically, I know what the amount is and can manage the situation from there. As we were at 30ft, I continued to monitor my the CO2 levels and move to the bow.

The bow, with all its windlass machinery and anchors was as impressive as usually, however the light was very difficult. It was a waist of time to shoot anything looking toward the sun, so it left only a handful of camera angles and swims available. At some point, my CO2 warning was on the rise, so I handed the camera off the Becky and hung back to monitor and reduce my breathing rate. From there the light only got worse, the dive only got colder and I only wanted to get off my rebreather. Becky rolled on a few things then I called the dive and we headed home.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, knowing when something is not working on shoot is part of the discipline. It took many years for me to understand some things you cant change regardless of how much footage you burn. If the light is not there, its not going to look any better after the dive on the V monitor. Frequently examining your life support systems is never something to be taken lightly or put as a secondary function to camera operation. On this dive, having the best gear possible allowed me to continue to the dive safely and pick up a couple of decent shots. Not having the training or disciple to know when to call the dive would have meant more that just bad light on a bad dive. 

With the Good, Comes the Bad

Isle Royale National Park, MichiganAfter the high of the Chisholm engine dive, I wasn’t convinced the that the day could get any better. I was right.

The second dive was on the Cumberland & Henry Chisholm wreckage field. These two ships, as though Lake Superior wasn’t quite big enough, ended up shipwrecked directly on top on one another separated by scant 21 years.

The Cumberland, a side wheeler built in 1871 was designed for passenger and package trade on the Lakes. On July 25th, 1877 the it struck the Rock of Ages reef and rand hard aground on a mild and clear day. After several salvage attempts in late July/early August, the vessel was finally abandoned on August 12 and it subsequently broke up and finally disappeared.
The Henry Chisholm, a wooden bulk freighter, was constructed in 1880 and at 270 ft was considered a “leviathan” at the time of constructed as it was the largest steam barge on Lakes. The vessel was built just as shipbuilding was approaching the maximum size with wood as the principle materials. In October of 1898 the Chisholm struck the Rock of Ages reef while trying to enter Washington Harbor carrying 92,000 bushels of barley. For the archeologist, these two sites offer a museum-like exhibit on late 19th century wooden ship construction. For the photographer they offer row after row after row of wooden timbers, frames and fasteners.

The visibility was horrible as we descended 35ft to the wreck site. From there I wanted to follow the wreckage trail down to 80ft where the paddle wheel was located. When filming, you need to select distinguishing features to highlight or else it all begins to the look the same. Down the wreckage we swam. When we reached the end, we kept swimming and swimming. I knew the others on the dive had to be wondering why I just kept swimming over a rocky bottom with no end in sight. Finally, we reached the paddle wheels. To me, it sounds a bit more impressive that it actually is. There is form to the feature, but its not very visually interesting. You have to know it’s a paddle wheel or any wow factor. No relief, just timbers on the bottom. As I descended down for a close shot, my buoyancy got away from me and I dropped in the silt and a cloud begin to emerge. I slowly began moving forward, just ahead of the looming cloud that would ruin any chance of shot. Not a great shot, but captured non the less.

The rest of the dive was far less successful. Susanna who was diving on open circuit, was running low on air so we needed to head back to the boat. The tether, on the other hand, was hung in the reef in the opposite direction. After swimming with Susana back to the upline, leaving Becky to hold the camera, I returned and swam up the reef to free the tether. On the way back to Becky, both my dilluent (air) and oxygen in my rebreather were nearly empty and my unit was screaming at me because I had been swimming against a current so long and it didn’t like the sustained increased breathing rate. Becky finished shooting at the end of the dive, while I was exhausted and simple followed along till we hit the down line. A less then inspiring dive or performance my me on the site, and of course the footage reflects it.

Burning Sunlight

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan - Calm to 2 feet. That’s what the forecast reads. We are up early, at the dock, loaded and heading to the Rock of Ages reef for my favorite (and hopefully best) dive in the park. Big day, three big shipwrecks to shoot.
The seas continued to lay down as we motored out Washington Harbor and headed past the Rock of Ages Lighthouse to the wreck of the Chisholm. This is the money shot for Isle Royale (so much so, it’s actually is on my business card!). Starting at about 110ft a massive dark feature begins to take shape. As you descend, at first glance it looks like a massive box, towering off the bottom maybe thirty feet high. Descending along side of it you begin to notice ornate embellishments in the ironworks along side the pipes, pistons, boilers and gears which are all laid out in a functional design. You soon realize this is an engine. Not just any engine, but a double-expansion, inverted, vertical, direct-acting steam engine with cylinders of 30 and 56 inches in diameter and a 48 inches stroke…which, as a photographer not and archeologist, means absolutely nothing to me except its massive. As you finally reach the bottom at about 150’ you find the engine still attached to the bottom of the hull and connected to the shaft and propeller as if in some museum display. One can even see the Roman numerals carved into the stern post marking current depth, or draft, of the vessel in its days afloat.
Chisholm Engine - 2009

I dropped to the bottom, flashed the OK? to Steve then checked the handset on my rebreather. Good to go all the way around. Slowly making my way along the base of the engine, down the propeller shaft and around to the propeller a rush came over me. The adrenaline of a great shot in the making. The fact I was at 150’ only added to the high. Steve and I stayed at the prop for a bit, set up a couple shots with a diver for scale then moved back to the engine area. The greatest challenge of this site, as with so many at Isle Royale, is capturing the scale. As I tipped the camera toward the surface, the glow of the ambient sunlight above separated the engine from the blackness it sits in. It just looked massive. No diver needed, this thing is huge! As Steve was diving traditional open circuit SCUBA, our bottom time as limited to 25 minutes to minimize decompression. Some of the fastest 25 minutes of my life. My favorite dive site, my favorite camera system…it was hard to say goodbye and head to the surface. Even though it had blown for so many days on the shoot, I ascended with a smile on my face. That would make the highlights reel. 
Chisholm Prop - 2009

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Guess What, Its Windy…Still

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan - After our run to the north shore and dive on the Emperor another front moved in and the winds attacked. The following day we once again returned to America to try to pick up an ROV shot (still nothing new to talk about with that old friend). The day after the wind was still kicking so we returned to the Silverton fish camp on Washington Island for more in-air 3D filming around the island. If the wind continues to blow this will end up being a 3D film about historic fish camps and scenic overlooks of Isle Royale!

Today I am pulling footage and rendered out some 3D to start building a highlights reel for the park to see before we leave. I use the word highlights generously as we have only covered 1 ½ of the 10 shipwrecks in the park on day 9 of a 11 day shoot. Ouch.

As I spend 4-6 months on the road in to so many National Parks around the country I truly depend on a ton of great people to make what I do possible. Boat operators, mechanics, bio techs, park managers and volunteers to name a few. They are the backbone of any underwater project. I have found that the best way for them to feel appreciated (in addition to saying thank you) is to include them in the process. If you have some good picture of them working or underwater share them. Last year (here at Isle Royale) we started sending a “picture of the day” our to the entire park staff so they could see what we were doing in their park. The response was great. So many individuals who had nothing to do with shipwrecks or diving mentioned to Steve Martin how much they enjoyed that or looked forward to it. Since I have been producing 3D for the Park Service, this has become even more important so those involved can see the format and why I have spent so much time and money shooting the past couple years.

I always love the first time someone in the parks gets to see good 3D. Its so different from anything they may have seen in the movies, because this is real. Its something they can identify with because its in their back yard. Its their park, their resources. So here I sit, cutting a “highlights” reel to show the park staff at some point during the project. In the back of my mind I hope this is a waste of time and the real highlights are yet to come WHEN the wind dies down.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It Go Time

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan - The wind has settled, for the day, but the forecast is not good. We make an early break for the north shore to image one of the most impressive array of machinery in the park on the bow of the Emperor. The long boat ride has most of us dozing off, trying to say warm in the early morning. After a quick stop at Amygdaloid to change into our drysuits (and use the prettiest outhouse on the island) we are moored up to Emperor bow.

When the steel bulk freighter Emperor was launched in 1910 it was the largest ship ever built in Canada at 525 ft long. Seeing the site in the small, “visibility dependent” glimpses does nothing to underpin that fact. The sheer size of the machinery on the Emperors bow dwarfs the largest of divers. As Becky Shcott and ISRO Ranger and Park Dive Officer Steve Martin (no not him, the other one) slip into the water I am disappointed with the visibility. I swear, if its not the wind an underwater photographer is battling it’s the vis. We proceed over the folded and torn thick steel plating in the bow area and settled on the machinery.

This is what I had come for, the shot I was hoping to represent the massive scale of the these ships. I made a pass with the 3D camera. Not great. I motioned in Steve to hang by the windlass machinery for a sense of scale. As a side note, Steve has always been a quick study of my non verbal, sometimes frantic hand cues to swim, stay, hover, look at something. As underwater models go, Steve is not the best looking I have ever worked with (sorry Steve), but he is one of the most diligent and talented at staying in one spot. Hovering in one spot, looking like your actually investigating or examining something take after take after take is not all that easy. He pulled if off with style. Perhaps Steve’s’ greatest asset as a model is that he will stay planted “working” until I tap him and say otherwise. Nothing disengages a viewer quicker or ruins a shot faster than a diver who turns to see if I am still rolling, and stares directly into the camera with a deer in the headlights look. Not Steve. I could plant him on a feature, swim away and shoot an entire shipwreck and come back to find him still “investigating” the deck hoist.

We roll on a few other large features and swim around the bow structure. Every now and then out of the corner of my eye I see Becky poking into holes or areas worthy of exploring. She fights the urge to investigate and stays with me lighting and tending the fiber optic tether. Although not the vis I was hoping for or the time on the wreck we both wanted, I got the shot I came for. Time to move on while the weather window holds. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Visiting An Old Friend…Again

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan - I mentioned in an earlier post about returning to a shipwreck as re-visiting an old friend. You know how sometimes you run out of things to talk about with that old friend, conversation slows and it become a bit awkward. Welcome to my day, back on the America because its still blowing.

All is not lost, however. There are several shots that almost worked from our previous dives here two days ago that we can reshoot. Also, we have cleaned up the trim and cabling on the ROV so it’s not so “ghetto” as we say.

We spent a couple dives reshooting the ROV, although something still is off when it comes to style points. It seems to be sitting at an angle in the water and now one light is very dim. It looks a bit like a wounded robot who is trying to find its way out of the shipwreck, not a stout sophisticated machine investigating the dark recess of a sunken vessel. No matter, there is plenty of there shots to pick up on the wreck, so Becky Schott, WHOI contractor and co-owner Liquid Productions, and I move on.

On our second dive we decent down the stern of the vessel and pass through a slight thermo cline. Always the enemy of descent, the temperature drops from 51 to 42F. To the casual observer, the question may be posed, “what difference does that make, its all cold anyway?”. Correct. However for some reason it does. Somehow as your drysuit constricts even tighter against your body, the cold seems to work its way deeper towards your core. At first its noticed on anything exposed, which in water this cold is only our lips. Soon your arms begin to feel the temperature drop, then it creeps into your chest where it settles. After a few minutes of tying to ignore the chill, you begin to slightly shake and loose some dexterity in your finger. Holding the camera in a tight grip to frame a shot begins to be ache. Its starts to become difficult to turn around or change direction while underwater. All the dreaming of tropical beaches doesn’t help.
After dropping to the stern at 70’ and setting up a couple shots, we headed for shallower, “warmer” water. As we swam back up the ship to we hit a current running sideways to the ship which made shooting even more difficult. I attempted to pick up some shots on the shallow deck machinery on the bow, but between the current and not feeling various extremities anymore, I was done. Very rarely have I ever reviewed footage after a dive that “wasn’t working” only to be surprised an have it look great. Part of the discipline is knowing when your done, and I was, so we surfaced. May a great deal of time pass until I see you again my old friend America, so we have something new to talk about.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hello Wind

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan - There are some project when you wake up and look out the window and just know how the day is going to go (or not go as the case may be). Generally its all about observing if the trees stand gracefully at attention or dance in a breeze. Of course, depending on where you happen to be staying, this requires a bit of interpretation. Staying in a protected forest, away from the water, slightly inland at Isle Royale and waking up to trees swaying in the wind is does not require much interpretation. Its blowing.

Although the winds are up, the day may not a compete washout because although Isle Royale is surrounded by Lake Superior, its shore line is a labyrinth of shoals, reefs and barrier islands often provide safe passage depending on wind direction. The island tracks in a northeast, southwest fashion. Because of that, if the wind is out of the north, you utilize the south shore for transit and diving. If the wind is out of the south, the north shore becomes your friend and protector. It seems the worst wind to have (based on my “local” knowledge) is a southwest wind. With this, not only are the 10 shipwreck sites exposed, but there is no protection as you run to them. Today’s forecast – Winds out of the southwest, 15-25 knots, seas 4 to 6 feet. Hello wind.

Fortunately for us, in addition to the shipwrecks of Isle Royale, the deep waters surrounding the island have long supported a historic fishing community. By 1894, there were forty boats operating on the island and many of these families continued fishing for several generations. Today, one can still find the remnants of those communities in one form or another. As part of capturing the entire story of Isle Royale we turn our 3D cameras “in air” to Washington Island, a historic fishing camp of the Silverton family. Nets, floats lines and other fishing gear still lay in the fish house where they were left decades ago. You could not fabricate a better set on a movie lot with kink of authenticity. An amazing time capsule of history. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Weather Makes Me Nervous

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan - Today the weather looks good which brings up the first “director” call of the project. Option # 1 - to take advantage of the weather and make the 2 ½ run for the north shore of the island and dive any of the 3 shipwrecks there. The whims of Superior are tricky and it could be hard to get back. However, the cameras and ROV have been bench tested in the dorm, but not wet tested. 2 ½ hours is a long way to run the first day out. Option #2 – stay local, dive the 182ft wooded steamer America, which is generally reserved as our “bad weather” wreck. I placed my bet on good weather in the coming days and stayed local - insuring these systems are fully operational before we head further afield. Wrong move? The forecast seems to be betting against me, but time will tell.

To me, being back on a shipwreck your familiar with through previous dives always feels like seeing an old friend. Although the remains of the vessel rarely change much, each dive reveals something overlooked in previous dives, thus adding to experience much like new stories or catching up. The America is a shipwreck’s shipwreck. It looks and feels like a shipwreck. Minus some salvage activity post sinking and the superstructure gouged away by the ice, its all there. Staircases, galleys, engine and bunk rooms. You can swim down the passageways from the grand staircase into the great room while passing the remains of dinning tables and serving chests on the way. It’s a great dive. As I mentioned, generally its considered a “weather wreck” due to its protected location. Cant get out? Head to the America. Also, its close to Windigo where the majority of boaters make port when on the West End, so it has constantly been the parks front runner in dives per year by the visiting public.

Today’s objective was simply to image a couple shots of the remotely operated vehicle on the grand staircase and gets some 3D of the site. The more important task was to water test, trim the ROV and cameras and dial in our rebreathers and drysuits in the cold water of Superior. I hope I made the right call to stay local. 

Saturday, September 11, 2010

How Long Will It Take To Splash?

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan - What would seem to the casual observer as an quick and easy evolution to assemble dive gear, build cameras and get in the water in fact is not. What I have learned (and come to expect) over the past couple of years is just how time consuming this progression can be.
As the flag flew at half massed outside the Windigo visitor center, we spent the entire day today building and testing cameras. At this point I should probably pause to mention that these cameras are not your typical HD camcorder available at the local Best Buy. The Woods Hole 3D systems we shoot with are custom build stereo camera rigs from the imaging chip and lenses up. The boards, camera controls and telemetry are designed and fabricated by the engineers at WHOI. Each system is controlled by fiber optic’s and have custom power supplies and communication software to make them image.
Now, take all that fragile electronics, wrap it in bubble wrap, then foam, put in a hard shelled Pelican shipping case and place it in the hands of FedEx to throw as far a possible while loading the delivery trucks. Don’t get me wrong, I love FedEx. They have been the backbone of hundreds of equipment intensive projects in my career, but I swear, the heaver the case, the greater the challenge to make it airborne in shipping. So here we were, tightening screws, realigning cameras, fixing broken camera supports, etc, etc, etc. No dives today. 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Gear, Gear Everywhere

Isle Royale National Park - Anyone who chases the dream of actually breathing underwater realizes it is equipment intensive. At a bare minimum, one needs a tank to breath, a regulator to move that air from high pressure to low, a mask to see, a buoyancy compensator to assist with neutral buoyancy, some type of exposure suit to compensate for the cold water and fins to swim it all around. Now, add to that any type of underway task, say shooting pictures or making a documentary and you have a very full boat. Consider spending two weeks on an island in the middle of Lake Superior, the next location for the 3D documentary Underwater Wonders in the National Park Service, and you end up with seven boats.
Today the 3D team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s  (WHOI) Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory (AIVL) arrived on the Ranger III from Houghton, MI to Isle Royale National Park (ISRO). A small advance team from my office along with ISRO Ranger/Divers have been setting up logistics and making some dives in preparation for the 3D shoot. We off loaded all the required production equipment and dive gear from the Ranger II and began loading, case by heavy case, into the smaller park boats. As we filled the first two boats (32’ and 26’ respectively), a third 24’ patrol boat came on-line to assist with the 2 ½ transit of equipment to Windigo, the furthest point away on the south end island – where we would be staging for the next two weeks. When the third boat was full, yet another 32’ Bertram joined into the flotilla. We loaded the crew aboard and slowly the vessels departed. The shoot was on.

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.