On the 11th of November 2013 I found myself at Heathrow airport with what felt like an extraordinary amount of baggage. I was off to photography mecca Manado, Indonesia. It promised to be a photography fest of all that was weird, wonderful and often strangely hairy. This was my first visit to what has earned itself the critter capital of Indonesia.
My plan was simple. This was a 2 stop trip. The first 6 nights were spent at Tasik Ria dive resort, which gave me a chance to photograph the walls of Bunaken, and then onto KungKungan Beach Resort in Lembeh. I was going armed with as much underwater photography kit as my 30kgs allowance permitted.
I have been shooting underwater since the days of Nikonos and film. In this digital age, my camera of the moment is the Olympus OMD-EM5. The image quality and lens choice rivals many entry-mid level SLR options. Put it in the beautifully engineered Nauticam housing and you have a powerful, yet small set up for travel. Check out the rest of my photo kit for this trip here.
It didn’t take long for the shot count to ratchet up. These are the times I love digital photography. It was at Critter Circus 2 (under 5 mins from Tasik Ria!) that I saw my first ever blue ringed octopus. There were ribbon eels and tiny painted frogfish. Yet more thrilling were the species I not even considered! This was the first time I have seen skeleton shrimp. These delightfully ugly transparent shrimp appear to walk upright, like some sort of zombie army, and became a unexpected, fave subject.
In Bunaken, the hard corals here are healthy and turtles feast on the reef. It was an impressive mix of rich wall and colourful reef fish. But I was mainly impressed by the quality of the macro life and muck diving this side of Manado offered. Without a doubt, Lembeh to the east of Manado is the area that is most famed for muck diving. But in my opinion, if you skip the western side of the Manado peninsular, you will be missing out on some fantastic photo ops. The combination of walls, hard coral gardens and muck diving is highly productive for a photographer. And means you can work wide angle opportunities as well as macro and super macro.
By the time I reach KBR, the subjects seemed to be getting smaller. The dioptre had become my new best friend underwater! It was genuinely helpful photographing subject that were under 1cm big! If you have not used one before, I would heartily recommend adding a dioptre into your kit bag. In a location such as Manado you will find yourself turning to it time and time again.
Perhaps one of the most photogenic subjects in Lembeh are the pygmy seahorses. There are several species of pygmy seahorse, including the oh so pretty bargibanti. However, they are not the easiest of beasts to photograph. In my experience, they seem to favour big sea fans, which by their very nature waft in the surge or current. Getting that killer shot at 28m as the seahorses gently swings back and forth is a photography work out! And as is so typical of Indonesia, there is not just this one type of pygmy sea horse to snap. There are Denise, Pontoh’s, Satomi… even Lembeh sea dragons. The list goes on!
Every photographer has their dream list of critters, those exotics beauties that get all the headlines. And yet there were many, many more somewhat “common” critters that made for outstanding photos…gobys whizzing up and down the whip corals or chomping on shrimp…crabs in every imaginable colour and camouflage… razor fish surging around mooring lines… stripped catfish tumbling along the sand… mandarin fish dancing with their mates… these are just some of the marine life that I found impossible to swim past time and time again.
A small handful of species eluded me on this trip. But no photography destination should ever be that perfect. I am, after all, taking photos of wild animals. And it just seems, I have all the more reason to go back!