A head about the size of my own rolls down the slope and lands at Miwa’s feet. I want to bring it to her attention lest she kicks it by mistake but I am being distracted by what’s happening above me. In any case, the head seems to have developed a life of its own now and is bouncing along. The rays that have been gliding over my head until now are soaring towards the ground, using the sides of their bodies to kick the tuna head like a soccer ball. An impressive sight considering that they neither have legs nor fins and secretly I am wondering if they are just playing or how they could eat that thing. My stingray knowledge is limited and while the little boxfishes which are nibbling on a second head are tiny compared to their snack, they at least have teeth. Does a stingray have teeth?
Before I can spend more time pondering I am being distracted yet again by a few things happening in fast succession. First Bokaaty taps his tank and when I look at him indicates to my fins; I inhale sharply and rise up a few inches while a fat, plump marble ray makes his way through. Unlike the stingray, he looks like an oversized raviolo, so stuffed you are not quite sure if it will survive cooking without bursting open before. This one is missing its tail and I wonder if nature was at play or us stupid humans.
Then the atmosphere is changing all of a sudden. The next creature has arrived and this seems to be the rockstar of the group: a guitar shark. He comes with guns blazing though sans smoke machine; still, he is making a real entrance, two big remoras are clinging to his side like groupies and won’t let go while he is gliding over the ground obviously looking for a slice of the pie/tuna head.
Everyone around me is flashing their cameras, there seems to be a neverending array of motives and it is hard to decide where to look first. I stay back or rather hover and watch. Bokaaty gestures to me to follow him. Turning away from the scene unfolding in front of my eyes is not easy especially not when the alternative is dark, murky blue water. I have a torch and we are not very deep but it looks positively spooky. I wonder if it will be worth it as he puts his fists up Princess Leia fashion to the sides of his head. I don’t wait for a second longer and follow him into the darkness, he has seen a hammerhead.
The camera curse
There are no pictures of this experience and not just because we didn’t see the hammerhead (instead I saw 4 moray eels coming out of a crevice like an evil multi-headed serpent, not a great trade-off for a hammerhead if you ask me!) but because I didn’t have a camera.
In fact, I didn’t have a camera for the entire week while I was on the Blueforce One liveaboard in the Maldives. While you are probably curious to see the tuna head, the guitar shark rockstar, and the 4-headed monster moray now, you may also wonder what is so special about diving and not taking a camera.
It’s hard to put in words but I cannot remember a dive when I didn’t take pictures and I feel naked without a camera, even clad in 3mm neoprene from head to toe.
I am not sure when or how it started and I know for a fact that I don’t have the same problem above the surface. There are so many instances when I leave the house/hotel in the morning camera and iPhone in hand and return at the end of the day without a single shot. Sometimes to my detriment – my harddrive is suspiciously light compared to other travel bloggers’. I honestly don’t mind. I always manage to get enough pictures together and have realized over the years that I am simply not a photographer per se. I like taking pictures but I don’t love it, I prefer words.
Mind you, there is something different when I am diving. I am glued to my GoPro screen and usually, it tends to be turned on from the moment I enter the water to the time I get out. I have so much underwater footage, both stills and videos, and to be honest, most of it is crap. While I consider myself a somewhat decent photographer on land, I suck at it underwater. So far I have always blamed it on the GoPro but I won’t stop trying. I want to get better because I love the idea of taking stunning underwater pictures and videos because I truly want to inspire more people to experience this amazing world. What better way to do that than with beautiful photographs? I do know that sometimes words can fail to convey this beauty.
So here I was, on assignment in the Maldives and my GoPro was acting up. No amount of yelling ‘stupid GoPro’ or pleading ‘dear beautiful little GoPro please….’ helped. After a few shots in the shallow water while I was at Kurumba I saw water seeping in. I left it to dry and the next day it seemed fine. That was until I realized its touchscreen wasn’t working and I had to fork out $30 to get an adapter for the micro SD card to get the pictures off the camera. I didn’t mind not being able to change the settings or paying for an adapter I shouldn’t need, I was simply happy that I was going to be able to take pictures on my liveaboard trip.
Checking-in at the Fish Factory
Standard procedure on a liveaboard is to do a check-dive on the first day. This dive is usually conducted close to the port of departure and from my experience never very exciting. It literally exists so you can check if everything is in working order like equipment and weights and for the crew to see if they put you in the right dive group in terms of abilities and air consumption.
I never needed a camera for a check-dive and so I decided to let the GoPro rest a day longer and went without. And then the scene described above unfolded. I have yet to mention the school of bannerfish that was so thick it looked like a psychedelic pattern of black and white strips with yellow dots (schools of bannerfish are one of my favorite things when diving in the Maldives!) as well as the 50-something rays which we found in 3 meters depth gliding and swirling through the shallows.
So let’s just say it was a dive for the books and my camera was on the boat. That’s how the trip started.
The next morning we were off and I decided that the GoPro had had enough bed rest. While I took a few pictures during our first dive I was cautiously lazy; after all, there were many more dives to come and I was really trying to limit my time photographing underwater and limit the number of useless pictures I would come up with. I wanted to focus on the real good stuff: whale sharks, mantas, frogfish.
Before we descended for dive number 2 my GoPro was dead. It closed its eyes and never opened them again. Everybody else on the boat was holding on to their camera like a precious firstborn child and I had to console myself with the fact that at least I had footage from previous Maldives diving I could use for my upcoming blog post. And then I had to learn the art of enjoying the moment without hiding behind my camera, which was so much harder.
I had been talking for years about seeing a pink frogfish again and here it was, next to a purple one in clear view and big enough that he would have looked decent in a GoPro picture. We did a night dive with mantas and saw them by sheer coincidence again after a morning dive. We went in with our snorkels and got the best shots of them in the clearest water. Well those of us who had a camera did.
I was in almost physical agony, it is hard to explain and even harder for myself to understand. But here I was experiencing some of the most amazing creatures in the world live and close enough to touch and I could not capture the moment.
Did that mean it didn’t happen?
Hanging out with Grandpa Shark
For our night dive with nurse sharks, we descended before sunset. I have done two previous nurse shark night dives but this one was different as it was still light outside when we got down. We hooked onto some rocks and even before some of us were settled, the nurse sharks arrived. Like matte silver planes, they glided through the water, sliding over the sandy bottom only to neatly land side by side in a somewhat theatrical line-up. That was until one or two would break the formation roll onto their backs and scratch themselves against the sand, playing like puppies.
Below me a single shark, smaller than the rest making me think it was a juvenile until I realized that it was an old shark, scarred and skinny with age. I duped him Grandpa Shark and willed him not to die while he was lying underneath me. I asked Bocatty to put some of the fish soup we had brought right underneath his nose so he could eat without moving too far or having to fight over his snack.
When we left the nurse sharks circled around and above us. Now in the dark like ghostly shadows, looking more shark-like than before – I shrieked when one brushed over my head and against my top bun.
Ten nurse sharks followed us back to the boat, hanging out at the stern right below the surface and I finally saw my chance for pictures. I am not sure how I managed to not take a single sharp shot. I guess it was the universe telling me that this was not the trip to view through a lens, this was the trip to see and use my words to describe the experience rather than show you photographic proof.
Life through no lens
After that dive, I made peace with the fact that I didn’t have a camera anymore. In fact, when we went snorkeling with whale sharks I got not one but two moments when it was just me and the whale shark. A rarety as you will know if you have ever swum with whale sharks. It was a moment when there was no one between me and the whale shark, a moment when the whale shark swam straight up towards me, looking at me and I was feeling exhilarated and a little confused as to where to go lest I touch it. Moments, I think now, I wouldn’t have had if I had my camera with me.
The videos that were taken of me were deleted before I could see them due to the liveaboard’s policy. There is a lone video of the trip with a few scenes showing me but it doesn’t compare to my memories. None of the pictures I have ever taken underwater actually do. I have realized that all of my best dives, all of the most amazing encounters I have had happened without a camera. I don’t know if it is Murphy’s Law or simply a fact that you can only truly see when you are not hiding behind a lens.
And no, I will not be diving without a camera forever. However, I will leave it at shore more often and I will also make a very conscious effort to get better at taking underwater pictures. After all, if I have the honor of taking a picture Grandpa Shark some day it should be a good one!
Pin for later!