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Underwater Photography Guide

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An Underwater Photographer’s Guide to Wakatobi

By Richard Smith

Wakatobi Dive Resort is ideally placed in the heart of the ‘Coral Triangle,’ a region that encompasses the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Island. For underwater photographers seeking a diversity of marine life subjects, this is the place to be, because the waters of the triangle support the highest biodiversity of marine organisms in the world.

Wakatobi Dive Resort from the House Reef.

Wakatobi Dive Resort split over/under shot taken from the House Reef.
Taken using a 10.5 mm fish eye lens. F9, 1/125th, ISO 100

But while the Coral Triangle is indeed home to a diverse and rich collection of species, it also has some of the greatest man-made pressures, with reefs subject to the pressures of destructive fishing practices and development. Luckily, there are places where nature still exists in an unspoiled and pristine form, and two-hour flight on a private plane from Bali to Wakatobi will transport you to a remote corner of the world that the resort has worked tirelessly to protect.

A diver inspects a vibrant reef, typical of the Wakatobi region. Taken using a 10.5 mm fish eye lens. F5.6, 1/125th, ISO 100

A diver inspects a vibrant reef, typical of the Wakatobi region.
Taken using a 10.5 mm fish eye lens. F5.6, 1/125th, ISO 100

Diligent conservation and protection efforts within Wakatobi’s privately-maintained marine preserve provide dive sites covered in a kaleidoscope of soft corals and sponges that swamr with life, and tumble downward from bright shallows to disappear into the abyssal blue below. Ridges and seamounts bring life-giving sunlight to hard corals, and unsullied bays provide the protection needed for the reef’s more delicate creatures to flourish.

Nudibranch on wakatobi reef

Although seasonally common at Wakatobi, this un-described Dendronotus species of nudibranch makes for stunning subject. Taken using a 105 mm macro lens. F6.3, 1/125th, ISO 100

The House Reef is one of Wakatobi’s most well known dive sites, and in my opinion it is the best shallow water site in the world. Easily accessible from shore, the shallow reef crest in front of the resort dramatically plunges to several hundred feet in depth. Here turtles, trevally, frogfish, ghost pipefish and four species of pygmy seahorses find their home on a reef that tears the underwater photographer’s attentions from macro to wide-angle in the blink of an eye.

Pyjama cardinalfish at Wakatobi

Pyjama cardinalfish live in and around shallow branching coral colonies.
Taken using a 105 mm macro lens. F6.3, 1/125th, ISO 100

There is a wealth of macro subjects to discover at Wakatobi, and it is these that the resort is perhaps most well known for. Indeed, one could spend an entire week within 100 yards of the resort pier and not exhaust the area;s macro potential. Among the highlights of macro subjects you will find are ahuge variety of nudibranchs, bundant anemonefishe; numerious shrimp species inclkuding imperial, bubble coral and crinoid; robust, ornate and halimeda ghost pipe fish; four species of pygmy seahorse—Bargibant’s, Denise’s, Pontoh’s and Severn’s—and the recently described pygmy pipehorse, Kyonemichthys rumengani.

Denise's pygmy seahorses are one of the four pygmy species found around the resort. Taken using a 105 mm macro lens. F22, 1/125th, ISO 100

Denise’s pygmy seahorses are one of the four pygmy species found around the resort.
Taken using a 105 mm macro lens. F22, 1/125th, ISO 100

But though it is easy for photographers to get lost in capturing the small details, it would be a shame to miss the big picture. The reefs here are absolutely stunning and should not be forgotten by the wide-angle photographer. Walls that begin in shallow depths are covered in a diverse array of soft corals, sponges and gorgonians. The clear waters provide ample ambient light to showcase these vistas in vibrant detail. Similar scenes can be captured on seamounts covered in hard corals, and it common to find green and hawksbill turtles as amenable subjects, or to come upon swiring schools of big-eye trevally, bumphead parrotfish and barracuda.

Big-eye trevally on Wakatobi House Reef

Inquisitive Big-eye trevally in the shallows off the House Reef
Taken using a 12-24 mm lens, strobes on half power. F10, 1/125th, ISO 100

The diversity of dive sites and marine life at Wakatobi mean that you’ll regret leaving any photo gear at home. Almost all dives are ideal for both macro and wide, but your guide can help you reach an informed decision for each particular site.

The dive site Blade is a ridge and pinnacle system. Taken using a 10.5 mm fish eye lens. F5, 1/125th, ISO 100

The dive site Blade is a ridge and pinnacle system.
Taken using a 10.5 mm fish eye lens. F5, 1/125th, ISO 100

Much of the marine life at Wakatobi can be shot using a compact camera with a strobe. Some of the smallest creatures might be just that little bit too small, so you’ll probably benefit from an external macro lens, while a wide or fisheye wet lens will enhance your creativity for reef scenes.

Given the wide variety of subjects, SLR shooters should bring a full compliment of lenses. For macro my personal preference is 100/105 mm, which gives you a bit of space between yourself and the smaller/shier creatures. The great visibility means there shouldn’t be an issue with sediment in the water. Fisheye lenses are excellent in the shallows; making the most of the high coral coverage and Snell’s window in the calm waters.

A colourful reef typical of Wakatobi. Taken using a 10.5 mm fish eye lens. F6.3, 1/125th, ISO 100

A colourful reef typical of Wakatobi.
Taken using a 10.5 mm fish eye lens. F6.3, 1/125th, ISO 100

If baggage capacity becomes an issue, I would be inclined to leave some dive gear behind in favor of camera accessoreis, as Wakatobi Dive Resort has a very well kitted out dive centre where you can hire all your gear should you decide against traveling with it, or experience a technical glitch during your trip.

As always, keep a close eye on your buoyancy. The reefs of Wakatobi are so rich with life, and every square centimeter inhabited, that finding even a small bare patch to steady yourself can sometimes be troublesome. As part of its environmentally conscious philosophy, the resort takes great pride in its marine life. Your guide will help you avoid any accidental damage whilst taking photos, particularly with delicate macro subjects.

As well as the three boat dives offered per day, you also have unlimited access to the House Reef from 6 am. You can either choose to go directly from shore, or get dropped off down the reef by boat, depending on the current. The beauty of diving the House Reef is that you can go as slowly as you like, making the most of the abundant macro and wide-angle photography opportunities.

If you have a moment, take a look at the reef from a different perspective. The huge variety of invertebrates such as soft corals, anemones and sponges provide a rich palette of unique abstract subjects. On virtually every dive, both macro and wide-angle will be great but it is worth checking with your guide whether there are any specialities you should know about. The sites Kollo Soha and Teluk Maya are two that are definitely worthy of a dedicated macro shoot.

To see more of biologist, journalist Richard Smith’s imagery, research reports and published articles visit oceanrealmimages.com.

 

About the author  ⁄ Pierce Hoover

Pierce Hoover is the founding editor of five national magazine titles including Sport Fishing and Sport Diver magazines, as well as a contributor to more than 30 national and international marine and travel publications, numerous websites and social media campaigns for Popular Science and GE’s Eco-magination brand. Connect with me on Google+