Devilfish Photo-Hunting

“Alpha, this is Omega. Do you copy? Over,” I said quietly over the laryngophone, carefully examining what was behind the bunch of large lobsters. 
“Omega, I read you well. There is a bamboo arch within my sight. Where should I move on? Over,” I heard through the bone-conduction speaker of the walkie-talkie. 
“Alpha, enter the arch, but only with your bare feet; there is sand all around here. Right after the arch, turn at your 3 o’clock, and take up the position behind the second table ahead. I’m moving from the north-east in your direction. Ten seconds left until the visual contact. Over,” I answered, pushing back the lobsters and taking a bottle of mineral water from the fridge shelf with my left hand, holding a plate of Norwegian fish soup in my right hand. Who on earth would have this idea of hanging raw lobsters in front of the fridge with water?

Ed and I arrived at this island in the morning. On an assignment from the magazine that we work for alongside our studies. Our thirst for new impressions and the need of the magazine in exotic photos harmoniously complemented each other. We flew at the cost of the magazine from one exotic corner of the planet to another, and the magazine got unique photos on a given topic. Similarly, today, it was the first day of our three-day work trip. Our task for three days was to take photos of sea turtles with devilfish — mantas. Turtles against the background of mantas and reefs, or mantas against the reefs and turtles, or reefs against mantas with turtles, whatever. The only thing that mattered was that all three photo prizes were in our photos. Three days were given as a reserve to adjust to the mood of the living creatures shot and the weather surprises.

Our dwelling place for the trip was an extended kilometer-long tropical island with a small resort hotel. The island was popular with tourists, as it was located in a multi-kilometer reef tract with a lot of sea turtles. In addition, at this time of the year, the annual migratory route of devilfish went along the island. For a bright picture and minimal distortion of colors, we needed a depth of no more than 5–7 meters. A guide we knew recommended for a share in my and Ed’s fee a hollow between the reefs one and a half kilometers from this island. So without hesitation, Ed and I boarded the plane and headed for a working trip to the resort, despite a couple of lost days of study. The migration of mantas does not happen every day, and the magazine staff provided us with novelties — complete sets for distant snorkeling to encourage us to make a decision. Actually, it was the walkie-talkies from this set that we were having fun with at breakfast. Well, we were rather exploring the performance characteristics of the novelties, before using them in “combat” conditions. Throwing our things in the room, we put the rims of the walkie-talkies behind our ears and parted ways, exploring the constructions made by the hotel on the island. There were a lot of funny moments with the walkie-talkies. Ed had long hair, so the walkie-talkie clamp on the back of his head, along with the bases behind his ears and the bone-conduction speakers were practically invisible. He started to enjoy approaching the hotel staff and calling me on the walkie-talkie, looking directly into their eyes. Since he did not have to press any buttons to do that and kept his hands in the pockets of his shorts, they looked at him with a surprise first, and then took him for a person not in his right mind. Such a reaction amused Ed. Having grated on the nerves of a hotel employee for a couple of minutes, he began looking for a new prank victim.

It took us one hour to travel around the island, including the ordering of a motor boat, getting to know the radio operator of the hotel, and renting fins. Following that, we went to have breakfast in an open-air restaurant with the sand floor and bamboo arches instead of doors.
“We have to drop in the diving center after breakfast to pump up our diving cylinders,” Ed said, taking off the walkie-talkie from the back of his head. 
“Great idea! Better than pumping them up by ourselves in the heat,” I confirmed, connecting the phone charger to the walkie-talkie. “The guide reminded us that mantas appear in the late afternoon, a few hours before sunset. So we’ll pump up our cylinders and have half a day for the acclimatization and rest.”

We slept through a couple of the hottest hours under the air conditioners in the hotel room and got out to the pier, where a wooden motor boat with a slightly peeling paint was already waiting for us. The sun passed the zenith, and the water warmed up enough for the sea creatures to come out to feed. We had the natural daylight left for shooting at a shallow depth for another hour or three. Ed and I loaded our photographic equipment onto the motor boat of the island hotel, picked up our fins and sets for distant snorkeling, and pulled off from the pier.

Our editorial staff periodically flings us in various technical novelties, hoping to simplify their lives by speeding up and cheapening of mine and Ed’s work. Had we not had a set for distant snorkeling, we would have to rent the equipment for diving with a special boat, to search for deeper places, and to take the lanterns on a trip. That is, we would be able to take typical diver photos using an artificial light, which snatches only a small cone of colors suitable for filming. This would make the photos not exclusive but ordinary, like many others that are out there and are taken every day. The unique thing about our shooting was that it was going to be made in the natural light and in soundings, not with us sitting in our diving suits with cylinders on corals, but rather between the surface and water. It is extremely difficult to keep yourself from emerging or diving in soundings with a scuba and be shooting at the same time, for you need at least ten meters of depth in diving for a normal control of buoyancy. But at a depth like that, there is no light for bright colors, and everything becomes greenish and bluish if you do not use the lighting. So our new set was intended by our editorial staff both to save on equipment for diving and to take unique photos in the natural light. And all we needed to do that, according to the magazine staff, was a couple of full face masks with mirror periscopes in the snorkels for orientation between corals over water. Two cylinders per each with 85 liters of compressed air in each (standard emergency diving cylinders) with adapters connected to the bottom valve of the masks. And FRS walkie-talkies, which we tested back at the hotel. But in order for the walkie-talkies to operate in water, elastic antennas were fastened along the snorkels of the masks with elastic ribbons that were connected to the walkie-talkies with miniature magnets: the walkie-talkies used “air” radio waves and worked when the snorkel with the antenna protruded from the water.

Having sailed a kilometer and a half away from the island and traversed carefully for half an hour between the reefs protruding from the water, we reached the reef pasture of the turtles. It was a hollow of three hundred meters in width, between two reef domes emerging half a meter above water. Our guide pointed this place as the one where turtles and mantas were most frequently met at the same time. The turtles ate there, and the mantas just crossed the hollow following their own preferred moving direction. The steerer shut down the engine. We were surrounded by almost perfectly calm sea. The sky was clear, with only one streak looking dark in the distance. Well, even if that was a cloud of rain, it would not do any harm for a couple of hours of shooting. We put on our fins, masks with walkie-talkies, fastened a couple of cylinders on our belts (fortunately, they were the size of a baby’s elbow), flipped an alarm raft with a flag for our equipment over in the water, the photographic equipment, and jumped into the water. The boat sailed for the pier of the hotel for another five minutes: such a large object on the water around could frighten the creatures we wanted. And the shooting of underwater fauna is much more convenient when you do not risk filming an old boat, a cable of its anchor, or its shadow at the bottom. We settled it with the hotel that either we would call the boat on the radio within two hours or the boat would sail to us two hours later.

The water around us sparkled with myriads of sunbeams. The reefs covered the bottom with a bumpy multicolored carpet, swollen here and there with petrified prominences of frozen pinnacle reefs. Some of the reefs were covered with small weeds, which swayed softly from side to side. Turtles and mantas were not yet seen. Ed pulled the raft and cameras to the nearest seamount amidst the reef cover only three meters under the surface of the water, which was two or three meters higher than the depth of the rest of the hollow. Shooting from the seamount gave an additional effect of the depth and volume of the picture. Taking the necessary positions for shooting, we got our equipment ready and began to wait for our creatures, quietly hovering on the surface of the water. There was silence all around; the warm water swayed us a little; a slight rustle of water was heard on the verge of hearing, washing against the nearest reef dome emerging from the water. Runs of colorful little fish circled around the reefs, occasionally nibbling something on the reefs, looking around for something, or just simulating colored clouds with their synchronous movements. One run of yellow fish went up to us, made a semicircle around, found us uninteresting, and swam back down to the depth. Ed and I talked quietly on the radio. How much easier and more pleasant it is to watch the marine flora and fauna while in the water when you can communicate not only with the simplest hand signals about your well-being, moving direction, or the problems with the equipment. When you can quietly share a fresh anecdote read this morning, or an entertaining article, or just talk on seemingly nonsignificant topics, which is essentially the basis of communication between friends and family members. Especially when we have chosen the radio frequency just for me and Ed, and nobody else.

We did not see any turtles or mantas so far. Ed took a bun wrapped in a plastic bag from his swim briefs, took it out of the bag, and tried to feed the fish, attracting more reef fish to the shooting location. Yellow flat fish, the size of the half a palm of the hand, treated the bread offering favorably, encircling Ed with a cloud all around. Ed was happy, especially when the bravest fish nibbled the bun directly from his hands. The blissfulness continued just up to the point when the red-black striped fish noticed the feeding process. Despite being almost half the size of the yellows, the striped fish drove away the yellow ones and began to test for food not only the crumbs floating around but also Ed himself. After the fourth biting in the most unexpected places, Ed swam away from the striped fish, and hearing my chuckles, began to check his camera with a particular thoroughness. Having finished with his check, and looking around anxiously for the red striped bigeyes approaching him, Ed grumbled over the walkie-talkie, “I’ll check what’s on the reefs,” and vigorously swam toward the nearest reef dome. This reef dome was not seen underwater from our position, because it was about fifty meters away. But, using the periscopes in our masks, we could easily determine both the direction to the domes and the location of each other by the bright colors of our snorkels. There was a time when you had to change the position of your body in the water to the vertical and to poke your head out of the water to do that, at the risk of getting water into your full face mask through the snorkel: the end of the snorkel just touched the water if you stuck out your head above the water to the chin, without removing your old full face mask, and looked straight ahead. It is not fatal, of course, but very unpleasant. I have had myself, despite all my experience, to literally tear off the old masks from my head, at the risk of losing my ears or hair tearing them out by the tension bands sliding on my head while abruptly removed. Now, everything is simpler. In the first place, such situations are not expected. And secondly, even if you have to quickly remove your mask, you will not have to pull it off your head like a wet sock. All you have to do is just slap on a click on the back of your head with your hand, and the fastener will immediately fall into two parts, releasing your head from the mask. My hairy friend was just thrilled over such a gift, having a mane of hair ever getting in and out the wrong way.

Ed tied the photo equipment to the raft and slowly swam to the reef dome. But after covering only two-thirds of the distance, he stopped, then happily announced over the walkie-talkie, “Oh, our first photo models have arrived,” and quickly swam back. Perhaps, not only for the filming but also for implementing some plan for revenge of small creatures that had been so ungrateful for his attempts at feeding them. It was he to blame, for a warning inscription, which read, “Fish is gluttonous. If you feed the fish, do it so that the fish does not subsequently feed on its feeders” was hanging over the table, where we had had breakfast, for a reason.

Ed just managed to take a position next to me, when in the field of our vision, there appeared a procession of five imposingly large turtles drifting. The turtles lingered in the sun, sinking from time to time to the very bottom, biting off the alga, and just as imposingly returned to the main group, chewing on the bitten alga. Before the seamount, above which we settled, the turtles stopped drifting and began to look for the most delicious eatables for them on the bottom. They seemed to consciously pose for us, wishing to inevitably get to the pages of our magazine.

Ed replaced the bottom valve of his mask on the first cylinder and went to depth choosing the most interesting angles for the close-up. Each cylinder allowed us to stay on autonomous air supply for up to five minutes, automatically switching to natural air over water if the float in the snorkel was not blocked. In other words, we breathed from the cylinder only when we dived. And when we dived in turn, each with his own cylinder, we should have had plenty of time to take an underwater series of the photos ordered to us. While most of the shooting was done from the surface. The second cylinders of those available were recommended by the instructions to be left for emergency cases during long-distance swims.

While Ed was entertaining himself with a close shooting of turtles, now diving and breathing through the cylinder, now filming them from the surface of the water, I was taking a series of master-shot photos. One of the turtles apparently began to show a gastronomic interest in Ed, almost carnivorously watching his movements. The shots should turn out to be just wonderful. And then, on our right, a gigantic diamond-shaped body of a manta appeared, with a wingspread of three meters. The manta slowly swam by, ignoring us completely. We watched it move, having stopped the shooting. It was only then that we saw that while playing around with turtles, we missed the appearance of an endless run of large mantas. Mantas appeared from beyond the visibility alone, in pairs, or even in threes at a time. Quietly moving their wings, they crossed the hollow and went beyond visibility. It was an incredible sight. Turtles, and even small fish runs, had gone to the bottom not to disturb these beauties parading in the underwater silence.

Ed and I came to our senses, probably, when we saw the second dozen of mantas. Impressions are a great thing, but we were here on the assignment of our editorial staff rather than on vacation. Ed replaced the empty cylinder with a reference exhalation valve, and it was my turn for an underwater shooting from depth. I replaced the valve with the first cylinder in my mask and sank with my camera down to the bottom. The scene was simply mesmerizing. A colored carpet of reefs, on the algae of which the meter-long brown-green turtles and small fish runs were grazing. The sun piercing and flashing through the thickness of the water. And against the backdrop of all this, a parade of diamond-shaped giants flying in the water. Having taken a series of photos from the bottom of exciting turtles, reefs floating above me, and light-bottomed mantas a way out, I changed my position and took a series of photos just above the level of the manta parade. I wanted to capture their dark color on the top, against the background of the reefs and turtles. Upon returning to the editor’s office, we will have a lot of work to do choosing the best photos from all this splendor. In this way, changing positions and filming amazing creatures of earthly nature, Ed and I lost track of time. We even failed to notice being considerably rocked on the waves, when we were shooting from the surface.

We thought about the time only when the mantas had faded out, and the turtles, apparently realizing that they were not the main source of attraction of our attention, had swum away to feed to the remote part of the hollow, beyond our visibility. The clock showed almost two hours after our departure. Soon, it will be time to return. Only now we paid attention to being not just considerably rocked on the surface, but rather intensely and unpleasantly. And the sun disappeared behind some clouds. Looking through the periscopes around, Ed and I saw that we were right on the border of a small storm breaking. There was a dividing line from one end of the sky to the other; on one side of it, the sky was clear and blue, and the sea was calm. And on the other side, all was covered with a shroud of gray-whitish clouds, and there was a surge of force 3–4. Although we felt only a surge of force 2, we were likely to fully enjoy the high waves soon enough. In addition, the wind rose. We switched our walkie-talkies on the frequency of the hotel and immediately heard the repeating call of the hotel employee: “The storm is coming. Come back immediately. The storm is coming. Come back immediately.”

After all, it was stupid of us to drown ourselves in our work, being completely detached from the outside world. Ocean is not a sandbox of the kindergarten, and it does not care about the desires and plans of its visitors. After talking with the hotel employee, we learned two news, and both were bad. The first was that the storm was definitely going to take place, will last for 3–4 hours, will have a surge of force 4 and gusts of wind up to 40 km per hour. The second news was that the engine of the motor boat was out of order, and there was no one willing to sail to us on a rowboat in the storm. Because the boat could be easily broken against the reef chain at high waves and gusts of wind. To ensure that we were picked up, we had to swim a bit more than half the distance to the hotel on our own and swim out on a space clear from the reefs. Another option was to call the rescuers, but there were more than 80 kilometers between us and them, and it would take them two or three hours to arrive. And we would have to spend all this time amidst a stormy ocean. Actually, it would not have been particularly difficult for two healthy young fellows with fins and masks to swim for a kilometer or so. Especially since there was still a couple of hours before sunset. If it were not for the storm. Briefly conferring with Ed, we decided to swim on our own to the place where we would be picked up by the rowboat of the hotel. Ed just asked the boatmen to take a lantern with them and wave it to us when the boat arrived at the pick-up point, because although it was not the night yet, the clouds created the gloomy twilight around, substantially muffling the colors and concealing the visibility. We would clearly see the lantern through our periscopes a couple of kilometers away.

I took the rope from the alarm raft, dived to the bottom, tied it firmly to the reef, and did likewise with our equipment. My first cylinder regularly supplied air to my lungs, although it was already running short of it, so I had to take a little effort to absorb air from the cylinder. We would pick up the equipment tomorrow, after the end of the storm; the raft would show where it was. Dragging everything with us through the waves now, together with the alarm raft, was having an additional risk of failing to get to the meeting point. It was no option either to take the raft alone and leave the equipment. We risked not to find the equipment later, and the raft was small enough to hinder our swimming in strong winds to meet the boat. Ed and I inserted the backup cylinders into our masks for the sake of safety and departed in the direction of the hotel. The periscopes enabled us to determine without any problems the direction of movement to the island and the places where the reefs emerged. Watching the bottom underwater gave an understanding of where the reefs came to the surface but did not come out of the water.

The surge of the ocean increased; the waves gradually reached a meter in height and seemed to be going to become even higher. There were white-caps forming everywhere on the waves. The gusts of the wind created small wave crests from the white-caps from time to time, folding a few meters after their formation. The wave crests and the white-caps seemed small only for ships. For swimmers, they were big enough to curl over their heads. Often even over their snorkels. Ed and I parted at a distance of about five meters, so as not to interfere with each other. All our attention was focused on watching the bottom through our masks, the whereabouts of the island we were swimming toward, of the reefs emerging and each other through our periscopes. The brief phrases over the walkie-talkies for the sake of the reservation of breathing were limited to the coordination of our swimming line between the reefs and warnings of danger. The wave crests and the white-caps swept through us along with our snorkels in places of shallow water with the regularity of the musical metronome. In shallow water, the waves were half a meter higher than at depth. But this did not stop us from keeping moving and did not disorder our breathing, because as soon as the floats in our snorkels blocked the air channels, the air on inhalation immediately began to flow from the cylinders. And the cylinders immediately ceased to supply air as soon as the floats unlocked the upper air channels of the snorkels. Even our cylinders should have been enough for at least an hour in this mode of operation since the breathing-in was made only at every third or fourth covering by waves, and the air was taken from the cylinder for several seconds before the air channel of the snorkel was opened by the float. Half an hour after we started swimming toward the hotel, we saw a boat with a lantern swaying half a kilometer away from us on a small bare mast. The boat was slightly out of the direction of our movement but was clearly visible through the periscopes when we were raised on the crests of the waves. And the waves themselves became a little less in size, as we swam out of the reef zone to the deeper part of the coast. The hotel employee told us over the walkie-talkie that they were ready to pick us up and were waiting for us to appear next to the boat. Making sure that everything was all right with us and we did not need any additional help, the hotel employee disconnected. We changed the course and headed for the boat. And fifteen minutes later, after we have climbed into the boat, we were already watching the approaching sandy shore, while two hotel employees were pulling oars strenuously, jumping from one wave to another.

The day ended for us with a chat-in all through the night in the hotel’s open-air restaurant, when the storm had calmed down and a cool breeze was blowing from the sea. We filled our cylinders with air and planned a short trip on the repaired motor boat for the next day to take our cameras. Following that, we were expected to have almost two full days of bliss in a tropical paradise. Short, but so memorable vacation-business trip was quite successful for us. Even despite our carelessness in monitoring the weather forecast. But the storm was over; our testing by the elements ended without losses, first of all, thanks to the love of our editorial staff for technical novelties, and we had two clear days, filled with sun and gentle sea ahead. As to the weather forecast, following that storm, Ed and I now monitor it every time before going out from the protected premises. Almost an hour of time spent in the stormy ocean will be a thing to remember for the rest of our lives.

P.S. And our photos of devilfish in the rays of the sun penetrating through the thickness of the water, against the background of the turtles feeding in the reef hollow, caused a furor among lovers of professional photos of nature. We even received an award from our editorial staff, which was spent on a real vacation — without editorial tasks and excessive extreme.