Vava'u, Tonga

 

WATER + LIGHT

I ARRIVED IN VAVA'U IN OCTOBER OF 2017 WHEN THE HUMPBACK WHALES WERE NEARING THE END OF THEIR SEASON IN TONGA RESTING, CALVING AND BREEDING. I BOUGHT MY FIRST UNDERWATER CAMERA HOUSING FOR THE TRIP AND HAD ONLY USED IT IN MY BATHTUB. THE HOUSING I PURCHASED - AQUATECH'S BASE UNDERWATER HOUSING - I CHOSE FOR ITS ACCESSIBLE PRICE. THE BASE HOUSING ALLOWS THE PHOTOGRAPHER TO ONLY CONTROL THE SHUTTER VIA TRIGGER. THIS MEANS THAT ALL THE CAMERA'S SETTINGS HAVE TO BE DECIDED BEFORE THE CAMERA IS SEALED INTO THE HOUSING.

OVER THE COURSE OF THE WEEK IN VAVA'U I TRIED OUT A NUMBER OF  SETTING COMBINATIONS USING THE DIFFERENT PARTIAL AUTO MODES, SETTING LIMITS ON ISO AND SHUTTER SPEED AND USING EXPOSURE COMPENSATION TO GAIN SOME CONTROL OVER MY CAMERA'S TENDENCY TO OVEREXPOSE UNDERWATER. BEING ADEPT AT MANUAL CONTROL, I FOUND THIS A FRUSTRATING BUT FANTASTIC LEARNING OPPORTUNITY (THAT I AM STILL GRAPPLING WITH AS EVERY DAY AND EVERY PATCH OF WATER HAS DIFFERING CONDITIONS AND REQUIREMENTS). IT'S CHALLENGED ME TO FURTHER UNDERSTAND, WORK WITH AND OCCASIONALLY OUTWIT MY CAMERA'S INTELLIGENCE.

WHAT IT ALSO MEANS IS THAT I HAVE VERY LITTLE CONTROL ONCE MY HOUSING IS SEALED AND I'M SHOOTING UNDERWATER. THIS IS MY FAVORITE PART. I LET GO. I TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS THAT END UP LOOKING MORE LIKE PAINTINGS. WHEN I PAINT, I RELEASE MYSELF (MOSTLY) FROM EXPECTATION. I JUST PLAY. I LET MYSELF EXPERIMENT AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS. WITH SO LITTLE MANUAL CONTROL, I TAKE THIS SAME APPROACH WHEN I SHOOT UNDERWATER. I DON'T ALWAYS WIND UP WITH PERFECT FOCUS OR THE LIGHT JUST SO MAKING IT AN EVEN GREATER VICTORY WHEN I DO. WHAT HAPPENS UNDERWATER IS PART MAGIC, PART TALENT, PART ACCIDENT, PART PRAYER TO THE NATURE OF THE DAY, AND TO THE WATERS I FIND MYSELF IN. HERE YOU WILL FIND MANY EXAMPLES OF THE COLOR AND LIGHT I HAVE BEEN LUCKY TO IMMERSE MYSELF IN AND CAPTURE. 

MY EXPERIENCE IN VAVA'U INSPIRED A LONG ESSAY WHICH YOU CAN READ BY CLICKING ON THE LINK BELOW.

 
 
pilots 1.jpg

Pelagic Blue: Swimming with Megaptera Novaeangliae in Vava'u

Read about it here.

 

self-portrait underwater

I let go of all that I was as a civilised human and became what I am: concentrations of thought and matter, treading water at the surface, no body but the pacific body, no body but all the bodies of all things moving through the world.

"DEEP SWIMMERS" - WINNER OF HIGHLY COMMENDED IN THE 2018 OTAGO WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY COMPETITION, ANIMAL CATEGORY

I stopped in the water, stunned. Now there was no group, no water, only the whale and myself. Seeing the baby was everything. She played and played. So much energy moved with her. You could see how powerful she was, the way the water moved around her, the way she moved through the water. So much speed and grace. And she was so new! Maybe a month old. You could see how happy she was just to be alive. That energy came off her too. It seemed to me to be where her power came from. She spun and turned, breached and slapped.
Our presence in the water above the whale drew his songs in to our bodies. We were each a hydrophone dipped in the ocean to record the vocal resonance, the still little understood songs of this humpback against the vast crackle of the open ocean.
Singing as he rose, he looked straight at each of us, his eye full of age and wisdom, the kind of understanding we might never achieve in our short lives. The distances in his eye: the migrations, songs, the isolation, the hunger of months without eating, the knowledge of the disassembling of the deep by our kind.
I stared down a thousand feet of blue ocean without fear. Wonder overtook me. Light rays led the way down. I’d heard the songs of humpbacks were first mistaken for the songs of sirens, luring ancient mariners to their deaths. The deep seemed to me to have its own siren song. I floated at the surface knowing that only buoyancy and the faint thread of reason left to me at that moment kept me from it.
It was a blessing, yes, absolutely, and a warning too. The last notes he sang out as he rose were full of sorrow, of the gratitude and grace of living in a world, so ancient and yet so fragile. That was my warning. Who can say exactly what it warned of? Pay attention, there is not much left of this. Or, you must become better and take more care or lose us. Or, we’ve had our time here and we cannot keep it. Ready yourself. Or, find what you can of wonder, presence and connection, we are each alone and yet we are here together. Volumes were etched onto my heart in the seventeen minutes of his song. His song is a lullaby, a message from the deep, from beyond, where I have been once and intend to go again.