WHILE QUEUING, Jun explains to me that he set his camera up ready for the competition three days before the event “to make sure there are no nasty surprises to come on the day”.
During a spotter’s meeting I attended the evening before the comp, the organisers had stressed that, should anyone witness any destructive behaviour in the underwater environment, the contestant’s ID tag should be reported and the offender would subsequently be disqualified.
I learn that in the past competitors have been seen to move creatures to achieve more desirable compositions, to introduce wildlife to a scene and even to damage the reef in order to bag “that shot”.
I have no reason to think that the majority of divers are badly behaved during the event, but it would be only a matter of days before I witnessed some very “poorly placed” fins during a reef dive. Several other divers also noted this behaviour, and the offender’s ID tag number was duly taken and the diver given a warning later that day.
With 170-plus photographers in the water, most with spotters and all vying for the most photogenic subjects, I wonder how the contest will play out.
Will I witness scenes reminiscent of shoppers squabbling over cheap TVs on Black Friday? Or will every diver slot comfortably into his or her place on the reef, with plenty of space to enjoy and compete in this magical place together?
On reaching the seabed on the first boat-dive, the guide/spotter scratches his hood when he sees that I have come equipped only with a wide-angle lens.
I attempt to explain my aim through a few improvised hand-signals, which I think does the job.
Jun quickly scoots off with his spotter, leaving us to observe clownfish tending to thousands of teeny eggs, skeleton shrimp, yellow goby, candy crabs and a selection of other fun-sized weirdos, often incorporating the word “hairy” in their popular names.
The dives are a mix of muck and coral garden and the reef systems appear to be in good condition, teeming with fish life and with much of the coral in great nick.
The muck-dives are usually no deeper than around 15m and on sand. Small oases consisting of perhaps a single small rock on the seabed, a square foot of coral or even litter can provide a home for a diverse range of small beings, and each one brings me genuine surprises.
I might see a single seahorse hanging onto a pint-sized piece of sunken driftwood, surrounded by nothing but sand to the edges of visibility, and then, several fin-kicks away, the most striking goby holed up in a bottle. And so it goes on.
Looking around me, I can see pairs of competitors with their spotters examining the smallest of subjects, one with a chunky camera and the other with a metal guide-stick. Comparing my own diving experiences in the area with Jun later that day, he surprises me by saying that he had very few lucky breaks with the critters found by his spotter.
Even with local knowledge, I guess there’s a fair amount of luck involved too.