Underwater Photography at Big Island, Hawaii
Diving and underwater photography at Hawaii’s is characterized by dramatic underwater volcanic structures and the world-famous manta ray night dive at Kona.
The west coast of Hawaii’s Big Island offers arguably the best reef diving in the United States, with great fish life and an opportunity for encounters with pelagic species. The manta ray night dive is a stunning experience that is challenging photographically but can result in fantastic captures. From an underwater photography perspective, the difficulty at Hawaii is finding a background that will do justice to the main subject being photographed. This being said, the coral reef at Kona is nothing to complain about; on the contrary, it is a healthy and beautiful environment, if not quite as vibrant and diverse as the reefs in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.
If visiting the Hawaii islands as an underwater destination, the Kona area on the western coast of the Big Island is debatably the best choice. The dive sites on the reef are frequent, and you will waste little time on the boat. The coral reef consists of a variety of different beautiful hard corals, but extremely vibrant soft corals are largely absent from Hawaii. Nevertheless, there are great photographic opportunities on the coastal dive sites near Kona.
Eels are common in Hawaii and can make for striking photographs; the best moray eels to photograph are the more brightly colored spotted morays, as they stand out better. In order to capture a successful photograph of a moray eel, it is critical to observe the behavior of the individual animal. Some morays are very skittish, whereas others allow you to move close enough to capture a close-focus wide-angle shot worthy of your portfolio. It is critical to be close to the moray, at least within half a meter. The choice of background is also critical: ideally shoot up from slightly below the moray, adding depth to the photograph and preventing a busy background. Light the subject and its coral home with strobes to maintain color in the coral structure. Finally, timing is crucial. Moray eels circulate water through their gills through their mouth, so time your shot so that the mouth of the eel is either fully open or closed, depending on you vision of the image. If you find a cooperative eel situated in a beautiful location, be sure to capture multiple images in order to maximize your chances of getting the perfect shot.
Residents of the Reefs
Apart from eels, the reefs at Hawaii have a variety of different marine animals to photograph. Stone fish, while venomous, are beautifully camouflaged in the colorful reef; be sure to shoot them at an upwards angle, or they will be completely undetectable in you image! Trumpet fish are often very shy, but if a curious one happens to swim by, it can make for excellent images due to its very unusual shape. Reef sharks are relatively common at Hawaii, although they are usually very skittish. In order to capture the image of a white-tip reef shark below, I had to advance very slowly to get within one meter of the animal. After I had the opportunity to capture two images, the shark had had enough and left.
Although very rare, hammerhead shark sightings are possible at Hawaii. I was fortunate enough to see one of the tremendously beautiful animals (although only briefly and from a distance)!
The Manta Ray Night Dive
Every evening, dive operators set out to dive the most famous dive in Hawaii: the manta ray night dive. Lights lowered into the water after dusk attract plankton to a particular dive site near the airport, and manta rays show up in numbers to feed on the plankton. The mantas perform a stunning spectacle, swimming in loops with their mouths wide-open, filtering as much plankton as they can. Due to the chaotic excitement and the dark, it is very difficult to photograph the mantas. Autofocus can be unreliable in such low-light situations, so back-button focus is recommended. Backscatter is also obviously a potential problem: the mantas only show up due to the water being infested with plankton, which can light up when using a flash. To minimize the problem of backscatter, I used my flash at medium-low power, compensating for the exposure with an increased ISO value.
Photographically, a head-on photograph of the mantas swimming towards the camera with their mouths open is a common vision with many possible executions. Alternatively, consider images showing the whole situation: the lights, the divers, the snorkelers and multiple mantas in one frame. Whatever your choice of composition, timing is critical, but despite my best efforts, only a small portion of the images I captured were actually usable; photographing such large animals in plankton-rich water at night is extremely challenging. Repetition and patience are therefor critical for any chances of taking a successful photograph. I was able to capture stunning otherworldly photographs of the mantas for my portfolio.
Note that while the manta sightings are very regular, they are not guaranteed. I was personally very unlucky, as I only encountered the mantas on one of my four night dives to the site. Usually, however, the mantas do show up.
If visiting Hawaii to photograph the underwater ecosystem, do not forget to explore the topside views. The Big Island has a remarkably diverse range of climates in different areas of the island, and the ever-present volcanic origins of the island make it a unique and unforgettable location.