Underwater Photography at Ari Atoll, Maldives
Southern Ari Atoll has some of the best diving in the Maldives and the whole world, especially in terms of large marine life. Year-round sightings of manta rays and whale sharks are the highlights of diving Ari Atoll.
Many of the dive sites in the Maldives are underwater pinnacles (locally known as thilas), which usually have modest currents. The coral life in Ari Atoll is good (although not quite as diverse as in some other locations), and many dive sites are within sub-30-minute boat trip from almost all islands in the atoll. Additionally, many islands have excellent house reefs, which require no boat trip or dive guide at all. This allows for a possibility of completing many dives in one day. The surface conditions, especially when visiting the whale shark national park, can be very rough.
Juvenile Sharks and Stingrays - At the Beach!
Sometimes it may not even be necessary to go diving in order to capture fantastic underwater photographs. Depending on the island, juvenile (and even adult) reef sharks, turtles, and stingrays can be seen from the shore in numbers as they swim in the shallow water. However, photographing these animals can be challenging and requires a lot of patience. In order to prevent backscatter in photographs, lay still in the waist-deep water waiting for the sharks (or other animals) to come to you. It can be helpful to have somebody watching and pointing at the sharks from the shore, as they are difficult to see and predict from in the water. During the day, natural light should be well sufficient to light the animals in shallow water and allow for a fast shutter speed to capture the action (I used 1/640th at f/8). A wide fish-eye or rectilinear lens is also necessary (I captured my best photographs at 15mm). To capture the most appealing photographs, capture the shark swimming slightly towards the camera and into the frame. If possible, also capture the surface reflection or shadow of the shark, as well as a school of fish in the background for a unique image. For best results, spend a lot of your time in the water learning the behaviour of these animals; in order to capture a few excellent shots, I spent hours in the shallow water with my snorkel and camera.
Some hotels have a stingray and shark feeding event in the evening to entertain their guests. Whatever you think of this practice, it is an opportunity to capture photographs of these animals. Unfortunately, most hotels do not allow people in the water during this event, and are very strict in enforcing this rule (you probably will not be allowed to hold you camera in water even if you are on the pier). However, the stingrays often arrive before the feeding event begins and the hotel staff are present, so if you are opportunistic, there may be a few moments time to capture the stingrays before the sun sets and you are ushered away. Capturing the stingrays at dawn is challenging due to the limited amount of light and inability to use strobes in such shallow water. Additionally, getting the stingrays to come close to the camera and framing them correctly can be challenging in the limited amount of time requiring significant patience, and the photographer must be proactive in approaching the stingrays. After photographing the stingrays on five evenings, I managed to capture some fantastic images for my portfolio.
Manta Rays and Whale Sharks
The manta rays and whale sharks are undoubtedly the most impressive sightings in Ari Atoll. Manta rays are most commonly seen here at cleaning stations, where they can circle for hours allowing for fantastic photographic opportunities. Sometimes the mantas even show up in pairs or groups! This was the only time I have ever wished a manta ray would get out of the way of my image. Manta rays are best photographed from in front, shooting slightly upwards. Silhouettes and alternative angles can also yield fantastic images. Using the vibrant coral that acts as the cleaning station as an element in the photograph is almost critical for interesting backgrounds. The most important component of any manta ray shot is capturing the motion of the rays. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to photograph manta rays for a relatively long period of time on multiple dives, which allowed me to experiment and capture some stunning images. Note that the cleaning stations move from the east to the west side of the atoll depending on the season.
Whale sharks are also found in the southern tip of Ari Atoll; however, the largest fish in the world is an elusive animal and sightings are certainly not guaranteed. Even if you do see a whale shark, photographing excellent images of these animals can be astoundingly difficult. Although abstract photographs from above the sharks can be great, the best shots are from close up and shooting slightly upwards. Swimmers and snorkellers are also often present, but they can be used to show the scale of the animals. However, even if without any images, an encounter with a whale shark is a magnificent experience.
Even when the large and impressive pelagics are not present, the coral reef can yield some fantastic photographs. When photographing animals on the reef, contrast is vitally important. The subject, whether it be a turtle or an anemone fish, needs to stand out from the background. Finding colourful patches of coral as backgrounds before finding a foreground subject can also be a rewarding strategy. Anemone fish can be excellent photographic subjects, but they are by no means easy to capture. A great anemone picture is well timed and has a well-positioned anemone fish making eye contact against a contrasting background.
In conclusion, Ari Atoll is a great underwater destination due to the amazing large animal encounters, but the reef life is beautiful and absolutely worthwhile. The best diving in Ari Atoll is in very the southern end of the atoll at the whale shark national park, as well as at Manta Point.