OUR WORLD UNDERWATER SCHOLAR
2015 Scholar, Danny Copeland, tests his videography skills filming mantas in the Maldives.
Ilove night diving! That eerie feeling you get when you aren’t quite sure what is lurking in the darkness just on the edge of your torch light is truly unique. But on this occasion, as I kneeled down onto the sandy floor of Fesdu Lagoon, I was very much aware of what would soon be swimming around, very much in view - an animal I never tire of seeing. I sat there wondering when they would arrive.
And then the answer hit me! Quite literally in fact, in the form of a wellplaced fin-slap to my head. I winced and looked up to find my view of the surface spotlight now blocked by four metres of manta ray massiveness, just casually hovering a few inches over me. Clearly it was show time! Just before I started recording, instinct told me to look ahead. The visibility was pretty horrendous - akin to looking through a window soaked in some kind of planktonic rain, with curtains of sandy darkness at the borders. As I strained to see through the water, I soon found myself staring into an incoming chasm - one that doubles up as a mouth. A second manta was flying through the torch lights towards me!
My past experiences with mantas told me not to worry - mantas often do this. But a little over a metre away, she hadn’t changed course or slowed down in the slightest. “Oh god, this will hurt!” I remained motionless, braced myself for impact, and then… nothing. Sure enough, with a confident flick of her fins, the second manta glided gracefully up and over, clearing both me and the other manta still parked overhead. Crisis averted.
For the last four weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to call the tropical island of Landaa Giraavaru my home. Situated in Baa, one of the central atolls of the Maldivian archipelago, this Four Seasons resort is home to the Manta Trust’s Maldivian Manta Ray Project (MMRP) - a research project that’s been studying the world’s largest known population of reef manta ray for over ten years. Their findings are playing a pivotal role in shaping how we manage and conserve manta rays, both in the Maldives and beyond. However I am a little biased - I volunteered for the project as a research assistant back in 2012, and it was during my time at Landaa that my role in the larger umbrella charity of the Manta Trust first took shape.
So why did I return to the Maldives, and to the MMRP? In a nutshell, I returned not to directly help with the research, but to film it. Underwater media has been a consistent theme throughout my Scholarship year, yet despite gaining qualifications and experience relevant to this field, I haven’t felt like I’ve spent much time developing my filming and storytelling ability. I figured that the best way to address this was to throw myself in at the deep end - to set myself the challenge of producing several short films that revolve around the work of the MMRP. How hard could it be?
Pretty hard, as it turns out! Thinking up, planning, filming and creating a short film is no simple feat, especially when the films revolve around large, mobile marine animals, and a team that has a job to be getting on with. There were many soul-crushing moments where I thought I had filmed a really nice sequence of the researchers doing their thing, or of mantas performing underwater, only to get back to the laptop later that day to realise that I’d messed up the exposure, forgotten to turn on the microphone at a crucial point, or slightly screwed up the focus. Some days I was plagued with self-doubt, and couldn’t help but ask myself if I really had what it takes to see my ideas through. On the other hand, there were times where I got everything right, and captured sequences of mantas being awesome.
It’s safe to say that the last four weeks have been a rollercoaster of emotions - filled with extreme highs and at times, some pretty intense lows. And I loved it! I loved the challenges I set for myself, the trials and tribulations, and the reward of it all paying off in the end. Oh, and diving with night-feeding mantas was pretty incredible too, I suppose.
I collected 95% of the footage I was hoping to capture, and I’m currently putting the finishing touches to the main film I was hoping to create for the project (keep an eye out online!). I’d like to thank my friends at the Manta Trust, at the MMRP, and everyone at the Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, for helping to make this experience possible. Come April next year, I will look back on my time in the Maldives as one of the most educational, rewarding and eye-opening parts
Danny Copeland of my Scholarship year to date.