Sport Diver - - Contents - Text by DANNY COPELAND

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.

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