David Espinosa — Seven–Tenths Inspiration, Three–Tenths Fascination - 2004

Seven-tenths of the Earth’s surface is covered in water. It’s a hum-bling thought, even more staggering when you consider scientists estimate we have only scratched the surface of exploring our planet’s lakes and rivers, oceans and seas.

But while it’s true we know so little, we already know so much. I know this may sound confusing, but bear in mind that hundreds of thousands of scuba divers are certified each year because we do know the underwater world is something entirely special.

Each and every day scuba divers plunge into this remarkable realm in exotic sites like Fiji, the Galapagos or Bali, in search of one thing: inspiration. And they find it, more often than not, eyewitness to magnificent creatures as large as the bus-sized humpback whale, to the tiny skeleton shrimp, which dance artfully on brightly coloured sea fans. Sometimes it’s difficult to believe our own eyes as we gaze in awe at graceful manta rays, which glide along in the ocean currents; the power of the (wrongly) maligned great white shark; and the sublime beauty of something as ‘ordinary’ as the reef angelfish.

Manfred has chosen pictures from some of the most exotic destinations in the world – places with foreign-sounding names like Kimbe Bay (Papua New Guinea) Alor (Indonesia), Ari Atoll (Maldives) and Chuuk (Micronesia) For it is in these remote sites where divers search for unique seascapes, big fish encounters, strange creatures – in short, they are looking for inspiration.

One of the most recognisable sites is a small group of islands to the east of Bali, Indonesia, a primeval land where currents swirl and dinosaurs walk. As a dive destination Komodo is well known, but there are times when the isolation seems almost unimaginable. Indonesia’s most renowned dive guide, the incomparable Larry Smith, often remarks that “(Komodo) is not the edge of the earth, but you can sure see it from here.”

I first met Manfred and his wife, Anna, in 1997 while working on a small phinisi live-aboard in Komodo. The two were quiet, unprepossessing guests, but they carried themselves with an understated élan that belied their wanderlust. They had left the bustling streets of historic Vienna behind in search of adventure, knowing they would surely find it in the likeliest of places – this prehistoric region. Which may seem strange, to some, but such is the draw of scuba diving.

The writer Flaubert once wrote, “Travelling makes one modest – you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” But he could’ve just as easily substituted the words ‘scuba diving’ for ‘travelling’. For there are, in this world, active underwater volcanoes, extensive saline lakes several kilometres below the surface of the vast Pacific Ocean, and colossal mountain ranges that would dwarf the Colorado Rockies. These places would seem alien to non-divers, but part of a diver’s inspiration stems from the quest to discover spots just like these.

In 1999 Smith and I led a group of divers in Alor, eastern Indonesia. Even more remote than Komodo, there were nevertheless already dozens of established sites in the area; unfortunately, some of the best-known dives were already fished out precisely because of the area’s remoteness.

One site in particular, Kal’s Dream, a pinnacle that rises up from the Stygian darkness two kilometres offshore, had been a boon for big fish divers. Over the years I had always marvelled at the sheer numbers of fish that would flock to this small peak that rose to within a few metres of the surface.

It was a special dive, with often exceedingly dangerous currents, meaning “the Dream”, as it was nicknamed, could truly only be dived during slack tides. And yet despite the potential dangers “the Dream” was dived, for there were always immense schools of swirling barracuda, jacks so thick divers sometimes complained of a lack of visibility, VW bus-sized groupers and sharks – lots and lots of sharks.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with locations that are so remote, Kal’s Dream fell prey to long-line fishermen from Taiwan and parts unknown. Local villagers could do nothing but watch, helplessly, as these advanced fishing boats came through Alor and methodically fished the big tuna, then the jacks and finally the sharks to extinction in just a few years. Kal’s Dream, on this trip, was a bust…

But Smith, whose claim to fame is a nose for adventure, wasn’t deterred, and he took every opportunity he could to search for new ‘dreams’. And with the help of a group of divers – Manfred and Anna included – he found it in what would appear to be the most unlikely of sources.

One afternoon the boat motored into the long natural harbour in west Alor, and dropped anchor at the foot of a small, derelict oil pier. Smith’s keen eye had spotted black sand there, and his senses kicked in. He was on the lookout for “critters”, an affectionate expression for the small fish that look like nothing you or I could ever dream up; and he knew critters liked black sand. With the small group of adventure-seeking divers he dropped in, to water no deeper than a few metres.

Though no one would have expected it, we had stumbled upon a diver’s Nirvana. Everywhere we turned we saw the strange, the bizarre, and the downright unbelievable: Octopus which would mimic the shape, appearance and behaviour of other marine life (the appropriately named mimic octopus); the outlandish-looking Pegasus sea moths, exotically coloured frogfish; odd shaped fish that burrowed under the sand; cuttlefish that glowed blue and purple and yellow and gold; seahorses that swayed in the current and pipefish that looked like the grass, the roots or the dead leaves they were living among. The harlequin shrimps seen in this book were found on that very same dive, a site which, to nobody’s surprise, went on to garner legendary status among the diving world.

The ocean has limitless possibilities for those who can appreciate and interpret its transcendent beauty: there are myriad colours, contrasts, shapes and depths. sometimes it takes an artist to bring out the beauty of even the simplest of things.

I’m still not quite certain which of Manfred’s passions inspired which: did his love for sculpture lead to the beautiful underwater photography, or vice versa? Regardless, Manfred’s is an eye for art, the ocean an unlimited canvas – we are privileged to witness as he interprets what he sees.

As the editor for a scuba-diving magazine I see hundreds of wonderful photos cross my desk each week. But Manfred Wakolbinger is an underwater photographer who brings everyone – divers and non-divers alike – that much closer to the mysteries of the deep. And he does so with an unmistakable flair, for he is an artist with an incomparable eye for life. Manfred sees the fish and the corals and the big marine mammals with a different eye than the rest of us, and he shares this “vision” in his spectacular images.