Manfred Wakolbinger – Under the Surface - 2012

When David Cameron uses his experiences from the deep sea dives to the wreck of Titanic to inform the fantastic images of another world in AVATAR, he employs a commonly used device: Images and beings from the underwater world are transmitted through the eye into our inner self and transform into a distant intergalactic world. Our desire for knowledge about deep remote space is at once satisfied and stimulated with images of landscapes and creatures from a world the water’s surface separates from us.

For me as a diver and occasional visitor to this world, time and again I am astounded how little of this treasure is utilized and how many galaxies lie dormant and unexplored. The experience the hero in AVATAR has on his first journey through the jungle of Pandora is actually that which every novice has on his or her first dives on a tropical coral reef. Mesmerized by the strangeness and beauty of spiral worms, one tries to approach them, whereupon they disappear with lightning speed as if by magic. Apart from childhood dreams induced by the TV series SEA HUNT starring Lloyd Bridges as frogman Mike Nelson, one of the reasons for my fascination with the world under the water’s surface was weightlessness in three-dimensional space. This weightlessness can be compared to the experience of floating, when you are imbued with a special feeling of happiness and pass through the streets with a sense that your feet do not touch the ground. A cognitive experience similar to diving can be reached in the chromatic spaces by James Turrell or the fog projects of Olafur Eliasson.

Sculptors are always preoccupied with space, with the relationship of volumes in space, movement, the use of form in the space, and the corresponding reduction of negative space. These questions attain an entirely new dimension through movement under water. We find ourselves in Lembeh Strait (North Sulawesi, Indonesia), prior to a dive at Aer Parang. Ali, our dive guide, explains in the briefing some of the unique features of this dive site and the planned course of events: Where what could be found, how long, how deep, where we might possibly encounter the exceptionally rare Rhinopias scorpionfish. The diving equipment is already prepared, the percentage of oxygen in the air tank (32%) has been controlled, this ratio inputted into the dive computer. Are the cameras ready to go? Have the proper lenses been mounted?Macro, super macro, are the flashes recharged?

Departure by boat exact on the minute. Four times per day. 7:15 am, 10:30 am, 2:30 pm, 6:00 pm, 60-90 minutes per dive. I am very happy that my wife Anna participates in this endeavor with the same enthusiasm – she not only participates; she is always there to take care of the second camera and discovers the most fantastic animals while I photograph. Suit closed, weight belt on, mask, flippers. Check the air supply one last time, then down into the water. Every time a shock – the water is unusually cold for the tropics. In exchange are the most unusual creatures. We follow our guides, Ali or Liberty, who we have been acquainted with for roughly 15 years already and know the underwater world here like the back of their hands. The water is often dirty. The first things we come across are old shoes, rusty cans, and bottles in the lava sand. However, upon closer inspection we discover that these objects are inhabited. An octopus lives in the cola bottle, a frogfish under the shoe. This is not a call to pollute the sea – but every now and then such neglect can produce the most exhilarating effects.

Diving in this area is a considerable challenge as a photographer. There are so many rare, extraordinary animals and situations that one could capture. The most important thing is to not lose concentration. For example, while you are busy trying to get a quality picture of a little baby frogfish, you constantly get signals from your companions that they have found something you absolutely need to photograph. It is a point when you have to make a decision, otherwise there runs the risk of taking numerous mediocre photos of a number of marvelous motifs.   Nonetheless, you also have the opportunity to return to the same place more often and to photograph the same thing again until you obtain an image with the desired quality. Take the cardinalfish, for instance: In a swarm of hundreds, two or three carry their brood in their mouth, and for a fraction of a second, they flood the eggs with fresh water. Countless times, one pushes the shutter button a moment too soon or too late. Thus, one can spend hours motionless at the same point so that this one fish in the swarm carrying the eggs becomes accustomed to your presence. Camera in front of the eye, finger on the release. And if you float very calmly in the water, in harmony with the fish, moving back and forth from the drift, then you just might succeed in capturing a picture of the egg-filled jaws of the fish. Or even the moment when he spits out the brood and sucks them in again – which only seldom happens.

But even when you find nothing worth documenting – a rare case – there is always the fantastic experience of feeling weightless, to stand on a finger and spin, to effortlessly turn somersaults. Even with a heavy steel canister on your back, you can do the most unbelievable things. After 60 to 90 minutes in the water, once again in the boat on the way back to the resort, most of the divers sit there in silence, each still lost in thought in this world under the surface.