On our last day in the field, my partner Jennifer Hayes and I were photographing a large group of manta rays as they hovered over cleaning stations—a place where fish go to be picked clean of parasites and their wounds cleaned by smaller fish—at the edge of a current-swept reef. The roaring current slowed, and the mantas abandoned the cleaning stations. We surfaced to a rare sunny sky and flat calm sea. As we climbed into our boat, we noticed the mantas nearby, feeding at the surface. I grabbed a snorkel and a camera and drifted slowly into the center of the black, winged giants, suspecting they'd get nervous and swim away. I was surprised when they surrounded me, keeping me in the center, as more came to feed. At times there were more than 40 mantas feeding around me. It was as if I was the centerpiece of an enormous dance.
Every assignment has its own set of unique challenges. This one seemed to have had more than its fair share. The team encountered lost airline baggage and ship delays, unbelievable currents that sent us tumbling like untalented acrobats along the bottom in bad visibility, bed-rendering flu, near crippling stings from a host of sea creatures, loss of a new camera housing to the unforgiving currents of the Bird's Head Seascape, and a colleague's separation from a good percentage of her index finger. As it turns out, all of these trying and frustrating moments in the field were nothing in comparison to our single worst and saddest: the loss of a colleague and friend.
During our assignment in Raja Ampat we had the privilege of working with legendary underwater naturalist Larry Smith. Larry, a native Texan, was a pioneering dive guide throughout Indonesian waters. We spent a few weeks exploring the Raja Ampat Islands with him at the beginning of our assignment. His uncanny insight and ability to find incredible creatures and places were essential to the success of our project. Later in the project, our boats crossed paths in the remote region of Fakfak. We spent time, on a calm evening sea, reminiscing and discussing the assignment and future projects, all the while unaware that this would be our last meeting. Larry passed away from coronary complications in a hospital in Sorong, Indonesia, just a few days after we finished the assignment and returned home.
Indonesia's remote and isolated Bird's Head Peninsula is filled with rare and wonderful creatures above and below the water. One evening, we were sitting under the thatched roof of the open-air dining area at Max Ammer's Sorido Dive Resort on Kri Island, snacking on fruit and making a plan for the next day of diving, when a visitor the size of an opossum, with bright, brown-red eyes and fluffy fur, appeared quietly in the rafters above us. The creature was a cuscus, a marsupial that looks as if it waddled off a stuffed animal shelf or out of a Walt Disney movie. The small creature wrapped its tail and legs around the beam and hung down to us like a circus performer, slowly and politely reaching out for some fruit. It took our offering and swung back to the beam, where it gobbled the fruit with loud slurping and smacking noises. Then it came back for more. We spent the early evening sharing our appetizer with this gentle creature.