Amazing Whales of Foa Island Ha’apai, Kingdom of Tonga from Darren Rice on Vimeo.
Wetpixel: When did you start taking pictures and video?
My first Dive was 1977. My first underwater photo was 1983 when I joined the British Royal Navy.
Wetpixel: When did you first travel to Tonga?
When I moved here in 2010. We were living in Florida in the USA and I was filming and we owned a small aviation business, which was very stressful. One night my wife Nina found this business (Matafonua Lodge) for sale on the Internet and we were here 6 weeks later. It was the best move of our life. We have a young family of 3 children and Tonga is a great place for them to grow up. Of course I knew about the humpbacks here, what I didn’t realize is how good the diving is.
Wetpixel: Where is you favorite dive site (if you had to choose one)? Why is it your favorite?
My favorite site here in Tonga is Lafa Lafa, a pinnacle that sits on a small reef out in the blue about 3 miles from us here at the resort. The reef here has some of the most beautiful hard corals I have seen anywhere in the world, and being an oasis in the deep blue it can attract larger pelagics. We have seen mantas and large sharks as well as sailfish and huge dogtooth tuna. The main attraction though is several times during the whale season (July- October) we actually get to dive with the whales. It is not permitted to actively try to dive (on Scuba) with whales but if they turn up during a dive there is not a lot you can do. It’s their decision to come to us maybe they are on a people watching trip!
Wetpixel: What is your favorite animal to photograph and/or film?
This question is a “no brainer”. Humpback Whales. I have dived and swam with most large pelagics, whale sharks, mantas, mola mola but it’s always a one way interaction there is no feedback, however with the humpbacks the interaction is so different, it’s hard to describe in words and it’s a very emotional experience, definitely a 2-way interaction. You see and sense the conscious decisions they make. I truly believe the whales get as much from the experience as we do.
Wetpixel: What are your plans for 2015?
As people may or not know, in Jan 2014 we were hit by a category 5 cyclone with 300kph winds. So, we have spent most of this year rebuilding our resort here in Tonga. 2015 will be the grand re-opening, better than ever we are really looking forward to it.
Wetpixel: What will this year’s must-have gadget be?
It has got to be a Drone. Myself and so many of my friends in the industry have adopted the technology and its easy to see why. Filming from an aerial platform is filming in a 3-dimensional space similar to underwater. The most spectacular shots you ever see from a drone are aerial views of a tropical reef, it looks so spectacular from above and adds a whole new perspective.
Wetpixel: If you had to choose one, would you choose still photography or video?
Video. I love to take photos and with the advent of shooting video with a DSLR it means you get the ability to shoot both video and photos from the same platform, but video is my first love and passion.
Wetpixel: What is your most hair-raising (underwater) event so far?
In 2002 I was witness to a shark attack, I won’t go into details, but the image of that event will stay with me forever.
Wetpixel: What has been your most difficult shoot technically and/or physically?
I have been lucky enough to go to Galapagos in August several times to shoot the large congregations of adult female whale sharks that appear around Darwin island. Swimming with a large format video camera like the Amphibicam or Red and pushing it sideways through the water whilst keeping up with a whale shark, moving at even a slow pace, is a real workout. I’m always asked why I wear free diving fins, that’s the reason.
Wetpixel: What do you like to do when you aren’t at work?
I live at work! Now work is more a lifestyle than work here at the resort. To be honest if I have some spare time I still choose to grab a tank and go out in the lagoon behind the resort and look for critters to film. I’m a lost cause! I also just started kitesurfing which I’m really starting to enjoy.
Wetpixel: If you had to name someone that has inspired you photographically, or as a filmmaker, who would that be?
In the early 90’s I first saw the movie Coral Sea Dreaming shot by David Hannan. It compelled me to make contact with him, I wanted to know how to make the move to professional filming. He gave me some great advice and at the time he was at the forefront of professional underwater imagery. The use of tripods and sophisticated lighting setups underwater make his footage really stand out even today his 90’s footage looks amazing.
Wetpixel: Do you shoot with Canon or Nikon or both, or something else entirely?
Canon 5Dmk3 / Nauticam housing and Zen dome. I am just about to take delivery of a Sony PXW Z100 4k xdcam in a Nauticam Housing and Fathom Dome, which I’m really excited about. I still shoot with the Sony HDWF900 Cinealta in the Amphibicam housing when required.
Wetpixel: How much post processing do you do? How much is acceptable?
It’s all about the post. In order to get so much latitude you shoot RAW with a flat color profile which gives you so much more to play with. At the end of the day it does feel like “cheating” but ultimately you are looking for the best image. I’m old enough to remember shooting a bag full of 35mm slide rolls and coming home to getting them developed not knowing what your results would look like.
Wetpixel: How did you manage to make underwater photography/video your profession? What advice would you give to people wanting to emulate your career now?
There is lots of rejection in this type of industry, never give up. I came from the dive industry into the film and tv industry and was told I didn’t stand a chance and was rejected a lot. It is still an industry of who you know, not what you know, and it’s about being in the right place at the right time. I still haven’t achieved all that I wanted to and I am still pushing today.
Wetpixel: What is the best advice you can offer an aspiring underwater photographer?
You have got to be in the water shooting all the time. So, if you cannot afford to be travelling on an endless dive vacation, then get a job in the dive industry that will give you more access to time in the water. The most important thing is to be a good diver and have great buoyancy skills. I have seen some of the best topside photographers and filmmakers dropped into an underwater environment and be completely lost. Diving has to be second nature before you should be honing your skills as an underwater photographer.
Wetpixel: What is the greatest threat to the oceans’ health?
Marine acidification, pollution, overfishing, climate change, habitat loss………. all ultimately caused by us.
Wetpixel: Is there an environmental cause that you are especially passionate about?
For me it’s the Whales and their wellbeing. We are fortunate that up until now the Japanese do not target the humpbacks that come to Tonga, but it’s criminal that they should be taking any whales at all. Here in Tonga we try to do the best we can to educate people about the whales and get our message out. It’s a fine balance as we interact with these wild animals on a daily basis. Recently introduced rules have now become law in the Kingdom of Tonga to ensure that our interactions are done in such a way as to disturb the whales as little as possible, we only enter the water if the whales have shown some kind of interest. Even whales have a bad day and if they show signs that they do not want to interact we leave them alone and move on, usually resulting in a better experience for us as well as the whales.
Wetpixel: Do you think that photographers can be a force for good or change? Do you think that pro photographers are seeking to engage more with marine issues?
Images are a strong medium, more than words alone. It is our job to draw attention to the issues that need addressing. We are, after all, on the front-line daily. Absolutely, it is our job and responsibility to engage more with these problems before its too late.