That day is forever etched on my soul, and though the memory has since faded and the horror diminished, it is still there like an old scar – a constant reminder that there is important work still to do, and that every one of us can make a difference. The question is, how?

Raja Ampat, Indonesia
In 2006 I was diving in Raja Ampat, documenting the regency’s first no-take zone. After two weeks of filming, and only one encounter with a shark, we came face-to-face with a grizzly reality that was plaguing this region – shark finning. On the blood-stained deck of a nondescript fishing boat tucked in the corner of a serene mangrove-lined lagoon, we discovered a fisherman drying dozens of small shark fins in the sun. Beneath his boat, the bodies of finned juvenile reef sharks lay scattered across the vibrant corals, their lifeless bodies rolling back and forth in the gentle surge.

Fast-forward eight years and the situation in Raja Ampat is nothing short of miraculous. Since the establishment and enforcement of the Raja Ampat Shark and Ray Sanctuary in November 2010, the recovery of shark and ray populations has been astonishing. But continued recovery is predicated upon the community sharing in the prosperity of this exciting marine ecosystem recovery, and that is where divers have a role to play.

On my annual pilgrimage to Misool Eco Resort in south Raja Ampat, I can’t wait to reconnect with two of my favourite spots in the ocean – Magic Mountain and the resort’s shallow lagoon. I remember my last experience on Magic in April of 2013: with at least 40 metres visibility, the entire seamount was visible from a single vantage point. Tens of thousands of fusiliers enshrouded this underwater oasis, moving in a constant stream, and then suddenly raining down, retreating as squadrons of mighty giant trevallies launched repeated assaults. A school of several hundred orbital batfish drifted in out of view, as they navigated through tornados of jacks and barracudas hovering in the currents. Below, napoleon wrasse, groupers, and snappers accompanied whitetip reef sharks plying the reef in search of prey.

Descending deeper to the ridge, hefty grey reef sharks patrolled the walls of the seamount, racing up toward me on occasion as if to say, “This is our domain!” And then, from out of the blue, the giants descended on Magic.

One after another, seven massive oceanic manta rays glided over to the seamount and began their cleaning rituals. The mantas patiently hovered and circled, gently flapping their enormous wings as eager cleaner wrasse set about removing parasites. More than merely tolerating our presence, these mantas were incredibly curious and interactive. At the end of the dive I found myself on the seamount with one of the giants. Firing away, I captured sequences of brilliant images of this graceful creature hovering over the vibrant reef. But then somehow I sensed that this manta wanted to connect with me

I stopped shooting and lowered my camera. The ray twitched slightly, a signal to the cleaner wrasse that their services were no longer needed, and lightly pumped her wings. She came directly to me, lifted her wingtip over my head and gently brushed my hair. She circled again, even closer, looking me right in the eye. She circled a third time, approaching so closely that her eye almost touched my mask, and once again her powerful wing softly brushed my hair.

Low on air, it was time for me to leave. Ascending toward the surface, I looked down as she glanced back, then drifted off the seamount and disappeared into the blue. One of my pictures from this experience later served as a central image for our Indonesia Manta Sanctuary campaign.

Free from the threat of being hunted for their fins, young reef sharks hone their own hunting skills in Misool’s shallow lagoon (Photo by Shawn Heinrichs)

Back at the resort, we were greeted by several dozen blacktip reef sharks hunting in the shallows of the lagoon. Grabbing my snorkel and camera, I slipped into the bay and immersed myself in the hunting action. Safe from exploitation, and accustomed to snorkellers, the little blacktips set about their business chasing sardines and learning to patrol their waters. Several hours later, batteries drained, flashcard full and my back sunburned, it was time for lunch… but I had missed that hours ago! Though physically hungry, I was satiated by the realisation that divers who spend their holidays at places with a strong conservation ethic like Misool are playing an invaluable role in financing the conservation efforts to protect these highly vulnerable species.

Sri Lanka
All eyes were fixed on the horizon as we approached a melee of violent splashing on the ocean’s surface just ahead. After eight days of searching along the coast of Sri Lanka for the elusive blue whales, with little success, it was a relief to finally find something. At first we couldn’t figure out what this commotion was all about, but as we drew closer it snapped into focus.

Distressed sperm whales close ranks in an attempt to protect vulnerable members of the group from the orca’s expert attack (Photo by Shawn Heinrichs)

A huge dorsal fin cut the surface and charged into a logjam of long, dark, rolling shapes. Orcas attacking sperm whales! We grabbed cameras and fired away as a pod of perhaps five orcas tore into a family of sperm whales right next to our boat! The attack was violent and disturbing as the panicked sperm whales were clearly no match for the speed and manoeuvrability of the orcas.

I realised this was a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and summoned up the courage to jump in the water and join the frenzy. All eyes turned on me, wondering if I would become easy prey for one of the most formidable predators in the ocean. I grabbed my camera and slid off the back of the boat. Ahead of me was a frothing pile of massive dark shapes. Drifting away from the boat, one of the larger orcas in the pod broke off and made a beeline for me, pinging me intensely with its sonar.

Time slowed down as my mind battled with my intuition. I had heard warnings before about the extreme dangers of swimming with wild orcas, especially when these apex predators are engaged in a hunt. But in my heart I knew they were highly intelligent and evolved creatures that “should” have no interest in hurting me. As it approached, I thought to myself, “Well I am about to find out…”

The orca came right up to me then veered off at the last moment, drifting into the deep blue below. I spun around just in case another orca might be sneaking up behind me, but there was nothing. I watched the orcas return to the hunt and the battle continued. But it was difficult to keep up, and I returned to the boat as the sperm whales attempted to retreat from the predators. On the surface, we gasped as the assault suddenly turned into a violent frenzy. The orcas appeared to separate one of the juveniles from the rest and set upon it with fury. Dorsal fins sliced the surface on all sides, bodies rolled, and huge tails violently crashed down, as the sea turned to a frothing, churning mess.

It is unclear as to whether the orcas succeeded in their attack. We observed the family of sperm whales regroup and charge eastward, as the orcas briefly gave chase and finally peeled off. And then it was all over – the most incredible encounter I had ever experienced, and something I would never forget.

Each year, blue whales and other species are found floating dead, their bodies demonstrating definitive evidence of fatal collisions with ships in this busy shipping lane; without intervention, encounters with these whales could sadly become a thing of the past. Sri Lanka’s growing whale-watching industry may very well prove to be the most compelling argument for addressing the problem.

Read the rest of this article in Issue 3/2014, AA. No.78 of Scuba Diver magazine by subscribing here or check out all of our publications here.

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